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Whining About Labels

You may have heard about unsafe levels of arsenic in wine. That’s not really the problem it’s been made out to be, but you should still know what you’re drinking when you pick out your next bottle.
What's even in that glass? (Photo: Skumer/Shutterstock)

What's even in that glass? (Photo: Skumer/Shutterstock)

Americans have developed an impressive wine habit over the last several decades. In 2013, we consumed 892 million gallons of wine. That’s nearly four times as much as in 1970—and an average of almost three gallons for every man, woman, and child in the country. It’s therefore no surprise that California experienced tremors when a recent report claimed that wine samples from 28 producers contained unsafe levels of arsenic, a naturally occurring compound that, at high levels, acts as a potent carcinogen. The finding has run rampant through the media and resulted in a lawsuit against Golden State vineyards.

But as dire as the news sounds—perhaps dire enough to lay off the chardonnay?—the best response might be to improve what happens on the outside of the bottle rather than inside of it. The arsenic scare, when placed in perspective, speaks more to the issue of labeling than public health.

Food-adulteration news almost always warrants a preemptive deep breath. It certainly does in this case. BeverageGrades, the company that oversaw the wine testing, sampled 1,306 bottles and found excessive arsenic levels in only 83 of them (six percent). Furthermore, it’s difficult to evaluate what exactly “excessive” means when it comes to arsenic in wine. The Environmental Protection Agency fails to specify safe arsenic levels for wine. But it does for drinking water, allowing 10ppb based on a two-liter per day rate of consumption.

The imperative of consistency—the hallmark of industrial production—requires vintners to manufacture wine rather than nurture it to maturity through natural processes.

This water standard provides a useful gauge. Given that a reasonable wine drinker might sip 300ml of wine in a typical day, the arsenic intake from drinking only allegedly high-arsenic wine would end up being less than the amount potentially consumed under the EPA’s water benchmark. (By the way, if you’re drinking two liters of wine a day, you’ve got a bigger problem than arsenic poisoning.) In this light, it seems that the Wine Institute’s response to the study—“false and misleading”—may be closer to the mark than most others.

None of this is to suggest that the arsenic news is irrelevant. For many consumers the scare raises the more basic question of why there’s arsenic in wine in the first place. The answer to this question ultimately hinges on a fact we rarely consider: Most wine is heavily processed. It’s a product of the industrial food system. Arsenic—which exists naturally in water, air, and the diatomaceous earth through which most commercial wine is filtered—settles in the wine at some point during an unexpectedly extensive and intricate production process.

The filtering procedure—which Dr. Brian Jackson, a Dartmouth expert on trace metal analysis, identifies (in an email) as a possible cause of the arsenic accumulation—is just one of several steps that incorporate ingredients you’d never guess were integral to something so seemingly pure as vino. While there are boutique exceptions that rely on all-natural methods of production, most wine, according to the New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, “include[s] a lot more than grapes, yeast and sulfur.” He adds: “The list in some cases can be staggering.”

The California wine industry’s rapid commercialization over the last 40 years helps explain this long list. Mass production has pressured winemakers to eliminate what Charlotte Chipperfield, CEO of The Wine Key, a wine marketing and education company, calls “vintage variation.” The imperative of consistency—the hallmark of industrial production—requires vintners to manufacture wine rather than nurture it to maturity through natural processes.

Of course, a lot of wine aficionados know better than to fetishize their product’s purity. They’re generally aware that sulfites are added to kill undesired bacteria and yeasts (and that they don’t cause hangovers); that oak chips and tannin powders add structure to wine; and even that cane or beet sugar is used to enhance the ripening process.

But what’s less known, even among wine cognoscenti, is the array of additives and preservatives used during downstream stages of production. “People want you to assume there’s nothing in their so-called ‘natural’ product,” says Alice Feiring, natural wine advocate and the author of Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally, right before she begins listing some of the additives used to make the stuff.

Vegetarians beware. Blood, isinglass (fish bladders), and—“the old standby”—gelatin topped Feiring’s list. Then came egg whites, trypsin (made from pig pancreas), and a sweetener called “mega-purple,” which Feiring notes is “illegal in parts of the world.” Further investigation turned up copper sulfate (to reduce hydrogen sulfide in screw cap wine), gum arabic, ammonium salts, and several pectic enzymes used to balance acid and nitrogen levels. And this just scratches the surface. Feiring suggests there are up to 200 additives used to synthesize wine.

That’s a lot of industrial sounding stuff. So if, as one journalist has argued for Wired, “a typical bottle of Napa Cabernet owes more to lab-coat-wearing chemists than to barefoot grape stompers,” the obvious question becomes: Why are there no nutritional or ingredient labels on wine? If milk, juice, and soda must have their secrets revealed, why not the nectar of the gods?

The answer is alarmingly arbitrary. Wine is regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and, to lesser extent, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and neither agency is obligated to label the products they regulate. The only information required on a wine bottle is alcohol content, a declaration of sulfites, country of origin, address of winery, and net contents.

The wine industry, for obvious reasons (cost, fear of a backlash against scary-sounding chemicals), would prefer to keep it this way. As The Wine Key’s Chipperfield notes, the level of consumer education is so low when it comes to wine production that it would be difficult to inform without alienating. “How do you navigate that challenge?” she asks. “People will over-read them.”

Perhaps. But a little public overreaction seems a modest price to pay for transparency. We live in a food culture hell bent on aggressive labeling (see the recent GMO debates?). And if fresh-squeezed orange juice requires a label, there’s no good reason for wine, which is just as (if not more) industrialized, not to have one as well. If the current arsenic dust-up teaches us anything, it’ll soon be manifest on the back of a wine bottle.

The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.