Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Natural Wine: How au naturel before we lose the point?

Allow me to have my quarterly rant.

In the last few weeks I have been bombarded with so much information about organic and “natural” wines, "natural yeast" vs. “unnatural yeast” (Ahem – native yeast vs. “cultivated” yeasts. All yeast is natural.) and even “going green.” There is so much discussion on these topics that I am going green - from nausea. How much more natural can we make our wines, apart from our winemakers and cellar rats working in the wineries au naturel? When it comes to alcoholic beverages I have always considered wine as being the most natural, as wine is not distilled. It is not brewed. It is picked "fresh" from the vineyards and immediately transported to the winery to be fermented into wine.

It’s even been suggested that the government steps in again and make wineries add their ingredients, serving size, nutritional and caloric intake to their already congested labels. How romantic the art and craftsmanship of winemaking will become - not! Let alone that someone is going to have to pay those costs to meet the requirements. That "someone" is the consumer.

Hey people – didn’t we learn anything from the sulfite fiasco? The listing of sulfites on wine bottles caused much unnecessary hysteria and unfair blame with very inaccurate and self-diagnosed “allergies.” When studies came out from UC Davis, it was determined sulfites affected 1% of the population in the US. And more than likely, half of the 1% didn’t even drink wine.

In past discussions I have had regarding sulfites, the majority who were against sulfites in their wine didn’t realize there were more sulfites in their dried fruit and in many of their dehydrated backpacking meals, then in a glass of wine. Over and over I have listened to customers in tasting rooms tell me they could only drink white wine because all the sulfites in red wine gave them headaches (ahem - slightly higher sulfite amounts in white). Once I explained to a white wine drinker that sulfites were natural and found in the soil, plants and in fact that the human body produces about 1000 mg/day, which would be 100 times more than in a single glass of wine. They responded very seriously with, "Well, that explains why I am allergic to myself."

See me rolling my eyes? Since the FTC, FDA and ATB likes disclosures and labels, here's mine:

I am not a HATER against wholesome, natural foods and wine! I am a label reader. I drive across town to buy “organic” meats and free-range eggs. Buying local and seasonal foods are a priority for me. I was raised on "organic" meats and vegetables before we knew of this trendy term, "organic." Hey, I even did my time as a vegan in my glory days. In the 80's I stopped buying canned tuna because of commercial fishing practices netting dolphins along with the tuna - - and I haven't bought a can of tuna since.

I am proud to say our local wine community has a voluntary group of winemakers and growers who have formed VINEA - Winegrower's Sustainable Trust and have embraced environmentally-friendly and socially responsible viticultural practices. And laugh at me or not, I think one of our local winemakers may be onto something with his witchy wine practices by the taste of his esquisite wines. But what would the future hold for him? Will he have to list the ingredients of the compost mixture he used to fill the cow horn he buried in his vineyards?

It gets even crazier when you consider while we pontificate and demand "natural" wines, we will overlook that some of our finest wine crystal glasses we drink our "natural" wines out of are made with over 24% lead.

This is what I am a HATER of: misinformation, unnecessary hysteria and extreme measures. I also fear that with all of the trendy movement towards "natural, organic and green" we will move it right into a moral and class issue. It doesn't mean that families with many mouths to feed on a limited income doesn't care any less about their children if they have to stretch their food dollars by purchasing a 99 cent bag of carrots and a box of Quaker oats instead of a $3 bag of organic carrots and a handwoven hemp bag full of oats hand plucked by barefoot virgins. At this point, I would just like to see more families return to the kitchen and the dining table instead of tossing a sack of Mac-Shac at the kid in the back seat.

So how far shall we, as consumers, push it? How about if we start demanding that all independent restaurants and cafes list all ingredients and nutritional information on their menu's or slap a label on the table when we are served our entrees? Talk about putting a damper on a special or impromptu evening under candle light. Oh yeah, is the candle burning made from soy or paraffin hydrocarbon (aka wax kerosene)? And who will pick up these added costs? Shall we push further and force the Colonel to list his secret 11 herbs and spices on the KFC bucket? And will we insist his spices are Fair Trade Certified and the herbs are organic wild and not hothouse?

Shall the winemaker have to expose his skill and methods with each unique vintage and be reduced to tweaking a formula and even risking his vintage and harvest to comply with government labeling and "natural" standards?

And here's the irony of getting oneself in a dither about "natural" wines and being an alarmist when it comes to sulfites and what type of yeast were used produce a bottle of wine: How many people have died due to addictions and liver disease that have been the direct cause due to sulfites? How many people have died after they wrapped their car around a telephone pole due to drinking 350 ppm of sulfites (parts per million with 350 ppm being the maximum legal limit) in their wine? How many fatal car accidents have been the direct cause of cultured yeast? I can hear it now - the coroner stating, "If they would have drank wine fermented with native yeast instead of cultured yeast they might have walked away from the fiery wreck."

The alcohol is going to get you before the sulfites, calcium carbonate, asorbic acids and cultured yeasts ever will. To sum it up:

"All things in moderation, including moderation." — Mark Twain.


Anonymous said...

Apart from the wonderful image, this is a nice rant! I've don't really see a focus on Sulfites but I do see a ton of 'green' focus now. I think the majority are jumping on the wagon as their angle to make money. Its a shame because natural sustainable practices are good for everyone.

Josh @nectarwine - twitter friend ;)

John Gerum said...

I agree 100% I'm often asked the same things, my answer mirrors your comments.. well done!

Thad W. said...

When it comes to "natural" wines, there is a common definition used, which states that the ingredient list be nothing more than "grapes and minimal sulfites". I have enjoyed a number of these wines from Oregon and a few others from Washington of late, much to my subjective palate's satisfaction.

No one forced these producers to disclose, no winemaking secrets were revealed, and no extra expense was incurred having to include ingredients on the label. Just grapes, naturally occurring yeast, and a minimal use of sulfites. I, for one, am really glad this category is growing. In fact, I intend to start directing more of my wine purchases to these types of wines, for they taste good (subjective) and are good for me (in moderation).

It's naive of anyone to think that non-natural wines are comprised only of grapes + yeast + barrel or steel tank + sulfites. I want to know if a winemaker added oak extract/dust, chestnut tannins, tartaric acid, bentonite, urea, enzymes, and genetically modified yeast to the mix. In fact, I'd like to see a producer go a step further and disclose whether or not certain chemicals were used in the vineyard to combat pests and weeds.

While you clearly don't care for this level of transparency, I am willing to bet that there are many more folks like me who are interested in this same information.

Just like with processed food, as consumers become more informed, they will demand more disclosure and reward those who provide it at the cash register. Any argument against empowering consumers with more information about wine seems non-sensical to me. Haven't folks been kept in the dark long enough?

wild walla walla wine woman said...

Hi Josh, John and Thad and thanks for stopping by. I appreciate all of your opinions.

I have to say the term of "non natural wines" borderlines on the ridiculous. What did we refer to wines before we got ahold of the trendy term of "natural wines"? Wasn't it - - just - - well, wine?

No one has forced producers to disclose their ingredients - - yet. But other issues have been forced on labels. And it hasn't been met with positive results. The consumer became even more confused (e.g. sulfites).

At this time, I am not convinced that many wine consumers would be honest or know the difference if they had an opportunity to take home a bottle of natural wine that tasted mediocre and received 88 points vs a "un-natural" wine that was well structured and received 98points.

Don't get me wrong, in a perfect world it would be great to have a wine without the "industrial trappings",exposing more of the terroir, but it isn't always practical and cost effective. Someone is going to have to pay the price when a "natural" winemaker doesn't use the "safety nets" he/she is allowed to have in "non-natural" winemaking.

Thad W. said...

So, all of this comes down to some anecdotal feedback you heard in the tasting room from consumers worried about sulfites?

Am I correct in assuming you feel consumers are better off not knowing what's in their wine, as they are too dumb to understand?

Or is it the worry that the 100 point rating system will be put in danger because consumers won't be "honest"?

Chris said...


Beautifully written and I agree with you 1000%.

Sulfur/sulfur dioxide/sulfites are used for a reason discovered by ancient winemakers. It KILLS the bad organisms that cause off colors, off flavors, and create bad wine, not to mention those that turn wine into vinegar.

All power to those who can make good wine with no sulfur, but if Louis Pasteur tells me to kill the bad bacteria, I think that's what we should do in our non-fresh food supplies.

wild walla walla wine woman said...

Hi Thad,

Thanks again for your opinions. No, of course it doesn't come back to "some anecdotal" feedback. I do have my own opinions. Furthermore, the comments from customers shouldn't be dismissed as anecdotal, especially when I heard the same misinformed comments over and over again. I have great concerns.

To suggest that I feel that consumers are "too dumb" or they are better off not knowing is rather insulting. But unfortunately, what we have seen is consumers are not given enough facts to decide for themselves and it breeds unnecessary hysteria. Already on the horizon, is opposition of "cultivated" yeasts. It will be interesting to see what kind of misinformation will come out of that.

Me? Worried about the 100 point system. Come on Thad, you should know me better than that.

Here is what is so fascinating about this whole topic - we are so consumed with what we consume in our wines, we still keep glossing over the one key ingredient that will do the most damage to our bodies and to others.

wild walla walla wine woman said...

Hi Chris,

Thank you for your kind words and for stopping by.


Chris said...

Thad's comment: "I want to know if a winemaker added oak extract/dust, chestnut tannins, tartaric acid, bentonite, urea, enzymes, and genetically modified yeast to the mix."

I'll dissect this a little then leave it alone. To me, there is no difference in the most of these techniques than blending higher acid grapes with lower acid grapes, using a press to extract more juice, or aging wine in a wooden barrel, where the wood chemicals leach over time.

Bentonite clay is as natural to the earth as you can get. It's dirt.

As far as genetically modified yeast, isn't one of the greatest wine grapes in the world, cabernet sauvignon, a genetic modification of two parents, cab franc and sauvignon blanc.

Thad W. said...

Thanks for clarifying your position by answering my questions, Catie.

I am not going to enter a debate about what ingredients in wine (beyond alcohol) are better or worse for you, as this is up to scientific study to determine what additives, natural or otherwise, pose harmful affects to our bodies.

In the meantime, I remain a strong advocate for full disclosure of wine ingredients for one reason only: it will empower consumers, like me, to make more informed purchase and consumption decisions. If I don't like the fact that a winemaker uses copper sulfate to address a hydrogen sulfide problem, then I want to know whether or not this is included in their wine.

Again, some may have no qualms in drinking wines with additives, while others have specific issues. It is this latter group that deserves to be informed, regardless of their size of the overall consumption pool.

And if a bit of hysteria, misinformation, or overreaction comes as a result of once hidden ingredients suddenly being revealed, then so be it. This is a risk/cost worth bearing in the pursuit of providing consumers with more information about wine.

Eventually, consumers will become better informed and educated, with scientists, journalists, and even bloggers playing an important role in educating the masses.

wild walla walla wine woman said...

Thank you Thad for expressing your opinion.

Ryan Reichert said...

Nicely put Catie. I do have to say, I don't have any problem with full disclosure of additives to wines, and as Thad comments it's probably best that those who wish to be informed are. That said, I agree overall that it's consumer empowerment in the form of education and honesty that needs to be used to lead the way here.

I've encountered similar situations of misinformation. Hopefully we (bloggers, journalists, enthusiasts) can all do some part to help educate and disperse these incorrect thoughts/perceptions.

As far as disclosing ingredients/serving size/calories, etc I've seen some creative ways that this could be done without increasing costs too much - not to mention, perhaps asking wineries to just post such information on their websites would be a step in the right direction. Very little effort, very little cost.

Hysterics aren't necessary, but compromise shouldn't be difficult.

wild walla walla wine woman said...

Hi Ryan,

Thanks for checking in. And to you as well, very nicely put.

Something to consider on an issue like this, it's important to get all opinions out there as it will give the consumer more food for thought so they can decide what is important to them.


Julia Herres said...

I agree with you Catie, as a wine drinker and as a label designer. It is already a challenge to fit all the current required information on a label without it looking cluttered. Most people don't know that those "required" pieces such as the GOVERNMENT WARNING have a very specific minimum font height...so there is very little room for manipulation there while also trying to fit the more glamorous pieces of a label that give the wine and winery personality which is a big part of marketing. I fear that if all ingredients and nutrition facts are to become a requirement on wine, and the same font restrictions apply (or even if they don't), the back label will not be able to hold it all and all personalization of the back will be sacrificed. The height and width of a label is already very restrictive especially on Syrah & Chardonnay bottles that are short and fat. They have only about 3.7 inches in height of flat surface around the base...and the 375ml half bottle sizes are another story. They'd have to start making the standard wine bottle sizes bigger to fit a label that includes all that crap...or perhaps we'd see a big movement towards boxed wine... (Ugh.)

Who cares anyway, I just want to drink and buy wine that tastes good to me. But if the information must be disclosed, I feel a good compromise is to post it on the winery's website. It will be alot cheaper for the wineries to make this change. I support making things more affordable for the wineries so they don't have to recoup costs by charging me more for a bottle of wine.

Anonymous said...

I would like comment on the Sulfite issue which I don't see as an issue. It does cause some confusion though, one of my European co workers said his dad couldn't drink California wine because they had sulfites and that European wines didn't have sulfites. I had to explain to him that the European wines did have sulfites but were not required to put this on the label. If the wine is imported to the US I think the sulfite label is required I am not sure what the present laws in Europe are about Sulfites.
P.S. My throat gets tight from sulfur dioxide treated fruit but I have never had any trouble with white or red wine.

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