If you live in a big city in the U.S., chances are you are choosing between organic and non-organic versions of food or drink at least once a week. Whether it’s standing in the produce section of your local market or choosing between two coffee shops on the way to work, we are selecting not only what to put in our bodies; we’re also making a choice about how we want our avocados to find their way onto our toast, and how we want our grapes to find their way into our glass.
Choosing organic has always been more of a philosophical preference than anything else. If you’re into sustainability and don’t like putting chemicals in your body, you’ll opt for organic. If those aren’t your values, you’ll go for non-organic, or “conventional” wine, as it’s called. Studies have consistently found that GMOs are not actually harmful, as they were once believed to have been. As to whether you can actually taste the difference between organic and non-organic wine, well, the jury was always out on that one. Until now, that is. A recent study upended everything we thought we knew about organic wine.
In an article called, “Does Organic Wine Taste Better? An Analysis of Experts’ Ratings,” published in the Journal of Wine Economics in 2016, researchers studied the wine ratings of the most prominent wine magazines. What they found was surprising. The organic wines scored higher than the conventional wines. Like, a lot higher. An average of 4.1 points higher, in fact, which is pretty statistically significant.
The study emerged from an enigmatic facet of organic wine, Professor Magali A. Delmas of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and the Anderson School of Management tells VinePair. Delmas and her team called it the “organic wine puzzle” and it was this: Two-thirds of the wine makers who use organic grapes and get certified don’t label it on their bottles, Delmas explained over the phone from UCLA. It was very surprising, given that organic wine is so much more expensive to produce than conventional wine — on average, an increase of something like 10 to 15 percent. Why would winemakers going to all that cost and trouble not want to advertise that their wines were organic?
What Delmas discovered was that organic wine has a stigma, and it’s not a good one. To us millennials living in U.S. cities choosing organic over non-organic on a daily basis, this might sound incredibly surprising. But over and over, winemakers would tell Delmas that they couldn’t risk the stigma of organic wine by labeling their wines as such, despite believing that it was the best for the grapes. It led to an odd little paradox. On the one hand, these wineries believe that organic farming practices are better for the grapes. By not using chemicals, the grapes were easier to work with, and the terroir came through more powerfully in the wine. “But they think the consumers don’t like organic wine,” Delmas explained. “They didn’t want to talk about it, or be portrayed as organic wines,” she says.
They were right, too. In a separate survey, Delmas asked regular consumers to choose wines from a selection. She found that the average consumer preferred organic wine for bottles $15 or less, but above that threshold they preferred conventional wine, or what they thought of as “the real deal.”
Even though winemakers saw an advantage in quality in going organic, consumers just weren’t sure.
“So we wanted to know, what do the experts think?” Delmas explains. “The people who are supposed to know a lot about wine, what is their perception?”
Delmas and her team downloaded 74,148 reviews from 1998 to 2009 from the Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Spectator (they pulled the data themselves – the magazines didn’t want them to do the study and didn’t help, she says). They pulled data about the wine’s score, winery, vintage, varietal, and region. They then cross-referenced this information against information from the USDA and the Department of Agriculture in California to look at whether being organically certified or biodynamic had any difference on the ratings.
“What we found was indeed, eco-certification is associated with a significant increase in quality,” Delmas says. “The wines seem to be perceived by these experts as the same quality or better, which is different than what the consumer thinks.” (There was no response that she could recall from the magazines.)
So why are organic wines tastier to experts? “You’re replacing chemicals with labor,” says Delmas. “You need to care more about your vine, you need to protect it from mildew, you need to harvest at a specific time. You need to be paying more attention to your grapes. I think that’s the difference.” Plus, there have been very good studies showing that overall, organic grapes tend to have lower yields, which gives you a better grape with more concentrated flavor and, thus, a better wine.
But isn’t it possible that the experts rating these wines believed they were better because they were organic? Delmas doesn’t believe so. For one thing, none of the reviewers have been vocal in favor of organic wine. Then there’s the fact that the magazines claim that all the wines tasted are blind tasted. “How much do they know about the wine they are tasting – that’s an open question,” Delmas said.
But even if they do have a positive bias toward organic wine, it’s an informed bias, Delmas says. “They are more informed than the consumer about the practices,” she says. In other words, if they believe organic wine to be better, it probably is.