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A Thought or Two on Wine Marketing Silliness

The mystic of wine has captured human’s imagination for over 7,000 years. Few beverages can boast of such a storied history. After all, what can you say about something that saw 2020 annual sales of over $67 billion? Now, that’s a lot of corks!

Part of the allure of wine is its complexity. The annual production was nearly 3.2 billion cases in 2018 produced from over 1,300 grape varieties. Yet, its mystery still eludes us, with 800–1,000 different chemical compounds existing in a glass of red wine, depending on who you ask.

Water is the primary component, making up 80–90 percent. Some ingredients, such as resveratrol, have put it on people’s radar for its potential health benefits, particularly with red wine. However, the one compound that gets some individuals’ knickers in a twist is sulfites.

Hence, the spread of the so-called organic, biodynamic, natural, and inexplicably, clean wines. It begs the question, are they any better for you?

The short answer is no. It’s alcohol.

The Dirt on Sulfites

One of the villains singled out by these wine movements is sulfites or sulfur dioxide. Its use as a stabilizing agent goes back thousands of years. Its primary function is to prevent bacteria and spoilage in wine. It also reduces oxidation that could lead to off odors or flavors.

Try as winemakers do, bacteria and other nasties exist in wineries. After all, they’re present, along with those natural yeasts. It’s common sense that you need to use something for the bad stuff. We wash our wine glasses. Why not take care of the winery? Remember that the alcohol in the wine isn’t high enough to keep things in check on its own.

All-Natural Sulfites

It may come as a shock to some, but all wine contains sulfites. Even the wines labeled as “No Sulfites” can contain up to 1 percent. The compound is a by-product of fermentation, so blame it on the yeast and sugar.

The average glass of wine contains about 10 mg of sulfites including what’s added during winemaking. However, sometimes fermentation alone pushes it to the legal threshold for the warning label. Nevertheless, other things contain more sulfites, including:

  • Dried fruits
  • Jams and jellies
  • French fries
  • Instant mashed potatoes
  • Coca Cola

Wine contains about 80 mg/liter of sulfur. Compare that to a liter of Coke, which has 192 mg/liter, depending on where you buy it. When was the last time you saw a warning label on a bottle?

Oh, and by the way, the human body cooks up 1,000 mg of the stuff every day. If you want to get rid of all those nasty sulfites in your glass, you can try adding some hydrogen peroxide which will bind to the molecules and precipitate it out of the wine. However, we don’t recommend it.

The Argument Against Sulfites

The case against sulfites rests on two things. First, that it isn’t natural, which we’ve debunked already. It’s worth adding that it’s the fifth most abundant element on the planet.

Second, those sulfites are harmful. Well, that’s true for the bacteria, yeast, and fungi that it kills. Vintners use sulfur with copper sulfate in a spray widely used in the industry called the Bordeaux mixture. The combination is lethal for tenacious vineyard pests, such as powdery mildew. An infestation can have catastrophic consequences for a vineyard. It’s just too risky for vintners not to use it.

Incidentally, both sulfur and copper sulfate are approved pesticides for organic farming.

Another misconception about sulfites is that it causes headaches. Unfortunately, that’s an urban legend that has grown legs. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that sulfites trigger migraines or headaches. The more likely culprits are histamines, residual sugar, and congeners, another by-product of fermentation.

It also could be that you tipped your glass a few too many times. As Oscar Wilde famously said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.

That brings us back to the question we posed earlier. Are minimal intervention wines better than conventional ones? Let’s discuss each one in detail.

Organic Wine

We’ll start with some clarification. There’s organic wine, and there’s wine made with organic grapes. The two are not the same thing.

A wine labeled organic wine with the USDA’s certified seal must contain 100 percent certified organic grapes. That applies to the other ingredients, too, such as yeast. Winemakers can use up to 5 percent of non-agricultural additions as long as they’re specified. However, added sulfur dioxide is not permitted. The winery must also identify the certifying agency attesting that the wine is indeed organic.

On the other hand, a wine labeled made with organic grapes is just that, but that’s where it ends. Wineries can use other non-organic ingredients as long as they’re permitted and identified. They can add  

sulfites as long as they don’t exceed 100 parts per million (ppm). The wine will not have the USDA seal on the bottle, but it will list the certifying authority.

It’s worth mentioning that the United States is the only country that bans added sulfites in organic wines. Vintners in the EU and New Zealand can use it, albeit in reduced amounts.

You will also find that red wines have less sulfur dioxide than whites since they’re more likely to have higher tannin concentrations from skin contact and oak aging. These organic compounds act similarly on bacteria as sulfites. Therefore, vintners can use less.

Sulfites are volatile compounds. White wines will lose up to 50 percent of the free sulfur dioxide the first year after they’re bottled, depending on the closure. After a while, it becomes a moot point. The legal limit of 350 ppm also becomes less worrisome the longer the wine ages.

To suggest that organic wines are better than conventionally produced ones is a reach. The fact remains that organic produce, including grapes, can have pesticide residue on them, too. However, the real problem with limiting sulfite use is spoilage. The shelf life is compromised without the antimicrobial properties of this compound, especially if the wine isn’t stored properly.

Biodynamic Wine

We wish we could say that we’re making this stuff up, but unfortunately, it’s a thing. What would you think if someone told you that your wine was made with grapes fertilized by “a humus mixture prepared by stuffing cow manure into the horn of a cow and buried into the ground?”

Or that to get the benefits, you have to mix 1/16 of an ounce of the mix with a ton of compost? It sounds like homeopathy to us.

These gems came from Austrian philosopher and self-claimed clairvoyant Rudolf Steiner. He saw the farm as an organism that needed treatment as an entity. This is a guy who thought mushrooms “contain hindering lunar forces.” Never mind that he advised avoiding all alcohol. We wonder if the so-called biodynamic vintners know about that one.

Steiner believed that farming should follow the phases of the moon (yes, the moon) to determine when to harvest or do any of the necessary vineyard tasks. Try telling that to a vintner who is checking the Brix and phenolic ripeness of his grapes every day that he can’t pick them because it’s the wrong lunar phase. 

The movement began in the 1920s with the creation of its independent certifying body, Demeter International, in 1928. Interestingly, many practitioners don’t jump through the hoops for the annual certification and forgo the astrological prescience. Curiously, biodynamic farming permits sulfites but not genetically-modified organisms. That brings us to another variation on this theme.

Natural Wine

Natural wine doesn’t have the official status that the previous two wine movements have. That’s due in part because of the US Food and Drug Administration dragging its collective heels on legally defining the term. Unfortunately, that genie is out of the bottle. A lot depends on how the winery or producer uses it. Nevertheless, just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s not harmful. Exhibit A: botulism.

Some winemakers toe the organic line, opting to minimize additives or pesticide use. They might plant cover crops instead to stave off weeds. That’s okay as long as they don’t use non-native, invasive species, which can create an environmental headache of a different sort. If these plants save them money on operating costs and benefit the land, we don’t have an issue.

Sail to Trail Wineworks focuses on making quality wines that put on the focus on the product and not the interventions. We don’t follow the ever-changing trends. We appreciate how some producers have taken up these reins.

Some wineries have even sold off their machinery and have brought back the plow and horses. An offshoot that you’ll see is the rise of sustainable vineyards. It combines some of the principles of environmentalism without the nonsense of moon phases or sulfite phobias. Of course, there are some individuals who take it to an extreme.

Clean Wine

The whole clean movement leaves us wondering how humans as a species managed to survive hundreds of thousands of years without detoxing to rid ourselves of all those scary chemicals. Chemicals are not bad. Many are quite useful, such as dihydrogen monoxide (read: H2O). It’s unfortunate that marketers have put such a stigma on the word that has fueled these fringe wine cultures.

News flash: Everything on the planet, including people, is composed of chemicals.

The gist of the claims is that minimal intervention is better because it’s a more authentic expression of the fruit. By that logic, a vintner would stand by and do nothing while her harvest succumbs to downy mildew. Keep your hands off of that Bordeaux mixture!

Some producers have the audacity to make outrageous assertions, such as their wines will cause “no nasty side effects” or that it is “low in carbs.” If you thought wine labels were flowery nonsense, the stuff coming out of these so-called clean wine vintners is in the stratosphere.

It’s also an in-your-face gesture that has many conventional winemakers seething. Saying that their wines are clean implies that there is something wrong or dirty about traditional winemaking. Never mind the fact that they’ve been making wine for hundreds of years.

It’s nothing short of clean-washing to sell a product to consumers who don’t know the facts or are easily swayed by a carefully crafted marketing message.

Vegan Wine

Wine is different from many foods and beverages in that it contains ingredients that don’t make it into the final product. It’s not a matter of mixing everything up and saying whoop, there it is. We can understand the move that many producers have embraced to label their wines so that consumers can make informed choices.

Winemakers aren’t too different from other manufacturers. They aren’t always forthright with all the ingredients, listing some under generic names, such as “Spices.” That narrows it down—not!

A consumer often has to check a producer’s website for a tech sheet of a wine to get the specs if it’s available. Remember that the government doesn’t require ingredient labeling on wines. A winemaker may choose to do so to be transparent. The problematic ones for vegans are some of the fining agents.

Winemakers use these additives to remove suspended solids. They will bind with a particular compound and precipitate out of the solution. They will then rack off the clear wine because that’s what consumers want and expect. Some that you may see and their sources include:

Protease: bovine or porcine digestive organs

Albumen (egg whites)

Gelatin: bovine or porcine connective tissue

Isinglass: Sturgeon swim bladders

Casein: Milk proteins

Some of these additives, such as isinglass, are produced synthetically today. Also, a winemaker may not use all of them or any of them. Some may filter or centrifuge their wines instead. Nonetheless, that still leaves vegans in a quandary about what’s in the bottle. We appreciate producers who identify their products as vegan-friendly.

It’s essential to understand that wine production is a business like any other. It often uses proprietary ingredients and methods that make them reluctant to share. Think of the secret formula for Coke or the once-secret spice mixture for KFC. Some winemakers also make several wines from different vineyards, causing more labeling woes.

Final Thoughts

Sulfites have suffered a bad rap for many years. Perhaps, it’s the warning label and the urban legend churn that has fueled the fire. Not many products have that scarlet letter on their packaging. Even other allergens don’t have the scary bolded WARNING on them.

Nevertheless, sulfites are natural by-products of fermentation and a part of the environment and ourselves. They are a necessary part of the winemaking process and have been so for hundreds of years. Unless you are allergic or have asthma, you needn’t worry about the wine in your glass. Just enjoy it and toast the skills of the winemaker who realizes its importance.

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