Clean Wine, Clean Conscience?

By Dave Schavone

The marketing term du jour in the wine business is “clean.” Several brands have popped up of late selling “clean wine,” and claiming everything from fewer hangovers to contributing to a healthier lifestyle. The scientific jury is still out on these claims, but perception is reality. If someone feels ok the morning after drinking a so-called “clean” wine, then they’ll likely credit the mysterious “cleanliness” of the wine.

What’s missing from clean wine claims

Many of these brands are unclear as to what exactly makes their wine “clean.” Some tout the usual buzzwords of organic grapes, no additives, sustainable practices, etc., but one thing none of them are talking about are their labor practices.

Fair labor practices in winemaking

In any agricultural industry, which is what wine is at its core, labor fairness is a massive issue. The nature of harvest work (temporary, relatively unskilled) leaves the laborers who work the fields, orchards and vineyards vulnerable to exploitation. The work is arduous: long days with high expectations of output, and in many areas, the work is also dangerous. Despite these challenges, agricultural labor is paid rock-bottom wages with little or no benefits.

Labor abuses not exclusive to large commercial winemakers

In the wine world, we’ve seen what happens when we don’t pay attention to labor practices. Abuses range from unsafe work conditions to exploitative pay. While often assumed to be a problem isolated to the world of large commercial vineyards, natural wine is not immune. Accusations of labor abuses by Valentina Passalacqua were never proven, and she denies any involvement, but only six months after the accusations were made her wines are appearing all over Instagram again, with little more than her own assurances that her practices are above board.

Importer responsibilities regarding labor practices

As importers, we have a responsibility to ensure that our wines are being made in a manner that treats everyone involved fairly. That means asking tough questions of our producers and verifying their answers, if possible through an independent organization specializing in Fair Trade practices. We also have a responsibility to educate our customers about what work goes into making their wines, just like we do with farming methods or additives. Some importers are already making great strides in this direction.

Holistic transparency in winemaking

Transparency needs to apply to all aspects of what it takes to go from grapes on a vine to wine on your table. Look for more on this in the future from RedThumb as we continue our work to be the most transparent wine company on the market.