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Full Disclosure: Additives in Wine

Maurice DiMarino, Certified Sommelier and Certified Cicerone

I have taught at San Diego State University’s Business of Wine Program for several years. During my California Wine Intensive course, I always talk about reading the back label of a wine to have a better understanding of how involved in the production was the winery.  Was it “cellared and bottled by,” “produced and bottled by” or “estate grown, produced and bottled by?”  They get a kick out of seeing how many labels we see in the marketplace which have very little to do with growing grapes or even making the wine.  The TTB mandates that the front label displays the type of grapes, where they come from, when harvested and the alcohol level. On the back label they tell us how much involvement the winery had in the production process.  However, the back label omits something very important; what was added during production.

* Why is wine so different from other consumer goods? Why isn't wine held to the same requirements to which other packaged goods must adhere? There are two sides to this argument.

Winemakers would have to change labels every vintage.  The additives and additions change from vintage to vintage. Most of the additives added are harmless. Stricter labeling laws would result in higher priced wines. On the other side of the argument, people want to know what is in the bottle. Were there any additives or flavorings added to the product?  In the mind of most people, wine is a natural product and it is what it is, fermented grape juice aged in oak.  Only if that was the truth.  Unfortunately, most wines are full of additives.  Granted most additives are there to improve the wine.

In 1987 wineries were forced to mention the use of sulfites, people magically developed headaches and allergies and blamed sulfites.  Sulfites have always been in wine to prevent bacteria growth. Amounts used vary from region to region and producer to producer.  When it became required to list this on the label, people’s buying habits changed. Most did not care, but others whom were more sensitive, started to look at bottles to see if the wine contained sulfites. I guess we can say they became wiser consumers. Of course we know that the headaches are alcohol related and not so much from sulfites.  Funny thing is even though alcohol level is on the label, most do not read it. They would rather blame chemicals for their discomfort.

Consumers are very worried about ingesting non conventional chemicals.  Most consumers have no idea what goes into a bottle of wine. Just when we were trying to get our heads around sulfites, here are some other additives we may see in wine: yeasts, tannins, bentonite, dried fish bladder, gelatins, egg whites, sugar, tartaric acid, malic acid, lactic acid, calcium carbonate, acetaldehyde, dimethyl dicarbonate, mega purple, oak chips, pvpp, potassium sorbate and the list goes on. Many of these additives might seem familiar since they are in a lot of our packaged foods.  We have become used to reading the back of labels and are okay when we see the word “calcium” or “potassium”, we don’t bat an eye.  But mega purple? This is why I don’t buy Velveta cheese it has apocarotenal coloring. Some of these additives help stabilize wines and are an important part of wine making.  However, others are there to modify wine or rather, improve poor quality wines. Kind of like the coloring added to Velveta, used to improve the color of poor quality cheese stuff.

Worst case scenario is when the Two Buck Chucks of the world use fining agents that release arsenic into the wines.  How many people would still buy a $2 wine if the label said “some ingredients are known to cause cancer” and in bold letters arsenic. Safe or unsafe, consumers have the right to know what is in the bottle. I think its time for full disclosure in the wine industry.  Let people make wiser decisions when buying wines. Hold wine companies accountable for trying to sell us swill by modifying with additives and slapping on an eye-catching label. It would also make producers of expensive wines focus on production in the vineyards and not the laboratory.

In my opinion if it is served in a package, then let us know what is in the package.  We have a right to know. I don’t care if you modify the wine so that it fits a certain flavor profile, but let us know you are doing it. Otherwise we will think that Pinot Noir is supposed to be purple.  Hopefully one day we can read the back label and know who, when, where and how the wine was produced. Where do you stand on this?

***Opinions expressed on SommConfidential are subjective to its contributors and do not reflect that of SommCon and its affiliates

Maurice DiMarino

Maurice DiMarino

  • p T

    Ciao Maurice,
    Totally agree with you , that is why you need to drink Italian wine from small producers, Not a million bottle proucuction winery!

    October 5, 2016 at 9:33 pm Reply

    I completely agree with your comments, as a retired design engineer of medical devices, we had to declare to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) all the design specifications, and once we produce the prototype, we verify and validate, that our product passed all the tests ensuring we met the specification. Wine is both a drug and ingestable liquid that has nutrients and alcohol, and sometimes Arsenic, why in the world does the TTB has to control what is in the wine is beyond me.
    Upon my retirement, I planted 2.5 acres of vines on a steep hillside, and currently DRY FARM it, and only use Sustainable practices to grow the grape, and we are the only GREEN vineyard and winery in our county. We produce between 200-500 cases a year depending on the rain we have, but the quality of the wine is great, and the vintage is different from year to year. I can only drink few wines that are made commercially, as I find them to be very much the same taste, texture, color and are very high alcohol etc.
    I am not in favor of ineffective rules and regulations, administered by incompetent government bureaucrats, but neither am content with the current lack of any standards of transparency.

    October 5, 2016 at 10:00 pm Reply
  • Lisa

    What a terrific discussion. I would like to add that if you can, get to know your producer. Learn about their philosophy, style and actual case production. I make less than 1000 cases of wine. I recently moved from making my wine at a bonded facility owned by others (produced and bottled by) to my very own winery. Nothing has changed, but because it was crushed and fermented at one bonded facility, and moved to another (my own) before bottling, I am forced to say “cellared and bottled by” on these vintages. Cheers to supporting small producers!

    October 5, 2016 at 10:11 pm Reply
  • Jameds Douglas

    Consumer Reports noted that, “brown rice has 80 percent more inorganic arsenic on average than white rice of the same type” — and I don’t recall seeing a prop 65 warning on a sack of rice. Ethanol is a poison. Look before you drink: “WARNING: Drinking Distilled Spirits, Beer, Coolers, Wine and Other Alcoholic Beverages May Increase Cancer Risk, and, During Pregnancy, Can Cause Birth Defects.”

    October 6, 2016 at 4:45 pm Reply

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