A molecule called sulfur dioxide ― aka sulfites, a common preservative ― has become the crux of an ongoing disagreement between two schools of winemakers. Those who vouch for the use of the anti-oxidizing compound point out that wine has been made using sulfites since the 1400s, while those who consider it an affront to natural and healthy wine like to point out that wine was made without sulfites until the 1400s.
That latter school is a rare group. There may be only a dozen wineries worldwide that shun sulfites. If they've started with certified organic grapes, they bear the exclusive right to stamp "USDA Organic" on their wines. Meanwhile, hundreds of wineries that use certified organic grapes but protect their wines against spoilage and oxidation with just a touch of sulfites cannot, by federal law, print USDA Organic on their labels.
The pro-sulfites crowd has now petitioned for an amendment that would allow them the use of the USDA Organic seal on wines made from organic grapes. Er, naturally, the sulfite haters are passionately resisting what they call a threat to fundamental organic standards ― a debatable claim, since sulfites occur naturally.
Sulfite-free organic wines tend to be at a higher price point ― usually $20 and up. Understandable, since extra care and craftsmanship is required to keep them drinkable. But there's one certified organic wine that defies this rationale: Heartswork Winery's WELL REaD. It bears all the marks of a cheap guzzler ― a "California Red Wine" blend carried exclusively by Trader Joe's and retailing for $5.99. It's enough to send many TJ's shoppers backpedaling for the beer aisle. But trust us: This wine's worth a try.
At a sniff, the WELL REaD is round and shapely, smelling of smoke, damp forest floor, and fleshy, ripe cherries. The taste is suggestive of chocolate, blackberries, and ham ― with notes of wet basalt and gooseberries, in case that helps. A hot but pleasing aftertaste of alcohol lingers until the next sip, but don't wait long after opening to finish this one. Without added sulfites, it can go rank overnight.
Heartswork Winery WELL REaD 2009 California Red Wine: Organic and no sulfites added; from 13.5 percent ABV; $5.99 at Trader Joe's