Organic Terms to Know
As climate change concerns and health information become ever more prevalent, the choices we make about what we put in our bodies and how it was produced become more complicated.
When it comes to how wine is produced, you have choices. Organic, biodynamic, and sustainable farming pertain to the grapes used to make the wine and are related but not the same. These concepts refer to the environment, not your health.
Organic wine is primarily concerned with how the grapevines themselves are managed. Note: standards are different for US-made wine vs wine made in European Union countries, most importantly around the use of sulfites as a preservative. Organic grapes are produced with absolutely no chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides.
Biodynamic wine (PDF) is as equally concerned with improving the quality of the land the grapevines grow in and the vineyard ecosystem as it is with how the grapevines are treated. Biodynamic farming meets all of the same standards as organic, but they take it further. Practitioners believe this type of farming creates healthier vines and grapes — leading to better wines.
Sustainable wine encompasses the ecosystem beyond the vineyard, in addition to the concerns of the vineyard itself. Sustainable wineries also typically are concerned with the environmental impact of all aspects of their winery, including its carbon footprint and how the winery impacts the local community and watershed. Great examples of organizations certifying winery sustainability include Sustainable In Practice (SIP) and Napa Green.
Important note: Many Napa Green sustainable wineries are not practicing organic farming. If complete avoidance of chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are a requirement for you, Napa Green is not a certification you should use to choose your wines. Sustainability certifications sometimes do require organic farming, as in the case of SIP.
Dry farming — the practice of not using irrigation on the grapevines — falls under the rubric of sustainability, but does not have anything to do with organic or biodynamic farming. Whether or not a vineyard is dry farmed is more of an issue in US vineyards. In designated appellations in France and most of the EU, supplemental irrigation is strictly regulated and generally prohibited (not for environmental reasons, but because supplemental irrigation is said to dilute the taste of the terroir in the grapes).
Natural wine is generally more concerned with winemaking than farming, though most natural wine proponents believe this kind of wine starts with organic or biodynamically-farmed vineyards. If you’re looking for Vegan wine, the simplest way to be sure that’s what you’re getting is to go Natural.
Organic Wine Certifications & Labels
Organic certification is managed by dozens of agencies in each country according to a set of standards defined by each government. One example of this is California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), an organization who certifies that wineries meet the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards.
In the US, wine certified as USDA organic means the grapes were grown organically and no sulfites were added during winemaking. If a wine has organic grapes but added sulfites, the wine is labeled as “made with organic grapes.”
In the EU, limited sulfites are allowed, but they only have one label for organic wine. Most other countries lack their own standards for organic wine and instead produce wines according to the standards of other countries who will import the wine — any wine sold as USDA Organic in the US meets the US standards, regardless of where it was produced.
Organic certification is a process which includes a requirement of three years of farming free of prohibited materials (chemicals, synthetics, etc.). To help farmers who are transitioning to organic capitalize on their efforts, there are transitional certifications (like the Transitional Certification program offered by CCOF) which acknowledge that the land has been free from prohibited materials for at least one year and that all other USDA organic standards are met.
Biodynamic certification is managed by Demeter, an international organization who owns the trademark on the term Biodynamics.
Are all organic wineries certified?
Importantly, while there are many certified or organic and biodynamic wineries to choose from on the market, many are not labelled as such. The wine industry calls these wineries “practicing organic” or “practicing biodynamic.”
You might be wondering why, aside from the costs of certification, a winery might practice these farming methods but choose not to be certified. I found a compelling explanation buried in a document called The European Union Rules for Organic Wine.
“Many European wine producers have been certified organic for years, but choose not to declare it on their labels. This is mainly due to prejudice against organic wine quality which persists in strongly affecting consumer opinion in some market sectors, and some producers prefer not to take the risk of encountering it. Meanwhile, producers whose name is strong enough to carry its own reputation regardless of any qualifiers such as organic or D.O.C. may also prefer to omit additional logos, instead providing the information via publicity material to interested consumers.”
This is true in the US, too.
Sustainability certifications are typically not associated with a government agency, though some regional laws governing land use and sustainability exist. Depending on your reasons for choosing organic and biodynamic wines to drink, considering sustainable wineries is also a worthwhile endeavor. In most cases these certifications look beyond the vineyard to winery waste and byproducts, employment practices, and stewardship of local watersheds (sometimes requiring dry farming).
Note: Not every certified wine carries a certification logo.
Organic Wine Delivery
Buying organic wine in person requires more effort than buying conventional wine. This is mostly because you either need to learn the wineries which are organic or look at (usually) the backs of bottles to hunt for certifications.
Sadly, buying organic wine online isn’t all that much easier — unless you have a trusted source. Typical online wine destinations make finding organic wine (and biodynamic or sustainable wines) next to impossible.
Where to Buy Organic Wines
When it comes to buying organic wine, you have a few choices. If you want someone else to choose wine for you and ship it to your door, please check out our Organic Wine Subscriptions page. If you want to choose your own wines, here are my best recommendations:
Directly from the Winery
Most wineries offer their inventory online. I suggest finding wineries you like and ordering from them directly. This is the most profitable means for wineries to sell wine to consumers (no middlemen) and recent laws have made it so that wineries can ship directly to consumers in every state except Alabama, Delaware, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Utah.
A personal wine recommendation: Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, California. They are pioneers in biodynamic viticulture and now regenerative farming. They price their highly-acclaimed wines very fairly, and after drinking 12 vintages of their wines, I can honestly say it’s my favorite winery. If you love Rhone grapes (Syrah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and so much more) or you’ve never tried them, this is an amazing place to start.
Organic Wine Exchange
If you’re not already familiar with organic wineries, or if you want to buy online from a store rather than wineries, I recommend checking out Organic Wine Exchange (OWE). Born from a love of organic foods and experience in the wine industry, Ann Arnold founded OWE to make it easy to buy affordable and food-friendly organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wines.
OWE carries a huge inventory of 100% organic wine so you never have to guess if what you’re buying is actually organic. Dozens of grape varieties, wine styles, and wine regions are easily filtered until you find exactly what you want to drink.
If you’re not sure what you want to try, I strongly recommend joining one of OWE’s organic wine clubs. Ann offers an organic wine club, a biodynamic wine club, a vegan wine club, and no sulfites added wine club. You can customize any of these to tailor them to fit your precise needs (low sugar, low alcohol, GMO-free, and more) and preferences (choose a wine color, grapes, or wine regions, too).
You can also purchase a one-time sampler instead of a subscription. Offered in 3-, 6-, and 12-bottle packs, you can select Mixed wine, or limit the pack to Red wine, White wine, Rosé, or Sparkling wine. Affordable priced from $49, discounts are provided for larger sampler packs.
More information about where to buy organic wine online can be found here.
Where NOT to buy organic wines
It might surprise you to learn that I do not recommend buying organic wine from your local health-food superstore, especially Whole Foods and Sprouts. If this is confusing to you I understand because it’s confusing to me, too. These stores both carry a wide variety of conventionally-grown wine and since organic wines are often not labelled as such, you’ll run into the same problems picking organic wine here as you would at any other brick-and-mortar store.
We also don’t recommend buying organic wine at wine superstores like Total Wine or discount stores like Costco. They’re not doing much to help you identify organic and sustainable wine options in these stores and it’s likely hit or miss if the staff knows which wines are organic.
Total Wine doesn’t even try. If you search for “organic” on their website, you’ll get a handful of wines and spirits with organic in the name. What you won’t get is results for wines that are actually organic but not named that way. Total Wine does seem to label some wines Organic, but not all of them, so you’ll need to look at each description for each wine to see if it is indeed organic.
Wine.com has a “Green Wine” labelling system, however they lump organic, biodynamic, and sustainable all into the same “green” bucket. Which means you don’t know which wines are sustainable and which are actually organic (without doing more research).
Smaller online wine retailers and same-day delivery services like Drizly offer the same terrible online shopping experience as Total Wine.