Trim Cabernet Sauvignon started including nutrition and ingredient facts on its back labels earlier this year.
How many calories are in a glass of wine? How much sugar? Does it contain any protein? Transparent Labels
If you’ve ever asked these questions, it’s probably been hard to find answers. Wine and other alcoholic beverages, unlike other food and drink products, have never been required to provide nutrition or ingredient labeling in the U.S. But that’s about to change — and the arrival of this mandatory labeling could shift the wine industry in major ways.
Starting next December, any wines sold in the European Union — as many California wines are — will be required to provide nutrition and ingredient facts, accessible via a QR code on the bottle’s label. Meanwhile, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which governs alcohol laws in the U.S., has indicated that it is considering a similar sort of rule for wines sold in this country, possibly as soon as next year. Right now, wineries may voluntarily choose to list serving facts and ingredients, but few do. (Ridge Vineyards is the best-known example.)
If nutrition and ingredient labeling becomes compulsory for wines, it will certainly be a win for consumers, who have shown a growing interest in the nuances of the winemaking process in recent years. The fact that many drinkers now ask for low-intervention wines, or wines grown from organic grapes, suggests they’d welcome more easily accessible information about how their products were made.
But will winemakers welcome it? That’s less clear.
“I haven’t heard a winery say, ‘Oh my god, we don’t want to do this,’” said Jeannie Bremer, vice president of compliance and public policy at the Wine Group, one of the largest wine companies in the U.S. She’s part of a working group at the Wine Institute, a lobbying organization, to help advise California wineries about how to approach this new labeling landscape.
Still, Bremer said, it’s likely that some customers may misunderstand the effects of some common ingredients that go into wines. Take tartaric acid, which is added to many wines in California. Its addition doesn’t necessarily mean that the resulting wine will taste sharp, but “if we list (it), might the consumer think that the product is really acidic?” she asked.
Other vintners have expressed concerns over ingredients like sulfur dioxide. This preservative is used by the vast majority of wineries around the world (the small minority of radical wines made without sulfur are often referred to as “zero-zero”). Yet listing sulfur on a label may dissuade a large number of potential customers: A recent survey by the Wine Market Council found that 50% of respondents had a negative view of sulfur as a wine ingredient, while 43% were neutral and only 7% positive.
To winemaker Priyanka French, however, this sort of logic is flawed. “Saying ‘we’re not going to be transparent because people won’t get it’ is not the solution,” she said. “The correct approach is: ‘What can we do to help alleviate those worries, and explain to you why we’re using these ingredients?’”
French released her first wines with nutrition and ingredient facts earlier this year: a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon under the Trim label, which sells for $12 to $15 a bottle. (She also makes much more expensive wines at Signorello Estate in Napa.) French’s team saw an opportunity to showcase the fact that the Trim bottlings are not as heavily manipulated as other $12-$15 wines. “A lot of wine at that price point doesn’t talk about the winemaking process,” she said. But she was proud of the fact that she doesn’t use additives like grape concentrate, and wanted to broadcast that.
The biggest opportunity for wineries here, in my opinion, is to dispel some of the most pervasive myths that American drinkers cling to.
The worst misperception is around sugar. Forty-seven percent of consumers believe that wine is high in sugar, according to that Wine Market Council survey. This astounded me. Sure, there are some wines out there with sugar — notably, the lowest tiers of mass-market wines that are designed to taste a little sweet. But just about any reputable table wine that you’re buying at a Bay Area wine shop, or sampling in a Wine Country tasting room, is dry, meaning it has no sugar. (That’s the whole point of wine: Sugar ferments into alcohol, transforming a liquid from grape juice to wine.)
When wellness-oriented wine brands market themselves as “low sugar,” most wine industry folks are thinking, “duh!” What wine — save dessert wine — isn’t low in sugar?
So it’s a wise move for brands to prominently display “ZERO SUGAR” on their back labels, as Trim does. If that many people wrongly perceive wines to be high in sugar, wineries should set the record straight.
The survey also found that the average consumer thinks a glass of wine (defined here as a 5-ounce pour) has 145 calories. In reality, the figure is usually closer to 120. Trim’s Cabernet is 122 calories, its Chardonnay 128. In other words, the calorie count is another opportunity for wineries to blow their customers’ minds.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t look as if U.S. consumers are clamoring for this information, at least not yet. When the Wine Market Council survey asked folks who had never seen ingredient lists on wine whether they should be required, 38% said yes, 25% said no and 37% said it doesn’t matter. Maybe, after all, people don’t long to pore over back labels in BevMo! aisles, searching for the lowest-carb and lowest-calorie Pinot Noir.
We should learn more about those preferences soon, one way or another. With the new E.U. rule going into effect next year, any European wines imported into the U.S. will soon start bearing those QR codes that link out to nutrition and ingredient lists. Since people have to scan, there will be data available about how many consumers are taking that extra step to get the information.
“We’ll be able to see — are consumers really looking at it, reading through it, or do they just pick up their favorite bottle of Chianti the way they’d pick up their favorite cereal, like Lucky Charms?” Bremer said. “It’s going to be interesting.”
Update: An earlier version of this story misstated the type of acid that some winemakers add to their wines. A commonly used additive is tartaric acid.
Waterproof Labels Senior wine critic Esther Mobley joined The Chronicle in 2015 to cover California wine, beer and spirits. Previously she was an assistant editor at Wine Spectator magazine in New York, and has worked harvests at wineries in Napa Valley and Argentina.