The Organic Paradox

Whilst, consumers are increasingly aware of the sustainability issues surrounding what they eat, In Our Nature‘s journey into Argentina’s wine regions suggests that this understanding is not mirrored with regards to what they drink.  In stark contrast to other industries, where consumers are content to pay more for ecologically friendly products, it seems a stigma exists within the wine industry that decreases the value of the wine if that ecological practice is advertised on the product.

A study of the Californian wine industry showed that ecologically grown wine is valued 13% higher than its non-ecological competitors.  However, if carrying a label advertising it as ecologically grown its value decreases by 7%, creating a total devaluation of 20% in comparison to organically certified wines that don’t label their products as such.  ”Some consumers stigmatize organic wine, dismissing it as an inferior product,” writes economists Magali Delmas of UCLA and Laura Grant of University of California, Santa Barbara.

One cited cause for this misjudgment in consumer perception is confusion over eco-labeling.  Without research into the subject, would an average consumer be able to differentiate the meanings between an ‘organic’, ‘biodynamic’ or ‘organically grown’ label?  Is the label a product of an independent organisation with clear criteria for certification or is it simply a marketing tool for the manufacturer’s claims?  And how do their definitions vary from one country of origin to another?

The paradox exists; ecologically certified wines are associated with quality, yet ecologically labeled wines are not.

Research from the US suggests that this could be to do with the sulfite content in organic wines.  Sulfites are produced naturally in wine as it ferments but it is common practice to add more in order to preserve it, allowing it to age reliably.  In the US, for a wine to be eligible for organic labeling it is forbidden to add sulfites in the processing stage, and so its shelf life, and therefore its ongoing quality, may be reduced. In France and Italy however, sulfites can be added and a wine can still be considered, and labeled, ‘organic’.  With a variety of origins, each with its own distinctions and standards, it is no surprise that consumers aren’t able to keep up.

Growing grapes organically is proven to improve the quality of the grape on the vine.  Ron Laughton of Jasper Hill Vineyards believes that wines grown without chemicals have a better expression of their ‘terroir’, the way in which a wine embodies its place of origin through its aroma, texture and taste, “flavours are created in the vine… so if you wish to express true terroir you should be trying to keep the soil healthy.”  John Williams of Frog’s Leap Winery in California agrees, “when the soil is healthy, the vines are healthy.”

If vineyards are growing organically and seeking certification, why do they go through these exhaustive motions and such expense without proudly displaying these efforts on the product?  Is it simply to keep their prices level?

Many vineyards opt for organic certification simply to create and improve agricultural standards; the certification process acts as a consulting service that provides an education into best environmental management practices.  By growing organically and not certifying at all, flexibility remains throughout the growing period, so should a crop turn out poorly due to weather conditions or pest problems, a vineyard has the option to introduce chemicals to save the harvest, if not the quality.  And, as wine is processed for pleasure and distinction, not certifying leaves room for subtle tweaks during the processing stage that may influence its taste.

So, whilst grapes may be grown to the standards and quality of of eco-certification, they won’t necessarily tell you about it.

Wine is no different from anything else we consume and, whether the manufacturer forsake displaying its eco-friendly origins or not, it is our responsibility to find out what processes lay behind what we choose to ingest.  It isn’t enough to blindly trust an ecological label. Whilst it implies a mindful and natural approach to the agricultural practices behind a product, it does not necessarily relay the whole story.

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