Tag Archives: Yellow Tail

The Farmers Market Conundrum

This College Humor skit (2:37) about farmers markets perfectly sums up some of the struggles that small family wineries have in competing against supermarket brands.

Yes, everybody loves the idea of shopping local and buying wines from small family wineries. But, gosh darn it, why does it have to be so hard?

Why do I have to actually go to a winery or a small wine shop to find their product instead of picking it up with my toilet paper at Costco?

Why do they charge $25-35 for their few hundred case lot Pinot noir when you can get one of the 6 million-plus bottles of Meiomi made every year for $15-20?

How come these wineries don’t just sell to Olive Garden where they can pour me a sample at my table?

It’s a hard truth that the best of intentions often hit a wall when they run up against convenience and price.

Photo by Sarbjit Bahga. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0

Rain or shine, farmers tend to their produce and sell their wares.
Similarly, wine growers are in their vines come rain or shine doing their best to craft a product worth putting their name on.

Wine consumers may love the idea of shopping small but, just like the folks in the farmers market parody, they often end up eating fat, greasy McDonald’s instead.

The Supermarket (brands) advantage

As with supermarket produce, the big mass-produced brands take advantage of their near-monopoly of distribution channels. You don’t have to search the big brands out. They’re readily available not only at the grocery stores but at Costco, big-box retailers, chain-restaurant wine lists and even gas stations.

Like McDonald’s, you see them everywhere with that omnipresence giving a halo effect of reliability and consistency. I mean, these wines wouldn’t be everywhere if they weren’t good, right?

Small wineries will never have this type of visibility or convenience at their disposal. With the massive consolidation of distributors, many wineries are finding retail channels choked off. Even those that do squeeze themselves into a distributor’s book, often find their wines gathering dust in a warehouse as sales reps focus on their most prominent portfolios.

To find these small brands, consumers usually have to visit the winery (or their website) directly or shop at wine shops with curated wine selections. This requires “work” on the consumer’s part which is, unfortunately, an inherent disadvantage.

The $5 Onion versus the $5 Bottle.

Photo by Jim Heaphy. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

The original Charles Shaw actually set out to make high quality, hand-crafted wine but ended up going bankrupt.
That allowed Fred Franzia of Bronco Wine Co. to scoop up his label on the cheap.

Another advantage of the big brands is that their mass-production gives them an economy of scale. When you’re sourcing from thousands of acres and cranking out millions of cases at industrial warehouse-sized wineries, you can make a $5 bottle of wine–or even a $2.49 one.

The mom and pop wineries who are hand harvesting their grapes from a few acres, fermenting them in small lots with family members handling the bottling and packing line could never come close to that scale.

The price of their wines is going to reflect the smaller-scale production value of their labor. So, yeah, they’re going to be more expensive than a whole bag of onions at the supermarket.

Can you taste the difference?

Perhaps. Sometimes the difference is dramatic like comparing farm-fresh eggs to the factory produced supermarket eggs. But other times noticing the differences only comes after you’ve been exposed to them repeatedly.

If all you regularly consume are conventionally-grown leafy greens, then you might not notice at first the big difference between those and the organic greens from the farmers market.

But spend some time eating those locally sourced, fresh greens. Then go back to the cheaper supermarket stuff. The drop in quality becomes quite apparent.

Photo by Autumn Mott autumnmott. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Seriously, fresh eggs are AMAZING. They will rock your world like a Syrah from the Rocks Districts of Walla Walla.
Try comparing that to a YellowTail Shiraz and the difference is night and day.

Likewise, if you regularly consume mass-produced supermarket wine, your palate becomes used to the sneaky sweetness of residual sugar and mega-purple or the artificially lowered acid and added oak chips. Comparing that to a small production wine made without those tricks and manipulation may provide a stark contrast at first. But it may not.

However, if these small production wines were your go-to wines, the difference would be way more noticeable when compared to the supermarket stuff.

It’s “kinda” not that bad, though.

Shopping small is hard. There is always going to be access issues and a cost difference compared to the mass-produced brands.

The joke of the College Humor skit is that people only “kinda” support farmers market when it’s easy and convenient. But you know what? “Kinda” is better than nothing.

Even an “only when it’s easy” commitment to shop small makes a difference–in many different ways.

The competition of farmers market and people being more concerned about where their food is coming from has increased the overall quality of choices at supermarkets. Successful retailers know that they can’t wholly skate by on just convenience and pricing.

And while I use the term “supermarket wine” as a catch-all for big, mass-produced brands, there are a lot of supermarkets that have upped their game–carving out a little bit of shelf-space for wines from smaller family producers.

The Moral of the Story

My best advice to consumers who want to keep their heart in the right place is to keep doing what you can. When you are at a restaurant and notice unfamiliar names on the wine list, give them a try–even if they may be a couple of dollars more than your regular choice.

I can guarantee you that the sweat, tears and passion that went into that small production wine was more than a couple of dollars worth to the family that put their heart into making it.

19 crimes

Though sometimes you should be skeptical of the “real people” behind the wine too. Especially if they’re long dead and are talking to you as part of a marketing gimmick.

If you’re at a wine shop or even a grocery store that has a wine steward, ask them about what new wines have come in and if they know the backstory of who produced it. While the big, mega-corps come up with new labels and brands virtually every week, they rarely have a backstory or real people behind them. They’re usually just fancy, colorful labels with gimmicky promotions.

A good steward will know if a wine has real people behind it.

And if they don’t, you asking questions will encourage them to learn more and improve their selection.

When you get a chance to visit the “farmers market” of wine country, skip the tourist trap locations and seek out the small family wineries along your way. You’ll be amazed at the hospitality and behind the scenes insights that you can get when its the owner, winemaker or another family member on the other side of the tasting bar.

Anything you can do, when you can do it, helps in the grand scheme of things. Even if it’s only “kinda,” small family wineries will take all the support they can get.

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Millennial Math — Where’s the value in wine?

A few days ago I wrote about the “Boredom Factor” that is sapping Millennials’ enthusiasm for wine. But engaging Millennials with things that are new, interesting and authentic is only part of the battle. The industry also needs to reframe the discussion about value and pricing.

Photo by Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Let’s face it, wine delivers horrible “bang for the buck”–especially compared to other alcoholic beverages. This is true at all price points, but particularly at the low-end (and ironically titled) “value wine” segment.

For smaller boutique wineries, worrying about “value wine” might not seem like a big deal. But the issues impacting the top shelf take root on the bottom.

If you want to know why $100+ bottles of Napa Cab are in danger, head to your local grocery store and look around.

Millennial Math in the Grocery Store

I’ll get to our boutique and more premium wine brands below. But let’s start with a cash-strapped Millennial who want to spend less than $10 for something to drink. You could go to the wine aisle and find stuff like this.

Yellow Tail and other under $10 wines

Then there are other options as well–like Barefoot, Arbor Mist, Cooks, Andre’s and more. At this one grocery store, I estimated that around 40% of their wine selection was sub $10. So, diversity, yeah?

But they all fall into the same “sameness” of sweet, simple or boring Cabs, Chards and Red Blends. Sure, you have the occasional gimmick of things like the “living labels” of Treasury Wine Estates’ 19 Crimes. However, after the novelty of a cute label wears off, it’s still the same boring juice in the bottle.

Now right next to the wine department in many stores is a beer department which has likely been greatly expanded thanks to the craft beer boom.

Let’s see what under $10 options our Millennial shopper has there.

22 oz Beer bomber singles

These are 22 oz “bomber” sizes of beer which is only a tad smaller than the standard 750ml (25.4 oz) bottle of wine. In this one Albertsons grocery store, I counted over 80 different SKUs of at least 20 different styles of beer among under $10 bombers. And this was a rather small grocery selection for the Seattle-area market.

If you think of beer styles (Belgian Tripel, New England IPA, Oatmeal Stout, etc.) like grape varieties, the beer department has the wine industry smoked when it comes to answering the “Boredom Factor.”

Even among the same style (like IPA), you are far more likely to find distinct personalities and differences (hoppiness) among various brews than you ever would dream of finding among under $10 Cabs, Chards and Red Blends.

I have a fair amount of industry folks who read this blog so I’m going to ask you to step back and take off your “wine hat” for a moment. If you were a young post-college Millennial shopper with no personal connection (like having visited a winery) or long-term relationship with drinking wine, what would you spend your $10 on?

Are we just waiting for better times?

Yeah, things suck right now for the broke 20-something Millennial. But can we really predict their future buying potential based on the habits of their 20s?

It’s true that most Millennials have not entered their peak earning ages. Likewise, most have not reached the ages when previous generations started embracing wine.

Jason Haas, of Tablas Creek, makes that later point particularly well as he points out some of the silver linings amidst the gloom and doom assessments about Millennials.

The median age of a Millennial is 30, but the Millennials at the peak of the demographic bubble are just 24. Were many Baby Boomers drinking wine at age 30, let alone 24? No. How about GenX? Not much. Millennials are drinking more wine than preceding generations were at the same age, which should be a positive enough trend. — Jason Haas, Are the gloomy messages about the state of the wine industry warranted? I say not for wineries like us. 2/4/2019

I concede Haas’ point and appreciate his optimism. I’ve certainly not hidden my affection or admiration for Tablas Creek’s business acumen. Though Haas is a “proud Gen Xer,” he pretty much runs Tablas Creek like a Millennial with a brand that embraces transparency, authenticity and sustainability along with pushing the envelope for new and exciting wines.

Without a doubt, if more wineries followed Tablas Creek’s example, the Boredom Factor would almost be a non-issue.

But what I fret that Haas’ optimism overlooks is the habits and perceptions that are being ingrained into Millennial consumers right now. Haas’ generation (and the Boomers) had the benefit of a promising economic outlook before them–where there was the potential for growth in earnings and career development.

That is a luxury that many Millennials don’t have and this is something that we are all too aware of. Even if things get a little bit better into our late 30s and 40s, it’s going to be very difficult to shake the mindset and spending habits of our formative 20s and early 30s.

Valuing “Value”

While things are not as bad as they were during the Great Depression, social scientists and economists are already drawing parallels to the spending habits and mindset of Millennials with those of the Silent Generation born between 1925-1945.

Even though the Silent Generation benefited from the post-war boom, many kept the spending habits imprinted on them during the hardship of the Great Depression. Prominent among those retained habits was the idea of stretching your dollar–even when you had more dollars to stretch.

Millennials certainly like to be entertained. We want experiences and to feel connected. And we avoid boredom like the plague.

But we deeply value “value.”

The $15-25 Sweet Spot

Let’s go back to the grocery store and look at the more premium $15-25 “sweet spot” range of wine pricing–with emphasis on the sweet.

Meiomi & 7 deadly with cheaper spirits

Usually, Meiomi is not over $25 so, for the sake of argument, I’m including it here.

When you get up to the higher price points, wine’s competition is not just beer (with many interesting six and twelve packs available in this price range) but also spirits as well. But spirits adds another dimension because they’re far less perishable and the servings are much smaller.

With wine and beer, you ideally want to enjoy it the same day that it was opened. But a comparably priced spirit can last weeks or even months.

Now I can hear wine folks scoffing at the idea of Captain Morgan or Deep Eddy taking away throat share from anyone older than 23. Yeah, I get it. The “Fireball crowd” eventually grows up. But for those folks who lose the sweet tooth and want something with more complexity, the spirits department still offers numerous options–especially among whiskeys.

Plus, because of how long a bottle of whiskey last, a Millennial could even stretch their $25 drinking budget to $40 and still get some very compelling value.

Old Forester and Woodford reserve

Personally not a fan of the Redneck Riviera but I’d take it over Meiomi any day of the week.

Granted, you have to sometimes deal with the inconvenience of getting the product out of lockup. Also, in some states (like Washington) there are crazy high liquor taxes to account for too.

However, this is all part of the sum-value Millennial Math that we deal with on every trip to the store. What the wine industry needs to concern itself with is how all these figures are adding up.

Banking on Premium Spenders

I want to embrace the optimism that as Millennials feel financially secure, they will turn to wine and start spending in the premium category. That means not only a strong wine industry but also a strong economy overall.

But I can’t shake the feeling that even if Millennials have more money to spend, that they’re not going to be impressed with the value they see in high-end wines. This is something that I’ve personally experienced myself. I’m very fortunate in my financial situation to where I can occasionally splurge on bottles like Opus One, Silver Oak, Cristal and Petrus.

You know what? I’d rather drink Pappy.

I feel this way even though I’m a highly-engaged wine drinker with a personal connection to wine. I’ve been bitten hard by the bug and have a healthy cellar to show for it.

But if you ask me for my brutally honest choice of whether to spend another $2600-4000 on a bottle of Petrus or something like the 1981 Glenmorangie Pride, I would choose the Glenmorangie every time.

And this is coming from someone that keeps a picture of Petrus as their background banner on Facebook!

However, when I step back and let my Millennial nature take over–when I think about the sum-value of what I’m getting compared to what I’m paying–whiskey beats out wine.

If that’s the case with someone like me, then how do you think the math is playing out with my co-horts?

The Petruses of the World are not the ones that need to worry.

Petrus is not going to have problems selling their wine. Even if Millennials aren’t spending at levels of past generations, wineries like Petrus make so little at such high prices that they only need a few folks to bite the bullet each vintage. There is always going to be enough people like me who shell out thousands to attend our Super Bowl–even if it ends up being a 13-3 snorefest.

The real hurt is going to be felt by all the wineries making NFL regular-season and playoff-type wines. They’re the ones that are going to have to convince Millennials that their wines are worth the price of the ticket.

Let’s go back and look at our supermarket shelf at some of the $50-100 options.
$50 to 100 wine vs spirits

That is an excellent price on the Grgich. The only thing that kept me from pulling the trigger was wondering how long it had been standing upright under the supermarket’s harsh lights.

Again, why spend $50-100 for something that needs to be enjoyed mostly in one night (unless you spend another $200+ for a preservation system like the Coravin) over something you could stretch for months?

Wine’s saving grace has been that only a small segment of drinkers have developed a taste for brown spirits like whiskey, tequila and rum. But those categories are growing–especially among Millennials and women.

If the boredom factor doesn’t kill off the $100+ Napa Cab, brown spirits certainly will.

But it all starts back in the beginning, with the spending habits and perception of value that Millennials are developing now with their under $10 and $15-25 options. Here is where wineries are losing the battle before the war even begins.

Yeah, Millennials wanderlust is great and can definitely help wineries that are offering different and exciting wines. But that same wanderlust also fuels our openness in trying other beverages like craft beer and brown liquors. The more we try them, the more those other options become players in the “sum-value” game of Millennial Math.

And, right now, that math is seriously working against the wine industry.

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Race From The Bottom — How Should Wine Regions Break Into New Markets?

This morning wine writer Jamie Goode offered some sage advice to wine regions across the globe.

I’m not sure what prompted this particular dictum but reading it reminded me of Brand Australia’s wine marketing woes. People got so use to seeing cheap, cheerful “critter wine” flooding the market from down under that the idea of Australia making premium, high-quality wine almost became a non-entity.

Which kind of puts a damper on the 2400+ Australian wineries not named Yellow Tail, Jacob’s Creek, Lindeman, Black Opal or Wolf Blass, doesn’t it?

In the huge shadow of the “Yellow Tail” effect, Australian wines today only command around 1% of the premium export market in the US. In contrast, 95% of Australian wines in the US retail for around $8 per bottle.

And both numbers may be shrinking.

While Australia is seeing some positive growth in export value to markets in Asia and Canada, it was recently announced that exports to the US has declined by $27 million in value.

It seems that Americans are getting a bit bored of the critters. The novelty of criminals has piqued some interest but that too will inevitably wane. Plus, gimmick labels like 19 Crimes certainly aren’t doing much to burnish the image of Australian wine for consumers.

Catch Up Marketing?

In response to the decline, the trade organization Wine Australia has invested $4.2 million to promote premium Australian wines.  They’re spending a good chunk of that money rehabbing the image of Australia wines abroad.

This past July, they hosted several Master Sommeliers, Masters of Wine, wine buyers and media personalities at Lake Tahoe for an event called Australia Decanted. Featuring high-quality producers like Tyrrells, Penfolds, Vasse Felix, Clonakilla, Yalumba, John Duval Wines and Shaw & Smith Wines, the conference highlighted the people and terroir that often get overlooked by American consumers.

Next October, the Wine Bloggers Conference will be in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales–the first time the conference has been held outside of North America. Undoubtedly, a huge focus of that conference will be giving bloggers and other wine industry folks a chance to experience the world of Australian wines beyond Riverland and Riverina.

Are We Repeating The Same Mistake In Washington?

Here in Washington State, Jamie Goode’s warning is also pretty timely. Recently the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) published the “Top 10 Table Wine Brands” in the US by dollars.

You have the usual suspects of bulk California supermarket brands (and Yellow Tail, of course) but look at who is rounding out the top 10 with almost $177 million in sales.

Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Now being a bit of a Washington State-homer, I will be quick to point out something important. The quality of CSM wines are head and shoulders above the Barefoot, Sutter Home, Franzia and Yellow Tails of the world. While it is clear that the owners of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates are ambitious about expanding their portfolio with new labels and acquisitions, I take comfort in knowing that we’ll likely never see a bourbon barrel-age or cold brew hybrid wine coming out of Woodinville anytime soon.

In some ways, you could say that Chateau Ste. Michelle’s inclusion on this list is a good thing. Could this be a glimmer of hope that more Americans are drinking just a little bit better?

Perhaps. But there is a lot about this chart that gives reasons for pause.

Who Writes The Narrative Of “Brand Washington”?

Even if the quality of their wines are higher than entry-level wines from California, Australia and elsewhere, the overwhelming dominance of CSM wines in distribution still means that the banner of “Brand Washington” is being led by our entry-level wines.

Walk into any supermarket and look for Washington wine with multiple facings on the shelf. While Constellation’s Hogue or Gallo’s Covey Run ($5-6) might be there, chances are you will find only Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Columbia Valley ($6-10) label.

Or you may find one of CSM’s many, many, many sister brands like Columbia Crest Two Vines ($5-6), Grand Estates ($7-10), 14 Hands ($7-10), Snoqualmie ($6-8), Red Diamond ($6-8) or their 1.5L bulk brand Stimson Lane ($9-10).

Outside of Washington State, these may be the only Washington wines that consumers are exposed to–the state’s cheapest. Even within Washington, it’s near impossible to go into a grocery store or look at a wine list without being overwhelmed with “choices” of multiple different Ste. Michelle Wine Estates brands.

Again, the quality of these wines are undoubtedly higher than Apothic or Menage a Trois. However, the narrative of “Brand Washington” being told to consumers is still being written by just one company–and with its cheapest wines.

Has Trickle Up Marketing Ever Worked?

Even if the narrative is much more “impressive” and slightly less cheap than the story of Yellow Tail or other entry-level wines that Jamie Goode is warning about, there is still risk to the Washington State wine industry in letting the entire branding of the state be made by one dominant brand.

Has there ever been a wine region where “Trickle Up” marketing has worked? Has an industry that first introduced itself to consumers with their lowest, entry-level wine ever been able to successfully rise above that initial perception?

Inflation aside, was Napa Valley ever known for its $6-10 wines? Oregon? Bordeaux? Burgundy?

It’s almost like we’re expecting an upside down “halo effect”.  We’re hoping that our bottom priced wines “trickle up” and lead the way. When what we should be doing is having our top quality, premium wines dictate our narrative to consumers

Again, has that ever worked?

Maybe Washington State will be the one to break the mold. If Chateau Ste. Michelle is our “bottom”, that is certainly a step above many other regions.

But there is a lesson we should learn from the pratfalls of other wine industries.  Once the die of your brand has been cast in the minds of consumers, it’s really hard to recast.

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What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines

Photo by www.Pixel.la Free Stock Photos. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Veganism is described as one of the fastest growing lifestyle movements in the world. Some estimates claim that in the United states alone, there was a 500% increase between 2014 and 2017 in the number of Americans (around 19 million) identifying as vegan.

For the wine industry, that is a sizable demographic that retailers and wineries have value in marketing to.

So what makes a wine “vegan-friendly”?

For the most part, veganism is a code of conduct that avoids using any animal products or by products as well as anything that has been tested on animals. There are various reasons why people adopt veganism but often ethical concerns about the treatment of animals and impact on the environment are cited.

While wine is often assumed to be vegan, the use of animal-based fining agents such as casein (milk protein), albumin (egg whites), isinglass (fish bladders) and gelatin (animal collagen) in winemaking is problematic for many vegans.

Let’s Talk About Fining Agents

As Alison Crowe notes in The Wine Maker’s Answer Book, fining agents are used to help clarify and stabilize wine by binding to molecules such as proteins and excess tannins. These are items that can cause unsightly haze in the bottle, aggressive bitterness on the palate, off odors and flavors. The agent binds to the target molecule to form larger structures that eventually precipitates and settles to the bottom of tank or barrel as sediment.

Bruce W. Zoecklein et. al in Wine Analysis and Production classified the various fining agents into 8 categories based on their nature.

Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Isinglass and bentonite fining trials.

1.) Earths like bentonite and kaolin
2.) Proteins like the animal based ones above
3.) Polysaccharides like gum arabic and Sparkolloid
4.) Carbons like activated carbon
5.) Synthetic polymers like polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (or PVPP)
6.) Silica gels like silicon dioxide or Kieselsol
7.) Tannins often derived from insect galls on oak leaves though oak chip fining can also fall into this category.
8.) Others which includes both enzymatic fining (more fining aids rather than fining agents) and chelators that assist in the removal of metals such as “blue fining” with potassium ferrocyanide (illegal to use in the United States).

The different fining agents work on principles of electrical charge (like positively charged gelatin reacting with negatively charged tannins), bond formation (like the carbonyl group of PVPP bonding with the hydroxyl group of tannins) and by absorption/adsorption (like activated carbon absorbing off odors or bentonite adsorbing proteins).

There are positive and negative attributes to each fining agent with no one fining agent being perfect for every situation.

Animal-based Fining Agents

Egg whites (Albumin)

Used primarily to remove excess tannins. Works by forming hydrogen bonds with the hydroxyl groups of tannins. Compared to other fining agents like gelatin, albumin tends to remove less positive flavor and aroma traits. Egg whites have a long history of use in winemaking in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy. The usual addition is 1 to 3 egg whites per 225L (59 gallon) barrel.

Casein (Milk protein)

Used primarily to remove browning or pink color in white wine. Can also be used to remove some off odors. Works by adsorption and attracting negatively charged particles. Like with egg whites, it has a long history of use in wine production, particularly with the great white wines of Burgundy. It also has the benefit of reducing the concentration of iron and copper in wine. In red wines, it can negatively impact the wine by removing the polyphenol resveratrol that has been associated with various health benefits.

Gelatin (derived from the boiling of animal tissues like bones and tendons)

Used primarily to remove excess tannins. It has a positive charge that reacts to the negative charge of harsh tannins. It can be prone to over-fining that can strip a wine of positive flavors and aromas.

A heat stability trial for rose wines that have been fined with isinglass.

Isinglass (derived from the air bladder of fish like sturgeons)

Used primarily to help clarifying wines, remove excess tannins and to “unmask” or bring out varietal character.

Chitosan (derived from chitin in the exoskeleton of crustaceans)

Used primarily to remove haze causing proteins from white wines. A positively charged agent, it often needs to be paired with a negatively charged fining agent like Kieselsol to be most effective.

Blood Albumen (derived from the blood of ox and cattle)

Historically used but illegal in the United states, France and several other countries.

Vegan-friendly Alternatives

The website Barnivore is a database of wines and other liquors that have been vetted by users to be either “vegan-friendly” or not. In answering queries about their use of animal based fining agents, many wineries share their alternative methods.

Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Letting the wine settle and clarify on its own before racking into another container is one method to avoid using fining agents.

One common method is the use of time and gravity to let the wine settle and clear out on its own. This is the technique used by Baldacci in the Stags Leap District and many other wineries. Depending on several factors like the health of the grapes, method of pressing, pH and temperature, this method could take several months and even then the wine might not be completely stable. Some wineries facilitate this method with the use of mechanical centrifuges and ultra-filtration but these carry the risk of being overly aggressive and potentially stripping the wine of positive flavor and aroma attributes.

Along those lines, many wineries adopt a hands-off method of not fining or filtering their wines at all. This is the method used by many high-end wine producers like Black Cordon and Kapcsandy in Napa Valley. This does carry the risk of haze and sediment developing in the bottle. However, the risk is often presented to consumers as a trade-off for having potentially more complex and flavorful wines.

Bentonite and Yeast Fining
Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The lees sediment and volume loss from bentonite can be significant (between 5-10%). Using counter-fining agents like isinglass can help with lees compaction but would obviously make the wine not vegan-friendly.

The most used “vegan-friendly” fining agent is bentonite. This is a type of clay that can dramatically swell in size to adsorb protein molecules. This is the method used by wineries like Chinook in Washington State, Ideology in Napa Valley, Spier in South Africa and many others. One big drawback is that it causes significant loss of wine volume due to the heavy sediment it creates. As much as 5-10% of volume could be lost. Roger B. Boulton et al notes in Principles and Practices of Winemaking that these voluminous bentonite lees also create a large amount of solid waste that can have an environmental impact (such as sealing percolation ponds) if not properly disposed. In red wine, there is also a risk of color loss.

Some wineries like Amici use the technique of “yeast fining” for wines like their 2013 Russian River Pinot noir. This involves adding fresh yeast to a wine.  The cell walls of the yeast contain about 30% positively charged proteins. These can then adsorb many polyphenols and compounds which cause off odors. It brings the risk of the yeast breaking down as lees, releasing sulfur compounds and enhancing reductive notes. Also, if not removed by filtration, the yeast in the bottle can start re-fermenting any residual sugars. This would cause spritziness in what is, otherwise, supposed to be a non-sparkling wine.

PVPP and Other Methods

PVPP is a synthetic polymer that can remove bitter tannins and brown discoloration from white wines. Like casein, it can remove the polyphenol resveratrol from red wines. There is also a risk of overfining. This is because the PVPP also binds to desirable tannins and anthocyanins needed for structure and color.

Sparkalloid is a blend of polysaccharides and diatomaceous earth (fossilized algae) that can be used to clarify white wines. It does take significant time to eventually settle. This also creates a fair amount of waste with the DE that requires proper disposal.

Activated Carbon can be used to remove off-odors such as mercaptans (rotten eggs, burnt match). It does have the risk of overly oxidizing wine as well as stripping color and resveratrol from red wines.

New Developments on the Horizon

Ronald S. Jackson notes in Wine Science that fears about the prions potentially in gelatin and “Mad Cow” disease, encouraged studies into the use of plant proteins like wheat gluten as a substitute for gelatin. (Note: most gelatin used in US winemaking is derived from pigs rather than cows) Likewise, a New Jersey company has been experimenting with using pea proteins in conjunction with bentonite and silica as an alternative to gelatin.

Interest in food allergies have also spurned innovations with Scott Labs developing a technique to isolated chitosan from the fungus Aspergillus niger (instead of shellfish and crustaceans) that can be used as a fining agent.

The California based ATP Group has developed a way to extract tannin powder for fining from white wine grapes instead of insect galls to help soften tannins.

In 2016, a Swiss company announced that they were experimenting with the use of UV light to soften tannins in lieu of using animal-based protein fining agents.

The Biodynamic Quandary

Are wines produced from fruit sourced from biodynamic vineyards truly “vegan-friendly”? Several of the “preparations” used in biodynamic viticulture require the use of animal products such as cow horns (BD 500 and 501), stomachs, intestines and bladders.

In an anecdotal account of a visit with the vineyard manager of the biodynamic Pinot noir producer Sea Smoke, Kirsten Georgi (The Armchair Sommelier), describes how the “Biodynamic approach” to removing gophers without the use of poisons or chemicals involves trapping several gophers, killing them, burning their ashes and spreading those ashes over the vineyard during winter solstice as a means to “scare off” the rest of the gophers. This method of “peppering” vineyards with the ashes of pests is not unique to Sea Smoke with recipes on biodynamic websites recommending its use for everything from weeds, snails and insects to mice, rats, rabbits and opossum.

PETA Approved?
Photo by Mark Smith. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Manure composting at a biodynamic vineyard in Tasmania.

Despite these practices, organizations like PETA recommend biodynamic wineries as “vegan friendly”. The UK website Vegan Wines Online notes that while “…natural animal products can however be used in the growing process all the biodynamic wines they sell are somehow suitable for vegans.

Even organic viticulture could be problematic with the use of animal-derived bone and blood meal being used in lieu of chemical fertilizers. There is even debate if manure, as an animal by-product, is acceptable. Like honey and milk, manure doesn’t require killing the animal but still often requires farming to acquire.

What about the presence of insects in healthy and vibrant organic vineyards? Does that makes a wine less “Vegan-friendly”? Eschewing the use of chemicals often means more insects as MOG (material other than grapes). Absent expensive sorting these bugs can get caught up in the harvest. On the Barnivore website, Calcareous Vineyard in Paso Robles expressed this reservation though their wines were still classified as “vegan friendly”.

More Manipulated=More Vegan-friendly?

Are the most “vegan-friendly” vineyards the ones being farmed with heavy saturation of pesticides and chemical fertilizers? It seems like it when you compare it to organic and biodynamic vineyards with high insect MOG and animal-derived fertilizers.

Mass produced wines like the PETA recommended Sutter Home and Moët & Chandon often employ these conventional, chemical dependent styles of viticulture.

While avoiding using animal-based fining agents to remove excess tannins and haze forming proteins, big mega-corps can use other tricks to manipulate the wine with things like lab designed enzymes, oak adjuncts and Mega Purple which will “smooth out” bitter tannins and cover up off-flavors.

Just a single drop of Mega Purple had this white Riesling looking and smelling like a Grenache rose. Crazy stuff.

Sure, Charles Shaw reds (Two Buck Chuck), Sutter Home Cabernet Sauvignon, Meiomi Pinot noir and Yellow Tail reds are made without animal fining agents but should vegans (and really all wine drinkers) be concerned with what other products are being used to make these wines?

And while it can be exciting to see advances in the use of pea proteins and fining agents derived from fungi like Aspergillus niger, its worth asking if these are only adding to the laundry list of the 60+ (and counting) additives that can be used in winemaking–taking it even further away from being just “fermented grapes”?

Now What?

While I’m not vegan myself, I wholeheartedly support anyone that chooses to live their life by convictions. I respect their ethical concerns for the treatment of animals.  I also share their concerns about the environment animal products have. It’s not my wish to stress-out vegans who just want to relax and enjoy a nice bottle of wine.

I do believe it is fair to think about the big picture involved in many seemingly “vegan-friendly” wineries.  Often the viticulture and winemaking practices they use may not align with the ideals of many vegans.

However, it is clear from sites like Barnivore that there are tons of environmentally conscious wineries (many of which are even owned by vegans) that are producing vegan-friendly wines. They may not be the easiest to find at grocery stores or restaurant wine lists that can be dominated by the portfolios of the large mega-corps but these often small family-owned wineries are well worth seeking out and supporting.

And that’s something that I think both vegans and non-vegans can drink to.

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