Updated: Jul 22, 2020
Last week Cameron Diaz and her business partner Katherine Power launched a ‘clean’ wine brand: Avaline.
“Cameron Diaz and Katherine Power were grossed out by what was in wine, so they made their own”, ran an InStyle Magazine headline.
“If you’re not drinking organic wine, you’re drinking pesticides” declared Cameron.
In an IGTV video, Power said she was so angry about it she threw out all the wine in her refrigerator, because all wine is full of “chemicals, sweeteners and colours and all of these additives…we had no idea about”.
They go on to talk about their struggles in finding something ‘clean’, casually opining that “any organic wine I have ever tried, it just lacks flavour and it just doesn’t taste good”.
And so they decided to create the ‘clean’ wine they wanted to drink (that supposedly didn’t exist already): vegan-friendly, organic grapes and ‘free of unnecessary add-ins like sugars, colours and concentrates’.
Cue outrage from the wine industry. The black and white thinking and the naïveté are certainly cringeworthy. At best it's misleading and at worst, scaremongering, potentially leading consumers to worry that anything other than Diaz’s wine - retailing at a super-premium price point of $24 - is somehow harmful.
It’s a big slap in the face to the many winemakers striving to make an honest living out of wine that is frankly no different in so-called ‘cleanliness’ from what Diaz has bottled; and in some cases you could even say even ‘cleaner’. (More on that later).
But Diaz and Power have definitely hit a nerve. Weirdly, wine is not required to list its ingredients, unlike all other foodstuffs (read on for what these ‘ingredients’ may be). Meanwhile the Health and Wellness movement has made a virtue of extreme transparency - and fair enough. Consumers want to know what’s going in their bodies.
In wine, the Health & Wellness trend and artisan/craft trend has already manifested itself in the ‘natural wine’ movement. A philosophical, rather than qualitative move away from any additives (whether ‘natural’ or not) and away from technological innovations and interventions. The results can sometimes be just a bit too funky, unstable and cloudy for the average wine drinker. Hence it’s still a relatively small, albeit growing, niche. Whether the results are ‘better’ or more drinkable or not is up for debate, and of fierce debate there is no shortage.
The wine industry can be a rather insular bubble, guilty of talking to itself and failing to bring in new consumers. As the natural wine debate rumbles on inside the wine bubble, consumers are left on the outside, slightly bewildered, just wanting a nice glass of wine, and still wondering whether there might be traces of fish guts or glyphosate in their wine.
And therein lies the genius, and the disingenuity, of Diaz’s new brand:
What’s got people so righteously angry is that this ‘clean’ wine is no different from countless other conventional wineries (who by the way would struggle to sell their product at $24) making carefully considered choices on which so called “additives” or processes they will or won’t use, in order to achieve a result that conforms to consumers expectations:
Crystal clear, not cloudy.
Without tartrate crystals at the bottom.
Fresh and stable, no risk of volatile acidity or other faults.
Conventional taste profile.
Despite Diaz’s assertions, no winemaker in 2020 starts by saying - "how much stuff can I ADD in to this?"
The difference is, they have made a specific point of marketing it as a “clean wine”, smartly playing into consumer fears around lack of transparency and perceived toxicity in the food chain, of mass produced products in the modern world.
Wait, animal-derived products can be used in making wine, without being declared? And they don’t need to put the ingredients on they label? The wine industry has left itself WIDE open to this, unfortunately. Diaz has simply seized the moment.
If it's lucky naiveté or Machiavellian genius is beside the point; whether it's with a girly giggle or a maniacal laugh, Diaz will be laughing all the way to the bank.
And here’s the thing. This is a mass-produced wine. Commercial yeasts and yeast nutrients are added - one of the first things to be rejected by Natural wine purists. Fining agents are used - Bentonite Clay and Pea Protein. Cream of Tartar to aid cold stabilisation. Sulphur is added but “less than 100ppm” which is hardly something to write home about - naturalistas wouldn’t entertain anything over 30ppm according to the latest French legislation.
As for transparency? The label doesn't appear to have a vintage year. A smart commercial move by them; the type of wine they have made - light, unoaked white and rosé is best drunk young. For easy-drinking wine like this, as the vintage year gets older, it becomes less a mark of quality as it might for an age-worthy fine wine, and more like an inconvenient sell-by-date.
Many have scoffed that the grape varieties are not even on the label, but guess what? Many old world wine labels don’t tell you the grape either, arrogantly assuming you should be intimately acquainted with the appellation controllé system, and frankly grape varieties are meaningless to many of the consumers the wine industry relies upon. Much more useful to have a stylistic note, as they do.
Although the information on the label is scant and lifestyle-driven, ("Pairs well with: The warmth of the sun and company of your best friend), the information is to be found on the website, alongside an explanation of the purpose of each (vegan) additive; a step further than many wineries - and there’s the rub.
WHAT DOES CLEAN WINE MEAN?
So - dare I say it - perhaps a working definition for CLEAN WINE could be as follows?
Wine that looks, smells and tastes like “conventional” wine, not like "natural" wine, (which can sometimes be its own cloudy, funky beast). That means sulphur is OK under, let's say, the US Organic wine threshold of 100ppm (tastes like wine as we know it), certain fining agents (to make the wine clear, not cloudy) and cold stabilisation is OK (no tartrate crystals). Made with organic grapes, and treated, (like all good wine), as minimally as possible. BUT, these can only be vegan additives or winemaking aids (not even Lafite-friendly egg whites) to achieve that conventional taste profile, and all of them must be clearly declared and explained. This is, as far as I can see, the only real difference with Diaz's brand. Even the most egregious p*ss-takers behind "Good Clean Wine" don't explain further than "minimally treated", which is meaningless.
Mass-production is therefore OK. Commercial yeasts and yeast nutrients are also ok.
A lot of wine, therefore, would fall into this criteria. Rather than being full of ridicule, poo-pooing the term, keeping them on the outside, perhaps the wine industry should see this as a boon. The point is, we should be defining it and owning it, with credibility, not leaving ourselves open to celebrity endorsed misinformation. That Diaz has been able to do this, is, after all, a product of our failure to reach what the industry (rather arrogantly) calls 'lower-involvement' consumers (so, you mean, most normal drinkers then?). Hey presto - we have a commercially viable way forward to engage a new generation of wine consumers - those for whom Natural wine may still be too niche or too expensive.
At worst, Avaline will create a false dichotomy in consumer's minds.
At best, Diaz’s endeavour will trigger more of a discussion and understanding of what constitutes good quality winemaking, and consumers will be pleasantly surprised that actually, if you can spend more than $15 or £10 on wine, then that's often what you get.
If it moves more consumers and producers towards organic or sustainable viticulture, that's great. If it moves consumers to demand more from their supermarket wine, and encourages them to spend more on more consciously made wine? Then cheers to you, Diaz.
FACT CHECKING CAMERON DIAZ'S STATEMENTS
So, let’s put some things straight.
"ORGANIC WINE LACKS FLAVOUR AND JUST DOESN'T TASTE GOOD"
This is just an embarrassingly ignorant statement. Good wine and bad wine exists across the entire spectrum of winemaking approaches.
"WINE IS "FULL OF CHEMICALS, SWEETENERS, COLOURS & ADDITIVES"
Especially not wine that retails at around $24.99 (£19) as theirs does.
Badly-made, very cheap & nasty wine may be guilty of some of that, but;
It still won’t be to the degree Cameron ‘You’re drinking pesticides!' Diaz would have you believe
I doubt she was drinking Black Tower and Echo Falls Fruit Fusions
Their $24.99 ‘Clean’ product doesn’t solve for that price point anyway!
"ADDITIVES ARE BAD"
The term “Additives” has become pejorative, but they are not inherently bad. The fact there are around 70 additives approved for winemaking is touted around as if proof of some toxic conspiracy theory. But amongst those additives are things like:
Sugar and tartaric acid - both of which are naturally found in the grape itself. A winemaker is allowed to add small amounts of these to bring a wine into better balance, if the weather that growing season didn’t already yield perfectly balanced levels.
Yeast - wild versions are naturally present on the grape skins, but many winemakers will use a commercially-produced yeast that will yield much more predictable results.
Bear in mind every Champagne or traditional method sparkling wine you’ve ever had has had sugar & yeast added - it’s essential for the secondary fermentation which creates the bubbles.
Sulphur - a wonder product for wine with an antioxidant and antiseptic effect; most wine wouldn’t taste like wine without it. Sulphur is also a natural by-product of the fermentation process, so all wine will have some sulphur in, just not enough to keep the wine fresh and stable, which is why it’s added.
"NOT ALL WINE IS VEGAN"
Not all wine is vegan-friendly as some animal derived products can be used as winemaking aids. This could be egg whites, traditionally used by many top Bordeaux Chateau as a gentle fining agent (the egg white coagulates with the harsher tannins, creating a smoother final wine, without stripping out flavour or colour), or the more unappealing sounding Isinglass, a type of collagen derived from fish swim bladders, used as a fining (clarification) agent.
"GRAPES AREN’T WASHED BEFORE BEING MADE INTO WINE"
It’s true that grapes are not washed before going in to the winemaking process, this is one of those things in wine that comes under the 'it's just how we've always done it' label. Aside from dust and other residues, if you've ever worked a harvest you will be surprised how much can end up in the press. Leaves, the odd unfortunate earwig... The sorting table is there to try and sort as much of the MOG - "Matter other than grapes" from the grapes before they go in. How meticulous this process is, is down to the winemaker and the type of wine being made. I'm only aware of one or two producers who wash their grapes, (an elaborate and expensive process) but there are probably more. Ca del Bosco, a Franciacorta producer is one example. Check out this video on Jamie Goode's site of their "berry spa". He also references a study where they showed washed grapes had lower levels of pesticides and lower levels of metal ions (iron, copper, zinc and lead).
There are regulations around how long you must wait after spraying before you can harvest. But it doesn't take a genius to think - air pollution, traffic pollution, chemical sprays. Of course some small traces of these will end up in your wine. The question is are they at levels to give you pause, and is it any worse than many other everyday products made in our rather toxic world? As someone who lives in traffic-filled central London, I'm not sure only drinking Organic wine will really move the needle, but that doesn't stop me wanting to make better choices.
But even a winemaker working in the most ‘natural’ (I explore the term here) way would not wash their grapes because:
a) The extra processing/ labour/ machinery cost would probably be huge - you'd have to carefully wash and dry each bunch to avoid breaking open the berries prematurely or getting lots of water in the must.
b) ‘natural' (and often other) winemakers prefer to use the wild yeasts found on the grape skins, rather than inoculate with a commercially produced yeast, for added complexity and authenticity.
"FOOD COLOURANTS (MEGA PURPLE) ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR WINE-STAINED TEETH"
Red wine is red because grape skins are filled with pigmented anthocyanins. That's what ends up staining your teeth; the more plaque you have on your teeth, and the less healthy (more porous) your enamel, the more susceptible you are to this (as the colour holds better). On the other hand, Mega Purple is one of the approved additives, made of concentrated highly-pigmented grapes (Rubired), which is added to some commercial wines to deepen the colour and enhance mouthfeel. We might prefer the idea of a winemaker adding a dash of deeply-pigmented Petit Verdot to the blend, but the result is the same. More anthocyanins; more colour.