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 V.18 No.48 | November 26 - December 2, 2009 


Defining Organic

What cryptic “green” claims on wine labels really mean

Drinking responsibly used to mean having a designated driver and not showing strangers your naughty bits. But, as with all things in the 21st century, being “responsible” has evolved to include knowing the ecological status of what we consume, too.

Organic wines in their various forms are taking up a growing volume of shelf space in wine shops and cellars. But “organic” claims—much less terms like “biodynamic”—can get your head spinning long before you pop the cork.

Here is a 70 percent handy, 30 percent maddening guide to help you navigate the often complicated labels in the organic and biodynamic wine section. (I recommend a drink or two before reading.)

Made With Organic and Non-Organic Ingredients

The wine contains a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients. These wines may contain added sulfites, which are designated with a “contains sulfites” statement. (A small amount of people are sensitive to sulfites, which are used as a preservative.) The percentage of organic and non-organic ingredients are included on the label. Wines labeled as “made with organic and non-organic ingredients” must include a certification statement—the certifying organization is identified here, but these bottles are prohibited from carrying the USDA organic seal.

Made With Organic Ingredients

Same as above, however there’s no requirement to list non-organic ingredients.

Organic Ingredients

The wine can contain up to 70 percent organically produced ingredients, but it’s otherwise exempt from the organic certification process. The term “organic” can appear on the ingredient list, but the wine doesn’t get to slap any organic seals onto its label.


“Organic” wines contain a minimum of 95 percent organically produced ingredients, and they have no added sulfites. Naturally occurring sulfites can be present, however, and sulfites above 10 parts per million will be noted. Organic wines must include a statement identifying their certifying organization and can carry an agent seal. Wines certified “organic” may carry the USDA organic seal.

100 Percent Organic

No slight of hand here. In addition to having 100 percent organic ingredients, the winemaking process itself is considered organic. The same natural sulfite requirement as "organic" wines also apply. “100 percent organic” wines must have a certification statement and can carry both a certifying agent and USDA organic seals.


Wines certified “biodynamic” indicate a wine grown and produced in a manner beyond conventional organic practices. Conceived by philosopher Rudolf Steiner, biodynamics blend organic farming practices with astronomy, alchemy and spirituality. Utilizing admittedly bizarre compost preparations (many practitioners refrain from discussing the specifics) such as burying manure in cow horns, as well as fermenting yarrow flowers in deer bladders and dandelions in cow mesentery (I’ll give you a minute to Google that), biodynamic adherents strive to address all aspects of nature by treating a farm as a unique organism. Planting and harvesting is timed to moon phases, rising constellations and other astrological considerations. There is no shortage of controversy as to the efficacy of biodynamic practices. But in between giggling fits, you should ponder what the real benefits of biodynamics are. Really, is there anything wrong with being more intimately involved with the vineyard than the boardroom?

“Green” Wines Worth Trying

Frey Vineyards Syrah ($12.75)

• 100 percent organic, biodynamic, vegan

• Toasty oak on the nose with plum and currant flavors

Frog's Leap Sauvignon Blanc ($18)

• Made with organic ingredients

• Bright acidity with loads of citrus

Robert Sinskey Vineyards Los Carneros Pinot Noir ($38)

• Biodynamic

• Fruity, earthy and spicy

Bonny Doon Vinferno ($20)

• Biodynamic

• A rich and honeyed dessert wine with hints of pear


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