I emerged from SkepchickCon at ChiFi to find the world’s cheap wine drinkers in an uproar over recent findings that certain cheap wines contain arsenic.
A class-action lawsuit has been filed against 28 wineries, including Charles Shaw (the makers of Two-Buck Chuck), claiming the wines contain trace amounts of arsenic. Since then, wineries have begun to dispute the claims, saying the arsenic levels fall far below unsafe limits and the lawsuit has brooked unnecessary fear in the process of implying otherwise.
As you might imagine, I have a few bubbles to burst (over a glass of Crémant de Loire, naturally). First of all, it’s not fair to compare safe levels of arsenic in water to wine because, well, no one drinks as much wine as water, unless alcohol consumption is your superpower or you’re this guy.
And while the U.S. does not set safe arsenic limits for wine, Canada does, and none of the wines were found to exceed them. TJ drinkers, you’re safe.
Just like BPA and MSG, arsenic whips people into a frenzy because of the widespread and false notion that it doesn’t already show up in our everyday consumption.
As NPR’s The Salt was kind enough to note, there are trace amounts of arsenic in a lot of things. It’s “all natural”—just like sulfites!—and I find it pretty amusing that the same wines lambasted by “natural wine” proponents for being too “overproduced” are getting slammed for having a naturally occurring mineral in their product, even if it can be bad for you at much higher levels.
As with the big “scare” last year regarding wines made from mouse blood, the question to be asking with this arsenic business is: Why single out these particular wines? They’re some of the most recognized brands in the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re unique in any of their practices or ingredients. It’s simply more of a headline-grabber to target Barefoot and Charles Shaw than the mid-sized winery that only distributes regionally, because it affects more people, and they can’t test everything.
That brings me to the bigger problem in the wine industry: The Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has a fairly rigorous label review process, but beyond “Contains Sulfites” and a rough estimate of the wine’s alcohol by volume, alcoholic beverages aren’t required to list their ingredients at all.
From the Bentonite clay that’s often used to “fine” wine after filtration to actually adding tannin to red wines to make them feel more structured, there are many steps to the process of making wine that don’t show up on a label. But as skeptics know, the “right to know” argument that’s so often used for food labelling is problematic because it assumes that customers have the knowledge and experience to deduce what’s harmful and what’s not.
I wouldn’t think of telling a plumber or a firefighter or a web developer how to do their job, but when it comes to food and health, laypeople love explaining to doctors, farmers, and chefs exactly what techniques and substances should and shouldn’t be used in their work. The “moms know best” line of thought has migrated to the wine world with the dawn of the natural wine movement, wherein wine writers have begun to champion consumers’ “right to know” without ever specifying what they’re to know—or whether the producers of these products have a right to know more.
Wine ingredient labeling would help a lot of people; notably, people with allergies and vegans. But I’d have to be clear on where it would begin and end before endorsing it. Do naturally occurring fermentation byproducts (like sulfites) get included? Does the oak treatment that gives wine its smoothness and warm spice flavors get listed? Many wines already list the type of grapes used; would yeast strains, which can affect wine flavor dramatically, be listed as well? And who’s going to teach the customers what all these things mean?
At this point I’d be in favor of wine ingredient listing specifically for things that occur in large enough quantities to be allergenic or that contain animal products. Beyond that, I worry that such labeling would feed into the culture of fear and conspiracy theorism that’s been at the heart of the anti-GMO movement. If the wine industry ever achieves the kind of public education campaign that would help customers make smart, informed, and rational decisions about what they drink, I’d be happy to reconsider, but as the arsenic debacle has shown, we’re not there yet.