Funny Business with Jane Wells

Wine Labels: Should They Include The Fish Bladders?


You like wine? I do. That's one reason an estimated $30 billion in wine was sold in this country last year. You think wine is made out of fermented grapes? Well...mostly. Here's what most winemakers don't want you to know: they put other stuff in wine, and they use a lot of non-grape materials in processing it. Nearly every winemaker does it.

Some winemakers add water, some add sugar (California winemakers can't), many add red coloring called mega purple. Some use egg whites to make red wine clearer and remove bitter tannins. Some use issinglass, made from fish bladders, to clear up white wine. Some even use oak chips to add flavor because it's a lot cheaper than oak barrels.

All of this is not new. Winemakers used to use ox blood to clear up red wine (yuck!). The Romans used to sweeten wine with sugar. But additives and agents have become a huge business. Here's a link to one company which does this.

Wine Industry Secrets

All of the products are "natural," and many are filtered out before the wine goes into the bottle. These products help make wines more consistent, despite a bad year. They make "Two Buck Chuck" drinkable. They make high-end wines look better. They allow you to take a bottle of wine home tonight and open it, rather than wait a couple of years. And don't be fooled by the "organic" label. The grapes may have been grown organically, but that doesn't necessarily affect the winemaking process.

John Krska, General Manager of Casa Cassara Vineyards in California's "Sideways" country, sometimes uses a clay called Bentonite to 'fine' wine (reduce astringency). "Americans want a flawless wine. And in order to get that flawless wine, they have to be filtered, the have to be 'fined,' and they have to be tinkered with."

The question is, should you know this? Should winemakers list all ingredients or fining/filtering agents on the label? They do in New Zealand and Australia. Now the U.S. government may force new labels changes here. Food companies have to do this all the time, but food and non-alcoholic beverages are regulated by the FDA. Wine is regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in the Treasury Department. Currently, wine labels only need to carry an alcohol warning and mention that sulfites are present (they help prevent spoilage).

The feds are considering two different labeling initiatives: one forcing a label which shows how many calories, fat, carbohydrates and protein is in each serving of wine, and a second to force winemakers to list the potential presence of allergens like egg whites or wheat (wheat paste holds oak barrels together).

The wine industry has popped its cork over the initiatives. One winemaker says new labels will "freak out" consumers needlessly. Apparently you can't handle the truth! They say it would be too expensive to determine the calories in a serving of wine because it varies. And listing allergens is misleading because those are filtered out before the wine goes into the bottle (though proving trace amounts don't remain could be hard).

Professor Ken Fugelsang at California State University Fresno thinks consumers should know. "I think as much information as we can give the consumer to make a decision is a wise direction to go in."

But veteran wine writer Dan Berger strongly disagrees. "I think it would clutter the label, and it would be misleading in a lot of ways. It would make it seem as if something foreign is being added to the wine, when in fact these are grape products that are made directly from grapes." He fears new label rules would "tie winemakers' hands."

By the way, why add water to wine (a Jesus miracle in reverse)? This is another big issue people in the industry don't like to debate publicly. Critics like Robert Parker sway buyers, and these critics tend to like so-called "big" wines with bolder flavors. To achieve that taste, some growers are being told to keep grapes on the vine longer. But that dehydrates the grapes, and the resulting wine sometimes has too much alcohol. So water is introduced into the process.

Would you be willing to pay as much for a bottle of wine if you knew water had been added? It will be months, maybe even years, before the feds decide what changes to make, if any.

The bottom line here is the bottom line. How would consumers react if they knew the truth? I'd still buy plenty of wine. But I wouldn't look at it quite the same way. It'll be more like a beverage, like beer, or Snapple. Something a lot less expensive, which is exactly what winemakers fear.

Comments? Funny Stories? Email