Sustainable sippers, part 1: Wine and spirits hop on the organic bandwagon

What's in your glass? If you want to know, read the label.

Like many, you may have resolved to eat more sustainably in 2010. You’ll pay a bit extra for organic produce, dairy products, meat, and packaged goods because it’s good for the planet and, most likely, good for you, too.

You can start by saying farewell to 2009 (and not a moment too soon, huh?) and welcoming 2010 with a planet-friendly cocktail. Organic wine and beer have been around for awhile, and more recently they’ve been joined by expertly crafted sustainable spirits, including vodka, tequila, and gin.

The benefits of organic alcohol are mostly environmental, though there is emerging evidence that organically cultivated crops, including those used to produce wine, beer, and spirits, may have more nutritional value than conventional. The industry generally doesn’t tout the health benefits of alcohol, but considers organic cocktails a lifestyle choice. Buying organic alcohol is “as much an environmental/moral decision as a quality one,” says Allison Evanow, founder of Square One Vodka. “You are supporting sustainable farming,” adds Gray Ottley, owner of the Idaho-based organic distillery DRInc., which produces Square One.

Anecdotally, fans point to the smooth, easy-drinking quality of organic tipplers that won’t leave you hung over the next day. Organic wines, for example, tend to be lower in alcohol and sugar, which makes them particularly food-friendly and “easy on the palate,” says Brett Chappell, director of sales and marketing for Calypso Organic Selections, which imports organic wines from Europe, Australia, and South America.

When choosing organic spirits, “you are supporting sustainable farming,” says one industry expert.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the labeling of all organic products, including alcoholic beverages, and different labels signifying varying degrees of organic credibiity:

  • 100% Organic: a product must contain all organic ingredients and include “Certified organic by” with the certifying agent’s name on the label. Labels may include the USDA/Organic seal, as well as the term “100% organic.”
  • Organic: must contain at least 95% organic ingredients; cannot contain added sulfites, but may have up to 5% nonorganically produced agricultural ingredients that are not commercially available in organic form. Labels may carry the USDA Organic seal and/or the certifying agent’s seal.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: must contain at least 70% organic ingredients; may contain up to 30% nonorganically produced agricultural products. Wine, for example, may contain added sulfur dioxide. The label may list specific organic ingredients (such as “made with organic grapes”) and/or the percentage of organic ingredients. What you won’t find on the label: the USDA Organic seal.

Imported organic alcohol may or may not be certified organic by the USDA. Instead, it’s likely to be certified in its country of origin. These designations are comparable to (and in some cases more rigorous than) the USDA Organic seal.

Also in this series:

Part 2: Wine

Part 3: Vodka & Gin

Part 4: Mix with Care

Part 5: Sake

Part 6: Tequila