‘Clean Wine’ is a Commercial Scam

Much ado is being made of the latest entry in a long line of celebrity wine brands. Actor Cameron Diaz and entrepreneur Katherine Power have come up with a wine brand called Avaline, which describes itself as offering “clean wine” that the friends describe as “full of natural goodness and free from dozens of unwanted and undisclosed extras.”

The nicely designed, highly commercial bottles of Avaline, conveniently available on wine.com and in 43 states at the time of launch may well be made from certified organic grapes (a great thing) and not use any animal byproducts (something that vegans find important) but describing them as “clean wines” would be entirely laughable if it weren’t such brilliant marketing.

I see two problems with the claim that these are “clean wines.”

Problem #1. Avaline wines are actually just commercially produced organic wines that have several more additives than many small-production winemakers would consider using.

The ingredients for Avaline (which Diaz and Power didn’t seem to feel compelled to put on their labels, despite their seeming focus on transparency) include: sulfites, bentonite clay, pea protein, Cream of Tartar, yeast and yeast nutrients.

None of these items is dangerous, strange, harmful, or, as their web site takes pains to point out, unnatural. Most of them are quite common in the world of commercial winemaking and I’m perfectly content to drink wines made with them any day of the week.

But most of them are unnecessary.

Fining and filtration (done with the bentonite and pea protein) aren’t necessary, and can strip wine of some of its character. There’s nothing wrong at all with the processes or the materials used to accomplish them. Unless you’re trying to make a wine with as little manipulation and as few additives as possible, which it sort of sounded like Diaz and Power were trying to do.

Commercial yeasts and their nutrients are also not required to make great wine. Many conscientious winemakers, from large established brands to tiny artisans, choose indigenous or spontaneous fermentation in the service of making their wines as pure an expression of the place they came from as possible. Interestingly, the Avaline web site doesn’t really make a single mention of where the wine comes from. If you squint at the label image, you can see that it says “Made in Spain.” Perhaps that will suffice for most of their customers.

Many commercial winemakers quake in fear over the dreaded tartrate crystals. Sometimes referred to as “wine diamonds,” crystals of tartrate can precipitate out of a wine and show up in the bottom of a bottle, much to the alarm of the everyday wine consumer. They don’t indicate anything wrong with the wine and they’re entirely harmless, but they tend to freak out the uninformed wine drinker, so it’s not a surprise that Diaz and Power would opt to use Cream of Tartar to prevent their wines from having these precipitates. It’s worth pointing out, however, that not only is this product an unnecessary additive, it certainly isn’t gathered by little old ladies in the Spanish countryside. It’s a (naturally occurring) chemical called Potassium bitartrate, and it is almost certainly synthesized in a lab before being packaged up and shipped to winemakers all over the world.

Problem #2. Avaline’s marketing perpetuates the same kind of mis-information spewed by the most dogmatic of natural winemakers, serving to mislead and scare unsuspecting wine consumers.

Thank heavens Diaz and Power didn’t go on about arsenic in wine, but they’re still shoveling from the same steaming pile as those who claim that commercial wines are akin to industrial poison.

The idea that people need “clean wines” to avoid putting nasty things in their bodies is super catchy, and will likely be quite successful, but it’s also utterly preposterous. Pick any wine made in California, Washington, Oregon, or New York at quantities of less than 10,000 cases, and I guarantee you that it has less weird stuff in it than half the things your average “health conscious” individual puts in their mouth all day long.

And I’m not even talking about soda pop, snack chips, or candy bars. The average kitchen pantry of most restaurants (yes, even the hip, fancy ones) has commercially produced food items in it that contain all manner of additives that are far more “suspect” concerning our health than the things found in decent quality wine.

Some people seem to have no issue taking a swig of Vitamin Water and then going on and on about “frankenwines” and the industrial wine complex and all its evils. That’s pure ignorance and hypocrisy.

Even vegans, whose life choices I don’t share, have very little to complain about when it comes to wine. If they object to the use of animal products in any way, shape or form, then I understand their need to seek out wines that haven’t used casein (a milk product), isinglass (sturgeon bladder), or albumen (egg whites) for fining, but it’s important to know that in all of these cases, these products do not remain in the wine. Drinking a wine that has been fined with an egg white does not involve ingesting egg.

It’s definitely worth noting that Diaz and Power have made the decision to utilize organic grapes for their wines, which is a laudable choice. Leaving all other complaints about their marketing aside, this move certainly distinguishes their efforts in a positive way and means that their wines, like all organic and biodynamic wines, are free from potential herbicide and pesticide residues.

Avaline isn’t as bad as a jade yoni egg, but it is equally misleading

Hats off to Diaz and Power for parlaying their personal brands into a product that will no doubt be a commercial success. This is America, and people get to start businesses offering all manner of useless, unnecessary, or silly things to consumers. And if they’re smart and have clearly understood a market need, or they’ve created a compelling brand narrative, they end up making boatloads of money, regardless of how morally, ethically, or philosophically “good” their product actually is.

But those of us in the wine industry, and those of you who enjoy wine should know that the term “clean wine” isn’t worth the pixels used to print it on your smartphone. We should also know that Avaline Wines aren’t any better for you than any other wine produced from organically grown grapes made by a small or medium sized winery in this country or in any other.

Are they better for you than Barefoot? Almost certainly. And maybe that’s all that Diaz and Power are counting on.

Image of Cameron Diaz and Katherine Power from the Avaline web site.