According to the pro-science consumer advocacy group, American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), organic wine may not be good for the earth—or at the very least, it’s bad for the local vineyard soil. The group blames copper sulfate, an allowable fungicide in organic grape growing; ACSH considers it a chemical that depletes the soil.
Organic farming is not exactly chemical-free farming. In fact, ACSH cites Nate Lewis, farm policy director for the Organic Trade Association who told the Washington Post: “I don’t like the narrative that organic is pesticide-free. It’s not. They do use things that are toxic to the environment.”
Solutions or powders containing copper have been applied to plants and trees for centuries. In vineyards, something called Bordeaux mixture—copper sulfate, lime, and water—was first used in early-to-mid 19th century Europe, to combat a severe case of powdery mildew (the disease took out a sizable chunk of French and other European vineyards as well as about 90% of Madeira’s vineyards, which never recovered). Since then, a copper solution has been a go-to remedy for mildew prevention and remediation.
Today, many organic grape growers are afraid that restricting copper use will lead to so much crop losses they would have to forget about organic grape growing. ACSH claims, however, that resistance to copper solutions has built over the 150+ years of its use creating the need for extremely high doses that protect grape crop yields but in return harm the soil. Part of the harm ACSH cites has to do with messing up the microbiology that purports to give an area’s wine its special qualities. Unfortunately, soil and wine taste remains about as controversial as copper sulfate use, and maybe more so.
What about other chemicals used in vineyards, like Roundup, a Monsanto product containing glyphosate used to kill water-stealing weeds in vineyards. Press Democrat beverage alcohol writer, Bill Swindell says, “More than 76,000 pounds of the herbicide in its various forms were applied to wine grapes in 2016 in Sonoma County, according to the state Department of Pesticide Regulation.”
Glyphosate has been in the news as a potential carcinogenic and has been roundly criticized by many in the world of organic agriculture, even though a report claimed residual levels of the chemical in organic wine. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, glyphosate is not a carcinogenic and it poses “no other meaningful risks to human health” when used properly. On the other hand, the World Health Organization has issued conflicting information about the chemical, and the European Union has been debating glyphosate use for quite some time.
Chemistry aside, confusion appears to hold back organic wine in the U.S. marketplace. Are the grapes grown organically, biodynamically, sustainably, naturally?
In two out of four methods—organic and sustainable—synthetic sprays are allowed. In one method—biodynamic—chemicals are mostly eschewed (copper sulfate seems to be allowed) and many concocted preparations may be applied. The most confusing of all is “natural,” mainly because there are no codified standards behind use of that term, although those winemakers who apply the term generally do not use commercial yeast to start fermentation and they use almost no sulfur dioxide additions to protect wine against oxygen spoilage.
In his article, Swindell uncovers for us some well-known California wineries—Glen Ellen, Fetzer, etc.—that believe organic wine ought to be and can become an integral part of the estimated $50 billion U.S. organic food market. To emphasize their optimism, the wine producers cite Millennials (who else?); they say Americans in that population group are willing to pay more for organic wine, which brings up another argument connected to organic wine: its usually higher price.