Clean Wines, Explained: Separating Fact From Fiction in Winemaking’s Newest Trend

Sara L. Schneider
·5 mins read

The bottle of wine I ordered from Cameron Diaz tells me quite a few things—it’s made with organic grapes (kudos!); free from added sugar, artificial colors and concentrates (serious shade to some other wines); and vegan-friendly (more on that later). The label even tells me how to pronounce the name of this new Avaline brand the actress and her business partner Katherine Porter just launched, although it didn’t seem too necessary. For the record, it’s “/ah-vah-leene/.” Less helpful, I’m told that the beverage is “white wine” (what grapes and from where you have to dig around the website to find out) with a “dry with a crisp, fresh finish,” and that it pairs well with fresh-cut flowers and my favorite meal (any meal at all?).

Avaline is one of a handful of new brands styling themselves as “clean wines,” a newly minted marketing moniker unabashedly chasing the $52+ billion wellness market, a veritable lifestyle industrial complex that primarily targets Millennials. With the tagline “When wine comes clean” on its website, and claims that it’s “transparently produced, full of natural goodness and free of unnecessary extras,” Avaline aims to convince people that drinking booze is compatible with healthy living. Even less subtle is Good Clean Wine. It’s, um, called Good Clean Wine and says it “pairs with a healthy lifestyle.” Wonderful Wine Company, launched in May by Winc Wines, offers “wellness without deprivation.” And Scout & Cellar chimes in with “clean wine for better living.” There’s no shortage of sun-dappled Instagram pages, boozy bubble baths, poolside day drinking and millennial pink in the lifestyle these brands are pedaling.

Clean wine is the latest iteration—and possibly the least meaningful—of the hands-off trends in winemaking. Think “natural” or “minimalist,” both terms (like “clean”) that have no legal definition. Sure, there’s merit to the implied principles of “clean” winemaking—presumably minimal synthetic chemicals in the vineyard and few unnatural additions in the winery. After all, more than 70 additives and processing agents are allowed in U.S. winemaking, from the fairly innocuous (if terroir-busting) acid to punch up brightness and the grape concentrate Mega Purple to lend more color, flavor and richness (the “artificial colors and concentrates” disavowed on the Avaline label) to the more ominous-sounding fining agent protease, which is derived from pig or cow stomachs. Hence, abstaining from using those, which Avaline does, makes a wine vegan.

“Most consumers of clean wines assume the grapes are organically grown and fewer inputs are used in production,” says Libby Mills, a nutritionist at Villanova University College of Nursing. “But there is no way to know for sure.” So clean wine can mean whatever a company wants it to mean. Still, she gives the movement the benefit of the doubt as “a natural extension of consumer interest in organics and the desire to enjoy foods and wine that are both good for their bodies and the environment,” adding “one can assume that in a clean wine there won’t be a long list of ingredients that go into the production. And those on the list will be used only as needed—like yeast—or minimally.” But, she admits, “this is not very conclusive, nor does it rule out the use of Mega Purple, though the likelihood is low.”

With no clarity in the category, and the fact that producers aren’t required to reveal exactly what goes into their wine, Mills advocates educating oneself about—and trusting—the certifications that do have legal parameters, like USDA Organic (a rigorous protocol for the actual production of wine) and the USDA’s broader “Made with Organic Grapes” label certifying farming methods. And while Mills doesn’t believe wine should be eschewed altogether, she does point out, like a nutritionist would, that alcohol is a toxin.

At her Oakland wine shop Bay Grape, Stevie Stacionis features winemakers who utilize sustainable farming methods, but she’s at a loss when it comes to clean wine. “What does it even mean?” she says. “It feels like suddenly wine is being marketed in the same way diet foods are.” To underscore the uselessness of the term to buyers, in her view, Stacionis points out that in the wine profession, “clean” is used to describe a wine that doesn’t have any official flaws, like Brettanomyces or volatile acidity. “This ‘clean’ term, though,” she says, “is somehow trying to imply that a wine has minimal intervention, but [in trade terms] it could be very ‘dirty’!”

After all this talk of certification and education, I take this “clean wine” market research to my own millennial focus group of two—my daughter and her boyfriend (Audrey and Joey), whose joint progress toward wine connoisseurship has been arrested by craft beer (still I have hope). What would they think a clean wine should be? “I’d think the workers in the vineyard would be treated well,” says Joey. “No shady deals under the table,” adds Audrey. Not what I expected! However, theirs is more of an appeal for fair trade, which isn’t the expressed aim of clean wine.

My bottle of Avaline white gives no clues about worker treatment or fruit procurement—which, I have to admit, would be nice to know when it comes to a large-production, private-label wine “made” in Spain. Its actual lack of transparency, in spite of professing such, suggests that its clean image and claims of boosting well-being may just be so many well-worn tropes dressed up for the latest lifestyle fad. Still, the wine is pretty tasty. I can confirm that “dry with a crisp, fresh finish” bit, and would go even further, with hints of jasmine and fresh, resiny herbs over puckery lemon-lime and white nectarine … It’s going down easy during a California heat wave.

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