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An Organic Debate - Part II

Posted Jul 07 2008 7:15pm

I was president of the California Certified Organic Farmers for 7 years, the oldest and largest certifying body, and helped formulate the original USDA rules for organic. I wasn’t a proponent of the USDA taking over organic standards. As an organic farmer from the 70s, we never had a lot of cooperation from the government. Later, we had to go along with the consensus. And when we were making the wine rule, we had to look at it from the whole perspective, not just wine.

As president of the CCOF, I ran a survey to see who bought organic food. It was mostly women, who were well educated with a good income. They were happy to pay an additional 30%, but if they were paying it, it had better be organic. So if you were lenient on this rule then anyone who was making any food could say “I just want to add this one preservative.” After all, organic bread doesn’t last as long. But I would be outraged; as an organic consumer, not just as a farmer.

So the same standard had to be applied to wine. You can’t have anything synthetic and call it organic.

There was no “Made with Organic Grapes” exception in the original law. Sulfur dioxide was outlawed in any form. Then, a hush-hush agreement between California and Kentucky senators created this category. It was piggybacked onto a bill about senior prescriptions.

As it turns out, I think that’s a fair label, and I’m extremely pleased with both categories. I’m not an anti-sulfite person. I make wines without them because in my mission statement we just wanted to be 100% organic. I wish I could put “100% organic” on my label, but I can’t because I use a strain of yeasts from France, and they are not certified. In fact, there are no certified organic yeasts.

Some people are confused by the 95% rule with organic products. It only applies when you can’t find a certified organic source of a natural ingredient you need. For example, you want to make a granola bar with saffron, but no one is growing organic saffron. It does not mean you can use 5% synthetic ingredients. If you can source it, then you have to buy it. You also have to show documentation when you cannot source it.

Organic wine gets a bad wrap; some of the early organic wines weren’t that good. I say there isn’t a person out there who can say every conventional wine they’ve ever had is great. At one time the largest winery, Gallo, had the reputation of making the worst wine. 1 out of every 3 bottles sold was a cheap bottle of Gallo.

When I first tried to make wines without sulfites, I went to UC Davis and others for advice. 99% of the response was “why are you trying to buck the system, you dirty hippy?” The 1% that was sympathetic said they didn’t know how to help me. So I admit, my first wines weren’t perfect. I had to wait a whole year to learn. It wasn’t like beer, where I could make another batch in two weeks. So we stuck with it and learned.

Women used to say they got major headaches from wine. I said “try mine.” That’s what kept us afloat. Now things are different. I’m working with a lab and making something without a preservative. I’m proud of my wines. I did it myself without anyone helping me.

It’s a process of weeding out different mistakes. All my tanks are temperature controlled now. I just won two awards in international competitions. We’re getting there. We’re making a $13 bottle of wine that’s damn good and organic. I respect people who have the “Made with Organic Grapes” label; sometimes I feel we don’t get the respect back. The work we did to set it up and say there is such a thing as an organic wine.

Any wine with sulfites over 10 parts per million naturally still cannot be labeled organic. There was a reason they used 10 parts per million. Under that you don’t have to put a warning. If a warning label has to be put on, then it is not appropriate for organic production. We try to keep our wines at 0 parts per million. People forget the molecular structure of the added sulfite is different. It’s bonded. That’s what might cause people to have allergies.

We have these two laws; and unfortunately, unless the wine is an organic with a USDA label you cant legally call it an organic wine. So have respect for the rule and the terminology. I’ve heard every excuse in the book. “I’m organic. I only use herbicide.” You have players coming in with big money and they can lobby for different things. Fortunately, the organic consumer is like me. They are educated and watching out.

This letter from Phil LaRocca is a response to the letters posted inAn Organic Debate - Part I.

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