Posted: Jan 24, 2020
We spoke to three wine experts about the unlabeled additives in our wine—and why you might want to consider natural options.
Lately I've been interested in learning more about natural and organic wines. I care a lot about where my food comes from—so, why not look into how my wine is made too? But, after researching, I was overwhelmed by all of the information floating around (for example, what does the term "natural wine" mean? Should I even care? And what's the difference between natural wine, organic wine and biodynamic wine?).
I decided to get some expert advice, so I reached out to Deidre Heekin of La Garagista Farm + Winery in Vermont to learn more about the natural wine movement. Then, I headed over to my city's natural wine shop, Golden Age Wine, where I talked to owners Brandon Loper and Trent Stewart about what could be hiding in conventional wine—and why one might want to consider drinking wine made the natural way.
Why Are There Chemicals in My Wine?
If you thought all wine was made of just grapes and yeast, you're not alone. Heeken admits she too believed the same thing before she got involved in the natural wine movement.
"I got into natural wine organically, no pun intended!" Heeken says. She says she noticed that the wine list she curated for the restaurant she shared with her husband was populated by mostly natural wine growers.
Heeken says, "The producers on my list were farming organically, working with the indigenous yeast that lived on the grapes and vineyard and a minimum of sulfur (sulfites) at bottling, if they used any. They made no other additions to the wine."
Believe it or not, this isn't how all wine is made. Heeken says, "The reality is that because we have no labeling laws for wine, wine can be a very unnatural product." She adds that over 72 chemical additions are allowed into wine by the U.S. federal government. Yikes.
"Wineries are not obligated to share what they put in their wine, and in fact, if you try to be transparent in your labeling information and list any ingredients, it is technically not allowed," Heeken says.
So, What Kinds of Chemicals and Other Additives Could Be in My Wine? And How Come They Aren't Listed on the Bottle?
I sat down with the folks at Golden Age Wine to help me understand why winemakers would add anything to their wines, and what just might be lurking in my favorite bottle of pinot.
Loper and Stewart explained that additives run the gamut—but not all of them should be a cause for concern. For example, one of the oddest wine additives (in my naive opinion) is called isinglass, and it's a form of collagen made from fish bladders. Stewart said isinglass has actually been an integral part of traditional French winemaking for centuries and isn't necessarily something to be concerned about—unless you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.
"Wines are manipulated for multiple reasons, and not all of them bad," Stewart says. "However, I do have a problem with herbicides and pesticides, like Roundup, found in some wines."
(It's important to note that while drinking Roundup-laced wine sounds absolutely terrifying, the verdict is still out on just how much glyphosate—the potentially carcinogenic ingredient in Roundup—could impact our health if it's in our glass of vino. On the one hand, French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to make France a glyphosate-free winemaking region, while others say you would have to drink dozens of bottles of wine a day to experience negative health benefits.)
Besides some chemicals, other additives can find their way into a bottle of wine for the manufacturer to keep a standard mouthfeel, color and flavor profile. Food coloring, commercial yeast, sugar and acidifiers are some of those extra ingredients that help give consumers exactly what they are expecting from a specific brand. Some of those names include gum arabic, activated carbon, ammonium phosphate, alumino-silicates, ascorbic acid, citric acid, copper sulfate, polyoxythylene 40, dimethyl dicarbonate, carbohydrase, oak chips, tannin and, my personal favorite name, mega purple. But why don't I see "mega purple" or "polyoxythylene 40" listed anywhere on my wine bottle?
Heeken explains that there are no rules for labeling wine. She says, "There is a group of producers lobbying the FDA for label requirements, but there is a more powerful group consisting of mass-market wine companies with more resources to lobby against these rules. Because if a grocery store wine had to include all the ingredients, they most likely would not fit on the whole label. Who would want to drink something with that many additives?"
To make things even more frustrating, Loper says that just because a bottle of wine touts being made with organic grapes, doesn't mean it's a natural or organically produced wine. The idyllic vineyards we take pictures in front of on a trip to Napa is just a small part of the wine production process, where many additives can be introduced to even organic grapes.
By Lauren Wicks
January 22, 2020
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