The Coming Fight Over Ingredient Labeling On Wine

There appears to be a growing acceptance within the wine industry that not only ought wineries in the United States include ingredients on their labels, but that consumers are demanding it or will demand it. This idea is on the verge of becoming accepted wisdom.

But is it true? And is it necessary? A recent survey by the Wine Market Council found that consumers generally do not place much value on ingredient labeling or nutritional labeling on wine bottles when considering what to purchase.

The growing acceptance of the idea that consumers should have access to ingredients on wine bottles is surely an outgrowth of the influence of the “natural wine” movement, an extraordinarily small segment of the wine market that has been successful in driving conversations, if not sales.

From it’s beginning, natural wine champions have consistently insinuated that “commercial” wine is bad for you, letting anyone who will listen know that there are countless approved ingredients that can go into wine that consumers know nothing about. This has been a successful marketing ploy that has allowed natural wine sellers to claim their wines are better for consumers’ health and the health of the earth.

While much of this effort amounts to nothing more than Denigration Marketing, the effort has put the spotlight on ingredients in wine and the fact that they are not listed on the bottle.

It’s important to know that ingredient labeling is not required on wine since wine is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, but rather by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The law is not being skirted.

So, it was interesting to learn that the Wine Market Council, in a survey of 1,000 core and marginal wine drinkers, found that of ten types of information consumers might desire in advance of buying wine, eight types of information were more important to consumers than ingredient lists. Only information on how the grapes were grown is of less interest to consumers. Information such as how the wine tastes, where it is from, its ratings, its type and the winery were of greater importance.

This contradicts so many media reports and articles from the likes of Vinepair, the Washington Post, Wine Enthusiast, SevenFifty Daily, and others who claim to one degree or another that consumers really do want or need ingredient labeling on wines.

There is every reason to believe that the idea consumers want and need ingredient labeling on wine will become accepted wisdom among a much wider swath of wine industry professionals—no matter what consumers say. This, in turn, will set up an inevitable conflict among those who demand ingredient labeling and those that will pay for it, the wineries.

Beyond the claim that consumers want ingredient labeling, there are other arguments for it. “Transparency” is one. This is a somewhat banal argument, but it can be powerful in that it insinuates that something bad and nasty is being hidden by those that don’t agree that ingredient labeling is necessary.

Push back against accepted wisdoms can lead to nasty fights whether the wisdoms that are accepted are useful or not. At this point, there is no consumer movement of any size that suggests this fight is coming immediately in the United States. But that could change. It depends on how successful the media is in advancing the “ingredient-necessary” story.


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  1. Tom Elliot - September 9, 2020

    Here’s an alternative ingredient labeling idea. How about listing the levels of spoilage organisms in the wine, ie., acetic acid, acetaldehyde, ethyl acetate, brettanomyces, et al…?

  2. David - September 9, 2020

    I have serious doubts that consumers really want to know what is in their wine.

    From what I have witnessed working in production at large wine production sites, the claim that “commercial wineries” are adding countless approved ingredients is greatly exaggerated – often repeated by folks who have very little experience making wine at the facilities they degrade.

    When I do talk about substances winemakers actually add to wine such as enzymes, yeast and bacteria, I often see eyes glazing over.

  3. Tom Wark - September 10, 2020

    David,

    I suspect you are correct. However, I also expect the drumbeat for transparency and ingredient labeling to move forward on the advice of some making wine in America and others on the fringe.

  4. Jim Gordon - September 10, 2020

    Hey Tom, as the author of one of the pro ingredient labeling pieces, I would like to point out that the Wine Market Council research actually supports the idea. It shows that 59% of respondents sometimes or always want to know the nutrition/ingredients list for the wine. Just because this was not their top priority does not mean they would not value it.

  5. Donn Rutkoff - September 10, 2020

    nutrition is quite different than ingredient. nutrition means calories and carbohydrates. and really, the alcohol is far and away the only dangerous ingredient in wine. super purple is harmless, enzymes added don’t exist in the bottle. much ado about nothing. no matter what the law says, the marketing people are allowed to call a $5 bottle as handcrafted from the finest selected vineyards. residual sugar will never be listed because it varies and is confuising, and oak is not measurable as far as I know.

  6. Blake Gray - September 10, 2020

    Like others, you are intentionally misreading that survey by lumping in people who are “somewhat interested” with those who are not interested. Wine Opinions showed its bias in the way the survey was presented.

    Beyond that, the size of the group of people who are very interested is a significant market. Let’s say it’s 20%. The old way of looking at it is, hey, it’s the other 80% that matter. A smarter way would be to say all 100% matter.

  7. Ryan - September 11, 2020

    One study doesn’t necessarily mean consumers have no interest in ingredient labels (and the comments here make me question whether the one study referred to even says that).
    Whatever the current level is, I think consumer interest in the ingredients in a wine would grow if there were a label to look at.
    People are used to not knowing at the moment.
    Is that a good thing?
    Also, if large wineries are not adding in countless ingredients (as a commenter suggests), then what are they afraid of?
    It’s worth also noting that simply having ingredients listed does not in any way mean people will choose the more “natural” option.
    Have you seen the ingredients in some popular foods at the grocery store?

    Wine is a food product.
    It should be treated as a food product.
    A label is not just to find the natural option, or for transparency… an ingredient label puts wine in the world of food rather than hard alcohol.
    That is where it belongs.
    It would be a beneficial change long term for the industry.

  8. Donn Rutkoff - September 11, 2020

    What are they afraid of? Money grabbing lawsuits. Wine chemistry changes over time. If you require a list of nutrition or ingredients, you invite lawyers to sue whenever a bottle has different composition a year or more after being bottled. As for food product labels, it costs money to monitor and correctly list all the miniscule ingredients in a food. Does it really benefit consumers or improve health to print in tiny point size a bunch of .01% ingredients?
    Or does it just create jobs for lawyers who wrote the laws? I pose the same question about the disclosures you see on TV ads for new car financing. 1000 words of legal disclosure that nobody reads, nobody can even read but written by well paid lawyers. A tempest in a teapot. Remember a few months ago the accusation and lawsuit about arsenic in wine? Lawsuits, lawsuits, give me more lawsuits. The public benefits by forcing producers of anything and everything to hire more lawyers.

    Open your eyes and use your brains. Don’t be a “useful idiot” for lawyers personal paydays.

    Wine is ALCOHOL. Alcohol can kill you. It is already Warned. All the other ingredients are irrelevant and just fodder for wallet stuffing.

  9. Ryan - September 11, 2020

    Shady lawyers will find ways to bring lawsuits whether there are labels or not.
    You can’t live your life in constant fear and desperately trying to always cover your ass

    Anyone that honestly believes wine is nothing more than alcohol is in the wrong line of work

  10. Donn Rutkoff - September 11, 2020

    Hey Ryan. What ingredients in wine are YOU afraid of? Strange comment there. Wineries are currently ALLOWED to list whatever they want to show, like Ridge now does. Not commanded by big govt.

    And don’t mis-interpret so badly. Wine, as far as ingredients go, is alcohol and all its’ myriad esters and phenols etc from fermentation.. The only other “ingredients” you can taste are sugar and oak. Some people buy wine because it is tastier alcohol than beer and easier to swallow than vodka. Not all wine buyers are into the difference between Russian River vs. Carneros or Pauillac vs. Pomerol. And if a consumer wants lower alcohol level, just read the label. I do want the govt to mandate much higher readability of the abv number that labels can now hide in tiny lo-contrast print.

  11. Helene - September 13, 2020

    An ongoing debate in the EU-ingredient listing for wines. Ingredient listing for wine was an MW question back in the early 1990s (when I was a student even) and has not moved on, at least not in the EU. Where to start…grapes, yeast (if added?), enzymes (if added), SO2 (already on the labels), alcohol (oops, a bi-product of fermentation, but I suppose it counts?), oak (if used, does which form matter?), other bi-products mentioned in a previous comment, e.g. ethyl acetate, acetic acid. Iron, copper, lime, other trace elements found in grapes (and sometimes in wine). Added sugar, even though it turns into alcohol (in a dry wine), acid to correct balance, even if it is tartaric, which occurs naturally anyway. Copper to correct reduction, even though it precipitates out, and so on and so forth? Filtration materials, e.g. diatomaceous earth, plastics? Fining materials? Where does one stop? Whether or not the ‘processing agents’ do not, in fact, remain in the wine?

    Maybe a few people care; if so, get a fiche technique from the producer and a complete set of the legally required documents from vineyard-to-bottle from said producer and you would be able to see clearly what they did in producing the wine, because every movement of wine and every ‘operation’ must be recorded under HACCP, at least in the EU. And a moderate knowledge of basic chemistry and microbiology would inform you as to what might still remain in the wine.

    Smoke-screens, actually. …and rather a little bit silly.


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