clean wine term definition

"Clean Wine" Takes a Hit from the TTB

Posted by Holly Berrigan on

If you’ve been around the natural wine space for a while, you’ve probably heard the term “clean wine” thrown out frequently. There’s been plenty of debate around what it means, whether or not it’s a red flag, and more. MYSA founder Holly has personally commented on it for the Huffington Post and elsewhere, and has gone back and forth on whether she thinks it’s problematic or useful to the natural wine community. It was a major surprise when the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB) decided to weigh in on the topic!

On April 8th, the TTB published this update in their newsletter stating that “clean” can be used as a descriptor of the taste of a wine, like “clean, crisp wine” but use of the word “clean” as it relates to health, such as “clean production methods mean no headaches for you” are not compliant with their standards. The TTB does not want companies to use misleading health-related statements that might make consumers believe that it has met certain production standards, like organic, and that those production methods may be healthier for you.

TTB Update

While the TTB did not say anything about changes in how this will be enforced, it was a pretty clear message to the wine community about misusing marketing terms and many companies seem to be taking it seriously. This change has become evident across the web. For example, one company has changed their slogan from “Clean-Crafted Wine” to “Clean-Crafted Commitment” and another company has added the term delicious to make it say “clean, delicious wine” across their site to avoid any use of the term “clean wine” specifically written that way across the site.

Scout & Cellar Logo Update

This statement from the TTB and subsequent changes we’ve seen have provoked a few thoughts.

  1. What is it about the term “clean wine” that made the TTB feel that they needed to make a newsletter post about it?
  2. Will terms like “natural”, “raw”, “sustainable” or others might come next since they are not tied to a specific verifiable production method like organic or biodynamic?
  3. Is the “clean wine” term more abused than other terms or is it about the way it has been used in marketing specifically?

Defining natural wine has been an unbelievably complicated discussion since it came into mainstream popularity in the last few decades, and even more so in the last 10 years. Only France is attempting to begin to put specific parameters around it. You can see MYSA’s personal definition of it here or RAW WINE’s Charter of Quality for better guidelines around what it is or is not, but it’s unlikely for a vineyard in the US to have a “natural” certification anytime soon.

While the term “clean wine” can be misleading to a consumer, the general shift in the industry to educate consumers that there is a lot more in a typical bottle of wine than just grapes is a useful exercise. We’re not trying to provide a single, concrete answer to the above questions, but rather outline the latest information behind the scenes of the wine industry so our consumers can make their own decisions. What do you want to know about a wine before drinking it? What terms are problematic? Do you want there to be a certification for these terms?

There are no simple answers to these questions, but we do believe that the more transparent a producer can be about the winemaking process, the better the consumer experience will be.

Holly Berrigan is the Founder of MYSA Natural Wine. She has a WSET Level 3 certification with Distinction, is a member and writer for the Porto Protocol and Slow Food USA, and is a student in Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge.

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