5 false claims in winemaking

By Dave Schavone

The world of health food has long been home to many dubious marketing claims. Whether it’s a fad diet or a questionable additive, food manufacturers have tried to convince people that their products were the healthier choice for decades. Recently, that trend has extended into the wine world. Here are the five most-used false claims in winemaking, and how you can see through them.  

How to decode your wine label  

We all know interpreting the cluster of words on wine bottles is a challenge. Since there is very little nutritional info required on each bottle, knowing what’s really in your glass can be a tough nut to crack. False claims in winemaking run rampant. Conventional winemaker’s bottles seemingly offer consumers identical details, so brands have begun using alternative labeling methods to cut through the masses and attempt to gain attention and market share. Because of this, it seems there are more companies making unnecessary [even empty] claims to differentiate themselves from other wine brands.

That means it’s now more difficult to identify information from labels than ever before. There are a number of ways brands claim to be something they are not and slip under the radar of an untrained eye. The USDA Agriculture and Marketing Service even provides an in-depth overview of the extensive ways wine brands may legally include organic references on their label without actually being organically certified. Whether it be gluten-free, diet wine, or clean wine, there are volumes of fancy—yet empty—words circling the market.  In this game of healthwashing and over-stating, here’s how to peel back the layers of filler words and get to the true meaning:

What do you mean wine isn’t gluten free?

Generally speaking, all wine is gluten free. There are a few exceptions [primarily wine coolers and flavored wines], but the majority of wines commercially sold in the US have less than the FDA-regulated 20 parts per million of gluten in each bottle. This means most [almost all] wine does not put those with dietary restrictions in harm’s way. Post-production, all wine remains naturally free of gluten. Scare tactics, such as the illusive gluten-laced barrels story or gluten-fining winemakers are mostly obsolete. Many companies choose to use gluten-free paraffin wax or age their wine in stainless steel vats and ceramic tanks that don’t require any sealant. Regardless, the gluten trace in oak barrels that do use a wheat coating is often so minimal that it is almost untraceable. The same can be said for gluten fining, as fining agents are normally made of animal products or vegan alternatives.

When talking about wine strictly made with 100% fruit, the verdict remains: wine is gluten free.  Brands that use a gluten-free angle to sell their product are hyping a basic characteristic of wine. While it is helpful for those with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance to be fully aware of the ingredients in products they are consuming, slapping a gluten free label feels like an easy way to gain attention [though soon the regulatory TTB may tell us to do just that].

What’s the deal with diet wines? 

Wine is an addition to a diet, and not a necessary one. So called “diet wine” brands continue to grow in popularity as winemakers recognize a shift to more health-conscious consumers. These low-calorie, low-sugar wines first began making headway in 2010 and were soon followed by a plethora of new brands that capitalized on the trend. On average, diet wines have 15% to 30% fewer calories than normal wines. However, the truth is that wine isn’t a highly caloric beverage to begin with. A glass of red or white wine averages about 100-120 calories. If you stick to the recommended two-glasses-a-day rule, you’d only save about 60 calories by consuming a diet wine.

Where we do concur is in terms of sugar intake. It’s true that some wines have a tendency to put sugar [or a sugar substitute, like concentrated grape must] in their product to smooth over inconsistencies in taste or bump up ABV, but well made whites and reds often have less than 1.4g of sugar per glass [and most of it is naturally occurring]. To lower the calorie and sugar content of each glass, diet wines typically reduce the alcohol percentage of their product. If you’re anything like me, less alcohol often means more glasses, which in turn means more calories. You’re better off choosing a high-quality natural wine that requires less drinking and has no added sugars.

What is clean wine?

The term clean wine may be one of the largest frauds in the wine industry, at least in the last decade. “Clean” is a nutritionally meaningless buzzword that was created to market to those making health-conscious decisions about what they consume.  Misinformation around “clean” wine is vast, as there is no set definition of what makes a wine “clean”. Brands have taken advantage of the term, and its association with health and earth-friendliness, and turned it into a marketing point. These wines claim to be both better for you and sustainable but don’t need to back those claims up with additional information about what specifically makes the wine “clean”. These brands often still use commercially manufactured additives or pesticides that would preclude them from more strict classifications like “organic” or “biodynamic”.

Wine marketed as clean may also fail to be fully transparent about the origin of its grapes or winemaking methods and rely only on buzz-word labeling to persuade consumers that its wine is healthier. Luckily, the TTB has issued guidance limiting the use of the word “clean” as it relates to any claims of health or low-intervention production methods.

At the end of the day, wine is an alcoholic beverage. Alcohol consumption can be part of a balanced diet, but only in moderation. Consumers should avoid wine that labels itself “clean” without proper research into its production. 

Who can I trust not to make false claims in winemaking?

Shop for wine brands that practice transparency. Does the information on the bottle back up the claims being made? When companies are clear as to what goes into a bottle of wine (ingredients, nutritional information, origin, winemaking practices), it ensures that consumers are able to make informed decisions for both themselves and the environment. And any information printed on the label has to be approved by the federal governing bodies.

Look for claims that are substantiated by additional third-party entities: organic, biodynamic, dry-farmed, additive-free, and vegan. Not only do wines that make these honest claims leave a minimal environmental footprint, but they also allow for the true, unaltered flavor of each grape varietal and region to shine. 

Still curious about what else is hidden behind wine buzzwords? Check out our Standards page or our Instagram reels for answers to all of your [natural] wine-related questions.