The first time I saw a wine labeled as “vegan” I laughed out loud. I thought it was a marketing ploy. I mean, it's just fermented grape juice, right? Those of you who follow The Chopping Blog or come to our cooking classes probably know our own Wonder Vegan, Ida, who posts monthly recipes and even does a bit of menu design for our vegan classes. When I mentioned it to her, Ida was quick to remind me that egg whites and other animal products are sometimes used as a filtering or fining agent to clarify wines. It was something I had read, but I never really connected the impact that would have for someone trying to cut all animal products from their diet, I had just assumed if a person wasn't consuming it, it wasn't a problem.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should probably let you know, I'm not a vegan (if you haven't figured this out), but I serve a lot of wine here at The Chopping Block, and we have a lot of vegans come to our classes. It only seems responsible that I know which wines on our list are vegan friendly and which are not for those coming to join us on a given evening. Unfortunately, that's not as simple as it sounds.
Firstly, not all vegans are created equal. For some, the fact animal products are used as a filtering or fining agent really isn't much of a problem, since it is removed from the wine before it is released to consumers. However, others may go a step further and object to animal-based fertilizers being used. So, it's difficult to broadly declare a wine “vegan” without explaining what brought you to that conclusion.
Using animal products is an older method of filtration, knowing this may lead one to believe they can trust wineries with modern facilities. Like so many other issues, the reality is more complex. Large producers that, arguably, have most advanced production facilities commonly use gelatin, isinglass, or casein to clarify their wines. These are very common and widely accepted techniques, in general the only wineries you're going to find not doing this are those that are making a conscious effort. So, how do we learn who is or isn't avoiding animal products during wine production? The most reliable tool I've found for checking this is Barnivore.
Barnivore is a website database that tracks beer, wine, and liquor producers, labeling them as vegan friendly or not, based on their production techniques. At the time I'm writing this, they have a relatively small list of just over 35k entries, but that is the largest database of its kind that I am aware of. The flow of the site is pretty straight forward, type in the name of what you're drinking and, if it's in their list, they'll share the findings with you. If not, you'll be prompted to help them find the answer by sending a form e-mail to the producer asking about their production techniques.
I put the database to the test with The Chopping Block's wine list, looking up every bottle we sell. With a list of 35k producers, it should be no surprise that most weren't listed. One wine, Babich Sauvignon Blanc, was labeled as not vegan friendly based on the use of isinglass or eggs in filtration. Two of our wines, J.K.Carriere Willamette Pinot Noir, and JaM Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon were both listed as vegan friendly. Those results aren't as complete as I had hoped, but I know more than I did.
So, what do you do if your wine isn't listed on Barnivore? You can always look for the producer's website, but many small European wineries don't have websites. In that event your best bet is to look at the back of the label to get the distributor's name and search for their website. For every wine you drink there is usually a tech sheet floating around on the internet somewhere. Some are pretty simple, providing little more than tasting notes, but others will totally geek out, giving you soil compositions, altitudes, fully outlined production notes, etc.
At each of our locations we have a binder with the tech sheets of every wine we sell, so I checked each of those wines that came back with no result from Barnivore against our collection of data and was able to find one more wine that I was comfortable calling vegan friendly: Mas de Gourgonnier. Both the tech sheet and the distributor's website state the wine is, “bottled unfined and unfiltered."
Of course, like I said before, I'm speculating here. So, to be sure, I've sent Barnivore's form e-mail to North Berkley Imports to inquire about Mas de Gourgonnier's production and will be forwarding their response to Barnivore when it arrives. Further, I'm in the process of doing this with each of our wines, so we can provide more complete information about what we offer when our vegan guests decided to join us for an evening. The lesson learned for me here was that sometimes pairing wine is about more than how the flavors will interact.
If you'd like to learn more about vegan food, please check out our upcoming vegan cooking class Vegan Voyage: Italian Trattoria at our Merchandise Mart location on Monday, November 27. We have just 2 spots remaining in next Wednesday, November 29's Chef's Dinner: A Very Vegan Holiday with our Ida Dolce and Chef Pete Fernandez where you can bet these vegan wines will be served.