Sour grapes: Wines being misrepresented as organic and biodynamic, when they’re not, is becoming a major issue for certified winemakers. Photo: Ron Chapple
Organic grape growers and winemakers are upset at the abuse of the words "organic" and "biodynamic" in relation to wine.
They are concerned that wine producers are using these descriptions as a tool to sell wine in a market that is increasingly congested and favouring sustainably produced wines over the more conventional.
A group of Western Australian winemakers has approached the state's wine industry association with its concerns and asked if anything can be done to stop it.
Frankland Estate's Isolation Ridge Riesling is certified organic. Photo: Melissa Italiano
Margaret River-based contract winemaker Peter Stanlake says Western Australia has a serious problem with the misrepresentation of wines as organic and biodynamic when they are not.
He says the problem is not confined to claims made on bottles, which are easy to confirm or deny, but also more subtle word-of-mouth claims made by producers and marketers to merchants and restaurateurs. The result is that such wines often appear in the "organic" section of wine shops or restaurant wine lists.
The group is calling for government legislation to make the practice illegal.
Jamie McCall of Margaret River's Burnside Organic Farm wrote last year: "As certified organic growers it has dismayed us to see the proliferation, over the past decade, of various claims relating to organic farming principles."
He cites such terms as "spray-free", "natural" and "free-range" as well as "organic practices" and "biodynamic practices".
"All of these terms have no meaning as they relate to no quality assurance system or recognisable standard", he wrote.
Mick Scott of Rosily Vineyard, also in Margaret River, wrote to the association that, as a producer undertaking the expensive and time-consuming task of certifying his vineyard, he felt it was misleading and possibly illegal for non-certified producers to use terms such as "organic practices" or "biodynamically grown".
"This practice is essentially dishonest and dilutes the efforts of those producers who are certified," he said. "I feel it is bad for the integrity of our industry, and the danger is that consumers won't trust other label integrity issues, such as region, once they realise how loose the industry is being with the truth when it comes to organics and biodynamics."
Peter Stanlake also took up the issue, saying: "A brief look at the organic section in restaurant wine lists and bottle-shop shelves shows a large number of producers making organic claims that are not supported by certification. A look through various websites also shows a large number of producers making these claims, albeit without necessarily making the claim on the wine label."
At present, he believes, the ACCC and Trade Practices Act provide some helpful guidelines. He cites one ACCC statement: "Businesses are not allowed to make statements that are incorrect or likely to create a false impression. This rule applies to their advertising, their product packaging, and any information provided to you by their staff or online shopping services.
"It also applies to any statements made by businesses in the media or online, such as testimonials on their websites or social media pages." And it makes no difference whether the business intended to mislead or not.
Also: "Consumers purchasing organic products should be able to feel confident that the ingredients are in fact organic. Misleading, false or deceptive organic claims are against the law."
Independently, another Western Australian wine producer, Hunter Smith of Frankland Estate, told me he believes the misuse of the terms organic, biodynamic and sustainable is on the rise. "A UK importer of a Frankland River wine was making claims about it," he says. "This vineyard is not even close to organic."
He says Frankland Estate's Isolation Ridge vineyard is certified organic and its wines carry the Australian Certified Organic bud logo on their back labels.
He claims the certification process is not difficult, and the cost is $850 each for the vineyard and the winery. You can elect not to use the bud logo, but if you do, it costs 1 per cent of the ex-winery value of sales.
"If people are motivated to do this for sales reasons, it's probably the wrong idea. At Frankland Estate it's about making the best wine we can, and being organic just happens to fall under that umbrella."
Smith says gatekeepers (such as retailers and restaurateurs) are too lenient towards those making questionable claims. "I see labels in restaurants listed under 'organic' and I know they're not organic-certified."
"Times are tough. Sometimes people rely on means to sell their wines that aren't true. It's disappointing."
Eighteen months ago in this newspaper I singled out a highly-rated Victorian restaurant which was promoting four wines as biodynamic on its wine list.
I was vigorously attacked by sommeliers for pointing out what were easily proven errors. Rather than check his facts, one sommelier in particular opted to "shoot the messenger". This suggests to me that some wine merchants feel they have a vested interest in promoting wines they see as ethically produced.
The practice of bottle-shops and restaurants incorrectly listing wines as organic and biodynamic continues, possibly through laziness, possibly because it suits their purposes to turn a blind eye.
Some experts are now advising consumers, "If you can't see evidence of certification, assume it's a false claim."