The Grapevine

Is it time to know what’s in our wine?

Special to The TribuneJune 14, 2013 


Bonny Doon Vineyards in Santa Cruz lists ingredient information on some of their wine labels.

BOB FILA — Chicago Tribune/MCT

As consumers have shown more interest in what’s in their food, some are extending that to wine. What’s in that bottle, anyway?

At its most basic, wine contains grapes and yeast. At least some sulfur dioxide usually is added as a preservative. But there are lots of permitted additives, such as water; tartaric acid to brighten up the wine; coloring agents made from grape concentrate; chemicals to kill objectionable microbes. Some are benign; some less so.

Ingredient labeling is one solution, but it hasn’t been widely embraced by wine producers. There’s the ubiquitous “contains sulfites” statement on any wine with added sulfur, but not much else. Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino recently unveiled ingredient labeling on its 2011 wines. On the Ridge website, CEO Paul Draper notes that the winery is listing ingredients to demonstrate that additives and invasive processes are not necessary to make fine wine.

Ridge joins Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, which began including ingredients on its back labels for the 2006 reds and 2007 whites. Both wineries are to be commended for their forthrightness.

This brings me to the proponents of “natural” wines, which they loosely define as wines produced with as little human intervention as possible. Nothing added — except, possibly, a little sulfur, although some producers avoid even that. But here’s the rub: How much intervention is too much? There are no real standards.

The natural wine crowd turns up its nose at organic or sustainable, saying that such practices have been co-opted by “industrial” wineries. And to be fair, government standards allow a lot of additives in organic products. (To clarify the nomenclature, U.S. rules state that wines with added sulfur can’t be labeled as “organic.” If they are made from certified organic grapes, they may be labeled as “made with organic grapes.”)

Certainly the term “sustainable” doesn’t wash with the natural folks. It’s true that some sustainability programs rely on self-assessment, which opens them to charges of greenwashing. But the number of third-party certifications is increasing, with programs such as Sustainability in Practice (SIP) for the Central Coast and Lodi Rules.

Predictably, there’s been backlash against the naturals — many of whom are pretty strident themselves. Critics say there’s a not-so-subtle implication that other wines are somehow unnatural. Critics also point out that some natural wines can taste funky or downright spoiled, a point even some supporters concede.

The back-and-forth can get pretty vitriolic. So here’s an idea: Let’s turn down the volume. The idea of intervening as little as possible in the winemaking process, while still making a sound wine, is an appealing one. But natural wine needs a set of standards if it is to have credibility. And “natural” can’t be an excuse for defective wine.

Let’s start with transparency. Ingredient labels, anyone?

Pick of the week

Ridge Vineyards 2011 Paso Robles Zinfandel ($30)

This zin from Benito Dusi Ranch features Ridge’s new ingredient labeling. The wine is lively, spicy and well-balanced, with sweet berry fruit and a hint of tobacco.

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