What's really in that wine?
New federal labels may tell us more than we want to know.
By Corie Brown, Times Staff Writer
March 28, 2007
EVER wonder what goes into a bottle of wine? The story winemakers love to tell on the bottle label is one of a mystical alchemy of climate, soils, ancient practices and long traditions. Wine labels tend to focus on romance; the small amount of government-mandated information includes the percentage of alcohol, a warning against consuming wine when pregnant or driving, and a disclosure of sulfites.
It might be disenchanting if the label also listed the chicken, fish, milk and wheat products that are often used to process wine. And it would be hard to maintain the notion that wine is an ethereal elixir if, before uncorking, consumers read that their Pinot Noir or Syrah contained Mega Purple (a brand of concentrated wine color), oak chips or such additives as oak gall nuts, grape juice concentrate, tartaric acid, citric acid, dissolved oxygen, copper and water. The mention of bentonite, ammonium phosphate and the wide variety of active enzymes used to make some wines would end the romance.
Federal regulators are considering revamping the rules governing wine labels, and if changes are made, the information revealed may surprise many wine buyers. Additives that supplement what nature failed to provide in an individual wine — tricks of the trade that winemakers rarely talk about — could soon be listed in detail on the labels.
The wine industry, through the Wine Institute, the industry's chief lobbying arm, is opposing the regulatory changes. But could new regulations be good news for consumers?
Wine industry consultants familiar with the subject are divided on the question.
Supporters, such as Leo McCloskey, president of Enologix, a Sonoma, Calif.-based wine consulting company that has analyzed the chemical composition of 70,000 wines, say the best wines don't rely on additives. If ingredients were listed on wine labels, the finer wines would stand out.
"The wine industry is completely unregulated," he says. "It would be so useful to have labels that detail everything in a wine. It would tell the consumer what they are drinking."
But critics of the federal initiatives say ingredients labels would make widely accepted winery practices unnecessarily controversial.
"Why freak out the ignorant when we are adjusting something that is already there in the wine?" says Clark Smith, chairman of Vinovation Inc., a Sebastopol, Calif.-based wine industry "fix-it shop."
Smith uses additives of all kinds to turn unsuccessful batches of wine from his 1,200 winery clients into salable products. On the labels of the wines he makes, under his own Wine Smith label, he discloses whether he has used wood chips for mellowing or if he's brought down alcohol content using a controversial process known as reverse osmosis.
But, Smith says, most of his clients don't share his attitude of openness, and he sees no harm in keeping consumers in the dark.
Links to additives
WIDELY accepted processing practices account for some of the additives in wine. Fining — the practice of using animal proteins such as egg whites to remove impurities — can result in some of those proteins remaining in the wine. The aging of wine in oak barrels adds not only oak tannins but also can leave traces of wheat paste used to make the barrels.
Animal proteins (chicken, fish, milk) and wheat are examples of allergens potentially present in wine that would be listed under new requirements now being finalized by federal regulators.
Questions remain about how to detect these allergens and how much of a particular allergen needs to be present to warrant listing it on the label. The rules for wine, however, are all but certain to be enacted in the next few months to satisfy allergen labeling rules for all foods and beverages mandated by Congress in 2004.
There is a separate federal initiative on a slower track to list all of the ingredients in a wine as well as the calorie, fat and carbohydrate counts. Proposed ingredient and nutrient rules are expected to be released later this year for public comment.
Because nearly all processed foods and beverages are required to disclose ingredients and their nutritional values, why aren't they already listed on wine labels?
Blame the different policies of different regulatory agencies. The Food and Drug Administration considers ingredient disclosure a health issue, but the FDA isn't directly responsible for regulating alcoholic beverages. That's the job of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, a division of the Treasury Department. The last time the Treasury Department pushed for ingredient labels on alcoholic beverages was in the 1970s during the Carter administration.
But by the time the regulations were ready to be finalized, President Reagan was in the White House. The regulations were rescinded by executive order before they could go into effect.
The 2004 congressional mandate requiring allergen labeling specifically includes alcoholic beverages. Once the door for label rule changes was opened, consumer groups led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest pressed the TTB to revive the 1970s idea of ingredient disclosures on wine labels. Proposed rules to that effect are expected to be published for public comment later this year.
The wine industry is seeking an exemption from the allergen labeling act, says Wendell Lee, general counsel for the Wine Institute. As for the broader ingredient labeling, Lee says, "We oppose mandatory ingredient and nutrient labeling. When you are forced to convey information that we don't see as useful, it doesn't justify the cost of testing and label modification. It's $5,000 just to redesign a label."
Allergens are a health issue. Congress has decided that people who are highly allergic to milk, fish, chicken and wheat, the only major allergens that are legally allowed in wine, need to be warned.
The Wine Institute argues that there's no way to prove the allergens are present in wine. At the same time, there is no way to prove that they aren't.
MILK, fish and chicken products are introduced to wine as fining agents. Albumen from egg whites, milk proteins and isinglass, from sturgeon bladders, may be added to wine to remove tannins, reducing excessive astringency.
Fining also clarifies by separating out residual grape solids and yeast. The animal proteins attach to these solids, sink to the bottom of the tank or barrel and are left behind, says Gordon Burns, co-founder of ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, a leading wine industry testing laboratory.
"Is there some slight trace of these agents left in the wine? It is very difficult to detect," Burns says. Because there are no minimal standards for allergens, one molecule remaining in a tank of wine is considered as harmful as a bucketful of them. "The rule is going to keep labs like mine in business," he asks, "but for what?"
The allergen labels are a marketing nightmare, Lee says. To prove the allergens don't exist in wine, the industry needs to develop a simple, inexpensive test for their presence. But no one now knows how to do that. As it stands, he says, "If a winery uses allergens in fining, then they are going to have to put them on the label."
How many wineries fine their wines? Nearly everyone does some kind of fining, Burns says. It is part of the winemakers' craft and art.
Wheat could be an issue for high-quality wines aged in oak barrels. The paste used in oak barrels contains wheat flour. It's possible that traces of wheat end up in all barreled wine, but it is not something that has been monitored.
The other ingredients allowed to be used in wine made in the United States are spelled out in federal regulations. In general, each country has its own rules on additives. The celebrated wine regions of France have traditionally struggled to produce grapes with enough sugar.
So, in France, it's OK to throw beet sugar into the grape juice before fermentation to enhance the flavor.
California typically produces wine grapes with high sugar levels. Adding sugar isn't allowed, but adding water during fermentation is OK. In France, however, it is not allowed.
At first glance, it appears that the United States has taken a purist approach to winemaking. Beyond the yeasts and enzymes used to vinify wine, and the sulfur dioxide used to preserve it, with rare exceptions American vintners may use only grapes and grape derivatives in their wine.
Over the years, however, the wine industry has deconstructed wine grapes into their various parts, as well as discovered other ways to reproduce the essence of what comes from grapes.
The parts are concentrated into additives used to enhance whatever is lacking in the wine produced by an individual winemaker.
Mega Purple is one of the more notorious additives. Anil Shrikhande, vice president of research and development for Constellation Wines, which manufactures it, says Mega Purple is 100% grape juice concentrate from grape varieties known as Rudy Red, Central Valley and Royalty. Although it is intensely sweet, it is used primarily to add color. It comes in white, pink, red and purple.
Introduced in 1992, Mega Purple is sold to various food processors as a natural coloring agent. Twenty percent of the 50,000 gallons produced each year is sold to the wine industry, Shrikhande says.
Then there are the flavor enhancers — grape juice concentrates from particular grape varietals — Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, etc. The concentrates, made by several companies, add varietally specific flavors and sugars.
POWDERED and liquid tannins may be sprinkled into wines to enhance flavor and structure. Oak chips can be thrown into wine vats for a jolt of oak flavor without spending the time and money on barrel aging. There are several powdered acids that can be added when the natural acids are missing.
A fashionable additive is oxygen, which is pumped into wine slowly enough to be absorbed. Such "micro-oxygenation" can speed up the aging process, particularly in red wine, in a way that captures more color and creates finer, softer, less astringent tannins, says Vinovation's Smith, a proponent of the technique. Often, these wines are easier to drink at an earlier age.
"We can only use additives that supplement what is already in the wine, or what is conventional, like oak extractions," Smith says. "And you can't make wine without exposing it to the oxygen in the air."
Winemakers can add tartaric, citric and malic acids and still be operating as purists because acids are found in grapes, Smith says. Enzymes that come from a wide variety of sources can be added because their job is to help the yeast to ferment the wine.
"For all of the posturing about terroir, very little wine sells because it is distinctive," Smith says. "Additives are cosmetics. They are supposed to enhance, improve a wine. [Wine enhanced this way is like] a beautiful woman whose makeup is invisible. It's the clumsiness of the winemaker who is using the additives that is the problem." Those wines end up tasting "tarted up," he says, instead of improved.
McCloskey of Enologix sums it up. "A great wine is obvious. It doesn't need any additives."
However, any winemaker who doesn't control what's happening in his vineyard is using additives in his wine, McCloskey says. "When you can't create the value in the vineyard, you have no choice but to create it in the winery.
"The industry lives and breathes on the story of being a natural product. But there is a lot of fast food in wine."
The problem with listing additives, says Lee, the Wine Institute general counsel, is it could change consumer perception of all wines. "Wine would look engineered instead of natural," he says.