I see myself as a sympathetic person. If one of my customers has a problem, with anything really, I try my best to help. About a year ago, one of my best customers told me that he had to drastically reduce his wine intake because his wife, a fellow wine lover, could no longer drink wine due to her gluten intolerance. I was left not only downhearted, but also very confused. How could wine, which is simply a product of grapes, yeast and chemistry, possibly have celiac-reaction-spurring gluten in it?
I asked my friends and colleagues in the industry about it, and many of them laughed it off, saying she should try potato vodka. Every avenue I went down came to the same “wine doesn’t have gluten” conclusion. As I checked in periodically with my customer, it seemed his wife was doing better, but at random times she would get a bad reaction. She seems to have found a fondness for both French Champagne and Japanese Sake, but my customer has downgraded to buying half bottles for his own consumption.
This brings me to Shirley (I changed her name). I was at dinner when I got a call from my boss asking about gluten-free wines. I assured her that wines are inherently gluten free; she thanked me, and I went back to my meal. The phone rang again. “Jennifer, she says your wrong.” My boss took the woman’s name and number, and told her I would get back to her when I had a better answer. I called Shirley the next morning, and we had an in-depth conversation about her love and passion for wine and her new aversion to gluten. Having done some trial and error with wine being the only variable in her diet, she was certain that wine had gluten in it. She was very knowledgeable and told me that wine barrels are sometimes sealed with gluten and also sometimes “fined” with gluten. She was looking to me for advice on which wines to buy. Having failed once, I took up the challenge to find her wines that I could say, with certainty, did not contain any gluten.
I took to the Web and found out that Shirley was right. Some oak wine barrels are being sealed with a gluten-based paste. Trying non-oak-aged wines is a good start; however, some wines are being fined with gluten as well. Fining is a process by which the most minute particles in a wine are cleaned out in order to make the wine stable and clear and its color vibrant. Here is a great article about this from WineMaker magazine. The most common fining agents are not gluten. Rather they are animal byproducts, such as egg whites, bladders, and gelatin.
According to the FDA, a food product can contain 20 parts per million of gluten to be considered “gluten free.” After fining and fermenting wine, whether or not the wine has been fined with gluten or sealed with gluten, many gluten experts agree that the amount of gluten found in the wines is less than 20 PPM. I am in no way saying that this would not give a celiac sufferer a reaction, but it is below the FDA-approved amount.
Being that I meet and chat with winemakers on a weekly basis, I started asking about this. Many winemakers were straightforward and said that they didn’t have a need for gluten products in their winemaking processes. Through my connections in real life, email, and Twitter, I have been able to compile a list of wineries that do not use gluten in their winemaking processes. They are as follows:
Oregon: Four Graces R. Stuart & Co. Sokol Blosser Winery
California: Adam Carolla’s Mangria Bonny Doon Frey Vineyards
Michigan: Chateau Grand Traverse L. Mawby Vineyards Left Foot Charlie
I realize this is just the beginning of my search for the truth. I will continue to add to this list as I get concrete answers, and I will post the answers on Twitter. To join in the conversation, please follow me at @NinosWineExpert.