Grapes, water, sunshine

One of the things I find most fascinating about wine is the disconnect between how it is generally perceived and marketed and how it is actually made. Wine, we want to believe, is nothing but grapes and sunshine. The grapes are picked, crushed, aged and poured. It is sold as a natural product—the pure and authentic expression of a place and a people. This idea abides in advertising and drips from the lips of every winemaker and winery owner. Nine times out of 10, however, it’s far from the truth.

Wine is an incredibly complicated product, and most of the time it takes an array of added chemicals, and all sorts of mechanized processes, to get the “traditional” and “natural” taste that most consumers expect. Increasingly I wonder about this knowledge gap. Why aren’t wine producers more open with consumers about what they do? Why, for instance, don’t they list their ingredients on the bottle?

There’s more to it: Will there ever come a day when Virginia wine labels list all the ingredients that go into each bottle?

Last year, eccentric California winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard announced that he was going to start doing just that. He will not only list the ingredients on the back of each bottle; he will also disclose every item that was used in the making of the wine. “This labeling initiative is primarily intended as an internal discipline,” he said in a press release. “However, we do hope other winemakers will be encouraged to adopt less interventionist practices and rely less upon an alphabet soup of additives to ‘improve’ their wines.” He may not have to hope much longer. Plans are afoot to change wine labeling laws to make the whole process a lot more transparent.

Currently, wine labels are not required to list ingredients because, unlike food, which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, wine is controlled by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a branch of the Treasury Department. In 2005 the TTB began exploring a proposal that would require wine bottles to list nutritional info as well as any food allergens that might be present.

Allergens? Yes, and for starters, try egg whites, milk proteins and isinglass, a collagen found in fish bladders. All three are commonly used in wine (and many British beers) as fining agents. Given concern over food allergies, it seems likely that labeling proposal will go into effect, though only minute traces of these products, if any at all, are left in the finished wine. The list of other items commonly added to wine includes sugars, acids, enzymes, oak flavoring, concentrated wine color and flavor, clay, and copper. Opponents of full disclosure fear that it will take the romance out of wine and create the impression that wine is a manufactured, and not natural, product.
The truth is most wine is manipulated and engineered. But will it really suffer when that truth is revealed? Most Americans continue to buy food whose multi-syllabic ingredients are often, unlike the additives in wine, incredibly unhealthy. More government regulation is the last thing that the already beleaguered wine industry needs, but I think it would be beneficial in the long run if winemakers took it upon themselves to bring more transparency to their craft.

Are there any Virginia winemakers willing to do as Randall Grahm did? I challenge any who are reading this to let me publish a complete list of ingredients used to make one of their current wines. Yes, a little romance may be lost in publishing it, but perhaps such self-imposed openness will lead winemakers to limit their use of additives. And who knows, maybe one day they will have the pleasure of selling a bottle whose label simply says “Ingredients: Grapes, water, sunshine.”

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