Do You Know What's in Your Wine?

Do You Know What's in Your Wine?

Posted by Andy Comer on

Transparency Now

Foundational questions on the long road to truth.

BY THE WAVES
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY LAURA SULLIVAN CASSIDY

Transparency. The word borders on overuse. But peel back the litany of op-eds, TED talks, and boiler-plate brand manifestos that drop it and you’ll find a critical mass of real people demanding a basic right: the right to know. To know what’s behind, around, and inside the stuff we’re told, and sold. To know that we’re living, as best we can, with our eyes open, making informed choices—and aware of the effects these choices have.

Transparency is the name given to this demand—a demand that’s now undeniably mainstream. And while we’re cautious about buzzwords (and most things mainstream, while we’re at it), we’re joining the chorus—whatever you happen to call it.

Because the truth is, wine has a transparency problem.

To scratch the surface of just how big this problem is, you don’t need to look any further than the bottle itself. Food, coffee, skincare, household products, clothes … they each have labels that, for all their shortcomings, impart some basic sense of what you’re getting, and what went into making it. If you’re like us, what’s listed on these labels has a massive influence on what you decide to buy. Now examine a bottle of wine. Does the label tell you what the wine’s ingredients are?

A wine’s ingredients are a window into critical, and complicated, questions about the wine itself. How were the grapes farmed? Were chemicals added during vinification and bottling? What materials—and what technologies—were used?

Now wine, of course, is not just another “product.” (And labeling is the tip of the iceberg.) But it’s worth noting that the disclosure of a wine’s ingredients, in the wider context of buying behavior, would be doing the bare minimum for people. More importantly, a wine’s ingredients are a window into critical, and complicated, questions about the wine itself. How were the grapes farmed? Were synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides used? Were chemicals added during vinification and bottling? If so, which ones? Whose labor went into the wine? What materials—and what technologies—were used during the course of its creation?

Peeling back these layers is key to understanding not only what a wine contains, but the sheer number—and nature—of the choices winemakers face. And people want visibility. According to a December 2022 study published by the Wine Market Council (WMC) on consumers and ingredient labeling, 40% of wine drinkers said they are “highly influenced by ingredients in wine, when making their purchase decisions”—a higher figure than that reported for other alcoholic drinks like beer and cocktails. That number goes up to almost 50% when you isolate respondents between ages 21-39, a percentage that’s consistent with their demands of the food they buy. The WMC’s study shows that wine is still perceived as having the fewest ingredients, compared to other drinks containing alcohol; but as people continue getting more conscious about what they consume, it’s not a matter of “if” but when the demand for transparency in wine gets even louder.

The TTB allows over 70 additives in a bottle of wine, with no requirement that these actually be disclosed. Where does this leave our right to know?

The writing’s on the wall. In October of last year, three large consumer organizations filed a lawsuit against the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau)—the U.S. regulatory authority that, along with the FDA, oversees wine labeling laws and sales—over its failure “to act on a 19-year-old petition urging it to require alcohol labeling with the same basic transparency consumers expect in foods.” For good reason: The TTB allows over 70 additives in a bottle of wine, with no requirement that these actually be disclosed. If you’re like us, you probably want to know if the wine you’re about to drink is clarified with dried fish bladders or fined with pasteurized milk (both permitted by the TTB), to say nothing of the multiple chemical additives that are currently given carte blanche (you can see the list here). Europe’s ahead of the curve: By the end of 2023 all wines sold in the E.U. will be required to either list ingredients on the label or provide a QR code/website that does so.

On the supply side, the people most impacted by this broader conversation around transparency—the farmers and winemakers themselves—aren’t given a seat at the table.

But significant barriers remain on the long road to knowledge. For starters: language. Here's a short list of terms we’ve seen on wine bottles or dropped in wine marketing: “Organic,” “Made from Organic Grapes,” “Biodynamic,” “Natural,” “Vegan,” “Vegetarian,” “Sustainable,” “Clean,” “Low-Alcohol,” “Preservative-Free,” “May Contain Naturally Occurring Sulfites” … None of these comes with a common, consistent, clearly-defined standard. Where does this leave our right to know?

On the supply side, the people most impacted by this broader conversation around transparency—the farmers and winemakers themselves—aren’t given a seat at the table. There’s no shortage of certifications a winery can acquire (from governmental, e.g. USDA Organic, to private organizations like Demeter, Biodyvin, and Salmon-Safe), but each comes with requirements, and at a price, that can be prohibitive for small, self-sustaining producers—i.e., the people leading the charge for accountability in the first place.

Inspiringly, dozens of small organizations led by grape growers and winemakers have formed to spark change at the grassroots level. To cite only two examples: VinNatur, started by winemaker Angiolino Maule in Italy’s Veneto in 2000, now includes 180 members from 9 countries who promote their own standards for natural wine. And Corpinnat, a collective of sparkling wine producers in Spain’s Penedès, has broken away from using the name “Cava”—an example of a regional requirement dictated from the top down—to establish member agreements around organic agriculture, environmental responsibility, and fair pricing.

One thing that is clear: The road to transparency in wine will be long, complicated, and contentious. This series of stories, which we’re calling “Transparency Now,” aims to serve as a companion and a catalyst, unearthing—and breaking down—the journey’s most pressing issues, through its most inspiring personalities. We’ll embed with regenerative farmers who believe in the microbial powers of their soils; hit the lab with scientists challenging the received wisdom around so-called “wine flaws”; and, of course, dive deeply into the mysterious world of wine additives.

Transparency Now. Because we do have a right to know, and that’s worth making noise about.

← Older Post Newer Post →