Over the course of the past decade, a hot topic within the industry has been whether or not nutrition and ingredient labels should be required on wine bottles. Before any of us were old enough to even drink wine, we learned about the food pyramid — the dos and don'ts of what to eat. For Americans, this knowledge has historically been fed to us by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a branch of the United States government who provides health recommendations and regulates nutrition and ingredient labeling. Yet alcohol isn’t regulated by the FDA. It is instead regulated by the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau (ATF) and Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
The TTB, part of the U.S. Department of Treasury, requires the following be included on wine labels: vintage date, estate bottled, appellation of origin, viticultural area, alcohol content, declaration of sulfites, brand name, varietal designation, country of origin, name and address of winery/business, and net contents. But when it comes to ingredients and nutrition facts, neither are required. Which raises the question, should they be?
Does wine contain enough of the traditionally-listed nutritional facts to merit bottle space?
Wine bottles are already limited with the amount of information which can be presented due to the size and shape of the bottle. From a nutrition label point of view — considering what is actually in a glass of wine — there is no fat, no protein, no cholesterol, little to no sodium, and little to no grams of sugar (depending on the dryness of the final wine).
However, one benefit to the nutrition labeling would be the recommended serving size — for example, a five-ounce pour of wine equals one glass. A popular sentiment among wine consumers is the need to better understand what a serving of wine is. (Alternately, there are those who would prefer to stay in the dark when it comes to knowing the amount of calories in their wine...) In the end, most of us already know that alcohol calories hold empty nutritional significance. Requiring a label doesn't really influence the experience or decision to purchase.
If nutritional facts don’t add value, then what about ingredients?
Wine (admittedly at its most basic foundation and understanding) is fermented grape juice. However, depending on the winery and desired final product, additives may be used along the way. As far as ingredients go, the TTB already regulates additives to ensure that the final product is, indeed, derived from fruit. When it comes to specific amounts of minerals and vitamins, according to the USDA website, a 5 oz. glass of red wine contains 187 mg of potassium, 12 mg of calcium, and .084 mg of vitamin B-6 to name a few. Similarly for white wine, potassium registers at 104 mg for a 5 oz. pour, 13 mg of calcium and .074 of vitamin B-6. With that being said, wine is a complex beverage and holds trace amounts of macronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants like resveratrol.
Resveratrol is naturally produced by many plants as a defense of sorts, and has been linked to anti-aging and skin health benefits in humans. Yet the levels of resveratrol in wine are so low — about one milligram in a glass of red wine — that it is only a fraction of the amount needed to produce real results. Additives include everything from yeast, enzymes, or settling agents to substances like mega purple or acetaldehyde, both used to enhance a wine’s color. None of these would appear on labels. Dimethyl dicarbonate (DMDC) is yet another additive sometimes used to stabilize or de-alcoholize wines. DMDC is also found in orange juice and some sports drinks. But guess what? It doesn’t appear on those product labels, either.
And when it comes to known allergens, wine is not produced from any of the eight most common food allergens; therefore, wine is not legally required to list them. According to the FDA Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004: “milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans account for 90 percent of food allergies.” Note that sulfites are not on this list, yet the TTB requires wine labels to denote that the wine does, indeed, “contain sulfites" (though no volume or measurement is required). This has proven to be rather misleading as many consumers have come to believe they are allergic to sulfites when, in fact, they are most likely allergic to the histamines found on the grapes instead. Most dried fruits and salad bars contain more sulfites than a bottle of wine, so unless you sneeze when eating dried fruit, the sulfites aren’t to blame. There has been a move in more recent years with organic and biodynamic wines which uses all natural techniques in the vineyards and wineries. Biodynamic farming is based of off Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual and ecological beliefs which excludes and use of sulfur. However if a wine is considered as organic but the label says “Wine Made from Grapes Grown Organically,” this means that sulfur was most likely used in the cellar but not the vineyard. This goes to show that something as simple as “contains sulfites” doesn’t tell a consumer much information and seems alarming as it is the only ingredient highlighted on labels. It's no wonder the public believes them to be a health concern.
If nutrition and ingredient labeling were to become legally required, the impact on wineries would be great.
The additional lab testing to quantify nutritional contents and ingredients, along with the labor, would be high and costly for many small family-run wineries — not to mention the additional label design, printing fees, and final TBB approval. External lab testing can cost anywhere from $22 to $300 per element. Additionally, on average, winery lab equipment costs around $3,000, a large investment for a winery just getting off the ground. It seems that requiring nutrition and ingredients on wine labels ultimately lends to more questions than answers.
When asked what would become legally required to list on labels, the TTB said the answer will be up to the public to decide. Wine is not only a complex beverage, but requires many steps to produce. There are literally thousands of decisions that going into making a bottle of wine from vineyard to bottle. Would additives used in the winemaking process be required even if they aren’t found in the final product? Do customers even understand enough about the winemaking process to understand the reason behind using these additives?
Winemakers and consumers alike don’t seem to see any urgency in requiring nutrition and ingredient labeling on wine. Albeit, there may be some wineries who do need to be held accountable, but so do the makers of fruit juices and sports drinks. We have a right to know what we are putting into our bodies, but misleading labels isn't the solution. In order to be truly effective, the TTB needs to come together with winemakers and consumers alike to create new and ultimately more informative labels that are appropriate for wine.
For more from Charlotte Chipperfield, visit The Wine Key, a wine education and consulting business based in San Francisco and hosts events around the country.