Is Making Vegan Wine Difficult?

Many filtering/fining agents are animal-based, but alternatives exist

by Jane Firstenfeld
vegan vine
Clos LaChance fines all of its products with bentonite clay, so launching the new label The Vegan Vine did not require any changes in winemaking.
San Martin, Calif.—At first glance, wine produced from grapes or other fruit would by definition be vegan. Vegan refers to a strict vegetarian who consumes no animal food or dairy products. But the recent launch of the Vegan Vine Wine Club called that into question.

As it turns out, many wines are not strictly vegan because animal-derived products are used for fining or filtering. Common filter/fining materials including isinglass (fish derived), gelatin, egg whites or milk protein caseins—even if only trace amounts remain in the finished beverage—are “not appropriate for the vegan lifestyle,” according to Gary Smith, principal of Evolotus PR, a Los Angeles, Calif.-based agency that works with many animal-protection organizations and nonprofit groups. “Even a lot of long-time vegans don’t know this,” said Smith, a practicing vegan for many years.

“Each vegan has to deal with the minutia,” Smith continued. “You buy organic veggies, but your cat can’t go vegan: It’s not healthy. Everybody makes their own decisions. It’s impossible to live in the world and not harm animals. You do the best that you can.”

Clos LaChance, the Murphy family’s 60,000-case winery in San Martin, Calif., decided to make it easier for vegan imbibers. After a discussion with a vegan cousin during a family vacation two years ago, Clos LaChance created The Vegan Vine and began to market Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and red blends under the label. With enthusiastic distributors, and the energetic promotion efforts of partner and ambassador John Salley, a former NBA champion, Vegan Vine has already sold through some 5,000 cases.

Launching a vegan label wasn’t much of a stretch for Clos LaChance. Its 150-acre estate vineyard and its production facility are certified sustainable by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. Moreover, said director of marketing Cheryl Murphy Durzy, “We fine all of our products with bentonite clay,” a vegan-approved material. So no changes were needed to produce The Vegan Vine at Clos LaChance—the entire facility is certified by Vegan Action.

More choices than you’d expect
    Questions About Vegan Wine

  • Can mead (made with honey) be vegan? No. “Mead is not vegan. Honey is not considered vegan because it comes from an animal,” Smith said.
  • Is diatomaceous earth (a common material in wine filters) vegan?
    Yes. Diatoms are a type of hard-shelled algae, a plant.
  • Is yeast vegan? Yes. “Yeast, like mushrooms, are eukaryotic micro-organisms classified in the Fungi kingdom, which in layman's terms means that yeast is not derived from animal products or classified as an animal and is thus vegan-friendly.” Source: About.com.
  • Is Biodynamic wine vegan? Probably not. “Biodynamic production allows no manmade products,” Durzy said. “Vegan production cannot employ animal-sourced materials. I don’t think you can be both Biodynamic and vegan.”
The ever-vigilant animal-protection activists at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) verify on the organization’s website: “Thankfully, there are several common fining agents that are animal-friendly and used to make vegan wine. Carbon, bentonite clay, limestone, kaolin clay, plant casein, silica gel and vegetable plaques are all suitable alternatives.” PETA also publishes a list of vegan wines.

So does Barnivore; its list names thousands of wines produced in the United States and many more from other wine-producing countries. Unfortunately, Smith said, these lists are not consistently updated, and wine-production techniques may change from year to year, depending on the demands of Mother Nature. “One vintage may be vegan, the next may not be,” Smith said.

Given Clos LaChance’s in-house standards, every vintage of The Vegan Vine is guaranteed vegan. Its slogan, “Wine with compassion,” and neck hangers on its bottles explain what differentiates it from non-vegan products.

Smith conceded, “There aren’t enough vegans in the U.S. to sustain any vegan business. Estimates range from 0.5% to 2%, but these are self-defined vegans. I’d guess maybe 1% of the population is vegan.”

Durzy is encouraged by consumer and distributor reception so far and would be happy to see The Vegan Vine grow to a 50,000-case business. “We hadn’t thought to make it widely distributed, and we’re just ramping up in different markets. We just solidified an agreement with Young’s Markets in California.”

She credited Salley with jumpstarting recognition for the brand. On a recent “work-with” sales trip to New York, “We sold 35 cases in three hours in Harlem,” she said. Having a 7-foot-tall, charismatic celebrity and hardcore vegan as a public face gives the brand a real leg up, Durzy said.

The Vegan Vine wine club will ship to members quarterly at a discount. Durzy said the winery has just partnered with Mercy for Animals and will serve The Vegan Vine wines at its upcoming fundraiser in Los Angeles.

Posted on 05.21.2013 - 13:20:27 PST
I'd like to clarify one statement that was made in the Q&A. Wine can indeed be both Biodynamic (and Certified Organic) and Vegan. The wines we import from Biokult in Austria are Biodynamically grown and produced, using bentonite clay as the fining agent vs. any animal byproducts. Biodynamic is a closed agricultural system, meaning that animals are raised alongside the grapes. The animals provide natural fertilizer for the crops (as is used in most agricultural production, especially organic produce, including wine grapes). Nothing is brought in from the outside in the growing process. Most organic produce in the world is grown with the use of composted animal manure. We import a host of vegan wines from Europe, many of which are Certified Vegan by the Vegan Society of the UK. Per their Web site, Clos LaChance themselves utilizes chicken manure in their grape production.

Lisa Bell

Posted on 05.21.2013 - 18:03:40 PST
Hi Lisa, It is my understanding that biodynamic field preparation includes the use cow horns. I apologize if I am mistaken but to my knowledge this practice would not be considered vegan. Manure from what I understand is a gray area...and was not what I was referring to. Although thanks for the heads up on our web site. It is out of date as we have switched to mushroom compost for our fertilization. Cheers!
Cheryl Durzy