Today I’m publishing an article written by winemaker Adam Lee, founder of Siduri Wines and owner of the Clarice Wine Company, who shares my annoyance at the misleading, denigration marketing of most so-called clean wine companies.
Recently the TTB has started to take notice of these claims as well, issuing guidelines for wineries who attempt to advertise their wines as “clean wines.”
While the TTB is putting producers on notice regarding these claims and advertisements, it seems obvious to me that this isn’t enough. I approached Alder with this column a couple of months ago but never got around to finishing it. Now, with the TTB sitting up and taking notice, I finally found the inspiration and Alder has been kind enough to allow me to publish it on Vinography.
If you are remotely connected to wine online, you will see their advertisements all over Facebook and Instagram…. wine brands claiming to offer wines with “zero sugar” and which are “keto-friendly”. Several wineries claim that their wines are different from the world of supposedly mass-produced wines which, according to them, contain loads of residual sugar and various other additives.
As both a commercial winemaker and an interested consumer, I decided to examine one such winery and see what I could determine about their claims.
Please forgive a brief amount of science, but I do think it is important to have some basic knowledge before going forward. For winemaking purposes, sugars fall into two categories, “fermentable” and “non-fermentable” sugars. During fermentation, yeast converts “fermentable” sugars into alcohol. Non-fermentable sugars remain behind.
What PURE the Winery Claims
PURE the Winery is one of the more prominent wineries that advertise their “zero sugar” wine on various social media sites. They claim to be “zero sugar” right on the front page of their website, and in much of their advertising (sometimes they seem to hedge their bets a little, by claiming it is “zero sugar per serving”). They also tie this in with claims the wines are, therefore, “keto-friendly.”
According to them, “A unique and natural fermentation technique ensures that all the sugars from the grapes are completely converted into alcohol.” They go on to explain why and how they make these wines:
“For this reason, we soon discovered that adults liked to enjoy a good wine, but at the same time often feel guilty consuming it. This is due to the number of calories and carbohydrates usually present in wine. To a larger extent, the caloric load is given by the non-fermented sugars, which have not been converted into alcohol during its fermentation. We soon discovered that these sugars are not necessary to give a good flavor to the wine. Thus, we started our journey create and to offer a wine with zero sugar. And we did it! By combining unique and traditional fermentation techniques, we found a way to naturally convert all sugars into alcohol. We got a wine without sugar and without carbohydrates and up to 50% fewer calories. With 10.5% alcohol and a fantastic uncomplicated taste.”
That’s not all, however. On the FAQ page of their website they explain what they do in the vineyard to make this possible:
“The grapes used to make PURE the Winery wines are carefully selected and picked at the right time. A grape contains sugars that can ferment into alcohol and sugars that cannot ferment into alcohol. The longer a grape ripens, the more of the second sugar, which cannot ferment into alcohol, is formed in the grape. When our grapes are picked, the sugars that can ferment to alcohol are at their peak and the sugars that cannot ferment to alcohol are not yet present in the grape. Our experienced winemakers combine unique and traditional fermentation techniques to convert all sugars into alcohol in a completely natural way.”
They also claim to be lower in alcohol, calories, and sulfites than other wines:
“But because there is no sugar in our wines, the sulfite content is relatively low compared to other wines.”
In its Facebook advertisements, PURE the Winery repeats its claims. They claim that “after the fermentation, there is no sugar left in our wines, not even residual sugars like in other wines.” They once again mention that “we developed a yeast that ferments all the sugars into alcohol and leaves no residual sugars like other wines.” And they go one step further addressing anyone who happens to be on a Keto diet:
What the Authorities Require
The TTB (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau – the organization that governs winery labeling and advertising) has issued guidance on when a winery can use “zero sugar” claims:
“If a serving of your alcohol beverage contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar, you may include a claim such as “Zero Sugar,” “No Sugar,” or “Sugar Free” on your label or in your advertisement. The label or advertisement must also include a statement of average analysis or a Serving Facts statement.”https://www.ttb.gov/images/newsletters/archives/2021/ttb-newsletter07092021.html
So, per the TTB, a wine doesn’t actually have to have zero sugar to be able to claim zero sugar – it just has to be low in sugar – below 0.5 grams per glass. With 5 glasses in a bottle that means that the wine needs to have less than 2.5 grams of sugar in a standard bottle and less than 3.38 grams of sugar in a liter. As a winemaker of what would be considered more traditional dry wines, we all believe that wines aren’t dry until they are below 2 grams per liter (and most wines are much lower than that). Thus, there’s every likelihood that a wine you pick up off the shelf is just as dry, if not drier, than a PURE the Winery offering. However, knowing that there are unfermentable sugars in wine leads us not to label the wines as zero sugar as that wouldn’t be honest.
Despite the TTB’s latitude in this area, the Agency did, back in 2004, promise to look at advertisements regarding caloric content and sugars in wine and make judgments as to their veracity, especially when it comes to health-related claims. Basically, they say that you can’t mislead consumers.
What Did I Discover about PURE the Winery?
I ordered a selection of Pure the Winery wines through their website. The wines were the PURE Sparking White Wine, PURE Sparkling Rosé Wine, the PURE White Wine, and the PURE Red Wine. I took the bottles and delivered them, unopened, directly to ETS Laboratories. ETS is an accredited lab, independently owned and operated since 1978.
Here were the results for these “zero sugar” wines:
PURE Sparkling White Wine: glucose + fructose: 0.5 grams per liter
Total sugar: 1.5 grams per liter
PURE Sparkling Rosé Wine: glucose + fructose: 0.4 grams per liter
Total sugar: 1.4 grams per liter
PURE White Wine: glucose + fructose: 0.3 grams per liter
Total sugar: 1.3 grams per liter
PURE Red Wine: glucose + fructose: 0.4 grams per liter
Total sugar: 2.5 grams per liter
From these numbers, it is obvious that the wines do not truly have “zero sugar.” These numbers certainly are below the TTB requirement for advertising a wine as “zero sugar” but they also are not significantly different from most of the wines I’ve made over the past 27 years.
What is also clear is that the claim PURE the Winery somehow developed “a yeast that ferments all the sugars into alcohol” and didn’t pick at a time when unfermentable sugars were not yet present in the grapes is categorically false. Basically, while the label is technically compliant, the wine’s advertising is clearly not true and is misleading.
One other notable falsity about the wines that could be gleaned from the ETS report. First, the reported low alcohol levels are truly that low. Second, PURE’s claim that the wines are lower in sulfite isn’t accurate. The Sparkling White, Sparkling Rosé, and the White Wine all came in between 98 and 111ppm Total Sulfur Dioxide. From my 27 years of winemaking, I’d say that not only are those numbers not “low” but they are actually rather high. Only the Pure Red Wine could be considered “low” at 29ppm Total Sulfur Dioxide.
Last, the “keto-friendly” claims bear some consideration too. While my understanding is that sugar is part of a keto diet (up to 50 grams per day I’m told), it’s pretty misleading to throw the “zero sugar” claim around and direct it to keto diets—it basically is telling people living a keto lifestyle that there are “zero” sugars to attribute to this product, which is clearly not the case.
What Conclusions Can We Draw From All This?
It seems clear that there are target consumers for wines being sold as “zero sugar,” “low calories,” and “low sulfites.” PURE the Winery is just one such company making these claims online. The TTB allows the wines to be labeled “zero sugar” even when they have some sugar in them – and this loophole has led to an explosion of wineries making this claim and legally labeling their wines thusly.
However, both on their website and in their advertisements, PURE the Winery takes their claims further and makes claims that clearly are not true, based on independent lab results. They seem to be counting on a combination of consumer desire and lack of knowledge, along with no real TTB enforcement, to sell their wines. And they seem untroubled by making patently false claims, “like we pick before the nonfermentable sugars develop” and “we have a special yeast that converts everything”. They also seem untroubled by hiding behind technical compliance and telling people with specific dietary needs (keto) that there are zero sugars in their wines when the presence of any sugar is something of material importance to those consumers.
This type of misleading advertising does a disservice to consumers and to other wineries. We can only hope that the TTB follows through on its promise to crack down on misleading advertising in the wine business.