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Wine is a beverage that has fascinated humankind for millennia. Wine has always been prized for its wonderful flavors, its health benefits and its ability to lift spirits. Today, a number of organic winemakers across the world are using the best of ancient and modern winemaking techniques to craft pure and delicious wines without the use of chemicals and preservatives. This trend is nothing new; indeed most of the nearly 8,000-year history of winemaking has been organic, using organically grown fruit without the addition of sulfites or other additives.
Organic wine in the United States is regulated by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), which defines organic wine as wine made from certified organic grapes with no added sulfites. Sulfites are a known allergen, and the most common synthetic preservative used in wine. Sulfites are manufactured and added to wine to destroy spoilage organisms and prevent oxidation. Much of the confusion surrounding organic wine categories is due to sulfites. Organic wine cannot have added sulfites and must have under 10ppm naturally occurring sulfites. There is also a “made with organically grown grapes” category. These wines are not truly organic, since they use sulfites, but producers can only add up
to 100ppm sulfite.
The two categories of wine relating to organics have created a lot of confusion for consumers, since many wines “made with organic grapes” claim to be organic. But true organic wines cannot have added sulfites, and only non-sulfited wines can use the term “organic wine” on their labels.
Sulfites come in many forms and sulfites are naturally occurring in small levels in many foods. However, sulfite additions in wine involve synthetically manufactured liquids, gases and tablets that are added as a preservative. It is important to understand that naturally occurring and synthetically produced sulfites are different, and they affect the body in different ways. Naturally occurring sulfites are chemically stable. They are not highly reactive because they are bound, which means that they are stable molecules that do not quickly react with their surrounding environment. In contrast, sulfites added as preservative are called free sulfites. Free sulfites have many open reaction sites, which allow them to react quickly with yeast, bacteria, or other spoilage organisms that may be present in the wine. Concern over the presence of sulfites stems from the fact that synthetic sulfites can react with tissues in the body and trigger allergic reactions.
The World Health Organization recognizes sulfites as an allergen. The International Program on Chemical Safety and the World Health Organization in Geneva issued the following statement in 1999:
The Committee reviewed case studies to sulfiting agents and noted the life-threatening nature of the adverse
effects in some cases. It is recommended that where a suitable alternative method of preservation exists, its use should be encouraged. Appropriate labeling is the only feasible means of protecting individuals who cannot tolerate certain food additives.
Since 1988 in the U.S., all products with added sulfites are required to print the warning “contains sulfites” on their labels, except those with under 10ppm sulfite. This same requirement was adopted in Europe in 2005. The California Organic Food Act of 1990 defined organic wine as having no added sulfites. The U.S. standards have influenced regulation around the world. However, currently negotiations around the creation of a European Organic Wine Standard have come to a halt due to conflicting ideas about the use of sulfites in wine. Many wineries want to be able to label their wine as organic, but they do not want to change their practices and eliminate the use of sulfites. Those seeking to allow synthetics into organic beverages have come head-to-head with committed organic purists who maintain that since sulfites are a synthetic, they should not be allowed.
Modern advocates of sulfite use claim that sulfites have been accepted as necessary for winemaking since Roman times, but this does not appear to be true. Numerous writers and winemakers have expressed concern about additives in winemaking over the years. Columella, the famed Roman agricultural writer had this to say about preservatives in wine in AD 65: “We regard as the best wine any kind which can keep without preservatives.”
Historical references to natural wines give us proof that sulfites have not always been preferred by all winemakers. Adding sulfites makes wines more stable, but with proper care and attention, preservative free wines can have great staying power, with superior flavors and without harmful additives. Modern winemaking techniques allow producers to produce consistent, delicious wines.
Modern filtration technology has allowed for improved quality of preservative free wines over the years. Sterile filtration allows winemakers to greatly reduce the load of bacteria in a wine, which keeps it from spoiling. Modern bottling allows for very little oxygen pick up during bottling, which helps with long term stability. Also, the higher quality of organic fruit provides natural plant chemicals that act as preservatives.
A UC Davis study from 2003 indicates that organically grown fruits and vegetables have higher nutrient density than conventional produce. Many of the plant chemicals in grapes are natural preservatives, which is why wine is such a healthful beverage, often recommended by doctors. Since organic fruit is more nutrient rich, it has higher levels of naturally occurring preservatives, which help the wine have staying power over time.
Organically grown fruit is higher in natural preservatives due to Systemic Aquired Response (SAR). The idea is that pest pressure on the plants causes them to produce more phenolic compounds and antioxidants, which act as preservatives in wine. This is similar to the idea that it is important to have moderate exposure to germs to keep the immune system functioning properly. The famous antioxidant reserveratrol, which is found in wine, is a byproduct of SAR in plants.
Preventing the introduction of toxins into the environment is important for many reasons. One that might not be immediately apparent to many is the issue of pesticide residues. A study released in March 2008 by Pesticide Action Network Europe found that measurable levels of pesticides can be identified in wine.
Conventionally farmed wine grapes are exposed to a wide range of pesticides, including fungicides, insecticides and herbicides. Of the top 50 pesticides used for the production of wine grapes in California, 17 are listed as “Bad Actors” by the Pesticide Action Network. The term Bad Actors is used to identify a “most toxic” set of pesticides that are at least one of the following: known carcinogens, reproductive or development toxins, known groundwater contaminants, and pesticides with high acute toxicity, as designated by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and listed in California’s Proposition 65 list.
California’s Pesticide Use Reporting system requires farmers to submit monthly data on pesticide use to their county agricultural commission. In Mendocino county, where my family vineyards and winery are located, an average of 4.28 lbs per acre of non-organic products are applied to the average wine grape vineyard. Using this figure we estimate that our vineyards’ organic farming methods have prevented over 12 thousand pounds of toxic chemicals from entering our soils and waterways over the last 28 years.
Today, organic winemaking has gone global. The majority of true organic wines without sulfites is produced in the U.S. but producers can be found from many European nations, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Frey Vineyards, in Mendocino County, CA, was America’s first organic winery. Other producers include LaRocca Vineyards, Organic Wine Works, Badger Mountain Winery and Nevada County Wine Guild. Through three decades of satisfied customers, numerous awards and a commitment to purity in food and beverage, these producers have proven that organic wine is possible and even favored by consumers. Try an organic wine tonight; the environment, your health, and your taste buds will thank you!
Frey Vineyards, Ltd. is America’s pioneering organic winery. Founded in 1980, the business has remained family owned and operated in Mendocino County. All of the Frey wines are made with no added sulfites, tannins, acids or sugars. They can be found in many stores throughout California and the nation. Learn more at www.freywine.com
Rebuilding Your Local Food Chain by Michael Pollan
The Organic Factor
The Wisdom of Organic Agriculture
Revisioning Agriculture for the 21st Century
Jeffrey Smith on the dangers of genetic engineering in our food supply
Lester Brown on environmental change
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