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How a Salad Bar Disaster Changed the Course of U.S. Wine History

Europeans and Americans have a different definition of organic wine. Here’s why

Pam Strayer By July 28, 2022
Illustration of a Salad bowl flanked by two wine bottles labeled Sulfite Free
Photo illustration by Pix

A pitched battle between anti-sulfite purists, many in the food sector, and the mainstream U.S. wine industry led to laws about organic wine that have been confusing for decades. 

It’s a situation that has caused confusion for consumers and held back the cause of organic wines. And it was all thanks to the salad bar. The salad bar?

Salad wars

By 1985, salad bars were so popular that even Burger King introduced one, complete with a now famous TV commercial featuring model Elle MacPherson. The video juxtaposed her “perfect 10” body with close-ups of broccoli, tomatoes, and lettuce.

But salad bars had a secret problem. Lettuce wilts or turns brown. To prevent that, restaurants put lettuce in sulfite solutions ― but some didn’t measure carefully.

Sulfites can affect people with asthma. People with a rare genetic defect called multiple sulfatase deficiency can have reactions. Soon there were 500 reports of sulfite reactions, some mild, others severe. Authorities reported that 13 people died from salad bar sulfite solutions. 

But the dose makes the difference, according to wine chemistry expert Andy Waterhouse, director of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at the University of California, Davis.

“There are reports of severe and life-threatening reactions when sulfites were added at erroneously and enormously high levels,” he wrote about the salad bar sulfites scare, adding that the amounts in salad bar sulfites were as much as 100 times higher than recommended.

In 1986, the outcry over the deaths led the Food and Drug Administration to ban sulfite solutions on raw fruits and vegetables and to require sulfite labeling on foods with greater or equal to 10 parts per million sulfites

The next year, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the federal agency that then regulated wine, chose to follow the FDA’s lead and declared that any wine with greater or equal to 10 parts per million of sulfites had to put sulfites on the label. 

The decision was made without evidence-based, peer-reviewed published medical studies showing wine sulfites were a health hazard. 

California’s Wine Institute, at the time representing 500 wineries, initially opposed the sulfite labeling requirement, writing, “There has never been a health problem with the sulfiting of wine.” But it later agreed that labeling could help some asthmatics, writing, “While warning labels are certainly not warranted, informational labeling could assist some hyper-allergenic asthmatics.” 

More recent research suggests that red wine headaches and asthmatics’ allergic reactions come from histamines, tannins, and alcohol and not from sulfites.

Instant impact

Before 1987, a number of wineries had been making wine from organic grapes and, in the absence of organic wine regulations, calling it organic wine. Like winemakers around the world, most organic wineries used small amounts of sulfites to preserve the wine. 

But when the ATF’s new sulfite labeling requirements came out, consumers who thought organic wines were additive-free were dismayed to see new labeling that said, “contains sulfites.” 

“It just didn’t sound very organic, even though it could have been from organic sources,” says Paul Chartrand, who imports organically grown wines from France. “Those of us who were selling organic wine started to get a lot of flack from consumers.”

To some organic winemakers, it appeared that the only way to sell organic wine was to make wine with less than 10 ppm of added sulfite, to avoid the label “contains sulfites.”

The wine wars

In 1990, the federal government’s decision to create the first organic food and wine standards provoked intense public debate. In its first draft, the Department of Agriculture allowed GMOs, factory farming, irradiation, and more. It allowed organic wine to contain up to 100 ppm of sulfites.

More than 130,000 people protested the food standards, in “one of the largest public responses in the history of federal rulemaking,” according to Organic Watch’s Roger Blobaum, a farmer and chronicler of the organic movement.

Along with the food responses, there was discussion about wine, too. There were the pragmatists who said organic wine should be able to contain low amounts of added sulfites, like their European counterparts today. And there were the purists who thought adding sulfites of more than 10 ppm would only happen over their dead bodies.

Among their leaders was Phil LaRocca, an organic chef and TV organic cooking show host turned organic grape grower who sold his grapes to Frey Vineyards, then a no added sulfite organic wine producer. He vowed that no chemicals, including sulfites, should be in wine labeled organic. 

“When I made that statement — that we’re not going to put any chemicals in the wine — I had no idea at that time that the whole wine industry would hate my guts,” he told Pix. 

Born of Sicilian stock and raised in San Francisco’s Italian North Beach neighborhood, he knew how to go toe to toe with an opponent. There were two women on the National Organic Standards Board at the time he was writing the rule, “and I went to them and I said, ‘if they allow sulfites, which are not organic, in wine, you could have milk with a preservative in it.’ I won them over, so I had all these women’s groups supporting the no sulfites in wines.”

Chartrand says the claims were exaggerated. “People said, ‘if we let sulfites in organic wine, it’s going to open up a whole lot of things. It could even spread to food. You can’t make any concessions.’ Even some of the wine producers making wine without added sulfites sort of played into that. They really riled people up.”

Sulfite and anti-alcohol opponents showed up in full force.

The pro-temperance Center for Science in the Public Interest, backed by funding from the anti-substance abuse Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, piled on. Experienced at lobbying on issues related to alcoholic beverages, they saw organic wine sulfite complications as yet another way to deter consumers from alcohol.

“They appeared in almost every meeting,” says Chartrand. “They knew how it worked, they knew how to testify, they knew how to get consumers behind them for the issues they believed in, they have a big mailing list, and they were an influence.” 

Testifying in the USDA hearings in favor of the 100-ppm sulfite cap ― supported by most wineries ― vintner Brian Fitzpatrick warned, “Consequences of failure to use sulfur dioxide are inferior products with a very high (>20%) rate of returns.”

But the purists won, to the detriment of some wines after the no added sulfite wines hit the market, giant retailers like BevMo would not carry them after consumers returned spoiled wines.

The government opened new hearings in 2012. A coalition led by organic importer Paolo Bonetti of Organic Vintners lobbied to revise the law to define 100 ppm wines as organic wines. The University of California’s respected wine chemistry expert Waterhouse testified in favor of the 100 ppm standard. Their opponents, backed by the Organic Consumers Association, gathered 6,000 signatures in a petition supporting the no added sulfite standard. 

But, again, the purists beat the pragmatists.

“When I made that statement — that we’re not going to put any chemicals in the wine — I had no idea at that time that the whole wine industry would hate my guts,” LaRocca told Pix.

The powerful potato lobby

As the Santa Rosa wine lab Gravity Wine House writes, wine sulfite laws seem strange in comparison to sulfite labeling for, say, French fries. 

On their blog, the lab writes, “To this day, the French fries at your favorite fast-food restaurant, with sulfur levels around 1,900 ppm, can be cooked and served to consumers without declaration. Yet, wines with nearly one-twentieth the amount of sulfiting agent must declare the additive.” 

Says Chartrand, “Many processed organic food manufacturing groups succeeded in allowing their required synthetic substances because their industries were unified and organized.”

But the wine industry, unlike their counterparts in potato growing, took little interest in the organic wine sulfite issues. One big company, Brown-Forman, which then owned Fetzer and Bonterra, an organic brand with 100 ppm wines, got behind the 100 ppm standard. Eventually, that became the “Made with Organic Grapes” popular in the U.S. marketplace today.

Experts believe the confusing sulfite standards have dramatically slowed the growth of organic wine in the U.S. In Europe’s three biggest wine-producing countries ― France, Italy, and Spain ― organic wine grape acreage represents 18% of vineyard land, versus an estimated 3% in the U.S. That means U.S. vineyards can legally apply pesticides to 97% of vines, compared to 82% in the top three European wine regions.

Organic in the EU

In France, organic wine made with sulfites is the fastest-growing market segment. Like organic food, consumers in France pay a premium — in this case about 26% more — for organic wine. Eyeing those profits, CIVB reports that 300 Bordeaux producers are planning to become certified organic.

With just one standard, things are much simpler in the EU, compared to the three in the U.S.: “Organic Wine”  with a 10-ppm sulfite cap; “Made with Organic Grapes” with a 100-ppm sulfite cap; and “Ingredients: Organic Grapes” with a 350-ppm cap, aligned with the overall wine industry standard.

U.S. organic wine labeling laws present headaches for foreign, certified organic producers who want to sell certified organically grown wines in America with organic labeling.

“They harmonized organic standards between the EU and the U.S.,” Waterhouse said, “so that it would be easier to trade organic products back and forth. But the one exception was sulfites and wine.”

Until that changes, wine sellers will have to keep answering questions about sulfites in wine, explaining why producers do or do not make wine with sulfites, and why sulfite labels are on wine bottles. 

Organically-grown wine is now growing fast

Today wine lovers are increasingly choosing organically-grown wines, with or without sulfites. Even in tony Napa, 83 wineries now have estates with certified organic vineyards — about 11% of county vines.

Those who love and appreciate organically grown wines often have to go the extra mile to seek them out, but organically-grown wines are finding favor.

As for the salad bar? No sulfite solutions allowed.

 

Correction: In the original article, we referred to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB. The article has been updated to reflect the fact that the relevant agency at the time was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which became the TTB in 2003.