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Wine Ingredient Labeling Poses Problems

What you see is not necessarily what you get
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 6, 2013 12:00pm ET

Ingredient labeling for wine seems to make perfect sense, but the devil is in the details. Despite several concerted attempts, some dating back 40 years, it hasn't happened yet, in part because making wine is not like bottling soda pop or mixing cereal. In those, ingredients are the same as contents. Not so with wine.

Wine is a product of fermentation, and not everything that goes into it comes out in the end. And alcohol, one of wine's prime constituents, is not added to table wines. It results from fermenting the sugar in grapes. How to handle those pesky details has derailed previous attempts at ingredient labeling for wine.

Here's how slippery that slope can be. As the natural wine folks remind us, wine can be made by harvesting ripe grapes, crushing them and leaving them in a warm enough place for them to start fermenting spontaneously. What makes them ferment are yeast cells clinging to the grapes.

Yeast is generally thought of as a separate entity and therefore must go on the label. But you could argue that, in the above scenario, no cultured yeast has been added, so maybe not. OK, then, what if the winemaker does what winemakers have done for centuries and make a pied de cuve? This small starter fermentation, often nurtured with nitrogen, oxygen and vitamins, gets the natural yeasts going and can be used to feed subsequent vats of crushed grapes, in which case our pied de cuve is added yeast.

And what about byproducts of fermentation, such as the sulfur dioxide that every fermentation produces in some small quantity, even if the winemaker adds none? In the U.S., added sulfites are the only ingredients that a wine label must state, for now. Whatever sulfites the fermentation might produce get a free pass, and labels today can state "no sulfites added."

A recurring theme from those clamoring for ingredient labeling is that the list of chemical additions for modern winemaking has grown exponentially. Winemakers have a veritable chemical storehouse at their disposal to deal with color, clarity, alcohol, tannins, acidity and other key elements of wine. I totally understand the desire to know whether the maker of the wine at hand used any of them.

Once again, however, the devil is in the details. How do we differentiate "good" and "bad" additives? Revered winemakers with traditional wine cellars have employed sugar for more than a century to extend fermentations and raise alcohol levels. They use egg whites or other forms of protein, including isinglass (extracted from fish), eggs, even milk, to help clarify the wines. In the end, these "ingredients" settle out of the wine or are filtered to remove them. But traces may remain.

Even without ingredient labeling, Australia and the European Union already require that wine labels must identify certain potential allergens, even if only traces remain. I've also seen food labels that note the possible presence of nuts for products that contain no added nuts but may have been made in a facility that also processes nuts. Should wine labels therefore include a list of things used but removed from wine, noting that "traces may remain"?

Maybe, maybe not. Wine isn't the only fermented product out there. It's worth noting that alcohol is a byproduct of the fermentation that makes bread rise. Most of this alcohol evaporates as bread bakes, but the small residue that remains seems to me analogous to all those traces of fining agents, enzymes and sugars that exercise proponents of ingredient labeling for wine.

I wish labels would disclose which wines used Mega Purple instead of attentive grapegrowing to boost color and texture, but it's basically a super grape concentrate. I would like to know if a winery used Velcorin instead of sanitary winemaking practices to eliminate brettanomyces, but then Velcorin need not be listed as an ingredient in juices, soft drinks and sports drinks (where it is used extensively) because it breaks down into component parts and is considered a "processing aid." Should wine be different?

As a wine drinker, I want to know what went into making any wine I am considering. Did the winemaker chuck in tannin powder from a bag? Add tartaric acid to balance pH? Use cultivated bacteria to induce malolactic fermentation? All those are natural extracts of real grapes. But what about winemakers who ferment or age their wines in unlined concrete tanks or "eggs"? Elements from the concrete can leech into the wine. Ingredient?

A few U.S. wineries, including Ridge Vineyards, have taken advantage of a new rule that allows voluntary ingredient labeling. I like these labels because, unlike the just-the-facts labels on food, they allow some explanation. Ridge's label can say, for example, that the grapes were hand-harvested and sustainably grown, that the yeasts were indigenous and the oak character came from barrel aging (not oak chips). It's almost like a deconstructed back label, and a good one.

Essentially, Ridge uses its ingredient label to create the impression that it has nothing to hide. On the other hand, Ridge opposes mandatory ingredient labeling for wine because it would create a financial hardship, especially for small producers but also for large wineries where different bottlings for the same label could come from lots treated differently.

"The space (on the label) now providing background for the consumer would be replaced with a list of additives," wrote Ridge Vineyards CEO and winemaker Paul Draper, who made a point to add, "All the many additives are approved as safe to consume."

Kyle Schlachter
Colorado —  June 6, 2013 3:54pm ET
Harvey, actually the Declaration of Sulfites is not an ingredient declaration. Even organic wine with no added sulfites must declare the presence of sulfites if they are present at levels greater than 10 ppm. And only wines sold across state borders are required to make that declaration. If a wine is "For Sale in Colorado Only," no declaration is required by the TTB, even if 75 ppm are added.
Brandon Redman
Brandon R., Seattle, WA —  June 7, 2013 10:30am ET
I don't know...this whole trend of over-disclosure seems to be getting out of control. It's like the calories posted at fast food chains. If you go in expecting a low-fat, low-salt meal, you're not an intelligent person. If you buy mass-produced wine, you can expect oak chips, mega purple, etc. I think the ingredient list SHOULD be accessible, as on a website, but putting it on the bottle (or requiring it) seems like overkill to me.
Doug Jeffirs
Chicago, Ill. —  June 7, 2013 4:25pm ET
Don't care to know what you are ingesting?

This is not something to spread on your driveway.
Cynthia Dunn
Cedar Falls, IA —  June 11, 2013 10:33pm ET
I agree with Brandon's suggestion. I wish the winemaker's website included much more detail on the winemaking process while restricting label requirements to more global information (such as the bloody grapes included at greater than 1%).
Sandy Fitzgerald
Whitesville, KY —  June 14, 2013 3:54pm ET
It would be interesting just from the point of mega purple (or red) having to be listed.
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  June 16, 2013 6:33pm ET
The problem here is that a VAST majority of the wine drinking public thinks that all wine is nothing but alcoholic grape juice.

So the same people who spend serious $$$ for organic produce and no-hormone beef tend to buy the most generic mass produced wine.

Any intelligent ingredient labeling would help the consumer and the quality wine producer, but severely hurt most American wine under $10 a bottle.

I write as a retailer who sees this happen dozens of times everyday. I'm working one-on-one to educate people, but ingredient labeling would help me.

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