The Truth About Organic Wine Exposed: Organic Wine is Great – Part 1

I love to call B.S. I think a lot of us do. We don’t like being conned. There’s a pride in being the one who sees clearly through the snow job, or catches the charlatan in his charade. 

That might be part of the motivation for several articles purporting to pull back the cover on the “scam” of organic wine grape viticulture. The term “organic” has been used so vociferously as a marketing mantra that we begin to sense it could be more marketing than substance. Our B.S. meter has registered a whiff of stank. 

So these purported behind-the-scenes, insider exposés about the lack of a real benefit, or even the added harm, of growing wine grapes organically, cause us to champion those revelations with an I-knew-it! sense of confirmation bias. 

The problem is that they’re wrong. Organic agriculture, including wine grape viticulture, is not a “scam,” is not “really bad for the environment,” and is a vital part of the answer to saving a global environment that has been literally saturated with poison in the name of conventional agriculture (including viticulture). 

Those articles also have a point, though. “Organic” has been used as a marketing slogan to drive sales by associating it with all that is good and healthy, while vilifying “conventional” as being associated with all that is bad and unhealthy. By training consumers to rely on labels – the American way in so many ways, and the source of so much misinformation – the complicated truth about the spectrum of agricultural practices has been obscured and overly-simplified.

Over the course of several posts, I’m going to present the most common arguments against organic viticulture. I’ll also link to some articles that make these arguments so that you have the source material to read and assess for yourself and not take my word for it. 

Because of course I have reason to be biased. I sell wine made from organically grown grapes, so naturally I want to promote anything that will benefit sales. I don’t deny that. So I’ll go to great lengths here to remove any possibility of B.S… starting with this transparency. 

All caveats aside, I hope to lay out the case for organic wine that allows your reason and judgement to determine if it is or is not B.S.

Opposing World Views

To be an “Organic” winegrower, all you need to do is only use the products which have been certified for organic use. It doesn’t require you to be careful about water use, erosion, beneficial insects, natural habitat, or things like vineyard worker safety. Organic winegrowers can, and do, use pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. They just use ones that are “naturally derived.” But that does not always mean “non-toxic.” The plague is natural.

However, “organic” agriculture and what has become known as “conventional” agriculture – two terms that are equally meaningless except as labels – are not just two forms, or farms, of the same thing with different lists of allowable sprays and fertilizers. They have developed from two diametrically opposed world views.

Organic viticulture developed from a vision of human activity in the environment for the purpose of wine grape production as a form of stewardship of the health and balance of an entire ecosystem of which we are a small but potent part. Organic viticulture is a form of shepherding, of steering and promoting natural processes to achieve desired results with as light a touch as possible, trusting that these plants and vines in our care have evolved for millennia without our influence and have innate ability to care for themselves. We only need to foster the health and fertility of the total environment, and we will promote a system in which everything can live and thrive, including our grapes and the wine business that flows from them, long after we are gone. 

This vision is highly suspicious of introducing new, experimental chemicals into the environment, and it considers a chemical to be “experimental” until hundreds of years of controlled, unbiased testing have proven its systemic safety.

Conventional viticulture, on the other hand, envisions a human versus nature dichotomy. It sees cash crops on the left of the spreadsheet and anything that competes with cash crops on the right of the spreadsheet with a red X through them. Those red X’s are achieved by any means necessary, experimental chemicals included, provided those means are cheap. Safety is only a secondary consideration of experimental chemicals, and the testing phase to “prove” that safety is whatever the FDA or EPA says.

Likewise, the growth of the cash crops and the achievement of the desirable characteristics in the fruit of those cash crops is achieved by any means necessary, again, provided they are primarily cheap means. The focus is almost solely on the cash crop, and the rest of the environment in which those cash crops exist be damned – unless, by chance, any of that environment is of cheap benefit to the cash crop. 

In conventional viticulture a vineyard is merely a resource to be exploited and depleted as a financial investment, like a coal mine or an oil well. Work done to foster the health of the vineyard is motivated by a desire to protect and grow the investment of capital, not the environment. So if my vineyard shines at the expense of all the fish in the sea, that’s unfortunate, but I’m selling wine not fish. 

Clearly I’ve painted a picture of the extremes of these perspectives. Organic farmers must care about profit, and some “conventional” farmers must surely care about the environment. I think the main point here is to understand the reason these two branches of agriculture split apart. Organic viticulture, and agriculture, is a reaction against what is sees as a narrow perspective on the farmer’s role in the total environment and the potential harm that can come from introducing experimental chemistry into our food system. 

The problems begin when these two world views are mixed – when someone with a short-term profit mentality switches to organic viticulture. This is when the most valid criticisms are leveled against organic viticulture. 

I was at Trader Joe’s the other day and found that Charles Shaw (of “Two-buck Chuck” fame) is producing “wine made with organic grapes” for 4 bucks. The bottle is plastered with the word “organic” in large bold font from top to bottom, front to back.

While I applaud any version of organic agriculture, I’m relatively sure “4-buck organic Chuck” was made strictly by eliminating the prohibited chemicals and heavily dosing with the allowed substances, more from a bottom line and marketing standpoint than from any vision of the total health of the earth.

So let’s approach organic viticulture from this worst case scenario, and talk about some of those more valid criticisms. I won’t pick on Charles Shaw, so let’s just talk about what any short-term profit organic grape wine farmer might do. What that profit-driven, organic-by-name-not-mindset grape wine grower does can set up the best arguments for the B.S. of organic viticulture:

Argument Against Organic Viticulture #1

1. Copper Sulfate is Highly Toxic (and so are other organically allowed substances).

Let’s start with the truth. Both organically allowed and conventionally allowed substances can be toxic, unhealthy for consumption, dangerous for pollinators, and detrimental to the environment. Checking the organic box does not mean that you don’t have to be responsible and thoughtful and selective. Being organic just ensures that you aren’t supporting an industry that develops and distributes synthetic chemicals, and everything that goes along with that. 

I would argue that, generally, checking the organic box means that your viticulture is safer and healthier than conventional viticulture. But that isn’t necessarily true if you are motivated by profit at the expense of environmental responsibility.

For example, Copper Sulfate is allowed, currently, in organic viticulture. It is used as a spray on grapevines to prevent some of the more insidious forms of fungi that can infect vineyards. It also happens to be highly toxic to humans and other animals, builds up in the soil to toxic levels over time, and can poison water sources and decimate some aquatic life. 

So, yeah, copper sulfate is not really the poster child for organic values. It’s more like the problem child that we tried to keep in the basement, but at some point the neighbors heard his wailing, and really he should be institutionalized (you know, he’s fond of torturing small creatures), but he keeps the basement so clean!

Why is it considered acceptable for organic viticulture? That’s a good question, and it may eventually lose that benefit. 

The only, admittedly weak, defense of the use of copper sulfate is that both plants and animals use copper as an essential mineral in their growth and metabolism. So given very occasional and circumspect use, in small doses, it really isn’t any more harmful than being exposed to any other naturally occurring element. Like sunshine, a bit gives you some needed Vitamin D, a lot can give you skin cancer. 

But this is where the crux of the distinction lies between real organic farmers and organic farmers who have a “conventional” mindset. Organic farmers who farm from organic values and not a marketing strategy are highly aware of the down side of copper sulfate and limit or eliminate its use in their vineyards, even though it is allowed by the letter of the organic law. 

But if profit is your god, then as long as a substance – even a toxic one like copper sulfate – is on the “allowed” list, you’ll use it freely whenever the productivity of your cash crop is on the line, because it’s also relatively cheap. This applies to both organic and conventional farmers.

The same is true for other toxic organically allowed substances. The good news? The official list of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production is relatively short, and makes sense. Things like hydrogen peroxide – which I wouldn’t drink straight from the bottle, but definitely feel safe having in my home and spilling on myself – are included. If you’d like to know how a substance becomes included on this “safe” list, here is the USDA’s explanation of the process.

It’s also important to keep in mind that, generally speaking, in addition to this list of synthetic substances allowed, organic agriculture allows any naturally occurring substance to be used. But uranium and small pox are naturally occurring, and we tend not to want those to be sprayed on our grapes. So there is a level of responsibility that must be taken, even within the realm of what is organically allowed, to adhere to the guiding organic values rather than the check-list of organic viticulture. 

Unfortunately for consumers the only way to know if a winery uses copper sulfate, or any other not-so-great-but-allowed substance, in its organic vineyards is by doing research. You can visit wineries and speak to their vineyard managers. I actually encourage this because until producers know that consumers care, they won’t have a motivation to change. I especially encourage consumers to ask wineries if they spray with Roundup/glyphosate, or any of the plethora of other god-awful stuff that is commonly used in conventional viticulture. 

But this kind of research is unrealistic for most of us. Unless a winery offers the information, you pretty much have to call them and ask them, and hope for an honest answer. The products used in the vineyard are required to be reported for organic certification, so you can ask the certifying agency (USDA, CCOF, OTCO, etc.) for those records for confirmation, but how many of us are going to do that?

That brings up an important distinction, though. Organic viticulture involves third-party certification that has oversight and requires the reporting of what is used in the vineyard. Conventional viticulture has no certification, and it is only regulated in the sense that the FDA and EPA must approve a chemical for agricultural use. What and how much you spray in your vineyard is between you and your accountant.  

One of the strongest cases I can make for organic viticulture, though, is that given a farmer who doesn’t care for principles and only cares for what and how much is on the allowed list, if she used the organic list we would have healthier lives and a healthier environment. This isn’t necessarily true because everything in the organic bucket are less toxic (though most are), but because the organic bucket is much smaller. 

The list of highly toxic, environmentally destructive substances allowed in conventional viticulture is as long as a vineyard row. For example, here’s a UC Davis list of treatments for a detrimental vine blight called phomopsis. There is one organic treatment – sulfur – and six conventional treatments. 

Where we get into a conundrum is when you look at the UC Davis management guidelines for another viticultural blight, downey mildew. There are five conventional treatments, and zero organic ones. 

So what are you to do if you’re an organic vineyard manager and your vines become infected by downey mildew, or black rot? That’s a great question that gets at the heart of difference between these perspectives on agriculture, and I’ll address it below. Hint: there’s no easy answer. 

But the really eye-opening aspect is when you search and read the hazard statements of those suggested six “conventional” chemical treatments for phomopsis in vineyards. Kresoxim-Methyl is the first on the list, for example (I like the Pubchem website for this research). Check out the Laboratory Chemical Safety Summary Datasheet for it. Then do the same for the other conventionally allowed synthetic chemicals.

Not organic, and not pleasant.

Why any of these six substances is allowed to be used in our environment is baffling. Can you imagine your child skipping through a vineyard that has been sprayed with any of them, stopping to taste a few grapes along the way? Can you imagine that without being horrified?

But what about that one organically allowed substance, Sulfur? Is that ok? Well, the Pubchem website lists that it is hazardous as an irritant.

My wife might say the same about me, at times, but I know she still loves me. But that isn’t the only concern that has been brought up about sulfur (or me). 

To find out why the use of sulfur in organic vineyards is criticized, what’s the big deal about glyphosate, and more… read Part 2.


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