The SW Summary: Clean wine, the toxic history of lead and wine, crisis distillation, and children’s wine education

By Hanna Halmari

The crossover between wine and the wellness industry: “Clean wine”

In her article for The San Francisco Chronicle, Esther Mobley discusses the recent “clean wine” trend in the wellness industry, citing Cameron Diaz’s just launched Avaline label and Secco “(‘keto, paleo, low-carb’)” as just a few examples. Targeting the health-conscious, “clean wine” brands market their products with the same language of that of natural winemakers “based on principles of responsible farming, ingredient transparency and minimal intervention.” However, as Mobley highlights, the use of such language is often incorrectly used by many “clean wine” brands. This leads to the creation of “false narratives,” such as the marketization of “low-calorie” wine that in fact accounts for perfectly average calorie count for wine.

This echoes a familiar phenomenon termed as “NatWashing” over ten years ago by Alice Feiring, a leading American advocate for natural wine. Whilst by no means a new issue, many perceive “NatWashing” to be reaching its peak. Mobley quotes Todd White, founder of Napa-based natural wine subscription service Dry Farm Wines, who says, “It’s been hijacked, this word ‘clean… by copycats and inauthentic players.” Whilst this may indeed be the case, the author carefully raises the point that the vulnerability of the natural wine industry stems from its lack of an official definition or standards.

Natural wine, especially in America, can essentially be “whatever you want it to be. Unfiltered? Unfined? Fermented by ambient yeast? Undoctored by additions of acid, tannin, color?” Whilst these may be commonly observed features across the natural wine industry, the use of sulfites, for instance, remains a highly controversial aspect. The lack of standardisation makes it easy for brands to commercialise natural wine marketing, especially among the uncertain wine purchasers more susceptible to marketing tactics. 

As Robert Joseph notes in his article for Meininger’s, “there are no laws to stop entrepreneurial wine businesses and celebrities from piggybacking onto a widely recognised term and turning low intervention into something larger than the natural wine world could ever have imagined.” Whilst “clean wine” sales are based on the profit-driven commercialisation of the natural wine movement, as Joseph concludes, “if it means that people switch from Barefoot to a sustainably or organically produced Barefoot Clean, in the way they have switched from fast food burgers to the Impossible Burger, [is that] an entirely bad thing?”

A toxic history: the use of lead in winemaking

Lead, a highly toxic element, has been used for millennia in winemaking and storage, writes Anna Archibald in Wine Enthusiast. In her article about the “disturbingly long history of lead toxicity in winemaking” dating back to at least 2000 B.C., she shares how lead was used as both a preservative and sweetener. 

In ancient Rome, for example, a common method to sweeten wine was by adding a syrup created from boiling grape juice in leaded vessels which when heated, spread toxins into the liquid. According to this study Roman wine may have held up to as much as 20mg of lead per litre. Archibald quotes University of Michigan emeritus professor, Dr. Jerome Nriagu, Ph.D., DSc, who shares how, “there are many records of essentially [Roman] doctors describing very precisely the symptoms of acute lead poisoning.”

Unfortunately, the Romans were not aware of the metal’s toxicity and used lead across a variety of industries. Paralysis and other side effects of lead poisoning are known as colic Pictonum.

It was around  200 B.C. that a Greek physician called Nikander raised the suspicion that lead might be the source of the poisoning. Although this suspicion expanded to ancient Rome, the use of lead continued. The symptoms of lead poisoning “continued to plague Europe for centuries, as lead sugars remained a popular way to sweeten wines and balance tannins.”

Archibald shares how it was in 1696 that the connection between the sickness and the use of lead in winemaking was discovered by physician Eberhard Gockel in Ulm, resulting in a local ban on the use of the metal in wine. However, its use continued elsewhere. For example, Champagne bottles discovered in 2010 from a 19th-century shipwreck in the Baltic Sea revealed to still contain high amounts of lead.

Lead’s contact with wine has persisted in more recent years through its use in glass manufacturing, given its ability to produce “ultrathin” and “ultraclear” glass products. The metal was also used in wine capsules up until 1996 when the FDA prohibited the use of the metal. Although lead capsules are no longer in use, Archibald concludes her article with a warning: “if you have a collection that dates back [to 1991 or earlier], keep an eye out for white residue on the bottle’s neck. It could indicate a leak and a potentially dangerous reaction…You can easily get rid of it if you just take a damp rag and wipe it off.” 

Crisis Distillation in Alsace 

The French wine market is struggling to survive amidst the Covid-19 economic crisis and Trump’s tariffs on French wines. Reporting for The New York Times, Adam Nossiter relates the challenges faced by winemaker Jerome Mader, a producer of Rieslings and Gewürztraminers. Heavily implicated by the current economic climate, Mader’s reality is shared by many other wineries in Alsace and other French wine regions.

The article shares how Mader has lost half his sales since December. In light of the upcoming 2020 harvest, he has had no choice but to make space by selling his excess stock to a nearby distillery. Despite the high commercial value of his wines, he will only receive “modest compensation.” Soon, his high-quality wine will be converted into hand sanitizer. The same fate awaits the wines of Domaine Borès in Reichsfeld. Winemaker Marion Borès compares the winery’s recent sale of 30% of its production (19,000 liters) to a distillery like “saying goodbye to somebody who is very dear to you.”

Referred to as Crisis Distillation, the operation is subsidised by the French government and around 5000 winemakers have already signed up. According to the article, “in Alsace alone, over six million liters of wine” will end up boiled-down in a distillery, with winemakers receiving less than $1 per liter. Nossiter highlights how not only are winemakers suffering from steep financial losses, but significant psychological stress as the relationship of winemakers to their vines “is personal as much as financial.” 

Unfortunately, many winemakers have had no other choice other than to sign up to the Crisis Distillation scheme. As winemaker Guillaume Klauss shares, “My cellar is bursting. If I don’t send it off, I don’t eat. Clearly this is tearing me up. It’s three years of work, and we’re not even paid properly.” Read more here

Too young to drink, but not too young to learn

Determined to ensure that their “passion for the culture and science of vin” will be carried on by the next generation, some French organisations have begun promoting free wine education for children. Writing for Wine Spectator, Emmalyse Brownstein shares how Château Canet in southern France runs viticulture programs for children. Owner Floris Lemstra “takes several groups of kids each year on a brief journey through vineyard maintenance to harvesting to bottling.” Whilst this may indeed seem a little abstract to many, Lemstra emphasizes the importance of “demystifying wine and its consumption,” especially since “wine is a huge part of…their…culture, economy and daily life.”

This view is shared by Solène Jaboulet, director of marketing and communications at Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin. The wine museum offers free admission to under-18s and has created a number of tours, exhibitions and workshops catered to educating children. In describing these, Brownstein notes how the themed tours include immersive experiences such as “soaring on an airplane above vineyard landscapes, sailing aboard a ship with a Roman crew and even trodding in the shoes of a winemaker.” The museum also offers “exhibitions and workshops to teach kids to identify aromas, colors and tastes like sweetness, acidity and bitterness.” Whilst many parents are apprehensive at first, according to Jaboulet, “once they’ve visited, they realize it is as well suited for kids as any other museum.” Read more here.

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About the author

Hanna Halmari

Hanna Halmari is the editor at Sustainable Wine and the head of conferences at Innovation Forum. Hanna specialises in sustainability research and events across various industries. She holds an MSc in international development from Kings’s College London, where she developed a strong interest in political economy and post-communist transformation. Hanna speaks Finnish, Bulgarian and English. In her spare time she is a dedicated Radio Lollipop volunteer at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, enjoys travelling, and tasting new wines.