There appears to be a conspiracy of silence on the part of winemakers when it comes the subject of vegetarian wine.
That’s right. Did you know there was such a thing as vegetarian or vegan wine?
I’ve visited wineries throughout California and never heard of vegetarian or vegan wine until very recently. While on a visit to relatives in Southern California, my sister told me and my wife that she had discovered them.
My sister has been a vegetarian most of her life and the idea that animal parts are used in the wine-making process literally sickened her. She had been drinking wine for about ten years, blissfully unaware of this fact.
Before I explain how animal parts are involved in the wine-making process I would like to pose this question to all the wineries in California; "Why don’t you warn people that animal parts are used (if applicable) in the production of your wine on your labels, or in the literature you pass out?"
Fact. The FDA does not mandate that wineries (or breweries - yes they can be vegetarian too) provide information about animal parts used in the making of their products. It’s little known unless you’re the winemaker or an expert in viticulture.
There’s a natural settling and clarification process that occurs when wine is aged. It’s an inefficient and inconsistent way to prepare wine for the public however, according to Foodista, a vegetarian blog that pairs vegetarian wines with meals.
Most people don’t want to drink cloudy wine or wine with particles floating in it. The answer is to "clean up" the wine after fermentation, either before, during, or after aging.
This process is called "fining."
It’s a method of clarifying or chemically stabilizing the wine. The fining agents, filters, and additives are the "devil in the details" for vegetarians and vegans.
You may be surprised to hear that animal blood could be in your wine. How? The charcoal used to remove impurities and odors from wine is frequently made from animal bones.
Refined sugar, sometimes added to wine to enhance sweetness, is also filtered with charcoal.
Here’s a list of agents from Winepros.com that could be used during the fining process:
Egg whites, milk, blood, gelatin, carbon, fish paste, casein (the principal protein constituent of milk and cheese) and isinglass (an extract of sturgeon bladders).
Don’t despair however, as there are alternatives. There’s a heat stabilization process using bentonite (a clay of hydrated magnesium silicates) that clears and purifies wine.
Another method involves using Irish Moss. Some wineries don’t even bother with the fining process and sell their vino, particles included.
Winemakers use various filtering methods to remove undesirable elements. There’s depth or sheet filtration, surface or membrane filtration, and sterile filtration, in addition to those listed above.
There are numerous blogs about vegetarian and vegan wine. If you’re a vegan, you’ll want to check out "Barnivore," a site run by two vegans. They let consumers know which wines are strictly vegan.
I’ve already mentioned two vegetarian sites, and there are others online. If you walk into a winery, try to find a sign stating vegetarian wine is available.
Out of 21 wineries in the Temecula area in Southern California, only one sells all organic vegetarian wine. That’s Bella Vista Winery, where I went with my sister. Even there, they don’t make a big deal about being vegetarian-friendly. The servers seemed proud of the fact, but it wasn’t prominently displayed in the wine tasting area.
Maybe I shouldn’t say the fact that most wineries don’t talk about being vegetarian or vegan is a conspiracy. Perhaps the subject simply doesn’t come up very often.
I called wineries in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, and not one person who answered the phone knew if they served vegetarian wine. They all had to consult with winemakers to give me an answer.
Like I said, maybe that’s just a coincidence. Maybe wineries don’t care if the word does get out that vegetarian or vegan wine exists. I’m no expert and probably have no business bringing this whole subject up.
But were you aware of it?
Time for me to walk on down the road...
Editor's Note: I wrote this column six years ago, and it's still relevant.