Monday, December 19, 2022

The wine industry needs to move into the 21st century

I can’t believe how behind-the-times the wine industry sometimes seems to be. Take the matter of labeling retail wine containers with their contents. If someone is selling me something to put into my body, and digest, so that it potentially becomes a part of me, I expect to be told what I am being given. But I cannot currently expect this from the wine industry. It makes me think that there might be something that they don’t want me to know.

Labeling has often been very important in the wine industry, in Europe at least. After all, the entire concept of named vineyard areas is based upon the label that you can put on the wine, not what wines you can actually make in that region. For example, the French Appellation Controlée systems refers literally to “controlled name”, not controlled wine-making. Labeling of wines has been important, in this sense, in terms of the grape varieties.

KRAV cream container

Let’s look at the current situation for wine labeling compared to other food products.

If I pick up a carton of Fresh Cream (grädde), here in Sweden, the package labeling provides me with two sets of information about the contents. First, the Ingredients consist of: Pasteurized milk. I am also told that these ingredients meet the KRAV requirements, indicating proper “ecological / organic” food. Second, I am told the Nutritional Value of the cream's components: Energy (kJ/kCal), Fat (including Edible Fat separately), Carbohydrate (including Sugars separately), Protein, Salt, and Vitamins (several listed independently).

If I look at my bottle of Swedish Christmas carbonated drink (called JulMust), I get the same two sets of information. In this case, the Ingredients are (in descending order): Carbonated water, Sugar, Caramel coloring, Natural hops, Grain malt, Citric acid, Spice flavorings, and Preservative E211. This is not exactly nutritious, but holiday-celebration drinks rarely are. The Nutritional Values do not mention any vitamins, sadly.

On the other hand, my bottles of wine do not even tell me that they contain grapes. (Maybe they don’t have any actual grapes??!!) I get told that the bottle contains Sulfites (which is a potential allergen*), in a dozen different languages, and Alcohol (%). And that is it. This makes me think that the wine industry does not take itself very seriously.

Even my beers do better than this. My two current bottles of Christmas Beer (called JulÖl) both contain the same list of Ingredients (in order): Water, Barley malt, Hops, and Yeast. There are no Nutritional Values; but they both have 3.5% alcohol.

Selection of julmust drinks

There are two possible issues here. First, why has this exemption for the wine industry been allowed to exist in the modern world? Second, what is the wine industry doing to rectify this social anomaly?

The first answer is, of course: “tradition”, which generates inertia. When we used goat skins as wine containers, we did not label them, and probably very wisely so (they were certainly not meant for long-term storage). When we bought our wine from wooden barrels in some sleazy back-street dive, the same thing applied — the less we knew, the better (and we drank it straight away). But this is the 21st century now, and those days are long gone, and wisely so, if only from a health perspective.

The second answer is, sadly, “very, very little”. This saddens me because the wine industry has adapted to the current century so well in so many ways — why not this one? I am not a young man (I will turn 65 soon), and I can remember quite a fair bit of the previous century; and so I can remember the days when no foods contained legally required labels about what the customer was getting. It literally was a case of Buyer Beware, in the mid-20th century.

However, in those days shops were shops, not supermarkets; and the person behind the counter often felt personally responsible for the quality of what was passing over the counter (in both directions!). Milk was often delivered to the house, and bread was bought fresh. Those days are gone for most people in the Western World; and in the modern world we rely on labeled goods bought from large sellers (big box and grocery store wine shelves), so that the labels are important to us, because they are all we have.

Wine serving facts

The European Union has made the decision to bring its local wine industry into the modern world. They are not doing this fast, mind you, and do not require contents labeling of wine for another year, or so. This still, however, puts them way ahead of the USA, which is only now just getting around to even studying the issue.

The EU decision was made in December 2021 (EU Regulation 2021/2117), and applies to retail products sold in the EU from December 2023. It compulsorily requires both the list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration, for wine, de-alcoholized and partially de-alcoholized wine, and aromatized wine, no matter where the source. Wine ingredients could, of course, include water, grapes, or grape concentrate (eg Mega Purple), yeast, white sugar (if the grapes are not ripe enough), tartaric acid (to increase acidity) or calcium carbonate (to reduce acidity), powdered oak (for tannins), and sulfur dioxide (aka sulfites, as a preservative). Actually, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has approved more than 60 additives for use in wine (Why does Ridge add ingredients to its back labels?).

Unfortunately, the EU-mandated information (except the Energy value) does not have to actually be on the label itself, but can be provided electronically, such as a web link accessed via a QR code on the label. I, myself, do not have an internet—friendly phone (mine deals solely with phone calls and SMSs), and so therefore this new information will be hidden from me, in the wine-store. This is what we used to call the Generation Gap — I am from the Baby Boomer generation, not Generations X, Y or Z, and therefore was not born with a mobile phone in my hand. I can still remember Superman-getting-changed style phone booths, and the necessity for having a pocket full of coins in order to use them. So, maybe I need to get into the 21st century, too, along with the wine industry? (My wife occasionally encourages me to do so.)

Ridge Vineyards label

As for the USA, well they can’t even agree to always tell us what the grape varieties are, let alone tell us where those grapes actually come from (Controversy erupts over label laws).** This is because alcohol is regulated by the TTB, not the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which does require label on all of its regulated products. This separation is a legacy of Prohibition, of course (This is why alcohol doesn't come with nutrition facts).

So, the authorities are continuing to be cautious (Cheers to alcohol facts labeling to finally be addressed by TTB), which I think means: “we will see how it goes in the EU, before we decide anything”. It has, however, been suggested that being forced into action would be a good thing (Wine labeling could be a blessing in disguise), especially for we poor consumers, who apparently have wildly varying ideas about what is actually in our retail wines (Winners and losers in new consumer study on nutritional and ingredient wine labeling).

Apparently, the US wine industry is in two minds about how to react to this (What’s in a label?). The issue really does seem to be concern over how the wine-buying public will react to explicitly knowing about some of wine's actual ingredients (Nutrition facts will soon appear on some wine bottles, and they might surprise you). Nevertheless, if nothing else, the wine world is becoming focused on premiumization and reduced alcohol, in a world of younger buyers. They seem to care more about knowing what they are putting in their mouths than their parents and grandparents did (wine drinkers are currently characterized as mainly 40-65+ years old). I think that the wine industry should be eager to tell these youngsters, rather than reluctant.

* Sulfite allergic reactions are usually suggested to be uncommon, rather than more obvious ones like histamines (What gives you a wine hangover? It’s probably not the sulfites). They are singled out for mention because when there is a reaction it can be very serious, particularly among asthmatics (Why do i get headaches from wine?).

** The new concept of blends from different countries (Is ‘borderless’ wine the future?) emphasizes the need for clarity.

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