For many in California, wine is a cultural mainstay. But in the age where our culture is finally acknowledging that ingredients matter to our health and to the planet, the wine label falls short in its transparency.
Barring a small handful of exceptions, wine producers are not required to list ingredients or additives on their labels. If they were, some labels could be as long and difficult to pronounce as those slapped on processed foods; there are roughly 76 wine additives and treatment materials approved for use by the FDA.
Also known as “zero-zero” wine, the strictest definition of natural wine is one that has had nothing added and nothing taken away. “This means native fermented [as opposed to fermented with the genetically modified yeast of commercial wines], not filtered, not fined, and with no additives of any kind, including sulfites,” says Margins Wine’s Megan Bell of the practice that is already well-established in Europe. But even while 50 or so California winemakers have begun to explore low-intervention and “natural” winemaking, the term is not recognized as a legal one by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), so it does not appear on any labels. At the same time, many producers making organic wine aren’t specifying it as such on the label, because of its reputation for not being the best tasting, says Bell.
At Margins, Bell—who focuses on low-intervention and 100-percent naturally fermented wines from organic vineyards, varietals and regions that are lesser known—adds a small amount of sulfites to most of her wines. Now in her third harvest season, she makes at least one natural wine each year (try her Chenin Blanc). Interestingly enough, she’s found that across the board, people often prefer her wine with sulfites added.
That sulfites are the worst or most dangerous additive in wine is perhaps the biggest myth to proliferate over the decades since its governmental warning, passed by teetotaller and then-Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1986, was affixed to labels not so much to inform but to frighten. Sulfites, which have been used to sterilize wine barrels since the ancient Romans, act as a preservative and are often added to wine, though they also occur naturally. They can cause asthmatic symptoms—not headaches—in those who are allergic to them. “There is a small amount of the population, about 1 percent, that is allergic to sulfites,” says Bell. “Every time someone tells me they get sulfite headaches, which is much higher than 1 percent of the people I pour wine for, I ask them if they eat dried fruit, which usually has at least four times the amount of sulfites as wine. They do eat dried fruit, and are fine.”
Indeed, many foods, including most canned foods, contain higher amounts of sulfites than wine—and are not required to include a warning label. The so-called “sulfite headache,” then, appears to be a misdiagnosis that is more probably linked to tannins—which occur naturally and can also be added in powder form—high amounts of sugar, high levels of alcohol, and any number of wine additives that do not require a label listing, much less a governmental warning.
“The wine industry wants you to believe that this is a natural healthy product, when in fact it’s filled with additives and poisons, and this is what’s making people feel bad,” says Todd White of the lab-tested, all-natural and health-quantified wine marketplace Dry Farmed Wines, in an informative recent interview on the podcast Healthy Moms.
Of the long list of additives approved by the FDA for use in winemaking, more than half are classified as GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe), which means there is no governmental oversight for their use. The additives range from sugar and sulfites to a more questionable territory that includes defoaming agents, ammonia phosphates, heavy metals like copper, the coloring agent MegaPurple (for which commercial wine’s purple-teeth side effect are a dead giveaway), and the powerful toxin dimethyl dicarbonate, marketed as Velcorin, a microbial control agent that is widely used as a food additive. Rats who consumed wine treated with dimethyl dicarbonate for 30 days showed no obvious signs of toxicity, and “slight but randomly distributed” differences in organ weights, according to the National Institute of Health. But the science behind wine additives and human health is scarce. For this reason, Bell doesn’t take a stance on additives and health, though she steers away from them all the same.
“I don’t know if it’s bad memories of inhaling Tang as a kid, but I have a resistance to adding powder to liquids I’m going to consume. None of these are necessarily bad, but they exist, and consumers should know they exist if they are in the products they’re buying,” says Bell of the industry’s number of approved powdered additives, like tartaric acid and genetically modified commercial yeast.
Animal products, including dairy products, are also approved for use—effective in removing undesirable flavors—and along with fish bladders, are often used in “fining,” a clarification process that binds and removes particles. Along with a long list of major food allergens, like shellfish and tree nuts, these animal products fall under the TTB’s “voluntary” wine labeling standards.
“My main reason for not fining or filtering my wine is that I do not care if the wine is clear. Is this wine blasphemy? Maybe. But I have never sipped a wine and thought, ‘Mmm, it’s so clear,’” says Bell, whose labels specify that “sediment is expected from wines made with minimal intervention.” She, of course, does not add any of the approved color agents, either. “Are they bad? I don’t know. Is it weird? I think yeah,” says Bell. “If we’re drinking beer and people had dyed it to be more yellow, it would just be worth knowing. But I feel like people aren’t obsessed with color in beer the way they are in wine.”
It’s a matter of education and reframing the consumer perception and demand, she says, recommending that people simply read some Wikipedia before wine tasting. “You really just need to learn what tannin is and what acidity is; then you’ll have a lot to talk about besides color and clarity. I think we’re heading toward a time when less wine consumers will be concerned with clarity. I hope I’m part of that push.”
While mass-produced commercial wine commonly found on the bottom shelf of grocery stores is much more likely to contain questionable additives, high sugar, and high alcohol—the perfect recipe for headaches, poor sleep and a wicked hangover, not to mention other unknown health consequences—as long as labels lack transparency, consumers lack certainty. Wine shops (ask the owners), the online natural wine marketplace Dry Farm Wines, and of course, marginswine.com, are all good sources for low-intervention and natural wines.
“The thing about natural winemaking is that we aren’t necessarily trying to make what winemakers would traditionally call ‘the best wine possible.’ It’s a different frame of mind,” says Bell. “We’re trying to make a statement, and we’re trying to start this new tradition and not follow all of the established rules. We want to make wine out of just grapes and nothing else. For us, that is the best wine possible.”
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