30 Second Wine Advisor: Ingredient labeling

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 Ingredient labeling
Even an item as prosaic as a box of saltines carries detailed ingredient and nutritional information. But you won't find it on a bottle of wine.
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Ingredient labeling

Saltines ingredientsPick 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 The Los Angeles Times: "Why freak out the ignorant when we are adjusting something that is already there in the wine?" Vinovation exec Clark Smith told The Times.

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

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 invited to drop by our WineLovers Discussion Group, where you'll find a discussion of this column here:

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