Grapevine: Finger Pointing At California Wines: You Get What You Pay For

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

Which end of the wine budget spectrum do you find yourself in discussions with friends or family?

“Why do you spend so much on a bottle of wine? My $8 bottle of wine is just as good as your $25 bottle – and it’s much more consistent every year than your higher-priced wine that seems to fluctuate in taste and quality each year.”

“How can anyone expect a quality wine to cost as little as $5 to $8 – or even Two Bucks at Trader Joe’s? Don’t you know how expensive it is to produce a quality wine?”

The debate seems endless. I often find myself dispensing advice to both sides.

This subjective issue came to the forefront of national news last week. At first glance it seemed to cross over the lines of price and quality. Rather than a debate on the merits of being frugal or a spendthrift, it touched on a topic rarely heard in wine circles.

News headlines blared “Claims of arsenic in wine cause health worries.”

A class action lawsuit claims that high levels of inorganic arsenic were found in 38 of 1,300 bottles tested by an independent laboratory. Controversy over the claim immediately arose, from blind acceptance to out-of-hand rejection. Wine consumers lined up on both sides of the lawsuit to offer their opinions.

The very nature of the argument is loaded with questions. Is the lawsuit well vetted and grounded in scientific research and medical consequences? Or is the motivation of the plaintiffs spurred by greedy attorneys, seeking quick financial gain via sensationalism and public pressure – and the deep pockets of the defendants?

I’ve decided to weigh-in with my personal thoughts.

Point: Arsenic can be a dangerous chemical. At sufficient levels of ingestion it can bring on numerous illnesses, even death.

Counterpoint: Arsenic is widely found in nature in trace amounts. It has been found in the soil and atmosphere in vineyards, absorbed through the roots and leaves of grapevines. Residual amounts exist in a number of products beyond wine, including water and apples.

Point: The levels reported by the independent laboratory were at sufficiently high levels to conclude a health hazard exists. The plaintiffs called for an undisclosed monetary award and warning labels on bottle labels.

Counterpoint: The independent laboratory offered its testing services to any winery seeking analysis of its wines, even though its report did not conclude the arsenic levels were dangerous. The plaintiffs/attorneys took a major leap from the test results to a self-proclaimed conclusion of a major health risk. There are no government regulations that ban or set a standard for arsenic levels in wine. However, there are standards set in other countries, all at substantially higher levels than those found in the American testing.

Ironically, federal law permits the use in winemaking of a number of chemicals, including pesticides, herbicides, equipment cleaning chemicals and sulphite preservatives.

Point: Wine should be a natural, unadulterated product, free of any additives. Counterpoint: Such wines exist, but are typically artisanal wines that command higher prices. And this brings me to the core of my position.

It’s not solely arsenic in wine that should cause concern to consumers. The winemaking practices of the industrial wine companies are cause for alarm. In order to sell a bottle of wine for $8, shortcuts are typically employed to cut costs. At these mega wine factories, massive quantities of grapes are harvested by industrial-size machines that suck in rotten grapes, leaves, twigs and unlucky insects. These can cause chemical reactions in wines that may cause a number of adverse reactions, such as headaches and digestive problems, not to mention the stress placed on kidneys and livers. Additives abound in these wines, including sugar, acetaldehyde, Dimethyl dicarbonate and ethyl acetate.

Until ingredient labels are required, consumers are at the mercy of winemakers for the quality and safety of their wines. In the end, you get what you pay for.

Nick Antonaccio is a 35-year Pleasantville resident. For over 15 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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