Are some California wineries "secretly poisoning wine consumers"? That's one of the incendiary charges being leveled in a class-action lawsuit against several of the biggest companies in American wine, filed March 19 in a California state court. At the heart of the suit is that the "defendants produce, manufacture and/or distribute wine in California that contains inorganic arsenic in amounts far in excess of what is allowed in drinking water."
The spokesman for one company named in the suit and others in the industry argue that the lawsuit is spurious and based on misinformation.
The plaintiffs "decided to file a complaint based on misleading and selective information in order to defame responsible California winemakers, create unnecessary fear, and distort and deceive the public for their own financial gain," said a spokesman for The Wine Group (TWG), one of the defendants.
The lawsuit names several large companies, including TWG, Treasury Wine Estates, Trinchero, Fetzer Vineyards and Bronco, following claims that a Denver laboratory found inorganic arsenic in 83 brands, including Franzia, Sutter Home, Concannon, Wine Cube, Beringer, Flipflop, Fetzer, Korbel, Almaden, Trapiche, Cupcake, Smoking Loon and Charles Shaw.
"Almost all of them are $10 or less, and the vast majority of those are under $5," said lawyer Brian Kabateck, whose firm is one of three bringing the suit, at a press conference today after the complaint was filed in the Superior Court of California's Los Angeles branch. "The consumer may be spending less than $5 for a bottle of wine, but they may be paying with their health in the long run. These are very serious allegations that we're raising against the wine industry."
The goals of the suit, Kabateck said, are, "first and foremost to clean up the wine industry, which is largely unregulated in the state of California. We're asking these winemakers to take these wines off the shelves today, to recall the products. We're also asking that the wine industry come into the sunlight, become more open about what's in their product. And finally we want to refund the consumers who bought these products that we allege are dangerous."
The lawyers declined to estimate a dollar amount, but any Californian who purchased a wine named in the suit between Jan. 1, 2011, and today would be eligible for inclusion in the class.
"The quality of our products and the health and safety of our consumers is our first priority. The Trinchero family, as well as the California Wine Institute, dispute these unfounded claims and are actively pursuing all remedies to defend against these defamatory statements about our company and our products,” said Nora Feeley, public relations director for Trinchero Family Estates. "Trinchero has always employed sustainability practices and quality testing and assurance across the company in our vineyard, winemaking, and production practices."
"Treasury Wine Estates is confident that its products are fully compliant with all relevant federal and state guidelines," said Nicole Carter, vice president of public relations, the Americas. "[TWE] remains confident that our wines are not only safe but enjoyable to drink."
"Fetzer Vineyards does not add arsenic in the making of our wines. We produce all of our wines in a responsible manner and adhere to all state and federal regulations," said Holly Killion, compliance director for Fetzer Vineyards.
"We don't think that this lawsuit has merit, and we think that the publicity campaign is very irresponsible," Wine Institute vice president Nancy Light told Wine Spectator.
The plaintiffs are using the Environmental Protection Agency's safety threshold for arsenic in drinking water as their benchmark for wines they call unsafe—a level of 10 parts per billion. Light contends this is an incorrect standard. "There are no [EPA] limits for other foods and beverages—including wine—because they're not consumed at the same level as water and not deemed to be a risk. There is no research that shows that the amount of arsenic in wine poses any health risks to consumers."
The spokesman for TWG, which is accused of high arsenic levels in 13 brands it sells, said the plaintiffs were "improperly comparing apples to oranges—only in this case, water to wine."
The TWG wine that tested at the highest level at the lab in the suit showed arsenic levels of 50 ppb, meaning that a person could consume a few glasses and still not reach the amount of arsenic a healthy adult would drink daily in water at 10 ppb. Drinking the brands that tested at lower levels of arsenic, someone would have to empty multiple bottles of wine each day to exceed arsenic levels from water consumption.
Light also pointed out that the named California wineries export wines to Canada and Europe; the former has arsenic regulations stating that wine must be below 100 ppb, and the latter's acceptable levels are even higher.
The genesis of the suit is the work of a researcher named Kevin Hicks, whose BeverageGrades laboratory offers beverage testing and certification services. Hicks tested some 1,300 wines. He found that the 83 named in the suit had levels of arsenic above the 10 ppb range.
"Before he came to us, he went to the wine industry," said Michael Burg, whose Denver firm was first contacted by Hicks. "He said, 'I have found these large levels of arsenic in your wines. Will you talk to me about it?' And they all said, 'No, we have no interest in talking to you.'"
The TWG spokesman said he had not heard of any named winery contacted by Hicks before the lawsuit was filed. But the same day the suit was filed, BeverageGrades sent a press release to certain retailers offering its services for a “screening and certification model that allows them to assure their customers of the purity of all the alcoholic beverages they sell.”
"If there's snow on the ground, you can safely conclude that it snowed, that someone has their own economic self interest involved here," said the TWG spokesman.
Another issue in the suit is "organic" versus "inorganic" arsenic. The element occurs naturally in fruits and fruit juices. The plaintiffs' lawyers speculated that the heightened arsenic levels could be caused by clarifying agents, poor filtration, pesticides or adulterants.
But Prof. Roger Boulton of the University of California at Davis, cautioned, "We do not have reliable data for winegrape juices, water sources or winemaking additives to understand where the higher-than-average levels are coming from."
As for whether wine should be held to water standards, Boulton said, "I do not know enough to comment on the health effects but I think most people would agree that looking at intake rates based on amounts and frequency, not just concentrations, would be a rational approach."
The suit sees it differently. "Defendants' California wine consumers have been made unwitting 'guinea pigs' of arsenic exposure, being involuntarily exposed to toxic levels of inorganic arsenic over and over again by the defendants."
A court date has not been set.