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Wine Snobs Sour on Organic Grapes

Wines made from organic grapes are often high-quality, but a new study suggests the eco-friendly label is a turn-off.
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What kind of wine would you like with dinner: Red, white or green?

Newly published research suggests wine made from organic grapes is often an excellent choice. But the concept of eco-friendly cabernet doesn’t have a lot of cachet with consumers.

Two University of California researchers studied 13,426 wines from 1,495 of the state’s wineries, focusing on vintages from 1998 to 2005. They looked at each wine’s rating in Wine Spectator magazine and noted (a) whether it was made with organically grown grapes, and (b) whether that fact was noted on the label.

For cheaper wines — those selling for under $25 a bottle — neither certification nor labeling impacted pricing or ratings. But for the more expensive wines, an interesting pattern emerged.

Wines made from organic grapes rated an average of one point higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale than those made from conventionally grown grapes. This increase in quality was reflected in their pricing, which was 13 percent higher than conventionally produced wines of the same variety, appellation and year.

But the price difference only held true so long as the fact that they used organic grapes was not mentioned on the label. Prices for wines that proudly promoted their organic origins were 7 percent lower than their conventionally produced cousins.

“Some consumers stigmatize organic wine, dismissing it as an inferior product,” write economists Magali Delmas of UCLA and Laura Grant of University of California, Santa Barbara. (For those readers wary of taking culinary advice from economists, it’s worth noting that Grant is married to a sommelier.)

Grant traces this stigma to the 1970s and '80s when organic wine first appeared on the market. Lacking the chemical preservatives known as sulfites, it turns to vinegar more quickly than conventional wines. Unsuspecting connoisseurs who thought their wines were aging nicely and instead found they had turned into salad dressing were understandably annoyed.

However, there is a big difference between “organic wine” (that is, without sulfites) and wine grown with organic grapes. Growers of organic grapes “have to devote more time and attention and take better care of organically certified vines than conventional vines, and our results show that these efforts are apparent in the product,” Grant told Meg Sullivan of the UCLA Office of Media Relations. “For the price of a conventional wine, you get a significantly better quality wine.”

The research shows the truism that people are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products doesn’t apply across the board. Taste matters, and to many people, the term "organic wine" essentially translates to "fruity, well-bodied, with a hint of compost."

But in fact, when it comes to wine, being kind to the earth results in a more delicious beverage which can be purchased at a bargain price. Cheers!

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