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A SHOT OUT OF THE BLUE: WE HAVE A NEW ENTRY IN THE WINE INGREDIENT LABELING DERBY

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After writing about the ingredients being added to new wines for nearly 4 years, I was recently surprised when a friend sent me a copy of an article entitled “Why We Need Ingredient Labeling” written by Matt Kramer and published in The Wine Spectator. I was shocked. I never expected any publication dependent on advertising to promote a consumer issue like what is in wine (to read my article click here [2]). And, for that matter, I don’t expect it from other “independent” wine critics who do not take advertising, but whose livelihood is dependent on access to producers to taste barrel samples and unreleased wines.

But, like a whiff of smoke, there was the article staring me in the face. And, like a whiff of smoke, it was virtually gone after I read it. For as much as I respect Matt Kramer (which is a lot more than I can say for many “wine writers”), his article misses the point. And, just in case anyone has missed the point in all the Underground articles I have written so far, let me be perfectly clear: THE CONSUMER HAS THE RIGHT TO KNOW ALL THE INGREDIENTS THAT ARE GOING INTO WINES THAT ARE OFFERED FOR SALE. Anything else is just not right. Having said that, let’s turn to the commentary by Mr. Kramer followed by a notation from another wine blogger who has come out of the woodwork to chime in on the subject.

Let me start by quoting the introduction to Matt Kramer’s article in the October 15, 2014 issue of The Wine Spectator.

Let me ask you a question: How do you feel about gum arabic? Gee, I don’t know, you most likely reply.

Gum arabic, which is the sap of the acacia tree, is used in all sorts of processed foods. It adds viscosity to liquids such as soda pop syrup. You find it in “gummy” candies. It’s frequently employed as an emulsifier. It dissolves easily in water (artists use it as binder for watercolor pigments).

Now, let me ask you how you feel about gum arabic in your Chardonnay? Good question, no? Because the truth is that gum arabic is added to some Chardonnays, as well as to other wines. It’s perfectly safe and perfectly legal—and just as perfectly unmentioned on the label. Sometimes used as a stabilizing agent, gum arabic can affect what’s called “mouthfeel.” It can enhance the impression of softness and roundness, while diminishing bitterness. And that in turn convinces you that a wine is richer, fuller, denser. It isn’t. Likely it was a thin, dilute wine that’s had, shall we say, compensation. Like all good magic acts, the performers of the trick don’t want you to know how it’s done. Indeed, they don’t want you to know that it’s a trick at all. They want you to believe the magic. And—let’s be honest—we want to believe it too. This is why so many wine producers really don’t want what other food producers are required by law to offer: ingredient labeling. It will destroy, they insist, the magic—or more precisely, the magic of the romance.

Wine sells on romance. And we’re all susceptible to it—very likely wine writers like me most of all. We’re susceptible not merely because we want to believe in magic, but because there really is romance to wine, most especially fine wine. The earth really can speak through fine wine….

Nice try. But, this is a really weak way to get into the issue of what is going into wine. There is a lot more to it than “gum arabic”. And, to say that wine is something that comes from magic is just nonsense. Wine comes from grapes. And, historically the best wines have been made from grapes grown on the best varieties of vines, grown in the best places, and made in a manner that was devoid of excessive manipulation and many chemicals and additives. Today gum arabic is just one of the more innocuous ingredients that are approved to be added to wine.

Other than gum arabic, how about Velcorin or Dimethyldicarbonate? Or Mega Purple? Or any of the other dozens of “approved” ingredients that can be added to wine? And, in fact, it seems that the “approved” list is not all inclusive. It does provide for ingredients to be used in the “process of filtering, clarifying, or purifying wine…but the addition of any substance foreign to wine which changes the character of the wine, or the abstraction of ingredients which will change its character, to the extent inconsistent with good commercial practice, is not permitted…” So go figure. I am not an attorney, winemaker or wine manipulator. I am just a consumer who cares a lot about what I eat and drink. To me the wording “inconsistent with good commercial practice” seems to leave itself open to a lot of interpretation. (To read the entire section on wine ingredients taken from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau website including a list of all the approved wine ingredients click here [3] ).

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So how is the consumer to know if this “approved” list is comprehensive or if there are other things that are used as well? Good question and one for which there is no answer. (To read the Underground articles on this subject click here [5]). And, as Mr. Kramer says, is this all just a part of the “magic”? I don’t think so. I might be intrigued and amused by magic, but I do not believe in it. And, while it is fun to play along, I do not believe in the tooth fairy either. In fact, I do not believe in fiction or magic any more than I believe in something that is manipulated and not transparent. To me, they are all synonymous.

In his article, Mr. Kramer went on to say: “With ingredient labeling we’ll be able to tell more easily who’s doing what. It will be a boon to “natural” producers.” But, he also continued by saying that it would benefit those who also make natural wine, but do not wish to do ingredient labeling. This I do not understand. Since, without ingredient labeling, those who are making natural wine would have to somehow convey this to the consumer. How would this be done?

And, he seemed to be on a roll when he went on to say that ingredient labeling would “…take the sanctimonious wind out of the overblown sails of the ideologues.” WOW! SAY WHAT? This is a real mouthful. A mouthful of what I don’t know. But, if this is how some of us who favor ingredient labeling that includes everything that is in wine, are to be described, then so be it. I don’t care what someone calls me. For no matter what is said, the fact is that as consumers we have a right to know everything that is in the wines being offered for sale just as we have the right to know what is in processed foods that are being offered for sale. That’s my story and I am sticking with it!

And, for sure I have never liked processed foods with a lot of unknown ingredients in them. I do not buy or eat those foods. That’s my choice and the choice of a lot of other people who prefer eating fresh foods and natural foods. By the way, in case you missed it, this just happens to have been the biggest trend in foods for many years now and one that is now gaining even more momentum.

Some detractors who do not believe in ingredient labeling for wine, including one East Coast wine blogger who recently checked in against it, have done so largely on the basis that wine is not a food. This is simply an absurd argument. True, from a government standpoint, wine is not a food. But, as a practical matter, for a large number of people, wine is something that is a regular part of their meals. In many parts of the world wines are made to complement the foods of the regions where those wines are made. And, here in this country, many of us also drink wines that complement the food we eat. So for me, wine is a food. I don’t give a gulp about what the government thinks. And, for sure, I do not advocate the government regulating what goes into wine. Ingredient labeling  should be done by wine producers on a voluntary basis. Those who comply will gain more acceptance from consumers and those who do not will be left with the question of why they choose to not disclose ingredients.

Wine happens to be one of the things I care about most in life and there are many others who share this passion. As such, wine deserves respect. And, as consumers, we deserve the right to know what is going into wines offered for sale – nothing more, nothing less. And, if consumers demand it, eventually more and more of the people who are not using a lot of additives in their wine will follow Ridge Vineyards in listing all the ingredients in their wine (to read that article click here [6]).

So it seems to be that we are off to the races on the subject of what’s in wine and ingredient labeling. In some respects it is like the issue of fraudulent old wines where the Underground first reported on the story in 1983 (to read about our early disclosures on wine fraud click here [7]). Even though wine fraud was happening way back then, it took a long time for people to figure it out. Today the issue of wine fraud is front and center. Too bad it took so long. Had people paid attention to the things that were being reported in the Underground, much of the wine fraud would have never happened. Now wine fraud and faking bottles of old wine and what ingredients are being added to new wines are, to be sure, very different. Wine fraud is illegal, manipulation and adding ingredients to new wine is not (at  least, not if the additives follow the list of “approved” ingredients). But, what is true is that today the issue of what is in wine is something that is not very well known. This is like the issue of wine fraud and faking old bottles which was not well know until if finally progressed to the point where there was so much fake wine that it became obvious and was soon exposed. It seems that increasing manipulation and the inclusion of more and more additives in new wines is on the same path. That is, at some point, increasing manipulation and the inclusion of more and more additives in new wines will also become obvious to more people and more disclosure will follow.

For years the Underground has been instrumental in getting the word out on what’s in wine and ingredient  labeling. And, just as the Underground did in  reporting on wine fraud, we will stay the course until the race is over. I had hoped that it would be a sprint. But, we are already past that point. Now it looks like it will be a marathon. But, no matter how long it takes, the Underground welcomes a continued dialogue and will continue to push for clarity and transparency in wine. Please pass the baton on to your friends. The race is ours to win. May it continue until we win the race and cross the finish line!

In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson