Last week, the alcohol industry was rocked by the revelation that a number of popular wine brands contained high levels of arsenic. This allegation was based on research done by Kevin Hicks of BeverageGrades, who is also filing a class action lawsuit on behalf of consumers. The 83 brands cited were mostly from California, and virtually all were inexpensive ($10 or less). “The lower the price of wine on a per-liter basis,” said Hicks, “the higher the amount of arsenic.”
The labels included familiar names such as Beringer, Fetzer, Smoking Loon, Sutter Home and Korbel, all of which exceeded the EPA’s allowable limit for drinking water of 10 ppb (parts per billion). The worst offenders were Ménage a Trois Moscato, Franzia White Grenache and Charles Shaw White Zinfandel, aka “Two-Buck Chuck,” which were evaluated as containing three to five times that amount.
What’s arsenic doing in wine to begin with? Some parts of the country have higher geological levels than others, but California isn’t one of them. The most likely explanation is the presence of arsenic in pesticides, herbicides and other agricultural sprays. Another culprit may be the process of filtration, common among lower-priced wines, which frequently involves the use of bentonite clay. At this point, there’s no evidence that the poison was intentionally added.
Readers with long memories and a bizarre sense of humor might recall Arsenic and Old Lace, a Broadway play and film about two spinster aunts who poisoned male bachelors by spiking their elderberry wine with arsenic. There’s nothing funny about the current situation, however. Arsenic is a carcinogen and can be fatal over time, even without the short-term effects of a toxic dose. Although the government ceiling of 10 ppb only applies to drinking water, not wine, the lawsuit filed by Hicks seeks to have a “Contains Arsenic” label applied to wine bottles sold in the U.S.
We can safely assume that the California wine industry will fight that result as long and hard as they can. While they probably don’t want to kill off a large group of beginning wine drinkers, such a warning label would have a chilling—if not poisonous—effect on sales.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); for more information, go to amazon.com