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The Difference Between Organic vs Non-Organic Wine

Written by Madeline Puckette

As much as the term ‘organic’ is popular, organic foods make up less than 4% of US food sales! So what can you do to be more organic? Well, it seems reasonable that organic wines should be a great choice. Oddly enough, organic wine is not that popular in the US.

Let’s find out why organic wines face a dilemma in the US and what you can do to drink more green.

What is Organic Wine?

All about Organic vs. Non-Organic Wines
Very simply, organic wines are produced with organically grown grapes. In order to have organically grown grapes, a vineyard manager must implement an entirely different set of practices to maintain their vines.

By the way, organic doesn’t imply that the wine doesn’t have additives. There is, in fact, a list of additives, including things like yeast, egg whites, and animal enzymes (like rennet in cheese) that are allowed in organic wines. Being organic doesn’t necessarily mean a wine is vegan.

What is the Dilemma with Organic Wine?

The dilemma with organic wines (and what sets them apart from other organic foods) is the importance of sulphur-dioxide (SO2) in the winemaking process. Perhaps you’ve seen a lot more European organic (called ‘bio’) wines and this is because Europe has a different definition of organic:

  • USA: “a wine made from organically grown grapes without added sulfites”
  • EUROPE & CANADA: “a wine made from organically grown grapes that may contain added sulfites”

Organic wines from the US must not add sulfites, which in most scenarios greatly reduces a wine’s shelf life and, in some cases, can substantially change the flavor. Wineries find themselves in a quandary because spending the time to make organically grown grapes is immediately lost because they use SO2 in the bottling line. Read more about sulfites in wine.

What are Non-Organic Wines?

Non-Organic wines can use chemicals like herbicides and fungicides in the vineyards and other additives (like sulfur or Mega Purple) in a wine. You’ll find most of the bizarre chemicals in non-organic wines are used in the vineyard. It is common to see pesticides and fungicides used in areas that are calm (low wind) and have more moisture in the air to cause fungal infections (perhaps close to a river, pond or lake). You’ll find many fungicides and pesticides being employed to kill invasive species. For instance, in Napa, a foreign bug called the glassy winged sharpshooter is a carrier of Pierce’s Disease. This particular disease basically turns vines into lepers with rotting leaves and eventually kills them.

Are Non-Organic Wines Really That Bad?

We were curious about what exactly vineyards are using and it turns out there is a reporting agency that tracks pesticide use in agricultural areas. We ran a zip code in Napa and were surprised to see over 30 different chemicals of varying toxicity being used in the area. After sifting through various chemical fact sheets, it seems like ground water contamination and toxicity to local watersheds are perhaps the 2nd greatest threat to conventional vineyards. Of course, we’re not experts. Besides that, we found a compelling story about Monty Waldin (writer of Best Biodynamic Wines) who attested first-hand to the lack of regulation in developing wine countries like Chile and Portugal that have made even vineyard workers ill. In mentioning this topic to our wine peers, another story turned up about a winery in Southern France that was found guilty of pesticide poisoning of one of their workers. In other words, chemicals = bad.

How To Drink More Green

Fortunately there is a solution that drinkers of American wines should know about and it’s called ‘Made with Organically Grown Grapes’. These little words on a bottle are your ticket to drinking more green for two reasons:

  • Wines is made with grapes from Certified Organic vineyards
  • Wines must contain less than 100 ppm sulfites (good!)

Other Cool Sustainability Programs You Can Trust

  • sip-certified-logo
    A certification of sustainability for California wines that restricts the use of bad chemicals in vineyards.
  • Salmon-safe-logo
    A certification program created in the Northwest that focuses on bolstering riparian areas and reducing farm run off into streams and rivers.
  • demeter-biodynamic-logo
    Demeter offers organic and biodynamic certifications internationally.
  • usda-organic-wine-logo
    The USDA National Organic Program. Also look for wines labeled “Made with Organically Grown Grapes”. USDA NOP

What Do Winemakers Think?

We Asked Alex Sokol Blosser, from Sokol Blosser Winery in Oregon Who makes a wine labeled “Made with Organically Grown Grapes”

Alex and Alison Sokol Blosser
Alison and Alex Sokol Blosser. source

Do you have any problems with the limitation of sulfites in wine “Made with Organically Grown Grapes”?

Since we do not make organic wine I am not really that limited in how much SO2 [sulphur] I use in the winemaking process. I would be very concerned about wine microbial stability if I could not add any SO2 to the wine. We don’t use a lot of SO2 and the little we do use is really important for wine quality.

What kinds of problems do you have as an organic vineyards vs. non-organic neighbors?

One of our neighbors is organic and the other two are not. This does pose a challenge and what this usually means is that during my annual organic audit, I have to show the auditor that I am keeping a minimum distance between my neighbors use of synthetic chemicals and my organic vineyard.

Have you noticed any changes in the area around your vineyard since it’s been organic?

If you walk around our vineyard right now you would definitely think it is more alive compared to our neighbors who are not organic. I do not use herbicides so I am use to seeing more vegetation under my vines compared to my neighbors or to when I use to use round-up. I was told that when I started to farm organically I would see a change after farming organically for 10 years. I fear that I have not noticed any drastic changes in my vineyard today compared to back in 2001.

It is definitely more challenging to farm for top quality Pinot Noir organically and this comes mostly in not being able to use synthetic herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. What I do think organic farming does is it is better stewardship of the land, and will allow us to farm for quality for many generations to come.

National Organic Program Language NOP
Interesting Details on Pest and Fungus Management
Curious about Pierce’s Disease? Picture from
Organic Food Survey (4% of Food Sales)
List of Sip Certified Prohibited Materials
Organic Wine pdf from USDA

Written byMadeline Puckette

James Beard Award-winning author and Wine Communicator of the Year. I co-founded Wine Folly to help people learn about wine. @WineFolly

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