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What's Actually In "Clean" Wine?

by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrck Darr

History shows that humans are very inventive when it comes to making something better. The auto industry is a good example: power windows, power brakes, electric cars and now cameras, self-parking, self-driving, GPS and more. The same goes for the beverage industry.

Wine was once a simple matter of crushing ripe grapes and letting wild yeast convert sugar to alcohol. But then, wine turned to vinegar, and ancient winemakers knew they had to add something to preserve the wine from spoilage. And so began the intervention of chemists who invented new means to alter a wine for the better: sur lies aging, malolactic fermentation, racking, cold-soaked fermentation. And if the grapes don’t ripen as well as expected, there are more tricks. Bugs or downy mildew? There’s a spray for that. Too much alcohol? Add water. Not enough color? Add grape concentrate. Not enough acidity? Add tartaric acid. Too sweet? Add tannins.

In fact, a lot of chemical additives are allowed in wine, which is the source of great controversy among “natural” wine proponents who want labels to include ingredients. With more people discovering what’s really in their Flaming Hot Cheetos, why wouldn’t they want to know what’s in that cheap Menage e Trois chardonnay?

Unfortunately, wine producers are only obligated to tell us that wine contains alcohol and sulfites. If legislation is ever passed to change that, consumers could see such ingredients as potassium ferrocyanide, copper sulfate and ammonium phosphate. Should you be worried?

Many purists think you should. Most recently, Cameron Diaz teamed up with Katherine Power to create a “clean” wine called Avaline. Clean is another word for organic. Scout & Cellar calls its line-up of organic wines “clean-crafted.”

We have mixed feelings about the natural wine movement. On one hand, why wouldn’t you want a wine free of pesticides, artificial fertilizers and those funny sounding chemicals? On the other hand, we’re consuming that in food products every day and the alternative can be more disgusting.

Purists are also living a hypocrisy. Alcohol is as strong a toxin as any of these chemicals, yet we don’t see them embracing alcohol-free wine.

We’re in favor of organic wine from biodynamic vineyards because in general the fewer chemicals are better for us and better for the Earth. But the wine still has to taste good and a good number of the natural wines we have tasted don’t. We don’t think consumers will like their cheap plonk if producers remove Mega Purple, a grape concentrate, that has been added to give the wine deeper color and more sugar. Nor would they be happy if the wine soured on the second day because the producer didn’t add any sulfites.

Then there is the issue of GMOs. Many wine producers use cultured yeasts instead of the natural yeasts that cling to grapes. These modified commercial yeasts add different flavors, but more importantly they allow a winemaker to control fermentation. Even grape vines are genetically modified to create versions that are more resistant to pests and disease. But vines already have been genetically modified over time. Cabernet sauvignon is a cross between cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc; chardonnay is a cross between pinot noir and gouais blanc.

The terms in this movement sow confusion. Only “organic” is defined by law. Every other term, including “natural,” is vaguely defined by marketers and well-meaning winemakers.

Scout & Cellar, for instance, is an intriguing business in organic wines. It uses a lab to test every wine it sells for chemicals. It says none of the wines it sells contain any of the FDA-approved additives, including Mega Purple and genetically modified organisms. Their wines have low sulfites, a natural-occurring ingredient of wine.

All of this terminology is enough to give you a headache – and that’s exactly what prompted Sarah Shadonix to leave law and launch Scout & Cellar. The headaches she got from drinking wine, she concluded, were a result of the pesticides and chemical additives in wine. She scouted the world to find wines – mostly from small producers – that lab testing shows are free of chemicals.

You won’t find Scout & Cellar’s wines in stores. You may find them in your neighborhood, though, as did we. There are thousands of at-home consultants who will process your orders and get the wines delivered to your house. Or you can go to their web site: No stores, no middlemen, no fancy marketing.

More and more wine producers are moving to sustainable farming and chemical-free wines. Whether the great wine producers will follow is another matter.

Blackbird Vineyards

Some extraordinary blends are coming from Blackbird Vineyards in Napa Valley. Although pricey, these premium blends reflect the character that we have grown to expect from Napa Valley, especially in the hands of talented winemakers Aaron Pott and Kyle Mizuno. They are helped by sourcing grapes from some of the regions’s top vineyards: Stagecoach on Vaca Mountains, Ballard on Spring Mountain and Crocker & Starr in Rutherford.

We enjoyed the Blackbird Vineyards Illustration, a blend of 49 percent merlot, 28 percent cabernet sauvignon and 23 percent cabernet franc.

Equally bold in style is the Blackbird Vineyards Contrarian, a blend of 70 percent cabernet sauvignon, 29 percent cabernet franc and 1 percent merlot.

Wine picks

  • Sea Slopes Fort Ross Winery Pinot Noir 2019 ($35). A reasonably priced wine for this category, the Sea Slopes pinot noir draws grapes from the Sonoma Coast. Made by Jeff Pisoni, it has bright raspberry and cranberry aromas, cherry flavors with some herbal notes and long finish.

  • Avalon Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($11). This is one of the best values in the cabernet sauvignon market today. True to the region, it has jammy and ripe plum and blackberry flavors with a hint of vanilla.

  • Chateau des Ferrages Roumery Cotes de Provence Rosé 2020 ($20). From the respectable house of M. Chapoutier, this rosé is a classic blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah. Very vibrant and racy with strawberry and mineral notes. This wine rocks.

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