Conventional vs. Natural Wine
Calling all wine lovers! We're lifting the veil on the strange (scary) truths of conventional wine and talking about why natural wine is the way of a healthful, more aware, transparent future.
Today's post is brought to you in partnership with my friends at Wine Fellas! Wine Fellas is your wine club for small-allocation, hard-to-find natural wines from around the world. They specialize in organic and biodynamic wines made using traditional winemaking methods with minimal intervention, free of added sugar and chemical additives, low in sulfites – bottlings the wine world describes as “natural wines.” These are wines as they were meant to be enjoyed, with nothing standing between you and pure, expressive fruit. Note that while this work is brought to you in partnership, the opinions are my own. Learn more about natural wine in THIS podcast episode as well!
I am really excited about today's post! I've done a good amount of research to bring you this tell-all about conventional vs. natural wines and I have to say, some of what I learned shocked me. You see, I'm a wine girl. I love a nice glass of red, white, blush, bubbles, you name it. I love the history, the provenance, the art, and the conversation brought on by a great glass of vino. Though I didn't discriminate between cocktails much in college (when I discovered libations), I did start to police what I indulged in in my mid 20's when I learned what nutrients really worked/didn't work for my body. I'm now mostly gluten-free (save for the occasional accidental restaurant exposure), so beer is mostly out (not worth the epic headache). While I do think spirit-based cocktails are fun, they're not my standard sip. Nope, I'm a wine girl. Whether my husband and I want to toast to the end of a long week, my mom and dad are looking for something special to serve alongside our Sunday Family Dinner grass-fed steaks, or I'm spending QT with girlfriends, a simple glass of wine is my preference. I love a chilled white in the Summer, deep reds in the Winter, bubbles for special occasions, and a crisp rosé on date nights.
I've taken wine classes and romanticized over the mystery of different regions, varietals, and aging methods. I've gone on tasting excursions in old monasteries in Germany (where I probably unknowingly enjoyed a true “natural wine”), planned vacations around vineyards, and maintained my collection of “special occasion corks” (corks that we saved/wrote on commemorating what we celebrated). Now almost 32, I've been a wine enthusiast for over a decade. I've also worked as a Nutrition Consultant (i.e. nutrition science geek) for almost 6 years …which is why it shocked me to learn that I wasn't drinking what I thought I was drinking ALL THIS TIME.
I always thought (or, assumed) that wine was wine. I thought (was led to think, maybe by the conventional wine industry?) that wine is just fermented grape juice, made via a signature method (timing + fermentation material), from a variety of grapes, and only rarely was anything ever added (like brandy to port wine). Little did I know how epically far I was from the actual truth.
Today's post is the (fermented) fruit of my research on conventional vs. natural wine. I'm going to share what I've learned, what they're actually adding to our bottles, why wines tend to give us headaches, how natural wine is actually (epically) different, and the name of a company sourcing THE GOOD STUFF so we can sip while enjoying both provenance *and* peace of mind.
Let's get to it!
Wait, I thought wine was a “clean” cocktail! Isn't it just fermented grape juice?
Oh how I wish that were true, my friend. Wine became not-quite-wine when economic scale was introduced into the equation. Think about it this way: what makes a burger restaurant succeed? First, they need a good (or edible) product, but MOST importantly, their product needs to be consistent. What keeps you going back to the same burger restaurant? You know exactly what you're going to get. Establishing brand loyalty with wine labels is essentially the same. They needed consistent products across the board. This is difficult when the raw materials are highly variable. As such, they needed to introduce additives that helped make a more consistent product. Additives can help them control the color, the taste, the alcohol content, the flavor, and the consistency. Cheaper wines (think 2-buck-chuck) are the MOST likely to have the most amount of additives. It's cheaper to produce when you can control the end product with more additives.
This same concept is true for all processed foods! Candy bars are always exactly the same because the makers lean heavily on predictable preservatives, stabilizers, coloring agents, and flavoring agents.
So, does conventional wine = candy bar or drive-through burger? I'd argue it's almost worse because makers are not regulated to disclose those additives. In fact, of the 76 (!!) possible additives *approved* by the TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau who relies on and consults with FDA with regard to use and acceptability of materials used in the production of wine] – the wine label only has to disclose the bottle contains sulfites, not how much. This is where the Wine Fellas analysis comes in handy. They only allow minimal sulfites, typically around 50ppm and below, though some whites will go over (but not much).
For a little side-by-side comparison, know that the legal sulfite (SO2) levels allowed in Europe are 160ppm for red wines, 210ppm for white/rose wines, and 400 ppm for sweet wines. The US legal limits are a general 350ppm and 250ppm in Australia. Naturally occurring levels of SO2 in wines are usually found around 10-20ppm. At Wine Fellas, you'll find all wines analyzed for low sulfites. Also, completely additive free!
So, what's in that glass of red? It will contain sulfur dioxide for preservation (unless made “naturally” or “sans soufre”). Moreover, other additives which could include: copper sulfate, mega purple for coloring (used even in pricier bottles), a chemical called Velcorin (an anti-microbial tasteless *toxin*), and even gelatin or other fining agents, to name a few (an important note for any vegans out there).
Curious to learn more about Velcorin? This article shares the scary insight that drinking wine 24 hours after it is dosed with Velcorin can actually kill you. (This is meant to inform, not scare. The health impact of additives in our food + wine have bigger implications than what meets the eye.).
Last, but certainly not least, the grapes used to make conventional wines are (almost certainly) heavily sprayed by pesticides and herbicides. They’re sprayed to cut labor expenses and help increase/maintain yield …but it comes at a high cost. Glyphosate (the active herbicide ingredient found in Monsanto Roundup) was just deemed a cancer-causing chemical in California last July (see this article). This pesticide is showing up in conventional wines everywhere and can even be found in low levels in organic wine because the conventional vineyards next door are contaminating the organic ones. This is IMPORTANT. These efforts are essentially destroying the soils for our future generations, which feed into the environment on a big scale.
Right-sizing this degradation is an important belief and integral part of the Wine Fellas movement. The grandfather of Galen Schoch, owner/founder of Wine Fellas, was a pioneering viticulturist grape grower in the Napa Valley who farmed organically. Galen is driven to get back to the fundamentals of his grandpa’s time. We must act now – together.
In summary, the grand majority of large wine producers are distributing wine that isn't quite wine anymore. It's more of a controlled fermented grape juice + normalizing additive cocktail made at an extreme cost to our health and the earth.
P.S. In case you're thinking, “I'll just switch to whiskey!” Know that most large producers of amber colored spirits will add caramel coloring to help normalize between batches there, too.
Okay, so the majority of wines have additives. What's the big health-impact picture here?
Though research (and subsequent literature) hasn't exactly kept pace with industry (the consumer-driven wine business moves much faster than the “testing for health and human safety” research business), we do have a solid grasp on a few important pieces of information. First, we know that the additives approved for use to normalize batches of wine are in-fact dangerous “in excess,” but winemakers are keeping those additives below deemed-dangerous levels. That being said, just because a substance is regarded by the FDA as GRAS (“generally regarded as safe”), doesn't mean I'd choose it for my body (just like I choose to avoid pesticide-sprayed produce, food colorings, and other preservatives).
We also have a good grasp on some basic alcohol metabolism science …and how that chemistry can change depending on what exactly is in our glass.
First, let’s review the basic science: as we drink alcohol, there are two main groups of enzymes secreted by our liver that work to metabolize the toxin. The first round of enzymes transform alcohol into a compound known as acetaldehyde. The second round, bolstered by a peptide known as glutathione (GSH), turns that acetaldehyde into acetate. Once in the acetate form, the “once alcohol” is then simply/easily excreted by the body. In this equation, GSH is the component that runs out the quickest. The more we drink, the more we use up our GSH, the less acetaldehyde gets turned into (and then excreted as) acetate. This means that the remaining acetaldehyde (actually more toxic than alcohol) is released into the blood stream – causing us (you guessed it) headaches and nausea.
Now, what does this have to do with natural wine? Natural wines have significantly lower levels of sulfites and “artificial stuff.” Sulfites, on their own, are known to deplete GSH – this is big news and a possible explanation for why we experience far more headaches when we drink conventional wines and experience fewer symptoms when we drink natural wines.
Other wine-drinking symptoms, aside from headaches and nausea, that could be related to the conventional additives? Everything from purple-stained teeth, stuffiness, the sniffles, and extreme red (or blushing) cheeks after a moderate consumption could be correlated to the mysterious mixture in your glass.
Also worth noting, wine made from organically-grown grapes contains more polyphenols than conventionally sourced wines. So, if you’re one to drink wine for the health benefits, know that you’re getting more antioxidants in a natural wine.
It's something to think about.
Is there a way to see what wines have additives and what wines do not?
Not if you're shopping conventionally from grocery stores, wine stores, or from large wineries, even boutique shops. This is, of course, except for sulfites, which are required on labels. That being said, they’re not required to disclose the amount of sulfites found in any given bottle. So the disclaimer isn’t very useful. Once you start drinking wine with no or minimal sulfites added it really is hard to go back, your body/palate becomes sensitive to it. Think about taking a sip of diet soda after weening yourself off (I used to be a Diet Dr. Pepper girl, myself). Most of us think, “I can't believe I ever drank that stuff; it takes like chemicals!” Once we allow our pallet to taste true (natural wine), we'll start being able to discern the garbage in the conventional stuff.
Instead of reading labels (like we do for food), you're going to have to put on your critical thinking cap when considering WHERE you buy your wine. For the same reason I trust safer skincare company Beautycounter for excluding and then TRIPLE-testing for over 1500 approved-by-the-government ingredients, I have had to work hard to find a wine source that pre-screened these additives and sources only REAL natural wines (ahem: they're called Wine Fellas).
Note: if you’ve tried a few bottles from the “organic” wine section in Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, know that you’re not getting a fair representation of true natural wine. These wines likely aren’t great (tasting nor do they comply with the traditional “natural wine” standard). Again, it goes back to economic scale, it’s currently impossible to fill the shelves at those wholesale distribution levels (there just isn’t enough). Fret not however, friend. Just as we’ve seen the demand for less trans fats, more gluten-free options, and more pastured proteins cause a substantial industry response (more of this is available now), as the natural wine movement grows, so will the producers, and batches, and the regulation.
It’s another great excuse to #votewithyourdollars.
Okay, what exactly is “natural wine” and how does this differ from sustainable, organic, or biodynamic wine?
Let's answer this question in reverse order, covering the most ambiguous label to the most clear.
This really means that the grower is demonstrating sustainable practices and a commitment to the healthy future of the environment, society, and the wine industry at large. Note, a wine made sustainably might include any of the next three designations. It's a great pursuit, but leaves for a lot of gray area.
Truly organic wine is a feat. These grapes are grown via a not-easy journey without the use of herbicides, manufactured fertilizers, and synthetic pesticides. To be truly organic, they're also not using GMO products. That being said, beware of labeling. Just like grass-fed beef can be “grass-fed grain finished,” organic wine can be made with organic grapes, but produced with non-organic complaint processes.
These wines are special! They're made using organic grapes, with no synthetic interventions, and (in addition) growers take universal energy + the holistic system into account.
Believe it or not, natural wines are the most stringent classification of these four. The easiest way for me to wrap my mind around natural wine is to think of it as “lowest intervention” wine. Grapes are grown organically or biodynamically (or equivalent), hand-harvested, there is no sugar or acid added, no commercial yeast, and no (or minimal) filtration. Sulfur is only added in small amounts, if at all. These wines are the most TRUE WINES you can find and will, in fact, be easier on our bodies.
What about the taste? Is it different?
Natural wine lovers will argue that their wine taste more …like wine. If you're looking for a truly artesian experience, where you get to enjoy small-batch production and the varieties that the EARTH provides, you will love the natural wine experience. Flavors you're used to will still show up, but they're more individualized. I think it's a much more rewarding wine-sipping experience.
What does a Wine Fellas wine sheet look like?
Hold onto your seat, these are the coolest wine fact sheets this wine-lover has ever seen. I am a sucker for information and really VALUE when a company goes the extra mile to show transparency – in this case, what's actually in that bottle of wine. When you receive your monthly natural wine delivery from Wine Fellas, do NOT skip reading these descriptions. They read as if the most exciting sommelier you've EVER MET just gave you a fun, informative table-side description of the bottle you're considering. These sheets contain total *and* free sulfite (SO2) in PPM (parts per million), alcohol content, residual sugar in G/L (grams per liter), pH, and traceable acidity so that you can objectively compare apples-to-apples. If you're looking for the best ways to serve the wine, they even include notes on ideal timing to decant or chill. Want to know the soil those grapes grew in? They've got you covered. Want to know how many bottles were made? Included! Want to know the yeast, fermentation/aging timing/materials, varietals (what grapes), and filtration (if any) used to make that wine? Got it. No more smoke-in-mirrors. Wine Fellas lays it all out on the table in a fun, educational way. I can just see opening a bottle of wine at dinner and pouring over the fun facts as we sip, swirl, and enjoy.
Here is one example of a recent bottle fact sheet:
What is the Wine Fellas Club ordering process like?
Easy, peasy, and it's exactly how I'll be stocking our own home's collection of wines. Here's the quick process:
- Click HERE to start and be sure to use the code “fedandfit” for $10 off your first order!
- Choose whether you want 3, 6 (10%-off), or 12 (15%-off) bottles delivered each month.
- Choose your preferred wine type: mixed (most popular), red, or white.
- Choose whether you want wines that are “dry” (low residual sugars between 0-9 g/l) or “bone dry” (essentially wines that are residual sugar-free).
- DONE. Sit back and wait for your first delicious delivery.
If you're curious about the approximate price-per-bottle for this premium natural wine, it will roll in (depending on the # of bottles you choose) at just under $30 per bottle. This includes their guaranteed scientific analysis PLUS shipping PLUS the awesome peace-of-mind that we now have about what we're enjoying in our glass.
I hope you're as jazzed about this new knowledge and resource as I am! I'm incredibly grateful to Wine Fellas for putting forth the work to bring us true natural wines without inauthentic nutrition promises. I trust their approach and methods more than any other company I've come across and am thrilled to support their good work.