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Is it unethical of the Wine Society to offer so little organic wine?

Dear all, greetings! I am a relatively new member, but I am already wondering whether TWS is really right for me, as there appears a very passive, bordering on unethical, attitude toward the harms of non-organic wine production, and very limited organic wine on offer. So I just wanted to hear from others?

I am an environmental academic, and through familiarity with current scientific research I completely avoid non organic wine for 3 ethical & health reasons: toxic chemicals used in non-organic farming harm (1) the vineyard ecology, soil and downstream water systems, (2) the health of farmers & winemakers and (3) the health of the drinker (me, my family and guests). to expose oneself to non-organic wine is an experiment in toxicology I prefer to avoid.

There is overwhelming evidence to support these statements, and it has not be controversial to say as much in the environmental science circles I work in for years. Although it is impossible to quantify how much harm these poisons cause, and especially the effect of the normal regime of combination multiple applications. But to argue otherwise is to deny the evidence.

  • the World Health Organisation finally acknowledge that glyphosate herbicides are ‘probably carcinogenic’ , its banning by some countries and massive compensation payments against glyphosate manufacturers for causing cancer to users.

  • expanding agricultural systems without ecological sensitivity is driving a global biodiversity extinction event through destroying natural habitats

  • Synthetic Nitrogen fertilisers are a major driver of climate change and destroy soil structure.

  • Perhaps the most urgent issue right now is protecting one’s immune system, which organic wine supports, whereas toxic residues in prevalent in non-organic wine compromise.

There is a very long list of problems, and change is urgent. But these facts are unpopular to those ‘in the business’ who profit from the status quo and don’t seem to want to change. Non-organic vineyards can be amongst the heaviest users of agricultural chemicals, and create the most sterilised ecologies.

So I don’t think it is unreasonable to only want to support an organic production system, and to only want to drink organic wine. If I am offered non-organic wine I politely decline .

I am looking for a wine merchant that knows their job, understands the real world and is earnest about their ethical responsibilities. So I am dismayed with TWS’s limited catalogue of organic wines, which seems to reflect an apparent lack of understanding of or concern over the problems with wine mentioned above. Further, from what I have read of TWS publications there seems at times a rather condescending attitude from some TWS buyers as if organic wine is a faddish deviation from the mainstream (toxic chemical – dependent) winemaking they are accustomed to, rather than the responsible alternative.

I tried writing to TWS last year on this issue, but didn’t get much substantial response.

I am just wondering if anyone else here is bothered by this issue? If not I guess I need to forget TWS and go back to Stone Vine &; Sun, Vinatis and the other excellent merchants that do offer a realistic organic catalogue.

If anyone wants more details on scientific research on the problems let me know.

Best wishes

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First of all, i agree with most of what you say.

Most wine labelled as “organic” is, however, pretty rubbish. It’s a marketing thing more than anything else. The same rules used for fruit and veg aren’t directly transferable to wine.

Rules for organic agriculture allow for the use of substances that few conscientious growers would dream of dousing their vines with. Copper sulphate, anyone?

It’s no secret that most of the best growers worldwide apply much stricter rules than the superficial ones required for the “organic” label, simply because they understand what is necessary for top quality grapes.

Biodynamic is a meaningful term in the wine world, because it does at least provide some information about what a producer is trying to do. Organic isn’t, because it doesn’t.

The best producers, many of whom are sold by TWS, do all you say, and much more. They just prefer to sell their wine on its quality rather than relying on spurious labels.

Those who do use such labels generally do so because they can’t sell their wine on their own reputation for quality.

As ever in the wine world, there is no substitute fir knowing your producers!

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Just to add to what @suiko just said, I suspect the Society offers many wines that are actually organic - or indeed biodynamic - but which simply don’t make any claims on the label. The certification costs can be offputting for small growers, quite apart from other considerations.

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Dear Suiko - thanks for your comments.

I am not sure you are choosing so well if those you are trying seem ‘rubbish’. :). At the bottom end maybe but not really otherwise I dont find. But seriously this is a flippant comment -the dismissive attitude I was referring to.

The issue of labelling is a real problem, but TWS has not helped distinguish, unlike many merchants will explain that the winemakers are unlabelled organic. It isnt realistic to expect a normal buyer to know much more that is available on the merchant’s site, so if we are not told we must guess the worst.

Best wishes

Thanks! Yes it is definitley the case - however when I asked TWS last year they told me they couldnt indicate uncertified organic. I feel this isnt really good enough. THere must be many creative ways to indicate this without getting into a legal minefield. Stone VIne & Sun always mention in some detail if a winemaker is folowoign ‘low impact’, informal organic, uncertified biodynamic etc. TWS just come across as apathetic to me on this front at least.

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“Rubbish” was used flippantly, yes. But it expresses how i feel about its use as a label for wine.

It’s a marketing that appeals to a certain demographic, one which, frankly, probably doesn’t know much about wine.

As “Ghost” points out, certification involves expense and bureaucracy that good small producers who sell their wine on its merits simply aren’t interested in. Why would they be? They do all that and more anyway. Why brag about it?

Consequently most of those producers who do certify are bigger ones who see it as a useful way to attract a certain demographic (and sell their unsold wine).

It’s a pity you haven’t taken the time to explore TWS producers. There is more (organic) quality in the range than in that of others who make more of a marketing thing out of it.

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My understanding is, that in the EU (and thus the UK), there is no such thing as Organic Wine, only wine made from organically grown grapes.

Personally I am not bothered. All the wine growers that I’ve met and walked their vineyards stress how they grow their grapes with minimal intervention. They don’t however claim organic status for various reasons including the cost of certification, not wanting their wines to be put in a separate organic section in shops, an instinctive rejection of bureaucracy and the need to use a spray in an emergency.

It’s a long on-going discussion here about the information given on the TWS website. There is an ‘organic’ symbol against such wines in the catalogue

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That used to be the case, but no more. I haven’t checked it to be 100% sure, but I believe this regulation from 2012 is where the EU recognised “organic wine”
https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=CELEX%3A32012R0203

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Thanks Suiko. Interesting
MY concern is, how can I know, across many small producers, which are not using a spectrum of toxic chemicals? If I had time I would love to verify for myself. But that is too expensive for me and most people, so we must rely on certification (or the word of the buyer) as the imperfect next best thing.
Yes it is a ‘marketing’ exercise in as much as TWS is a marketing exercise – linking buyers and sellers with information. Yes there is a certificate cost involved, but I see many excellent mispriced biodynamic and organic wines being certified, not just cheap, commodity ‘fruit bomb’ wines. There are indeed several such wines on TWS. What I am questioning is why TWS have so few in proportion to the overall catalogue, and compared to other merchants.
Is certification cynically used? I think if the criteria for certification are fulfilled it doesn’t matter. Then it becomes a question of how the wine tastes at what price. That’s not so easy to be deceptive about. There has been a similar debate in organic farming in general – there are many farmers who move into organic farming for the price premium. The motivation doesn’t matter if the environment, farmer and consumer health suffers less impact.
“It’s a marketing that appeals to a certain demographic, one which, frankly, probably doesn’t know much about wine.” Again this just comes across as flippant and dismissive. Au contraire - my concern is that for a wine not to have an organic label these days can only appeal to those who don’t understand much about the toxic impacts of agricultural chemicals. 
Additionally, you assume in error I haven’t tried the TWS catalogue. I am not sure how you reached that conclusion. I have tried several and mostly they are very good. But I have run out of options very quickly, and there is little if any cheap to mispriced Bordeaux, Rhone or full bodied Italian red to choose from.
Why doesn’t TWS at least indicate the non-certified organic or low impact wine, so buyers might be able to find these more easily?
All the best

How could they indicate “non-certified organic or low-impact”? Surely it’s a moving feast, and if a label is to mean something it should be quantifiable?

I think you’d probably find more if you looked outside the most famous regions. Bordeaux in particular doesn’t have - where land prices are high, risk tends to be unappealing!

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thanks!
OK looking acrsss the entire selection of medium - full bodied organic reds under £12, ignoring those 2 with reviews of <3*, I see 11 options. It seems to be somewhat limited, comparing to the 3 other smaller, albeit for-profit merchants I use where I see a wider range of options.

I would be interested to learn about which other wines in the catalogue that are uncertified quasi-organic, as other merchants do. We were discussing the drawback of viticulturalists who avoid chemical use not being able to afford certification - stating it in the description is a way. Yes it risks being somewhat too flexible, but that is an improvement, for me at least, on no comment at all. Is there a reason not to try it?

all the best
Oliver

Thanks Peter - it is reassuring to hear that many winemakers you encounter are concerned and I understand all the concerns of the growers.

On the other hand huge levels of agricultural chemcial have been, and I believe continue to be applied in vineyards, and I have encountered vast areas of sadly sterilised vineyards where clearly the viticuturalist is applying toxic chemicals, and I can only guess doesn’t seem to care in this sense.

How can prospective buyers differentate the two, and also rhetorical claims which may not be founded in actual practice? Hence the need for a labelling system surely?
best wishes
Oliver

I don’t doubt that TWS has more options than the other merchants you mention. What those other merchants no doubt do more is make more of this. Maybe TWS could somehow mark such producers so that they are at least searchable? Not sure how, though.

Said all that, you might be surprised to know that one of my bugbears with TWS is that they don’t stock my favourite “biodynamic/natural” producers (neither do your other merchsnts, btw!) :wink:

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I think you are making massive assumptions about wine production as a whole and from your post you appear to believe the use of agrochemicals is widespread in wine production.
This could not be further from the truth.
There is a huge drive in viticulture over the past 30 years towards sustainable growing and the use of alternatives to herbicides and pesticides and adopting sustainable practices to benefit economic, social and environmental needs.
You also need to understand the growing environment in more detail to appreciate what substances may need to be used to fend off threats.
In Bordeaux for example this can often be copper spray which will reduce the incidence of grey rot. The maritime climate doesn’t have the benefit of long warm days like other regions. If they want to keep their crop they need to apply the spray. Also as @suiko has already confirmed, this is allowed under “organic” farming.
Organic farming means different things in different regions with differing standards to adhere to and encompasses many many practices of sustainable viticulture such as IPM (integrated pest management) which is only one small aspect of sustainable viticulture. Biodiverse ecosystems within the vineyard and a focus on soil health and quality are paramount along with bringing this into the winery in terms of reducing CO2 emmissions, water usage, waste management systems and becoming more energy efficient.
As you have already been told, there can and is a huge cost involved in certification of both biodynamic wines and organic wines. But also, “organic” means different limitations in different countries/regions.
Are you aware that 70% of wines produced in the Loire Valley for example adhere to organic practises?? Probably not, or that Alsace is a mecca for biodynamic farming.
What you really need to understand is the differences between conventional, sustainable, organic, biodynamic and precision viticulture before calling out TWS on their lack of “Labelled organic” wine!

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In one sense @Leah is correct in saying that much of commercial viticulture is moving in a more sustainable direction.

And yet most commercial viticulture is still monoculture, and any monoculture is fundamentally unsustainable - natural habitatat is destroyed, the soil need inputs to keep it fertile, pests are encouraged, and the products need transportation to their markets. Even biodynamic viticulture is a long way from the orginal idea of a self-sustaining farm.

So I don’t think the issues are straightforward, and I don’t want to lay a guilt trip on anyone, including TWS. If TWS wines do not appeal, we can always shop elsewhere, and I often do. Ultimately the market will adjust to what consumers want (or at least what they think they want), ethical or not, and irrespective of who gets to decide what is ethical

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Oh! for goodness sake! The question was ‘is it unethical etc’ not it is unethical. And here we go again with a relatively new member being roundly savaged by ‘the regulars’.

The gentleman is obviously knowledgeable in the field of environmental sciences but having read all the dismissive and quite frankly rude comments implying that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, with comments like ‘you’ve already been told’, ‘I’m not sure you’re choosing so well’, ‘it’s a pity you haven’t taken the time’ etc, the poor bloke must have thought he’d walked into a Monty Python Spanish Inquisition sketch.

Why does everyone who seemingly post ‘anti’ TWS threads have to be duffed up by these rather overbearing unpaid custodians. Apologies @Oliver_SB

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Errr… actually i think it was Oliver who told me i wasn’t choosing well :slight_smile:

No hard feelings in any case. Nothing wrong with a little robust disagreement!

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Yes touche! :roll_eyes:

I’m all for a good lively debate. It’s just a little tedious to see that members who join 5 minutes ago seem to start with a negative view.

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I think it’s pretty inescapable that a lot of mass produced/industrial call it what you will, wine will not tick the boxes of the OP and will be produced in a high yielding monoculture process in many cases. That’s because they are producing for supermarkets who want volume to a price point, and given the duty and VAT in the UK, the cost of production for much of that wine has to be very low.

It’s an inescapable fact in a world that is frankly overpopulated. No real point in having a pop at TWS about it in my view. As has already been said, ‘organic’ can be an expensive nameplate, whilst many other producers are often doing better things without formalising it at quite a cost to them, or may be unwilling to comply with one specific often minor point.

Therefore, I don’t think it’s ‘unethical’ of TWS in this case.

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