Is natural wine a fad or the next big thing in sustainable viticulture? I wrote about Oregon's place in the natural wine movement for the January issue of Oregon Business Magazine.
It wasn’t long ago that you’d find me perusing the wine aisles at Trader Joe’s, searching for a bottle of affordable Pinot Noir for book club. A conscientious consumer, I’d choose a bottle from Oregon or Washington even if I couldn’t find organic or biodynamic. Little did I realize that even these wines—usually hovering at $12 a bottle—contain all sorts of chemicals and additives that, while not imminently dangerous, I’d certainly refuse to ingest if they were listed on a loaf of bread or a box of Grape Nuts. But because the FDA doesn’t regulate wines (that job falls to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), there are no labeling requirements for what goes into each bottle.
If there were, you would be shocked. In addition to the pesticides and herbicides that many conventional wineries use in the fields, winemakers routinely use chemicals and additives in the cellar.
Some of the more egregious include Velcorin (dimethyl dicarbonate, which essentially sterilizes the wine and requires wearing a hazmat suit to dispense it); a plastic polymer known as PVPP (used as a fining agent to remove astringency); and something called Mega Purple, a grape concentrate that is used to “plump up” the color of a pale red wine and add a jammy flavor.
Though USDA organic standards forbid the use of most of these additives, they allow less benign substances like enzymes, powdered tannins, oak chips, dry powdered fish bladder (Isinglass) and egg whites.
As the market for organic food has soared over the past decade, a parallel movement has been quietly humming along in the wine world. It turns out that many mass-produced wines have been tinkered with endlessly in the cellar; they might contain anything from designer yeast strains and bentonite clay to the chemicals listed above.
So, mirroring the organic-food movement, a scrappy and somewhat rebellious movement has sprung up that champions so-called natural wines. The phrase, and the practice, is controversial, because there’s no agreed-upon definition of natural wine, and neither is there a third-party certifier.