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Disclosing Wine Ingredients: Arguments Against (Part 1)

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Recently, I have engaged in a debate on the merits of disclosing wine ingredients and have come away surprised at the arguments that have been made against my stance. While the counterpoints are numerous, I have yet to hear an argument against disclosure that holds any water, one that might make me take pause and rethink my stance on this important topic.

In the first of a two part series, I thought it would be useful to summarize the arguments I have heard thus far and why each of these suffers in terms of its power of persuasion. In my next post, I will highlight the reasons why wineries should voluntarily disclose any and all additives used in the production of their wine. Here are the arguments I have heard most often against disclosing wine ingredients:

First, there is the argument that disclosure will only lead to confusion and even worse, over-reaction by consumers. This point carries the implicit assertion that consumers are incapable of processing information, let alone deciding for themselves what they should or should not consume. It suggests that consumers should be kept in the dark, that an ignorant consumer is preferred to an informed consumer. If consumers can process and determine whether or not high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is good for them, then they can surely ascertain the pros and cons of certain additives in wine.

Second, there is the naive argument that wine is natural, therefore why disclose anything? This assertion is related to the point above, in that both depend on keeping consumers in the dark. The reasoning goes that if consumers were to become aware that many wines contain unnatural additives, then they might at best realize it's no longer natural and at worse over-react! Let's hope there is an over-reaction to the crap going into some wines, whereby consumers become informed enough to stop buying/consuming certain products that are unnatural and unhealthful.

Third, there is the argument that revealing wine ingredients will increase costs, as producers will need more label space to accommodate these disclosures. This holds little weight, as any quick check of wine labels on retail store shelves reveals the following: there is plenty of space available to include a list of ingredients in each wine. In fact, those that add few ingredients to their product, should not worry about space constraints, for it is the over-additive wines that require the most text. Even in cases where the back label is crowded with irrelevant marketing hyperbole, consumers would be better off knowing what's in the bottle.

Fourth, there is the argument that that it's the alcohol that folks need to worry about, as everything else in the wine is of secondary concern. This is about as sensical as stating that consumers need not care what goes into their beef, as clinical studies suggest red meat leads to cancer and heart disease. If the beef is bad for you anyway, why care about anything else that might harm you? I enjoy red meat as a component of my diet, albeit in moderation, but I still care whether or not the cows were injected with antibiotics or other chemicals in their development. Why should wine be any different?

Finally, there is the classic fear-mongering stance, whereby a discussion on this topic evolves into an assertion that the FDA will impose full disclosure of both ingredients and nutritional facts on the back of every bottle. Therefore, producers are going to have to cover their bottles with large labels or create multi-page, fold out labels to accommodate mandatory disclosure. I have yet to hear of any legislative or regulatory effort that will require the full disclosure of ingredients and nutritional facts on bottles of wine. In the absence of any evidence this is underway, this argument is used only to instill fear.

Let's hope we never reach a point where wine producers are forced by Federal regulators to disclose the ingredients in their product. Instead, I hope wineries follow the lead of many producers who are already disclosing on their labels and web sites what goes into each wine they make.

I welcome comments for and against disclosure of wine ingredients, especially any logical positions that might compel me to rethink my position. Please share your thoughts here, but by all means please spare us these worn out arguments against informing consumers what goes into the wines they drink.

Comments

Thad,

This is an interesting topic and you and I engaged a little on Catie's blog a while back.

I understand the rationale for increased disclosure on many products. Corporate America, and the corporate world for that matter, has proven itself time after time to be untrustworthy to protect consumers.

I think what I, and some others, are saying is that at some point the labelling requirements, certifications, and focus on ingredients and processes of wine production eventually distracts from the reasons we drink wine. We like its flavors, like the way it enhances our food, and enjoy the warm cozy feeling it gives us.

Besides, if a winery is forced to label with every ingredient and process used, where does that leave room for the label art that is the reason people like me purchase a particular bottle? :)

There is some loophole that makes some ciders post on it the ingredients (post ferment) and the nutrition of it. It actually tells me quite a bit about how it is processed, and I like being able to know.

Hi Thad,
I am glad to see you share your opinions about this. And frankly, I am not looking to compel you to rethink any thoughts. I respect your opinions and I understand your motives behind them. However, I find it interesting you are limiting readers to not comment on what you deem as "worn out arguments..."
Cheers,
C~

In response to the above comment:

I do believe some large scale wineries fall under corporations. Also, do you read the safety information cards on an airplane every time you fly or do you find it so distracting that you take the train? Of course not.

Yes, drinking wine is romantic, like eating a box of chocolates. However, if I see palm oil listed in the ingredients of said box, I'll opt for another brand. That's an informed decision. I am being prevented from making those same decisions regarding wine. Given the option, I'd rather rely on actual information on a wine than pretty pictures. Currently, I don't have that choice.

Now, where's my critter wine?

Thanks everyone for sharing your thoughts on this important topic.

Chris, as they say, "ignorance is bliss". However, I don't believe the desire to remain in this blissful state should trump the needs of those who want to know what's in their wine.

Heather, interesting note on hard ciders; didn't realize this was the case.

Catie, while I request that folks avoid repeating the same arguments featured above, any and all comments that are relevant and respectful will be published. At the same time, I do hope readers will offer alternative positions, for the ones called out here have been raised repeatedly across a variety of forums of late. And I stand by my statement that these arguments are "worn out", for they are consistent with positions taken (e.g., too costly, too confusing, etc.) in other situations involving product disclosure. Hope this clarifies things.

Jesse, thanks for calling out these examples. I still have yet to appreciate critter labels on wine, especially dogs. Granted, there are wines that smell and taste like a dirty, wet dog; maybe that's what the connection is all about. :-)

I think the movement to regulate and disclose ingredients is ultimately best for the consumer and within their rights to know what they are consuming. I believe we should as an industry do whatever we can to increase "everyday" wine consumption amongst the general population (let's get more people drinking a glass of wine w/ dinner instead of Diet Pepsi for starters!) so if this puts our product on an even playing field - that's better in the long run. Of course it will be VERY awkward & VERY expensive for wineries / wine brands to conform - but I do support mandating this. That said, I probably wont voluntarily add ingredient info until it's mandated.

Denise, great to have a winemaker weighing in on this important topic.

You've raised an interesting reason for not disclosing until it's mandated by regulators. I interpret your statement in the following manner: until all producers are required to disclose, there is the risk that those offering transparency might suffer negative consequences at the cash register (e.g., consumers might pick a wine with no disclosure over one that lists all ingredients).

Thanks for offering a new perspective here, one that I had not thought about until now.

Yes - That's the jist of my waiting until I have to. Sorry to say, but it's primarily financially driven. And let's face it, the burden will be on the wine producers to supply analytics or lab tests to verify ingredients. It's going to be a nightmare to execute. And to be perfectly honest about this, until regulation is in place, whatever someone puts on the back of a bottle is simply just what they want to say - so who knows what's true or not? If people are voluntarily saying this or that about what is or is not in their wine, there's no way to account for this anyway. I think a lot of the stuff that people already "disclose" about their vineyards or what not could simply be just great writing. Unless, of course, you're Randall Graham! :)

Thad,

Romance and bliss is part of it but, in my case at least, it's also a willful ignorance to some extent.

I think there are historical, practical, toxicological, financial, engineering, legal, medical, political, regulatory, and philosophical cases to be made on all sides of this discussion, and I'd really enjoy having those with you over a nice glass of Pinot or Syrah. You can pick the label, I'll buy.

One thing I've pondered about this topic. Say the U.S. goes down this road and eventually there are more disclosure requirements related to ingredients and processing, and maybe even farming.

Who's going to tell the French?

Denise (and others),

Aren't the current U.S. label requirements relating to GOVERNMENT WARNING,% by Vol alcohol and Contains Sulfite, already under the justisdiction of the Feds? Those things have been added to address what have been deemed public health issues related to this product and I presume if they're left off or falsely tested or verified, there's some mechanism to enforce against offendors.

Much more than that enters into the "want to have" category vs. the "need to have" category for me and since only consenting adults are allowed to purchase and use the stuff in the first place, I'm hopeful that the custom and boutique wineries, particularly here in the Pac NW where, IMO, some of the absolute best wine on the planet is being made, aren't discouraged or restricted or costed out of the trade because of more analytical and related costs.

Do I win an award for the longest run-on sentence of the thread?

Thad,

My opinion is that some practices should be disclosed while others don't really matter. What information is important is difficult to agree on though. Is disclosing fish bladder fining important - I don't think it is since it is a minute amount and it is racked out of the wine. Is disclosing the use of Velcorin important (a chemical that kills all life form but breaks down into methanol and co2) - probably not (it is not required for juices for example) - but should someone be authorized to use velcorin and put "unfiltered" on the label, well probably not either. About icewine? we still don't have rules that make sense for icewine in the US. I would be very happy to put levels of sulfites at bottling - that would make sense to me. I think the problem is having a lack of leadership in the wine industry in the US and instead of waiting for the government to tell us what should be on the label, our industry should come up with its own labelling requirements.

Nicolas

Thad,
I had to reread your blog as there were a few things that were confusing to me on where you stood on this subject and as I went back to read my blog - http://tinyurl.com/yfboy9p
You wrote the following comment on my blog:

I remain a strong advocate for full disclosure of wine ingredients for one reason only: it will empower consumers, like me, to make more informed purchase and consumption decisions. If I don't like the fact that a winemaker uses copper sulfate to address a hydrogen sulfide problem, then I want to know whether or not this is included in their wine.

But above on your blog you wrote:

Let's hope we never reach a point where wine producers are forced to disclose the ingredients in their product.

Huh?

Hey Catie,

Welcome back to the fray! :-)

Not sure why you're confused, but let me try to explain. One can be a proponent of full disclosure without having to advocate government intervention. That's the point being made above.

I've clarified the sentence that caused you confusion, which now reads in the following manner:

"Let's hope we never reach a point where wine producers are forced by Federal regulators to disclose the ingredients in their product."

If you read the paragraph before it, then hopefully you can see the inference being made here. Nonetheless, good to include "Federal regulators" to ensure everyone understands.

Please feel free to call out any other points or positions that are confusing to you, as I am happy to clarify.

Sincerely,
Thad

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