Grapes, Milk, Fish Guts: Vintners May Have to Label Allergens

January 17, 2007

Vintners have been using byproducts from milk, eggs, wheat and even fish guts in the winemaking processes for centuries.

But a new federal proposal could require American wineries to disclose such unsavory items — used as “fining” agents to remove grit — as ingredients. The proposal, which could be passed by the end of the year, would require companies to redesign the labels on every bottle to protect people who are allergic to certain foods.

Executives at Sonoma and Napa county wineries and their trade groups say few, if any, wine drinkers suffer allergic reactions from fining agents, which are nearly untraceable by the time consumers uncork or unscrew their bottles. They’re rallying against the proposal, which they say would make even the biggest oenophiles turn up their noses.

“It’s a solution in search of a problem,” said Pete Downs, vice president of governmental affairs for Santa Rosa’s Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates. “I kind of feel like its Shakespearean in nature. It’s much ado about nothing.”

Wine industry veterans say the labels could mislead consumers, leading them to believe wine contains milk or fish membranes. Vintners use a milk protein called casein and a substance derived from the inner membrane of the air bladders of sturgeon, called isinglass, to bind with yeast, bacteria and excess tannins that are naturally found in the winemaking process. Thanks to the binding agents, the larger molecules sink to the bottom of the barrel, leaving the wine above it clean.

“It’s kind of like sweeping the wine,” said Bill Nelson, president of the wine lobby Wine America.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is expected to publish a final rule on the issue by late 2007. It has received comments from nearly four dozen consumers, trade groups and wine industry veterans.

The FDA adopted the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act in 2004. It requires labels on every food or drink that contains one of eight major food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

The act came after Harvard University scientist Christine Rogers petitioned the government to add an allergen warning to alcoholic drinks. Rogers, who is allergic to eggs, said she would notice reactions whenever she tipped a glass of wine.

Food allergies affected 2 percent to 5 percent of children, send 30,000 people to emergency rooms every year, and kill 150 people annually, according to the FDA. Nine out of 10 allergies are from the eight major groups cited in the law.

Fremont resident Catharine Alvarez supports the proposal. Her 4-year-old son is allergic to eggs, and her 7-year-old daughter is allergic to peanuts.

“There are a lot of people I know who are willing to pay extra for products that they know to be safe,” Alvarez said.

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