What Is Clean Wine and Should You Care?

by Dwight Furrow

Actress Cameron Diaz and her business partner, the entrepreneur Katherine Power, have been all over various media promoting their new product Avaline, a white wine and a rosé, which they bill as “clean wine”. This has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy. Here is how they describe this very sanitary liquid:

Winemakers are legally required to disclose very little about their wines.  Those disclosures only reveal information such as growing and bottling locations, whether the wine contains sulfites, and the percentage of alcohol. There’s no obligation to tell you how their grapes are grown or to name any of the more than 70 additives that are used in the winemaking process to alter the taste, color, and mouthfeel of what is in your glass.

We believe in holding our wine to a higher standard. Here’s to a new class of beverage: delicious taste, clean ingredients, bold transparency.

Wine writer Alder Yarrow calls this a “commercial scam” and most serious wine enthusiasts are treating this notion of “clean wine” with a good deal of skepticism.

So what is all this controversy about and should anyone care?

There is a backstory which is required to understand the controversy. Over the past two decades the issues surrounding “natural wine” have been among the most debated issues in the wine world. Natural wines are made of organic or sustainably grown fruit, using only native (i.e. non-commercial) yeast residing on the grapes or in the winery, minimal (or no) use of the preservative sulfur dioxide, no advanced, modern wine making technology such as reverse osmosis or micro-oxygenation, no additives such as Mega Purple or additional acid, and no fining or filtration. The motivation to make natural wine begins with worries about environmental issues such as soil depletion and harmful pesticide use. But natural wine enthusiasts also claim modern industrial wine making destroys flavor, creates generic wines that lack freshness and complexity, and that no longer reflect the unique characteristics of the grapes’ origins.

Part of the controversy arises because the word “natural” is ill-defined and there have been, until recently, no standards for what counts as natural wine.  The clear implication of the word “natural” is that conventionally made wines are “unnatural”. Many winemakers and consumers of conventionally made wines resent the connotation. Many conventional winemakers largely agree with the values of artisanal, low intervention wine making. They believe that wine is made in the vineyard, and when grapes are grown properly little manipulation in the winery is needed. However, they think that in some vintages, in order to make the best wine they can, they may need to use more sulfur as a preservative, add acid, or use filtering agents to remove impurities. In other words, they dislike the ideological straitjacket promoted by natural wine aficionados.

It’s also important to note that natural wines do not taste like conventional wines and some people find their “funky” flavors unpleasant. (For the record I like many of them.) It’s also important to note that natural wines are artisanal wines. They are not made in sufficient quantities to be distributed widely. They represent a tiny fraction of the overall wine market. They are an increasingly important avant-garde but not intended for mass appeal.

That’s part of the backstory. The other part of the story is the emergence of so-called “clean food”. There are now cookbooks and other media devoted to “clean eating”, which means a focus on minimally processed foods as close as possible to their natural state. Thus, both natural wine and clean food involve products that are minimally processed.

Enter so-called “clean wines” and Avaline, a high-production, commercial wine that wants to capitalize on some of the cachet of natural wine in asserting that they avoid the additives used to make industrial wines.

Despite the insinuations of their marketing materials, Avaline is not making “natural wine”. Natural wine making is about making wines that reflect the nature of the origins of the wine–a particular vineyard, wine making style, or vintage. It’s about living with the contingencies of weather and geography and celebrating those contingencies. Avaline discloses neither the vineyard nor the winery that makes the wine. Their wines are about health trends, not origins. Avaline wines are, in fact, just commercially produced organic wines that have several more additives than many small-production winemakers would consider using. Avaline’s wines will not taste like natural wines because the additives they use are designed to eliminate unexpected flavors or aromas.

Among the additives used to make Avaline listed on their website are bentonite clay, sulfites (100 ppm which is quite a heavy dose), pea protein, cream of tartar, commercial yeast, and yeast nutrients. These are routinely used in wine making, but none of them are necessary and countless artisanal wineries forgo them to make their own “clean wines.” The vast majority of small to mid-sized wineries in the world, regardless of whether they market themselves as “natural”, make wines as “clean” as Avaline, if they are using organic grapes.

That said, there are several things to like about Avaline.  These are high production commercial wines that use organic grapes, are vegan friendly, and they put on their website (although not on their bottle) the ingredients used to make their wine. This level of transparency is welcome although, as I explain below, limited.

Notice that their marketing does precisely what the marketing for natural wines did. It creates invidious comparisons. They imply that other commercial wines are “dirty” and harmful to one’s health. There is a long list of additives that are permitted in wines made in the U.S., and commercial wines will routinely use many of them. Color enhancers, enzymes, preservatives, chemical stabilizers, grape concentrate, oak chips, powdered tannins, and acid additions are among them. However, none of the ingredients used to make commercial wine will harm you, except for the alcohol if you drink too much, and most can be found throughout the supermarket in other products. This is where Avaline’s marketing is misleading. Commercial wines are not loaded with fat or salt. Additional sugar may be added only through the use of grape concentrate, but your intake of sugar can be regulated by choosing to drink dry wines. The claim that industrial wines are unhealthy is just not well supported, aside from the issue of pesticide use in the vineyard.

The objection to additives in wine is not that they will harm you. The reasons to avoid commercial, highly adulterated wines all lead back to “they’re boring” and most of them don’t taste very good. Commercial wineries use inferior grapes and mass production methods that aim at high yield, production efficiencies, and profit rather than quality. Furthermore, their customers want low prices and the same flavor in each vintage. As long as the wine meets a basic, acceptable standard of quality, as most commercial wines today do, they’re customers are satisfied with their purchase. Additives allow winemakers to replace missing flavor and texture and achieve consistency without pursuing the more costly path of improving their basic materials. That isn’t particularly laudable, but it isn’t dirty or sinister and it’s necessary if you want drinkable, widely available, inexpensive wine.

Avaline’s wines, by the way, are not cheap when compared to other commercial wines. They sell on the company’s website for $24 putting them in the upper range for a supermarket wine. I haven’t tasted them yet and so can’t comment on their quality or value. I certainly prefer wines made in the vineyard rather than an industrial complex, but that is because of flavor not health.

As to the transparency issue, wineries are not required to produce ingredient lists except for alcohol content, the source of the grapes, and the presence of sulfites. As noted, the fact that Avaline puts an ingredient list on their website is a step in the right direction. They also list carbohydrate, sugar, and sodium content on their website. But there is much about Avaline that is not transparent.

We know from the label that the grapes for the white wine are organic grapes sourced from Spain and it’s widely reported they are from Penedès, Catalunya. The website mentions the grape varietals– Xarello, Macabeu, and Malvasia. The rosé is labeled Vin de France meaning it’s a table wine from France, and the website lists several varietals that might make up the wine.

However, the specific vineyards and the winery making the wine are a mystery. (Avaline is the producer of record but they have the wine made for them). There is also no vintage mentioned. This level of non-transparency is not common in commercial wines which typically list the vintage and will often identify the actual producer. Aveline is less transparent than most commercial wineries regarding their wine’s origin. They likely conceal this information because it gives them flexibility. By not listing a vintage they can blend several vintages together and have more options in managing their inventory. I have heard through the “grapevine” that their grape sources are legitimate and the winery making the wine is respected. This may be a nice product, despite the misleading marketing. However, if they become wildly popular, as I suspect they will, they will have to look elsewhere to expand their supply of grapes and that usually means quality will suffer.

It’s worth mentioning that Avaline is not the worst offender when it comes to misleading advertising in the “clean wine” sector. In Business Insider recently, Michelle Feldman, co-founder of Good Clean Wine, made the following statement:

“I look for wines with vintage year on the label. Natural wines will include the year it was harvested, grape variety, and the region it was grown on the label. Regular wines can’t claim a vintage, region, nor grape because they’ve been made with a medley of unnatural ingredients.”

This is flatly false and egregiously ill informed, and the quote I notice has now been removed from the original article which has been updated. All wines sold in the U.S. must list the producer’s name and region of origin on the label. Imported wines must include the name and address of the importer. The vast majority also include the vintage date and variety of grape, although these are not required. And none of this information about origins has anything to do with “unnatural ingredients.”

Their claims regarding transparency in the “clean wine” sector have to do with health matters not wine quality. If you care about carbohydrates, sugar, or sodium intake this might matter to you, but dry wine is not a major dietary source of either.

In short, if you value an aesthetics of life that avoids ingesting chemical additives, you might find Avaline attractive. For vegans this may be an important product. But this is an industrial product. Except for their use of organic fruit, their claims to be a healthier alternative are questionable. Their claim to be transparent is true of only some aspects of their operation. Their condemnation of the rest of the wine industry is mostly bogus. Their conceit that they represent a “new class of beverage” is true only if you ignore most of the wineries in the world. Their insinuation that their wines are natural is utterly misleading. Their claim to occupy a moral high ground is true only in comparison to the worst excesses of “big wine”. I suppose that is progress.

It is however brilliant marketing.