Once upon a time, I thought wine had it out for me. After just one glass with dinner I’d wake up the next day feeling icky no matter what variety I’d sipped: chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, etc.
Turns out, though, I’m just sensitive to some of the additives found in most conventional wines . . . and I’m not the only one. Natural wines have been become increasingly popular over the past few years as people become aware of the 76 additives allowed in the bottles you’ll find on store shelves.
And while I think that’s a good thing, there aren’t any defined standards for natural wine like there are for organic produce, so it’s important to know what to look for.
How Is Wine Made?
Traditionally, wine was made by crushing grapes and fermenting them in their own naturally occurring sugars and wild native yeasts (found on the skin of the grapes) for weeks, months, or even years. Like homemade ginger ale, the result was literally alive with native yeasts and friendly bacteria.
These days, though, conventional winemakers use ingredients and processes to make wine more cheaply, then use additives to “fix” any issues with flavor or color. (1)
That, as you might imagine, leads me to . . .
Why I Avoid Conventional Wine
Winemakers are not required to disclose any additives, so unless you have access to high-grade lab equipment it’s pretty much impossible to know what’s in your glass. (Unless you buy from a producer that chooses transparency, which is an option.)
If you’re wondering how the rules can be so lax, it’s because wine isn’t regulated by the FDA. It’s regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which – as you can probably guess by the name – is primarily concerned with collecting taxes.
Fortunately for us, people with access to lab equipment have analyzed conventional wines to see what they contain. Here’s some of what they’ve found.
Pesticide & Fungicide Residue
To maximize profits, many producers irrigate their vineyards so that they can grow more grapes in closer quarters. The downside of this approach is that with more water comes more risk of mold/mildew and pest issues. For this reason, irrigated vineyards are often sprayed with pesticides and fungicides as a preventative measure.
For example, in 2010 about 25 million pounds of pesticides were applied to conventionally-grown wine grapes in California. (2) Another small study found glyphosate (Roundup) in 10 out of 10 conventionally grown California wines that were tested. (3)
Internationally produced conventional wines often have the same issue. In France, vineyards represent just 3% of agricultural land, but use 80% of the fungicides applied. (4)
So what’s the alternative? Some producers use dry farming instead, which is a method that relies solely on rainfall rather than irrigation. With this approach, grapes are less vulnerable to mold/mildew and pests. As a bonus, vines that are dry farmed develop much deeper root systems in order to tap into water, thus drawing up more flavor components from the soil. (5)
In traditional winemaking, the natural sugar in mashed grapes is converted to alcohol through the process of fermentation. By the time the wine is ready, most if not all of the sugar has been consumed by the fermentation process. This yields a crisps, flavorful wine that is naturally low in sugar.
However, in conventional winemaking, extra sugar is often added to generate higher alcohol content or increase sweetness. While I’m not against enjoying sweets on occasion, excessive amounts of sugar can negatively affect gut health and I don’t want to drink wine that’s loaded with it.
Genetically Modified Yeast
A genetically modified yeast strain called ML01 is approved for use in the US, Canada, Moldova and South Africa. (6) Although there are now laws requiring some manufacturers to disclose when they use genetically modified ingredients in certain foods and drinks, those laws do not apply to alcohol producers.
Fining and Defoaming Agents
Used to remove proteins from wine, fining agents can include egg white, milk products including casein, fish bladders, and gelatin. (7) This can be problematic for some people who need to avoid certain foods due to sensitivities.
Defoaming agents such as polyoxyethylene 40 monostearate, silicon dioxide, dimethylpoly-siloxane, sorbitan monostearate, glyceryl mono-oleate and glyceryl dioleate are also often used in conventional wine production.
Mega Purple and Ultra Red
If you’ve ever sipped on a red wine and ended up with a very purple smile, you’ve probably been Mega-Purpled. Natural red wine doesn’t do that.
Wine makers know that we naturally seek out vibrantly-colored foods because rich colors indicate a high level of antioxidants, which is why they add very concentrated, highly sweetened grape juice syrup to intensify the color of red wine.. While I don’t have a huge issue with enhancing color, I don’t want all the added sugar in my wine. And also, mega purple tends to make all wines taste similar instead of highlighting the unique places they’re made.
Although wine contains a small amount of naturally occurring sulfites, additional sulfites (in the form of sulfur dioxide) are sometimes added as a preservative in significant amounts.
Although actual allergies to sulfites are rare, some people have a genetic mutation that alters how their body processes sulfur. For those people, it’s usually wise to avoid excess intake of sulfur – for example, using magnesium chloride in homemade bath salts instead of magnesium sulfate (which is magnesium bonded with sulfur) and opting for low-sulfate wine.
The current maximum of sulfites allowed for conventional wines is 350 ppm, which is often enough to be problematic for people who are sensitive.
Twenty-three percent of wines tested from 13 different countries contained fumonisin b(2), which is a type of mycotoxin. (8) If you’ve never heard of them before, mycotoxins are “secondary metabolites of molds that have adverse effects on humans, animals, and crops that result in illnesses and economic losses.” (9)
They’re never added intentionally as an ingredient, but as I mentioned earlier, mold and mildew are often a problem for wine producers who use irrigation instead of dry farming techniques.
Oak chips and sawdust are sometimes added to wine in order to impart the flavor associated with oak barrel aging.
What To Look For In Natural Wine
Look for wines that are organic, biodynamic and/or dry-farmed, then ask the producer about their production practices, such as whether or not they:
- Test for mycotoxins and pesticide/fungicide residue
- Add sugar, coloring, fining agents, defoaming agents, sawdust, etc.
The label should usually say whether or not a particular wine contains added sulfites, but it can also be helpful to ask for more specific info on that as well. Ideally, the sulfites would measure below 75 ppm.
If you’re thinking that sounds like a lot of work, you can take the shortcut I do and buy Dry Farm Wines, which only sells wines that meet my standards.
Why I Love From Dry Farm Wines
If you’re thinking, “Hmmm, I’m pretty sure the guy at my local wine shop is not going to be able to tell me if the bottle of wine I’m holding is tested for pesticide residue,” I hear you. Personally, I love to explore wine flavors from different regions, but I don’t want to have to research a hundred vineyards just to find a handful of ones that meet the standards mentioned above.
That’s why I love Dry Farm Wines. They’re not a vineyard . . . there a company that has done all the research and gathered the best tasting natural wines from all over.
Here’s what makes them exceptional:
- Their wines all use natural farming and traditional winemaking practices, including organic or biodynamic farming and dry farming.
- Each batch is virtually sugar-free, containing less than 1g/L of total sugars (including fructose and glucose). That means it’s keto friendly for those who are on a keto diet. (If you’re wondering how wine can be sugar-free, it’s because they allow it to ferment until most of the sugar has been converted, and they don’t add in additional sugar like some producers.)
- They lab test their wines for mycotoxins, sulfite content, sugar content, and alcohol content (traditionally made wines are lower in alcohol than many modern conventional wines)
- They use wild native yeast and no additives for aroma, color, flavor or texture enhancement.
How to get an extra bottle for one penny
Dry Farm Wines offers curated collections of 6 or 12 bottles delivered directly to your door. You choose the amount and frequency – monthly or every other month – plus whether you prefer all reds, all whites, or both.
Right now Dry Farm Wines is offering an extra bottle of wine for just one penny with your first order, and shipping is free.
1. Wired Magazine (2014) One Man’s Quest to Reveal What’s Actually in Your Favorite Wines
2. California Environmental Protection Agency Department of Pesticide Regulation (2011) Summary of Pesticide Use Report Data 2010 Indexed by Commodity
3. ABC News (2016) I-Team investigates controversy over weed killer and California wine
4. Decanter (2013) French study finds pesticide residues in 90% of wines
5. Forbes Magazine (2015) Are The Best Tasting Wines Dry Farmed?
6. Ma, Zekun (2019) The Stigma Impact of Non-GMO Label On Conventional Unlabeled Alcohol Products
7. Puckette, Madeline (2012) What You Need To Know About Wine Additives
8. Mogensen, Jesper Mølgaard (2010) Widespread occurrence of the mycotoxin fumonisin b(2) in wine
9. Zain, Mohamed E (2011) Impact of mycotoxins on humans and animals