Last Sunday I sat down with Chris and Carola from C & C Imports in their Ellicott City, MD home to taste a range of fair trade and organic wines produced by their partners at the Vina Lomas de Cauquenes winery in the Maule Valley of Chile.
Chris claims C & C was the first company to import wines from a fair trade company into the US. The phrasing is important. See, the wine itself is not technically fair trade, but the growers and vintners are. That’s because TransFair USA doesn’t certify wine. But if you go to Europe or the UK you can find wines labeled with the Fair Trade Certified logo. Its only the US certifying agency that hasn’t gotten around to recognizing fair trade wines yet. Until they do, Chris has to be content to know that the growers own their own winery and set their own prices and are approved as a fair trade wine cooperative by FLO, the international Fairtrade Labeling Organization. Until TransFair USA gets on board, all Chris can say on his labels is “from a fair trade certified winery.”
If the sulfites in wine don’t give you a headache then the certification schemes surely will. The complications don’t end with the fair trade labeling imbroglio. The organic certification seems confoundingly complex as well. One issue is with sulfites. According to an article on the Organic Consumers Association website, there are four levels of organic labeling for wine. The first two are allowed to bear the USDA logo but not the second two.
- 100% Organic – this means all the grapes are organic, the process is organic, there are no added sulfites, the label must display the logo and the certifier info, and the total level of natural sulfites must be less than 100 parts per million.
- Organic – means at least 95% of the ingredients are organic, and the rest is the same except that the other 5% must be ingredients that are not commercially available in organic form.
- Made with Organic Ingredients, or “Made with Organic Grapes” or “Organically Grown” – these all mean that the wine must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, but can contain added sulfites, although the total must still be under 100 ppm.
- Some Organic Ingredients – means the wine contains less than 70% organic ingredients, and can not bear any organic certification information.
To illustrate how confusing this gets, when Chris explained it to me I came away with a different understanding than the OCA article provides. What I understood from Chris was that his wines have no added sulfites and the levels are below 100 ppm, but because they are higher than 10 ppm they could not display the USDA logo. But the OCA article says the under 10 ppm level is what is required for making a claim that a wine is “sulfite free” or “contains no sulfites.” I have no idea whether Chris was confused, or if I am mistaken in my recollection or in my understanding of the label requirements – perhaps all of the above. I should note that I have absolutely no doubts about the wines actually being fair trade and organic – Chris actually gave me a copy of the certificates from FLO and IMO Control (an accredited organic certifier based in Switzerland). (UPDATE: after posting this artilce, Chris contacted me to say that the TTB originally refused their inclusion of the USDA logo because of the sulfites level, but they are now going to reapply for approval to carry the logo because they believe they qualify for it. It may well have been a case of the TTB and the USDA not being perfectly in sync. Good luck navigating those paper trails Chris, it’s easy to get cut!)
Maybe I was just drunk. See, I was actually drinking the wine samples while Chris was just swishing and spitting. I simply cannot do that. I noted this during the tasting, explaining that beer tastings require swallowing and that I just can’t get my head around the concept of spitting perfectly good wine into a bucket. It seems counter to nature. Carola nodded in agreement, expressing her own disapproval of the swirl-sip-swish-spit custom of wine tasters. But such is the lot of wine connoisseurs.
As to the wines themselves, C & C offer fourteen in all under the labels Melania and Taborga. Both names come from Carola’s grandmother who passed away while they were starting up the company two years ago. The whole company seems to be a family affair – the art on the labels is all Carola’s handiwork, including the Egyptian paintings on the wine shelf in the above picture.
We tasted our way from the Taborga Moscatel/Semillon through a number of other very good whites including the Melania Chardonnay, which converted me away from my general dislike of that style. Then we tried the reds, starting with a Pais Cabernet blend and trying two or three others including my favorite which was the Melania Cabernet which actually has black pepper added to it. They also have a rose and offer their White Table wine and Red Table wines in boxes. All the wines were priced to sell between $5-$10 – making every single one of them a real value from my admittedly amateur perspective.
Speaking of amateur perspectives, Chris actually mentioned that they are intentionally trying to not over-complicate their products for consumers on the theory that wine is an every day beverage and it shouldn’t require a degree in oenology to simply enjoy a glass of wine with your dinner. I agree. I just wish the certification schemes would learn the value of simplicity.