Organic products in the United States are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in accordance with the Organic Food and Production Act (OFPA) passed in 1990 (7 C.F.R. pt. 205). Products labeled as "organic" must be certified according to standards for ingredients and production set by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and administered by the National Organic Program (NOP) within the USDA. Organic foods and beverages are produced without using the following: most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.
The NOSB defines organic agriculture as "an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity." Certainly the goal of organic agriculture—and the wine industry in particular—is to address larger issues, such as soil erosion water quality, loss of biodiversity, chemical dependence, and ecological impacts, such as resistance to natural predators.
Organically Grown Grapes vs. Organic Wine
Organic wines are currently in a state of limbo because many traditional winemaking ingredients are not currently approved for organic labeling by the NOSB. The term "organic wine" can be used only when 100 percent of the grapes are certified organic and where no sulfites are added. For example, a wine that contains only organic grapes but also uses sulphur dioxide (SO2), yeasts, bentonite or egg white gases (e.g., N2, CO2) in the winemaking process is not considered an "organic wine." Instead, these wines are commonly labeled "made from organically grown grapes."
There is continued discussion between the NOSB and the California Organic Advisory Board to recommend revised standards that would allow the use of sulphur dioxide; however, comments from the initial Federal Register notice last year resulted in withdrawal of the regulation for revision. Revised regulations could be adopted in the upcoming year.
Although the labeling limitation has been a disincentive for some winemakers to obtain organic certification, many grape growers are moving forward with their efforts to obtain organic certification (a three-year process) in anticipation of a resolution of the ingredient issue. In addition, many growers are finding that their winemaking partners want to use or purchase organic grapes—even without the labeling advantage. Because chemical sprays can enter the vat through grape skin residues or from pulp from the plant itself, growers and winemakers have an independent desire to eliminate trace pesticides and other chemical residue from their content. Winemakers have found that organically grown grapes have a unique, if not better, crush, providing additional flavor options.
During a grower's three-year transition to obtain organic certification, production costs can increase as much as 5 to 10 percent. "After the first three years, most producers agree, organic growing costs become equal or less than conventional growing costs as money is no longer being spent on synthetic chemicals." (OTA, Marketwatch) The biggest difference for growers of organic grapes is adopting growing practices that maintain biologically active soil. The use of cover crops and natural fertilizers, and the planting of companion crops, such as echinacea to attract natural predators, are common. In addition, weed management is integrative, allowing a cycle of growth, mowing and composting wherein the biomass is used as fertilizer instead of chemical sprays.
In the meantime, wine labels containing the phrase "grown with organically grown grapes" seem to be increasing as the certified acreage increases, and the inclusion of this information on labels is used by some as a marketing distinction along with appellation or variety."