In response to Corrie Brown’s inflammatory L.A. Times piece on additives , I received this note:

“Why freak out the ignorant when we are adjusting something that
is already there in the wine?” says Clark Smith, chairman of Vinovation
Inc., a Sebastopol, Calif.-based wine industry “fix-it shop.”

Please inform Mr. Clark that it is news to this ignorant one that chicken,
milk, wheat, dye, oak chips, bentonite (and other ingredients mentioned in
the LATimes article) are already there in the wine. Silly me, I thought wine
was made from grapes. Mr. Clark’s remark is insulting. I have just recently
begun trying new wines, and this article, plus Mr. Clark’s remarks, will
cause me to reconsider. -Mary C.

Dear Mary:

I’m terribly sorry to have offended you. I’m possessed of a loutish bluntness which does drive folks crazy sometimes, and Corrie it seems got an offhand quote out of me while I was fighting traffic. The good part — at least I’m speaking my mind. I think it come from being raised in New Jersey, then transplanted to the more mellow California.

So here’s a rather long response I get to write, rather than snipping the nasty bits from a frank phone conversation, as is Corrie’s method. If you prefer, skip to the short answer in the last two paragraphs.

Ignorance is not a bad thing, nothing to feel insulted about. Nobody can be expected to possess a depth of knowledge on every subject. I’m ignorant about a lot of things, and in many cases I certainly hope to remain so!

That’s the spirit in which I intended my comment. Wine is a ridiculously complex topic, and most of the people who enjoy it know little about the real details of making it. Why should they bother, as long as it’s 1) safe and 2) made as advertised, i.e. not made from ingredients other than those derived from grapes and from oak barrels?

Well, maybe there are some good reasons. Today there are emerging concerns about the details of how wine is or should be made. I work pretty hard to inform folks about what’s really happening, and I get some flack from both sides for being frank. There are dozens of hot issues. The idea often comes up that winemakers can do whatever they want so long as the wine labels just have full disclosure, whatever that is.

At first blush, it sounds like a really good idea to label everything. But winemaking is complex, and to touch on every detail is kind of impractical, so labels tend to focus on health and safety issues. The principle you named — that wine isn’t made from ingredients — is what has guided Federal and State law for many years. It certainly simplifies things. Corrie Brown is being oh-so-clever and not quite disingenuous to mention the animal products “used to process wine.” She is certainly being misleading, for it was easy for you to jump to the conclusion that these are “already there in the wine.” As Gordon Burns states, there isn’t actually any evidence of that, let alone whether a dangerous level is present.

Right now the debate is swinging to allergens safety (which is appropriate) but also to other much more esoteric matters like the porosity of filters (sterile filtration vs reverse osmosis) and whether the wine is intentionally vs unintentionally allowed to come into contact with air (micro-oxygenation) — issues which have to do with the winemaker’s intent rather than the actuality of what the wine is exposed to — and are unrelated to health. Much discourse today collapses these distinctions and paints anything previously downplayed by wineries with the same demonizing brush.

In my view, much of this discussion is sort of like demanding that all symphony orchestras label their CD’s with information such as whether the oboe reeds are carved with a right-handed or left-handed penknife. Obviously, true full disclosure would literally require a book of several hundred pages to be attached to the bottle.

Fortunately, websites don’t have the practical limitations of labels. I am so far the only winery on earth who attempts to make full process disclosures on my site — and it freaks people out. I do it anyway because I think the topic of what winemakers actually are doing is interesting to many people, and I’d like that discussion to open up, because winemakers are proud of their accomplishments but are not being offered an open public listening.

There are many issues where the needs for consumer awareness are pitted against winery marketing desires, and where massive public education about this complex and, well, kind of trivial subject would be required. People just can’t take the time. So in that environment, I say let winemakers first protect health and second make good wine which connects the human soul with the soul of a place by rendering its grapes into whatever liquid music they want to play.

Allergens are a new topic. Whatever the LA Times may have reported, the U.S. government position on egg albumin, casein (milk protein), isinglass (fish protein) and gelatin (beef tendon) has been for the last seventy years that they leave no residue, and therefore, just like stainless steel, can be used to remove tannins to reduce harshness. These materials are not soluble in wine, and hadn’t been regarded as a problem. The wheat paste used very occasionally in barrel repair has only recently gotten on the scope.

Now that we have heightened consumer awareness, we are scratching our heads and wondering if we have a problem. My wife is terribly allergic to wheat, so I understand that very small amounts of these allergens can promote a reaction. But it’s clear that the amounts that set her off (a few micrograms of flower left on the chef’s hands) are a million times more than what could be contained in a red wine from a new barrel. But we don’t know how to measure the specific allergens, so we don’t know whether the residue, if any, is significant. We also don’t know for sure if little green men are trying to steal my luggage, but I have no evidence — yet!

So maybe there is a problem. Now, if you think, as I do, that these questions are best addressed by avoiding the use of these products, then perhaps you would be open to the use of micro-oxygenation, which when used with skill can smooth these tannins without the flavor stripping of animal protein fining agents, thus rendering their use obsolete. Perhaps also you would be open to oak chips rather than new barrels — no need for wheat paste. Well made chips provide identical flavors to the finest barrels at a fraction of the cost to the consumer, and they also reduce the rate at which 200-year-old French forests are cut down by a factor of four.

I realize that this is a long, complicated response to your short note, and alas barely scratches the surface. The Center for Science in the Public Interest began in 1980 a serial campaign to alarm the public about wine. The allergen scare is their latest ploy. They really hope you won’t study the issues at all. If the consideration of these complexities is difficult for you and you decide simply to walk away from wine, then they have found their mark. But the Wine Industry is far more regulated than most foods; do not imagine that the rest of your food supply is any safer or simpler to understand!

Short answer is this: If you are concerned about eliminating animal products from your wines, seek out producers who use micro-oxygenation instead. If you are worried about wheat products or have environmental concerns, seek out producers who use oak chips instead of new barrels. The more consumers demand these changes, the more producers will disclose these details. For now you have my wines at least, available at www.grapecraft.com. We do NOT use these materials, unless you want to count air.

I’ll do a whole blog on bentonite clay some time. It’s quite a fascinating subject — the leading candidate for the central player in the origin of life — but clearly totally insoluble and utterly safe. For now, rest assured that anything can be referred to with a weird name, and don’t let Corrie’s alarmist rhetoric bamboozle you.