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Robin Garr

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WineAdvisor: Ingredient labeling

by Robin Garr » Wed May 23, 2007 1:40 pm

Ingredient labeling

<table border="0" align="right" width="260"><tr><td><img src="http://www.wineloverspage.com/graphics1/ingred.jpg" border="1" align="right"></td></tr></table>Pick up an item as prosaic as a box of saltines, and you'll find one end of the box covered with fine-print information listing every ingredient that went into the contents, along with a detailed nutritional analysis.

We're talking serious detail here: Enriched flour (wheat flour, niacinimide, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate [Vitamin B1], riboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid), vegetable oil [soybean, cottonseed, hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed), partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil with IBHQ and citric acid for freshness], salt, contains two percent or less of corn syrup, leavening [baking soda, yeast], malt extract, dextrose, soy lecithin), all adding up to 60 calories in a 5-cracker "serving."

There's so much information there that I could pretty much build a recipe and make my own saltines, if only I knew where to get some folic acid and soy lecithin.

But pick up a bottle of wine, turn it around and around and look all over the labels, and you'll find no such thing. Despite the wacky sulfite and surgeon general's warnings, wine producers are not required to disclose ingredients to the public.

Food labeling in the U.S., as it happens, is regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration, whose strict rules insist on precise ingredient and nutrition labeling as in the example from a Zesta box above.

But wine labeling is governed by the U.S. Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which - apparently bowing to pressure from the industry, which generally opposes it - has never imposed the requirement. (A lobbying effort by consumer advocacy groups gained some traction during the 1970s, but sunk without a trace when the Reagan Administration moved into the White House, and it hasn't been seen or heard of since.)

California's Wine Institute, a trade organization, opposes labeling, arguing that it's unnecessary, expensive, and potentially "misleading" to consumers, an argument that's a bit hard to follow given that consumers seem to manage to deal with ingredient labeling on foods.

Perhaps more credibly, many artisanal producers point out that there's not much to label in wine: Grape juice, yeast, potassium metabisulfite used as a preservative; perhaps some trace elements from oak, if the wine is fermented or spends time in barrels, and inorganic (bentonite clay) or organic (egg whites or, rarely, isinglass from fish bladders or, historically, dried ox blood) used to clarify the wine ("fining"). But the dead yeast and fining materials, by and large, drop out of the wine as sediment in production, and don't turn in the finished wine, except perhaps in molecular amounts.

But even molecular amounts might concern a vegetarian (or anyone who'd feel disgusted by the idea of animal blood or fish innards passing through his wine), or an individual allergic to yeast. Indeed, potential allergic issues form one of the stronger public-policy arguments in favor of ingredient disclosure. In similar fashion, while a lot of wine enthusiasts might appreciate disclosure of the presence of residual sugar in wine simply for the sake of easily sorting out truly dry, off-dry and sweet wines, this information could be critical to a diabetic.

Moreover, while most artisan wine makers would sooner pour their wine into a river than doctor it with chemistry-set additives, we're not so certain that the same can be said of mass-market industrial producers.

Finally, some more "natural" additives are more widely accepted in the industry than many consumers know, ranging from chaptalization, where legal (bulking up juice from underripe grapes with sugar to increase potential alcohol level); acidifying low-acid grapes with citric, malic or tartaric acid, and even adding concentrated grape juice to intensify wine color.

The view from here is that consumers have a right to know what's in our wine, and quality producers making natural wines have nothing to fear from ingredient labeling.

At this point, however, the argument is entirely academic, since there's no strong advocacy effort that I know of to push the industry, or the government, to start disclosing the ingredients in wine.

The CEO of Vinovation, a California wine-country firm that advises wineries on high-tech enhancements for wine, was startlingly blunt in a recent interview with <I>The Los Angeles Times</I>: "Why freak out the ignorant when we are adjusting something that is already there in the wine?" Vinovation exec Clark Smith told <I>The Times</I>.

The article on wine-ingredient labeling, by <I>Times</I> reporter Corie Brown, is well worth reading. Here's a link to a currently available reprint in <I>The Seattle Times</I>.

If you have a question or comment or would like to express an opinion on either side of the wine ingredient and nutrional information issue, you're welcome to post it here.

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Keith M

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Re: WineAdvisor: Ingredient labeling

by Keith M » Wed May 23, 2007 2:37 pm

Robin Garr wrote:The CEO of Vinovation, a California wine-country firm that advises wineries on high-tech enhancements for wine, was startlingly blunt in a recent interview with <I>The Los Angeles Times</I>: "Why freak out the ignorant when we are adjusting something that is already there in the wine?" Vinovation exec Clark Smith told <I>The Times</I>.


Some other rather good Smith tidbits in the article as well, a la:
Smith uses additives of all kinds to turn unsuccessful batches of wine from his 1,200 winery clients into salable products.

and

"For all of the posturing about 'terroir,' very little wine sells because it is distinctive," Smith says. "Additives are cosmetics. They are supposed to enhance, improve a wine. [Wine enhanced this way is like] a beautiful woman whose makeup is invisible.

Personally, although I have always been in favor of producers providing more information voluntarily about what products and process goes into their wine, I am quite dubious about having the government mandate it. In particular, I would be worried about the impact that required ingredient labeling would have on small producers. Though large mass-producers of wine might fight ingredient labeling tooth-and-nail (presumably because they fear that many-syllabled ingredients will ward away wobbly consumers), the fact is that they get to spread out the cost of complying amongst the thousands and thousands of bottles they sell--cuts a bit into their profits perhaps, but not too bad. But for a small winery that only produces a thousand or less cases a year, another bureaucratic hurdle before they can get their label approved is a rather bigger deal. As with nutritional labeling on food, being a huge producer of a consistent product makes it a less onerous requirement than if you are a mom-and-pop level producer. I think that sets a pretty high bar for what the public interest is in establishing the requirement. I haven't completely considered the issue, but proponents would have to make a pretty compelling case that such a public interest exists--an argument I have not yet heard.
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Re: WineAdvisor: Ingredient labeling

by Robin Garr » Wed May 23, 2007 2:54 pm

Keith M wrote:But for a small winery that only produces a thousand or less cases a year, another bureaucratic hurdle before they can get their label approved is a rather bigger deal. As with nutritional labeling on food, being a huge producer of a consistent product makes it a less onerous requirement than if you are a mom-and-pop level producer.


While I don't deeply disagree with your observations, Keith, I think it's worth noting that even tiny food producers are covered by - and seem to be able to comply with - FDA labeling requirements. I've heard a lot of excuses for small-business failures, a situation that's always sad. But I don't think I've ever heard FDA nutritional labeling mentioned as a concern.

I'd also suspect that a lot of tiny producers might <i>benefit</i> from the comparison if wary consumers who want to avoid additives can compare and discern who's got a chemistry set in their product and who does not.
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Re: WineAdvisor: Ingredient labeling

by Keith M » Wed May 23, 2007 3:26 pm

Robin Garr wrote:even tiny food producers are covered by - and seem to be able to comply with - FDA labeling requirements. I've heard a lot of excuses for small-business failures, a situation that's always sad. But I don't think I've ever heard FDA nutritional labeling mentioned as a concern.


Ahhh, but the proper question isn't whether there any tiny food producers under the FDA-labeling regime but whether there would be more in absence of such a regime. Although quite frankly I highly doubt that that concern is the biggest hurdle for tiny food producers--getting your product on a shelf where a consumer can buy it has to be quite challenging when you aren't prepared to provide them to a supermarket in massive quantities.

In any case, I can see the huge public interest in such an ingredient labeling requirement for food. I don't see it for wine and hence am hesitant to add a requirement that would shift the playing field in favor of larger producers. Of course, depending on how consumers use the information, it might help smaller producers who produce their wine with less additives . . . but I kind of doubt it. Folks are easily confused by the minimal information included on labels today (see, e.g., contains sulfites).
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Steve Slatcher

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Re: WineAdvisor: Ingredient labeling

by Steve Slatcher » Wed May 23, 2007 5:29 pm

I stumbled across this some time ago:
http://www.awri.com.au/analytical_service/additives/

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