Columnist, Food

A vineyard worker cuts zinfandel grapes from a vine at Tres Sabores Winery, a certified organic winery in St. Helena, Calif. A recent study found that organic wines taste better — to wine critics, at least. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Do organic wines taste better than conventional wines? Conventional wisdom would say no. We may shop at Whole Foods Market or MOM’s Organic Market, and we may pull over in traffic at the sight of a farmer with a load of tomatoes on a parked flatbed truck, but apparently we raise a skeptical eyebrow at the word “organic” on a wine label. Organic wine is still stuck with the “hippie wine” image of grapes trodden with unsanitary feet and juice that goes funky in the bottle.

Maybe it’s time to rethink that image. A new study out of UCLA published in the Journal of Wine Economics concludes that organic wines do taste better, as measured in the scores of leading wine critics. The authors — Magali Delmas, Olivier Gergaud and Jinghui Lim — analyzed the reviews and scores of more than 74,000 California wines from the 1998 to 2009 vintages in three magazines: Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. They found that “eco-certified” wines scored significantly higher than other wines and that reviews used more positive words about them.

Here’s why this finding could be important: All three publications rate wines blind, meaning the reviewers don’t know what wines they are tasting. The researchers used all sorts of statistical wizardry to control for vintage variation and other factors, so the difference in scores should be attributable just to environmental certification. And the results counter what can best be called a counterintuitive conventional wisdom: that “organic” in wine means lower quality. As the authors noted, many of the certified wines did not mention the certification on the label because the producers fear a consumer backlash. They may be missing a potentially important marketing point.

The problem is in definition, and here we can blame the U.S. government for some of the confusion. Under U.S. Agriculture Department regulations issued a decade ago, an “organic” wine is made not only without synthetic herbicides and pesticides in the vineyard but also without sulfites added in the winery. (The limit is 10 parts per million natural sulfites.) Sulfur is an important preservative that keeps wine from spoiling in the bottle, so this restriction accounts for much of organic wine’s poor reputation. As a compromise, the USDA allows wines to be labeled as “made from organically grown grapes.” That means the vineyard practices are certified organic, but it allows the winemaker to add sulfites to protect the wine. The study included both types of organic wine certification, as well as the Demeter organization’s biodynamic certification, another type of organic farming that emphasizes the ecosystem of the vineyard.

The study did not single out wines labeled “sustainable” or with other sorts of “eco-labeling” that do not involve formal certification. Many wineries follow sustainable, organic or biodynamic practices but don’t seek certification, which can be expensive. And if the weather turns bad during the growing season, vintners like to have the flexibility to save their crop with conventional methods. Therefore, the authors note, their findings may actually understate the effect of eco-friendly farming on wine quality.

Maybe wineries should be touting their organic certification. At MOM’s Organic Markets, “we have customers who seek out wines made without sulfites, and the only way to get that is with the organic seal on the label,” says Crystal Lyle, the wine buyer for seven MOM’s outlets in Maryland, the District and Northern Virginia. MOM’s does carry wines labeled sustainable, but Lyle said most are made with certified organic grapes. Lyle prefers it that way.

“If they aren’t willing to put it on the label, then I don’t want the wine on our shelves,” she told me. “I would prefer they have a certification on the label so our customers know what they are buying.”

Personally, I’ve found eco-certification is not a guarantee of high quality. But wines made from organic grapes or with biodynamic viticulture — or even those labeled “sustainable,” with or without certification — often taste more lively, even more compelling, than other wines. Other factors may influence that perception. Wineries certified organic or biodynamic tend to be small, family producers that may take other steps to increase quality, such as maintaining low yields or other labor-intensive farming practices.

And maybe that’s just another reason to seek these wines out.