Why the Wine World Remains Tricky for Vegans to Navigate

It's not always easy to tell.


Judging by the looks of the selections at your local grocery store, it might seem like vegans are taking over with their nut cheeses and cashew butters. Yet, animal products lurk in unexpected places, making it difficult to always know what in your shopping cart is actually vegan. There’s white sugar, ground down by bone char, or a marshmallow made stretchy with gelatin. Maybe that soy cheese contains casein, a protein found in dairy milk. Isinglass, a.k.a. fish bladder, was once used to filter Guinness.

The wine world remains one of the trickier terrains for vegans and vegetarians to navigate. Is wine vegan? It depends. While many biodynamic and organic wines are vegan, the Sauvignon Blanc, rosé, and Malbecs you’re more likely to find at your corner liquor store don’t always come with that guarantee.

Wine has no laws in the U.S. around labeling its ingredients, and animal byproducts come into the process more than one might care to consider when shopping for a bottle. Gelatin, egg white, and casein (a milk protein) can be used in the fining process at the end of winemaking to reduce tannins, which can make a wine astringent. Isinglass, the same kinds of fish bladders that used to make Guinness a no-go for vegans, is used in white wines to remove particulate matter and make them extremely clear. And so, some wine is not vegan.

While this is all cause for vegan concern, “it’s very unlikely that these proteins would actually remain in the wine to any significant degree after you’ve added them,” says Jim Harbertson, associate professor of oenology at Washington State University.

"The wine world remains one of the trickier terrains for vegans and vegetarians to navigate."

“In terms of a chemistry solution, it’s like saying, ‘Your candy bar was made in a facility that also handled peanuts.’ There would be very low sub-concentrations of this stuff in there, if at all,” he says. “But if really what you’re thinking about is the philosophical viewpoint behind it, ‘I don’t want to be harming animals for the production of my food,’ then any of these things would be a no-no.”

Until labeling laws require ingredient lists for wine, though, it won’t become any easier to tell with a casual glance whether animals were harmed for a bottle. “Labeling laws are very different when applied to alcohol than to other foodstuffs,” Harbertson says. The Food Safety Modernization Act, passed in 2011, has heated up discussion of potential requirements, but as of 2018, there are no clear answers on whether that will actually be implemented.

Some wineries see the value in ingredient-labeling independent of any governmental regulation, such as Bonny Doon Vineyard, which has been operating since 1983 in Santa Cruz, California. Their wines are vegan, “not out of any particular ideological bent, apart from the fact that we prefer to make wines that are minimally manipulated,” owner Randall Grahm says.

“I felt that since I was committing to following what might be called an enologically and viticulturally virtuous path, I might as well advertise that fact on the label,” he says, regarding the inspiration for transparent labeling, which began in 2007. Not only does this make it clear whether a wine is suitable for vegans, but it also prevents winemakers from hiding behind added colors or sugars.

“The fact is that ingredient-labeling is a discipline that compels one to becoming a better, more careful winemaker,” Grahm says, “where you have to really consider more carefully the consequences of all of your actions.”

wine bottles

The labeling movement has not caught on throughout the wine the industry, unfortunately. This means that even when you talk to a knowledgeable shop owner, they might not have taken the time to find out what’s really in every bottle. Your best bet when seeking out a vegan wine is to ask for “unfined” wines or pull up Barnivore on your phone, a website that’s been keeping a database of vegan alcohol since 2001, says wine writer and former shop owner Lisa Szot. They list 3,606 bottles of vegan-friendly wines.

There are ideologically driven vegan winemakers as well, like Sheri Hood, who’s behind the Willamette Valley’s The Pressing Plant. Her own ethics as a vegetarian and winemaking practice have led to a range of unfined wines.

“With winemaking, you don’t have to fine. A lot of people don’t,” she says. “In any sort of interaction with the wine, the idea is to let the grapes and the wine really shine in the way that it’s developed. One can use the traditional [animal] products, but there’s so much else available. Many times, the best decision is to leave the wine alone.”

"They list 3,606 wine varieties as 'vegan friendly.'"

If a wine does need fining, however, and a maker wants to keep it vegan, active bentonite clay and pea protein are two of the options available on the market. According to Sunny Gundara, the in-house sommelier of the Vegan Wines club, animal options are increasingly more expensive. Vegan fining might yet become the go-to process in traditional winemaking.

For now, reaching for natural wines helps to ensure you’re drinking vegan-friendly wines, says Toby Buggiani, owner of Brooklyn restaurant Adelina’s. That's why he keeps his list in that realm. “It’s completely unfined and there are no chemicals,” he says. “Any sulfites added are minimal.”

He recommends reaching for the Orange Metamorphika by Costador from Spain, made with Sumoll Blanc and other varieties of grape. “The wines of Costador are organic wines from old mountain vineyards,” he says. “Metamorphika is produced in amphorae and has notes of apricot and stone fruits.” For a sparkling, the lemony, mineral pet-nat by Deux Punx from California is a go-to, and if a red with blackberry, herbs, and acidity is what you’re after, there’s Vin Des Amis by Mas Coutelou from France.

Between the growth of natural wine and the availability of vegan fining agents, the day might soon come when vegans will no longer have to worry about whether what’s in their glass is completely cruelty-free. But for now, it’s still about doing the research—or deciding that even if your eating is plant-based, there’s no reason your drinking has to be, too.

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Alicia Kennedy is a food writer and host of the podcast Meatless. Find her work at alicia-kennedy.com.