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When Is an Organic Wine Not 'Organic'?

The NOP is denying consumer choice and creating an unfair organic wine market where large, domestic mass producers have an advantage in being certified USDA Organic over small, sustainable, artisan wineries.
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There's a lot more organic wine out there than you think.

Plenty of other writers have rehashed the various requirements for organic wine making and why it is so difficult for a properly made wine to be USDA Organic, so I won't delve into that here.

Instead, I'd like to discuss the fact that the USDA, which administers the subsidiary National Organic Program, is denying consumers the right to make fully informed choices as to the small-o "organic-ness" of their wine purchases.

The National Organic Program (NOP) was set up in 2002 to regulate organic products as per the requirements of 1990's Organic Food Production Act. The NOP determines the requirements for certifying organic agricultural and livestock products. The NOP does not directly certify organic products, but rather accredits subsidiary organizations in approximately 35 states and 22 countries to do the certifying.

That's right, the "National" Organic Program does not even have accrediting organizations in every state. The NOP, at least as of a report published in 2008, also has fewer than 12 employees. That's hardly enough to handle the rapid proliferation of organic producers, the growing consumer demand for organic products and the shifting cultural definition of what "organic" should be. This is problematic, as NOP certification is mandatory for any product marketed as organic in the United States.

In my work as a wine importer, I've talked to innumerable producers who practice organic grape growing but have been stonewalled when trying to get even the simple "made from organic grapes" certification from the NOP.

Pedro Araujo, a wine maker in Portugal whose Quinta Do Ameal vineyards (a winery I've worked with professionally) have been certified organic by the Portugal branch of Ecocert , expressed his frustration:

The NOP certificate is very difficult to get. The U.S. authorities require products that we don't have here! And they used to change them periodically. Ecocert is a reliable, multinational and independent company. I believe that the [NOP] demands are only to protect some kind of lobby.

An informal survey of a shelf of "USDA Organic" wine suggests there might be something to Pedro's supposition. On a recent trip to a local Whole Foods, their USDA Organic wine display featured wine almost exclusively from some of the world's largest wineries. Those are the producers with the resources to navigate the time-consuming and convoluted NOP process.

There's another level of bureaucracy that complicates matters as well. It isn't the NOP but rather the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) that approves labeling for alcoholic beverages. When a winery submits its label for approval, the TTB is not in direct conversation with the NOP. When I called the TTB to inquire about organic wine labeling they passed me off immediately to the USDA without answering any of my questions. The USDA referred me to the NOP and the NOP never returned my repeated calls or emails.

A French winemaker I spoke to at a tasting recently expressed frustration about being unable to get approval to label her wines "made from organic grapes," despite her vineyards being Ecocert organic. Ecocert is an EU-based global organic certifying body but, oddly, the French branch is the only Ecocert agency in Europe that is approved by the NOP for organic certification. She was bounced around between the TTB and the NOP before finally giving up in frustration, unable to prolong the process any longer. She had wine to sell, after all.

There's a simple solution to this problem: The TTB should allow seals from any certifying organization that is authorized on the national or supranational level to appear on wine labels, provided that the word "Organic" does not appear. If the NOP wants to assert its authority over the use of big-O "Organic" in the United States, that's fine. But a simple semantic argument shouldn't mean a consumer is restricted access to the information that their wine was certified in some way by a legitimate agency.

The NOP is denying consumer choice and creating an unfair organic wine market where, ironically, large domestic mass producers have an advantage in being certified USDA Organic over small, sustainable, artisan wineries which, a few technicalities aside, generally produce a more organic product.

Don't take an organic seal, or lack of an organic seal, as any meaningful measure of a wine's inherent organic-ness. Most good wine stores are very familiar with their products and know the provenance of each wine. Many wine importers have copies of national organic certifications available for anyone who inquires or needs proof beyond the assertion of a sales rep or a clerk in a wine shop.

The NOP and TTB need to recognize that consumers are never harmed by more information. Let Poindexter and Gretchen Q. Winebuyer decide for themselves what environmentally-conscious wine is best for their dinner table and give them the tools to do so. If they conclude that Ecocert wine is better for their needs than USDA Organic wine, that might increase market pressure to make the NOP more accommodating to the real world of small-o organic wine.

I concluded years ago that the USDA Organic seal is a worthless measure of the inherent organic character of any wine. Many of its restrictions and accompanying allowances are outright hostile to good winemaking.

What about you? Do you look for the USDA seal before buying wine? If you care about organic/sustainable wine, does Certified Organic wine even matter to you?