Grapevine: What’s Behind the Label on a Bottle of Wine?

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

When shopping for the produce and/or meats necessary to prepare an at-home meal, consumers are increasingly aware of the nutritional and health values of unprocessed ingredients. Many products contain nutrition and ingredient information on government-mandated food labels.

But what of the produce and meats in supermarkets? Current regulations are not always effective in food labelling.

Increasing numbers of consumers are seeking out products grown, raised or prepared as they were for centuries before the industrialization of food products, before the era of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, before GMO products and Monsanto corn.

Conscientious consumers have more food information available today than ever before. However, the availability of nutritional and health information still has a few wide gaps.

When consumers prepare a meal of the most healthful foods in the marketplace, they sit at the table proud of their accomplishment. Typically they will celebrate their meal with a glass of wine. Herein lies the rub. That bottle of wine may be “industrialized” with man-made additives.

But how is a discerning consumer able to make an informed decision on the quality of the wines they purchase? No government regulations exist that require a nutrition or ingredients label on a bottle of wine.

Last week I addressed the nutrition contents of wine in the absence of mandated labels. This week I move on to the ingredients in wine.

Ironically, there is no lack of verbiage on wine labels today: where the grapes are grown, which grapes were blended together, flowery adjectives describing the bouquet, aroma and flavor and even suggestions for food pairing. All with the implied intent of making a consumer’s decision-making process easier. The more information the better, right?

Maybe. Does nice to know trump need to know?

In the face of this lack of mandatory ingredients labelling, many consumers might question the need for any disclosure. To them, wine is simply fermented grape juice that “contains sulfites.” The reality is that many wines contain additives introduced during the winemaking process, including several that remain present in the final product.

In varying degrees and in varying winemakers’ end products, numerous man-made enzymes may be added to enhance the color or balance the flavors or aromas. Sugar may be added to control alcohol levels; powdered tannins to influence overall quality. Many of these additives have not (yet) been shown to be harmful. However, otherwise natural wines are being adulterated in a significant amount of the wine Americans unwittingly consume.

The industry has successfully resisted any form of disclosure. However, several pioneering American winemakers have taken the bold step of voluntary disclosure. As one might suspect, these virtuous winemakers have nothing to hide, although several of their specific disclosures might turn heads amongst uninitiated or naïve wine consumers.


Ridge Vineyards, one of California’s most respected wineries, has begun to add a list of ingredients to the back label of several of their wines. Here’s the highly lauded language for the Ridge 2011 Paso Robles Zinfandel: “Hand harvested, sustainably grown grapes, indigenous yeasts, naturally occurring malolactic bacteria, 1.4% water addition, minimum effective SO2.” This is a very straightforward presentation, with an ideal list of ingredients I wouldn’t mind ingesting into my physiology.

However, several of these terms may startle consumers. Bacteria? Water? These are natural ingredients many winemakers add to their wines to improve their quality. The harmless bacteria are naturally produced during the fermentation process; a portion may remain in the wine upon bottling. “Jesus units” (a term for water, referencing his miracle of transforming water into wine at the marriage in Cana) may be added to a wine during its aging process to compensate for overly ripe grapes or to reduce high levels of alcohol.

Informed consumers spend considerable time – and money — seeking out food products that conform to their lifestyle choices. Shouldn’t wines be able to be scrutinized in a similar fashion?

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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