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Opinion Wine Rant

Is That Wine Really Vegan?

Considering the impact of modern agriculture on animal life

Aaron Ayscough By January 26, 2022
wine grapes surrounded by insects
Illustration by Irina Perju

On the bottle labels, websites, and social media profiles of many wine estates, in recent years, has proliferated the curious phrase “vegan wine.” It follows a general boom in vegan claims on new food and beverage products, which rose 257% in the first half of the 2010s, according to the Mintel Global New Products Database. Since grapes themselves are vegan-approved, a claim of vegan wine is, for most estates, just a roundabout way of indicating a wine was not subject to clarification with one of many fining agents derived from animal protein, including fish bladder, egg whites, casein, chitin, and, once upon a time, bull’s blood

For well-intentioned vegans seeking to avoid consuming wine made with animal products, the vegan wine designation might appear helpful on the surface. But even mild scrutiny of the phrase and its common usage reveals it to be a smokescreen regularly deployed against the interests of veganism, which pioneering London advocacy group The Vegan Society defined in 1944 as “​​the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals.” 

The farming is central

The crux of the matter is that the welfare of animal life is inseparable from the impact of viticulture upon the environment. There is simply no point in seeking out vegan wine if it is not also organically-farmed wine. Wine estates that do not practice organic agriculture are necessarily taking a position in favor of the continued use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, which are banned under organic agriculture, and which have each been shown to impose devastating costs to wildlife. 

Sure, perhaps no egg whites were harmed in the clarification of a vegan, non-organic wine. But the hecatomb of insects, birds, and fish killed with synthetic pesticide treatments in vineyards should give vegans pause. In France, researchers estimate that bird populations in Europe have declined by 400 million in the last 30 years, while insect populations have declined by 80%, with both declines linked to the use of synthetic pesticides. 

As science officer Megha Sud summarizes in a 2020 working paper for the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development: “A Europe-wide study found that insecticide and fungicide use had consistent negative effects on biodiversity … A large-scale study conducted in 2014 monitored 223 organic chemicals in 4,000 rivers and lakes in Europe and found that half of these water bodies had levels of pesticides that could harm key aquatic organisms such as fish, insects and algae.”

Extensive animal testing

It also bears mentioning that the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides in farming is predicated upon their regulatory approval, a process which in the USA presently requires “mammalian acute toxicity testing,” which is to say, animal testing. Not even the commercial copper-sulfate treatments permitted under organic agriculture, along with more novel organic-approved treatments, are exempt from this requirement. The scrupulous vegan seeking to avoid all complicity with animal testing would have to seek out wine from estates that avoid all commercial agricultural treatments. In practice, such estates are vanishingly rare and do not advertise their farming methods, because to farm without commodified agricultural treatments on a commercial scale is potentially outside the law in many nations. 

Such is the absurdity of modern agricultural law that the application of homemade treatments including onion decoctions, orange essential oils, and nettle tisanes to combat mildew and oidium and encourage vine vigor finds itself in a legal grey area, precisely because such homemade treatments have not been commodified and undergone extensive animal testing. The few wine estates exclusively practicing such theoretically cruelty-free agricultural treatments are often hesitant to be quoted on-record about their precise treatment regimens, due to the threat of increased oversight from agricultural authorities such as France’s Directorate-General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Prevention.

To consume products farmed on a commercial scale is, regrettably, to accept the use of animal-tested agricultural treatments. Vegans looking to minimize their own impact within this system should nonetheless prefer organics, since it necessarily implies a more limited range of farming treatments than conventional agriculture. 

The nonsensical nature of non-organic yet nominally vegan wine is also apparent in the cellar. Forbidden in organic vinification, but permitted for production of vegan wine, are synthetic fining aids like polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVPP), an insoluble polymer with wide-ranging applications, for which regulatory approval, initiated in 1939 for purposes unrelated to wine, involved years of laboratory testing upon mice, rats, rabbits, and beagles. It’s commonly used in the production of non-organic Champagne, rosé, and white wine, and its use is never declared on a wine label. 

Meanwhile, to make matters even more confusing, vegan-unfriendly lysozyme, an enzyme derived from egg whites prized for its antibacterial properties, is permitted in U.S. Department of Agriculture organic wine production, but not in EU organic wine production.

To consume products farmed on a commercial scale is, regrettably, to accept the use of animal-tested agricultural treatments. Vegans looking to minimize their own impact within this system should nonetheless prefer organics, since it necessarily implies a more limited range of farming treatments than conventional agriculture. 

A nice euphemism

Even wines labeled both vegan and organic are liable to be harvested by machine, a practice endemic to low-cost wine production, and known for bringing in MOG, a cute industry acronym for “material other than grapes,” a category that includes birds’ nests, insects, snakes, and lizards. It’s not outright slaughter or anything, but it certainly harms more animals than traditional hand-harvesting. 

Vegan wine drinkers seeking to avoid the animal suffering implicit in the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, the practice of machine harvesting, and the use of animal-derived fining agents and lysozymes must go beyond vegan wine to source unfined, hand-harvested, organic wines produced without enological additives. Such wines tend to cost more than the average. But since when has virtue come cheap? 

Well, since veganism became a commodified mainstream lifestyle, complicit within the same systems of animal cruelty it was born to protest. Today, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ own website directs those seeking vegan wine to several wine estates that employ synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, animal-tested enological products, and machine harvesting. 

Don’t be suckered

Vegan wine, as PETA consents to define it, is little more than greenwashing. It comprises part of a veganism concerned only with an individual sense of virtue in consumption, and not the broader societal relationship of animal welfare to that of the environment. You might as well eat a soy burger deriving from soybeans farmed conventionally on land cleared from the Amazon. This is why I cringe when I see vegan claims appearing on the labels of high-quality organic wine estates, those whose wines should be self-evidently vegan-friendly, by dint of being well-farmed organic wines produced without cost-cutting shortcuts like synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, machine harvesting, or enological additives of any kind. 

Veganism as a modern movement first arose in the U.S. and the U.K. in the 1940s as a response to growing awareness among urban consumers of the cruelty inherent in the industrial rationalization of animal husbandry. 

For vegans sincerely wishing to avoid animal cruelty in wine consumption, it suffices to avoid the features of the industrial rationalization of wine production — including empty vegan wine sloganeering.