The dirt on clean wine

The clean wine trend seems to have sprung up from nowhere but, says Felicity Carter, it needs to be taken seriously.

The Wonderful Wine Co./J. Strutz
The Wonderful Wine Co./J. Strutz

When Cameron Diaz and her friend Katherine Power launched their Avaline wine in mid-July, they set off a storm in the normally placid world of wine. Blogs, social media and even mainstream media blew up with indignation – some of it generated by yours truly.  

Their claim was that their wine was “clean”, free of the “chemicals and sweeteners” they had discovered were in wines. Their wine would be made from organic grapes and contain none of the unnecessary additives found in other wines. What generated the anger was that the wines not only had no details about vintage or origin but were also conventionally made.

The focus on Avaline coincidentally brought attention to another company, Good Clean Wine, which was doing a public relations push at the same time. Some of the claims it made in the media such as “Estate bottled is important. It means there is no chance of additives”, saw them widely mocked.

Only a few people, however, asked why the phrase “clean wine” was suddenly everywhere. Or why social media was full of ads promising healthier, or hangover free wines.

The wellness trend

It’s no coincidence that Katherine Power, co-founder of Avaline, is the cofounder of Clique Brands, a digital media and consumer company, as well as a line of skincare. Or that Courtney Dunlop and Michelle Feldman, the co-founders of Good Clean Wine, jointly own a Missouri spa and sell their own skincare products, or that Dunlop had been a fashion and beauty journalist.

That means they’re aware of the “clean beauty” trend, where cosmetics are being sold on the basis of what they don’t contain, rather than what they do. According to The Guardian, clean beauty “attempts to divide beauty products into good and bad, clean and dirty, toxic and nontoxic”; in the US alone, the clean personal care market is projected to grow to $25.11bn by 2025. It’s part of the $3.4 trillion wellness market, a loose term that the Global Wellness Institute defines as encompassing healthy eating, preventative and personalised health, alternative medicine and beauty.

The wellness trend is particularly attractive to women in general – who are now the majority of wine consumers in the US – and also to Millennials and Gen Z, to whom “consumption is a matter of ethical concern”, according to Robeco. These are people for whom knowing about ingredients and sourcing is extremely important.

But when it comes to what’s in wine, there’s nothing to be found. And some consumers have noticed that, sometimes, drinking wine can make them feel lousy – even when they drink moderately. From there, it’s a small leap to the conclusion that it’s secret wine additives that are causing the problem.

The co-founders of Good Clean Wine first agreed to an interview request, and then went silent after the negative publicity about their venture started. But on a podcast called Female Startup Club, Michelle Feldman recalled how in Europe she could enjoy a glass of wine at lunch with no consequences, but when she tried to do the same in the US, “I would stand up after a glass of wine with a salad at lunch, and I’d be like, ‘oh I shouldn’t have done that’.” After talking to her spa customers, she discovered that many of them were having the same reaction. “We realised there’s this huge market of people who love wine, who don’t drink wine anymore, who can’t drink wine because of the same problems.” But, she says, the wine industry doesn’t talk to these consumers.

And so, Feldman and Dunlop decided to create their own wine. They travelled across Europe and finally found someone to make it, and ordered the smallest possible shipment – 7,200 bottles. As soon as the wine was on the water, they held a party for their customers, who pre-ordered much of the wine. They were in business.

The question, though, is why did some wines make them feel bad, while others didn’t? Alcohol content is the obvious answer,  especially since the wines Feldman was drinking while in Europe probably had a lower alcohol content and came in a smaller glass than in the USA. But there might have been something else going on, too.

German-based oenologist Manuella Webber Witt did her PhD through the universities of Geisenheim and Giessen, looking at residues and fining agents. While she found little evidence that egg or milk residues cause reactions in drinkers, she notes that biogenic amines – a class of compounds that includes histamine – are sometimes generated through alcoholic fermentation, particularly malolactic fermentation. They’re also more likely to be present in grapes from warmer regions. Not only that, but they’re found in foods, particularly some cheeses, charcuterie, fish and spinach and tomato. So someone drinking an oaky white, or a warm climate red, while sitting down to a meal full of biogenic amines, may end up ingesting plenty of histamine – which can produce uncomfortable symptoms ranging from itching and sneezing to stomach pains. “It can be the sum of everything together,” said Webber Witt.

In her opinion, the three culprits that can make someone react to wine are – in order of importance – alcohol, then biogenic amines, and then sulphites in last place. Ironically, it’s sulphites that can prevent the formation of biogenic amines; Webber Witt says natural wines are more likely to have them.

But how is a consumer supposed to know which wine they are likely to be sensitive to? There’s no information. Into this breach have stepped people selling “clean” wines, who are telling consumers that conventional wine is full of junk and should be avoided.

The companies

A quick Google reveals a legion of clean wine companies who speak in the language of fitness and health, while disparaging conventional wine loudly and often. There’s FitVine, whose sales pitch is that it has a “fraction of the sugar that other wines have”, is “gluten free, Keto, Paleo and vegan friendly”, and “has fewer calories”; it says nothing about who makes it, where it comes from, or what processes were used to make it. There’s the Wonderful Wine Co wines offering “wellness without deprivation”, produced by Winc, a sophisticated online retailer. There’s Scout & Cellar, a multi-level marketing company, that offers a “Clean-Crafted promise”.

It’s probable that at least some of these companies are buying their wine on the bulk market, which would make the wines squeaky clean indeed – bulk wine is typically lab tested at least twice, if not three times, to ensure that the liquid that leaves the winery is the same as the liquid delivered to the customer, and within the legal limits of pesticide residues.

Then there are more thoughtful companies marketing their wines as clean, such as Thrive Market, an e-commerce site dedicated to natural and organic products. “We are proud of what we have accomplished with our wine program at Thrive Market and believe our standards are head and shoulders above many others using the same language,” sommelier Josh Nadel, who developed the wine collection, wrote to Meininger’s. “The usage of the term by many is misleading and disappointing, to say the least.” He outlined a very strict set of standards for Thrive’s wines, from zero tolerance for pesticides and herbicides (“and a very minor tolerance for fungicides”), to “no chaptalization, no reverse osmosis, no Velcorin, no concentrates, no adjuncts”. If the winery is not organic or in conversion, Thrive demands “a full lab panel of agrochemical tests”.

Thrive appears to be delivering exactly what consumers want: quality wines that are ethically made, pesticide free – and trickery free. It’s why their wine appears to be sold out.

Time for transparency

The best antidote to the opportunists flocking to the clean wine market is ingredients labelling, not only to reassure customers that their wines are not really full of additives, but also because it will reveal how conventional the “clean wines” winemaking is. Ingredient labelling is due to be introduced in Europe by the end of 2022, which will ultimately push New World countries to introduce it as well.

But by then it might be too late. 

The clean wine companies are masters of e-commerce and social media. The more they tout their cleanness, the more they denigrate everybody else and foster doubts about wine as a beverage. Consumers want to know what they’re drinking, and if the wine trade doesn’t take this seriously and explain how it makes its wines, and why, consumers will be left confused about what is safe to drink and what isn’t. By the time ingredient labelling finally comes, they may well have migrated to other categories and left wine altogether. Stated bluntly, it’s time for the wine industry to come clean.

Felicity Carter

Clean wine, wellness and label transparency will be discussed at Wine2Wine - click here for your tickets.

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