Organic Wine Label Rules Unclear

New TTB regulations are so confusing, wineries opt to avoid organic claims

by Peter Mitham
Although Oregon's King Estate Signature wines are made with approximately half organically grown grapes, their labels do not mention the fact--and won't for the foreseeable future.
Eagle, Idaho--Sorting out the information on a bottle of wine suspected of being organic isn't the easiest task for consumers to accomplish, and some Northwest wineries say the latest federal labeling directive doesn't make it any simpler.

Gary Cunningham, co-owner of Three Horse Ranch Vineyards in Eagle, Idaho has 36 acres of certified organic vineyards as well as a certified organic winery producing 8,000 cases per year. Cunningham told Wines & Vines that consumers have a right to know the make-up of the wines they're buying, but the regulations designed to ensure that the right information reaches them fall short. "There's a lot of wine labels out there that are really confusing," he said. "What I'd like to see is a consistent program from the federal government, and really address it from the consumer perspective."

Cunningham said some of the regulations are confusing even to wineries, for which redoing a label can be a costly enterprise. Some of the changes required by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) catch industry unaware. "It's a moving target all the time. And when we think we know the rules, they get changed," he said. "I'm not even sure that I know, at this particular moment talking to you, if there are new and additional rule changes."

Indeed, many people we contacted in the Pacific Northwest regarding new organic labeling standards that took effect June 2, 2009 were either unfamiliar with the latest changes or downplayed any benefits they would have.

While the new regulations reflect a desire on the part of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service for greater clarity about the organic content of agricultural products, they also increase the amount of information required on a label that makes organic claims.

Rather than simply stating "Made with Organic Ingredients," the new regulations require wine labels to note if any non-organic ingredients-- grapes or otherwise--were used in making the wine and, in some cases, the proportion of organic and non-organic ingredients. The aim is to ensure that consumers know whether all or just part of the wine was made with organic ingredients.

TTB's information sheet regarding the new regulations offers specific wording when indicating the presence of non-organic grapes, allowing wineries to reference the mere presence of non-organic grapes, the exact percentage of non-organic grapes, the presence of non-organic grapes of a specific variety--or all of the above. The statement employed must also provide the same information regarding organic grape content.

Moreover, a wine that contains organic and non-organic ingredients other than grapes must specify what percentage of its ingredients are organic. However, a wine claiming to be made from 100% organic grapes must also be made from 100% organic ingredients. On the other hand, the regulations also note, "When 100% of the ingredients are organic on a wine restricted to an 'Organic Ingredients' statement, a Percentage Statement is prohibited in order to avoid consumer confusion with products meeting the '100% Organic Wine' standard."

The last point aims to get around the question of sulfites, which may occur naturally in wines or arise as part of additions during fermentation.

It's for that reason that Sasha Kadey, marketing director for King Estate Winery near Eugene, Ore., said King Estate tends to forego organic statements on its wines.

King Estate has more than 465 acres of certified organic vineyard (the largest contiguous organic vineyard in the world, it claims), if it adds copper sulfate during fermentation, it cannot label the wines "made with organic grapes."

It's something Kadey would like to see changed. "Things you do once the wine's in tank being fermented I don't think should have an impact on being able to label it as being made with organic grapes. The grapes were still grown completely organically, they came in the winery and began the fermentation process completely organically," he said.

King Estate has approached the lobbying organization Wine America about petitioning the USDA to add copper sulfate to the allowed substance list to gain parity with other product categories, but in the meantime it will continue to avoid organic claims on its labels.

And the potential is real. Speaking to the American Association of Wine Economists in Portland, Oregon last summer, Magali Delmas of the University of California, Los Angeles presented research indicating that 81% of consumers are confused regarding the difference between organic wines and wine made from organic grapes.

At least one California vintners, Mark Beaman, assistant winemaker at the Mendocino Wine Co./Parducci in Ukiah, had a different take on the requirements. "The rules are not fun to follow, but they are there to protect the consumer who, oftentimes, has a set of expectations of the integrity of what he or she purchased," he commented.

Read the TTB's organic wine label regulations at ttb.gov/pdf/wine.pdf.
Currently no comments posted for this article.