Sustainable Wine Review: To Eco-Label or Not To Eco-Label?

Riverbench Vineyard and Winery

Two weeks ago I wrote a post on organic wines and ever since the question has been plaguing me:

Why are so many wines made with organic grapes not labeled ‘made with organic grapes’ or ‘made with some organic grapes’?

It seems clear that in order to be labeled as such, wines made from organic grapes must be grown in certified organic grapes and contain either no or very low levels of sulfites. Many people agree that the cost to certify a vineyard is prohibitive. But, several vineyards I know of are certified organic and yet they don’t label their wines. I wondered about sulfites. If a winery wants to use sulfites anywhere in the process its a no go. But not too many folks in the industry thought that was the reason.

Tom Schaad of August Cellars offered this:

The TTB makes it difficult to label wine thusly. One must either have a pre-certified winery or submit all supporting documents along with the label application. I tried to do a “made with Organic grapes” and gave up after the 5th label rejection. TTB is so picky that even if the certificate is upside down they will reject the application as being unreadable.

What seems to be most common theory is that an ‘organic’ label is actually a turn off to wine consumers. I seems that we don’t see more organic labels because consumer’s are both confused about wine eco-labels and have a negative perception of eco-labeled wine, possibly in response to hold over perceptions of low quality. Josh Metz, a wine business innovator in San Francisco, brought this up and pointed me to a UCLA study that states:

…a lack of understanding of the production process of eco-labeled wines could lead to confusion about the quality of the product and might deter some consumers from purchasing eco-labeled wines.

Phil Reedman of Phil Reedman Master of Wine in Australia agrees:

One of the reasons for so few wines made with organic grapes being labelled thus is that in doing so, the producer actually attracts a price discount rather than the expected price premium. Counter-intuitive but there we are.

The good news is that the trend toward sustainable winemaking practices (but just not labeling) pays off. The UCLA study goes on to say:

Researchers can identify benefits associated with the certification process, such as improved reputation in the industry or increased product quality, independently from those associated with the actual label…In the context of the wine industry, eco-certification leads to a price premium while the use of the eco-label doesn’t.

Whew! That explains why so many of my favorite producers use sustainably grown grapes.

And then Amanda Schark, a wine buyer for Whole Foods offered this up for thought:

Many of the best [wine] operations are small gererational family run wineries. If there’s a problem in the vineyard, they’ll spray if they need to…with 6 mouths to feed in the house, they don’t want to risk an entire crop. I understand this philosophy. On the other hand, if you have an industrial winery pouring persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic substances into the earth, sourcing grapes from a 3,000 mile radius, trekking water 500 miles to irrigate the vines and touting the “sustainable” tag line, (because they have one biodiesel truck parked at their tasting room) is the winery still ‘sustainable’?

Great point, Amanda. Readers, your thoughts?

4 thoughts on “Sustainable Wine Review: To Eco-Label or Not To Eco-Label?”

  1. I agree with Amanda. I tire of reps pitching wine to me as sustainable with no way to officially back up the claim. There is not a consistent ‘sustainable’ definition for wine so any claim or even certification is up for debate.

  2. A lot of sense being spoken there. I’m with Amanda.

    I don’t think it is worth promoting wines such as ours as ecological, sustainable, organic or whatever because of the reasons above. In my experience the more emphasis a producer places on playing the Eco card, the more likely it is that the wine is poor value or that the producer is up to dirty tricks, like buying their chemicals second hand or having a showcase organic vineyard which only represents 5% of their real production.

    On the other hand, if the merchant, importer or consumer WANTS to know how my wine is made, I’m only too happy to tell them truthfully what we do and don’t do. But the quality of the wine should come first.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top