“Red or white?”
This is usually the only question I ask myself when perusing the wine aisle at my local grocery store. That and, “What’s on sale?”
Whether it be “two-buck Chuck” or a 3L Black Box to tide me and my wallet over, I’ve never been one to care too much about the quality of a wine. Wine is wine has always been my mentality.
Unfortunately, wine is not just wine. And sadly enough, most bottles are not plant-based either. Shocking, right? The list of FDA-approved “GRAS,” or “Generally Recognized As Safe” ingredients allowed in U.S. wines is exhaustive. Even worse, none of them are required to be printed on labels.
These ingredients are bizarre and include things such as foaming and coloring agents (like Mega Purple for color correcting), casein (milk protein), gelatin (protein from boiling animal parts), and many unnatural additives. Alongside grapes, these ingredients make up most of the conventional bottles on store shelves. One of the most disturbing GRAS ingredients is isinglass, which is used as a fining agent. Isinglass is derived from fish bladders.
It’s not all bad news, though; we don’t have to cancel happy hour. Rather, through a little bit of research, and by learning to ask specific questions, we can discover the exciting range of organic and natural wines, sans all the additives. Many, in fact, are stocked in major superstores. Even restaurants are beginning to offer natural and organic wine options.
* Countries vary in wine regulations and label certifications. Much of this article references only USDA standards and U.S. winemaking processes.
Organic vs. Natural Wines:
What’s the Difference?
Let’s start with organic wines
When comparing organic and natural wines, the first thing to know is this: wines can be organic but not natural.
According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, there are four different organic labels for alcoholic beverages in the U.S.:
100% Organic means it contains only organic ingredients and has no added sulfites.
Organic means it contains 95% organic ingredients and has no added sulfites.
Made with Organic Ingredients means that it contains 70% or more organic ingredients; it may contain added sulfites.
Products containing less than 70% organic ingredients can use the word ‘organic’ next to a specific ingredient, but cannot label the product in its entirety.
Sulfites (sulfur dioxide) are preservatives that prevent oxidation and bacterial spoilage. The by-product of alcohol fermentation, they are naturally occurring in all wines, but can also be added to the wine to prolong its shelf life. Many organic wines from around the world still contain added sulfites, although in the United States, a wine cannot wear the USDA Certified Organic label if it contains added sulfites.
Organic wines are made with organic grapes and generally follow organic farming practices (forgoing pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers), although it’s always a good idea to ask and research the winery’s production methods.
Takeaways regarding organic wines
Wines with added sulfites (in addition to the naturally occurring sulfites) cannot be labeled as organic. Wines can be labeled as “made with organic grapes” while still containing sulfites and non-organic additives.
Now let’s talk about natural wines
Natural wines can be a bit tricky as there are no USDA regulations or certifications for touting this label. Funny enough though, the rules for natural wine, albeit self-regulated, are much stricter than the ones imposed by official bodies. While some sources say natural wines can be made with non-organic grapes, most unofficial bodies and winemakers agree that organic soil and organic grapes are only the starting points for this minimally-processed wine variation.
Natural wines are created with as little intervention as possible, including human, chemical, and technological intervention. The natural process is retained from the beginning (soil preparation and vine care) to end (cellaring and bottling). Grapes are hand-picked and pressed, and fermentation occurs only from the indigenous yeast, made from the skins of the grapes. Like organic wines in the U.S., natural wines do not have added sulfites. In fact, nothing is added to natural wine. It is truly fermented, unfiltered grape juice in its wildest form.
Takeaways regarding natural wines
Natural wines are almost always organic and free from sulfites (although it’s good to check, as labels are not regulated and can be vague). Natural wines are made with as little intervention as possible.
Are Organic & Natural Wines Healthier?
Are They Better for the Environment?
Simply put, yes. Organic and natural wines are better for our health because of the minimal additives and laced ingredients, such as coloring agents, sulfites, animal byproducts, and unnatural sugars. Like all organic foods, organically grown grapes are going to retain their natural nutrients and antioxidants. With less added sugar, organic and natural wines are also less likely to leave you with a terrible headache.
Moreover, natural and organic wines are indeed better for the earth. By forging destructive irrigation practices, local environments and ecosystems are protected from harsh chemicals and manipulation. In more than than 100 studies conducted by UC Berkeley, researchers have also found organic farms to be more resilient to drought and heat waves. Much less water is required because the compost—made from organic matter—retains more water. Biodynamic wines even encourage harmony between the soil, vines, and lunar cycles—further respecting and honoring the earth. (Learn more about biodynamic wines and the spiritual-ethical-ecological approach in this article by VinePair.)
Finding Organic + Natural Wines
Like anything and everything on the conscious living journey, we have to learn to read labels and ask questions about products that go beyond the marketing campaigns. Sometimes this means calling or emailing a winery; other times this means touring a vineyard and meeting with the staff. Depending on where you live in the world, it can be relatively simple or challenging to find organic and natural wines in your region.
Whole Foods and specialty wine shops are good places to start. There are also a handful of natural wine bars popping up in major cities. (If you’re ever in Los Angeles, visit our friends at Bar Bandini near The Good Trade studio.) Subscription services such as Vinebox and Wine Fellas are also excellent for trying various wines and falling in love with new wineries. Arduous as this all may be, choosing to drink organic and natural wines requires time and patience, at least at first.
For me personally, choosing to be more conscious about wine means drinking a lot less often; a bottle of organic or natural wine at my local grocery store averages $10 to $15 (no more “two-buck Chuck" for me). I’m learning to weigh my priorities though. Rather than spending $20 on a few bottles (or box) of wine a month, I can choose to indulge in one bottle of organic or natural wine. Sure, it won’t last as long, but it will be better for me and the environment. And it will require me to be more mindful about drinking. That’s a win-win in my book.
Kayti Christian, a staff writer for The Good Trade, is a storyteller, creator, activist, and avid traveler hailing from Colorado, now living in London. With 30+ stamps in her passport, she is passionate about responsible tourism and is always looking for new ways to be a more conscious traveler. She is currently pursuing her MA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at City, University of London.