Many consumers want to know the ingredients of the products they buy, whether for health, religious or other reasons," writes Michael Jacobson, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Most of the contents of alcoholic beverages are harmless to most people, "but labeling is a cheap, simple means of protecting those people who seek to avoid certain ingredients."
One of the most common complaints made against wine is that it contains various forms of sulphur that may cause extreme reactions in those allergic to it. But sulphur is a preservative and a valuable and almost universal wine- making tool, so people acutely allergic to sulphur dioxide probably shouldn't drink wine in the first place.
The history of proposed legislation to require ingredient listing is long ad mostly ignoble. The Treasury Department recently withdrew regulations requiring the listing of simple ingredients and additives in alcoholic beverages. Such requirements are not popular with the Reagan administration or the industry. Most of the resistance has come from brewers who use preservatives, artificial color and "foam enhancers," and by some liquor manufacturers. They claim that listing ingredients to determine exactly what constituted their brews would be too expensive and would drive up the cost to consumers -- a feeble argument.
Winemakers in particular claim that many of the ingredients in wine change both in character and quantity during wine-making and storage. This is certainly true, although a simple listing of basic natural components such as grapes, natural sugar, yeast and sulphur dioxide or sorbic acid would pose no such problem. Those simple requirements are as far as government proposals go, and even that is resised.
Other chemicals used in wine-making, whether egg whites, copper sulphate or diatomaceous earth (a filter), would not have to be listed as long as they were removed before bottling. For the most part, additives are anathema to fine wine, which is simply but carefully made. Heavy doses of preservatives that go into some wines are sure signs of inferiority and even unhealthiness. Added sugar, tartaric or malic acid, water, artificial coloring and "flavor enhancers" mean poor grapes and lousy wine-making.
There are more than 80 additives in wine allowed by law, among them hydrogen peroxide, soy flour and charred oak chips, most of which would not have to appear on labels under proposed regulations because they would be removed before bottling. Requirements to list these substances would tell consumers much about the condition of harvested grapes and how the wine was made. "But many in the industry," says Jacobson, "think that listing ingredients is the camel's nose in the tent. They think skulls an crossbones on labels will come next, followed by Prohibition."
Ingredients, including additives, should be listed on beer, booze and wine. That would do more to upgrade America's drinking habits than all the boutique winery ads in existence.