What makes wine organic?

By Ryan Gaughn, Alcohol Buyer and Comanager

Curating the wine selection at People’s is so much fun, but not always easy. As the alcohol buyer, it’s my burden to make challenging choices between a beautiful world of all the wines I want to carry, and the limited space we have in the store for them. I am guided by one principle which you, loyal wine enthusiasts, have repeatedly asked for in the selection: organic wines.

Customers, Member-Owners, and staff often approach me with the question, “Why aren’t there more organic wines at People’s?” It turns out that many of the wines in our selection are made from grapes grown organically, but you wouldn’t be able to tell with a cursory view.  

Over the years I have cultivated relationships with vendor partners at People’s, who I meet with regularly to try out new bottles for our selection.  These vendors know in advance that the wines I’m interested in need to meet the Co-op’s buying guidelines; non-GMO, vegetarian/vegan, and organic, whenever possible. They also need to be affordable to most of the people who shop here.

As a result, there are many bottles on the shelf that contain organically grown grapes, and many others which also qualify as Biodynamic (a process of land stewardship that takes organic farming to the next level.) Montinore Vineyards of Forest Grove, OR, the largest organic and biodynamic vineyard and winery in the country, is strongly represented. There are other French and Italian bottles which also come from wine growing regions where organic farming has been a standard since long before the authorities gave it a name.

Why, then, aren’t these wines labelled clearly with a USDA “Organic” certification label, so that customers can readily see that information? The two most prominent answers are sulphur-dioxide, and economies of scale.

As a food ingredient, Sulphur-dioxide, or SO2, is used in preserving dried fruit. “Sulphurized” fruits retain more of their original coloring, and are generally shelf stable for longer periods of time. The addition of SO2 to food is considered by the USDA to be too much human intervention to qualify a product as organic. Thus, you will never find organic yellow raisins, or organic bright orange dried apricots.

In the world of wine making, sulphurization is very common. Fermented grapes, like most fruit, contain naturally occuring levels of sulphur. Winemakers will add SO2 to wine as a stabilizing agent. Because wine must often travel great distances, be stored in multiple settings, sometimes at fluctuating temperatures, sulphur plays an important role in preserving the wine between winery and consumer. Many wineries, such as Montinore, are certified organic, but also add SO2 to the finished product for quality control reasons.  

In contrast, you will find a select few bottles in our selection which do have USDA organic labels. These are produced by Frey Vineyards, of California. Frey sources grapes from Certified Organic vineyards, but they refrain from adding sulphur-dioxide to the finish product.

Because the addition of SO2 disqualifies U.S. wines from organic certification, many winemakers bypass the certification altogether. Emphasis on quality control and brand consistency outweigh the marketing advantage of a USDA Organic symbol, even if the vineyard goes to great lengths to grow grapes organically.  Furthermore, wine is unique in agriculture in that many consumers travel at length to visit the places where the grapes are grown. This exposure to the fields and techniques of wineries, generates a wine enthusiast culture in which growing methods must be of high caliber in order for wines to be valued as exceptional.

This winter, I invite you to try out some of my favorite wines featuring organic and biodynamic grown grapes!

Montinore Estate: Pinot Noir (Vegan) 

Forest Grove, OR


It's hard to find a Pinot that reflects its place, is farmed biodynamically, and offers such complexity at this price point. Made to drink now, as a "go to" wine, but you'll feel like you're drinking a special occasion bottle. Plush red fruit, fine tannins and round texture. Delicious and balanced, and can pair with everything from savory slow cooked beans to fresh seasonal vegetables.

Frey: Agriculturist (Certified Organic & Vegan) Red Wine    

Mendocino County, California


An approachable blend of family-farmed grapes. Bright garnet hue with a sturdy structure and grippy character that has a remarkable ability to pair with most foods. Gather around the table or fireside and enjoy a smooth, lingering finish.

Troon Vineyards: Vermentino

Applegate Valley, 

Southern Oregon


Exceptionally fragrant and fresh, but not at all a light wine, it offers surprising richness on the palate with a savory, creamy freshness. All of Troon's vineyards are Certified Salmon Safe, and they are currently in transition to organic and biodynamic certification.  An incredible expression of Southern Oregon winemaking.