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Jefford on Monday: My Babe Appeal

I wrote to The Babe. The Babe wrote back. (OK, not The Babe herself, but a co-worker called Lindsey, who is very probably a Babe in her own right.) And now we might be in business.

Ridge 2011 Geyserville wine ingredients label

California's Ridge Vineyards has embraced full disclosure of wine ingredients on its labels since the 2011 vintage

Every columnist has a favourite bone or two in the corner of their kennel. They gnaw on it from time to time, hope that the awesome sight of their canines and the copious slaver produced will be enough to change the world. It isn’t, of course, so you nose the bone back into the corner of the kennel, ready to get it out again when nothing much is happening.

My oldest bone (last chewed in April 2008, in Decanter magazine) is the scandal of wine labeling. What scandal?  The fact that no wine producer is required to list any of the 250 or more potential additives which can find their way into wine, sulphur aside. This is palpably unfair, since food manufacturers are generally required to list additives, even if such listings appear in coded form.

European consumers, for example, are familiar with ‘E numbers’ on food packaging: E621 for monosodium glutamate, for example, or E175 for, um, gold (perfectly harmless to eat, if idiotic). This system, Europhobe obsessives should note, has nothing to do with ‘meddling Brussels’, but is no more than the Codex Alimentarius numbering system, created by the body of this name originally established in the early 1960s by the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Europe has sensibly borrowed this wonderful catalogue (even though not all of the additives listed in it are permitted in Europe). The nub of my campaign is that its use should become universal, for wine as well as for food. It is space-economic on labels, and yet any number can quickly be referenced on the web so that you know what you might be ingesting.

My own least-favourite wine additive is any form of acid (such as E334, tartaric acid, or E330, citric acid). Such additions are nearly always misjudged by the palates of those making the additions, and (most importantly for wine, though irrelevant in almost every other context) they are the major way in which winemakers erase or deface the sense of terroir in their own wines, rendering them anodyne, “balanced” and industrial.  

If you add acid to a tin of tomatoes, you have to fess up. If you add acid to wine, you don’t. I want to know if a wine has had acid added to it, so that I know I am tasting a corrected industrial wine rather than a vin de terroir. It’s more serious than tomatoes!

By contrast, I wouldn’t want to buy any wine which didn’t have E220 added to it. (That’s sulphur dioxide.)  I’m not making an argument for natural wine; I’m making an argument for informed choice.

Note, by the way, that you can always list the additive by name rather than by number. If you use an impure but ‘natural’ form of it -- lemon juice rather than citric acid, say -- then of course you simply list that form as an ingredient.

The Babe (her description, not mine) is a North Carolina blogger called Vani Hari whose Food Babe site has legions of followers, thus its campaigns – for transparency in food labeling, among other things – tend to gain enough traction to be effective.  The Babe recently sank her prominent, pristine and extraordinarily white teeth into the fleshy protuberances of some of America’s biggest brewers, including AB InBev, brewer of the feebly flavoured Budweiser/Bud and Bud Light. 

American labeling legislation for beer is lax, so consumers there are unaware that beer might contain corn syrup or isinglass. Apparently, AB InBev told Ms Hari that, following her campaign, it would list all ingredients on its appropriately bland and obfuscating website (though perhaps not yet – despite a lot of time searching, I have been unable to locate the promised list).  Global newspapers fell over themselves to report this, in a way that I suspect they wouldn’t had her website been called Food Geek, Food Anorak or Food Hag.

Anyway, encouraged by the Babe’s apparent success, I wrote to her with a little detail, suggesting she have a go at the wine world for a future campaign. “Hey Andrew,” came the reply. “Thanks for reaching out to us. My name is Lindsey and I work with the Food Babe team. Thank you for sharing so much of your knowledge on the subject with us. Wine is definitely on Vani's radar. Hope your day is going well, Lindsey.”  So we’ll see.

The wine lobby is a powerful one in Europe, and it will fight hard to avoid increased transparency about wine additives. So, too, will every wine multi-national and wine promotional association worldwide. I’m sure I have many wine-trade friends in the UK who will shake their heads at this and rather not see obligatory Codex Alimentarius numbers on the back labels of wines – though they should remember that the best in most cases do not contain additives beyond yeast, sulphur and fining agents.

But if you are against the idea -- I’m sorry: you’re wrong. One day it will come and, like smoking bans and hybrid vehicles, we’ll wonder what took us all so long. (Meanwhile, I’ll nudge my bone back into the kennel for another year or two.)  

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com