Restaurant Reviews

Sour Grapes

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"From a distributor's standpoint, some of the exclusives [Tony's] has are really nice wines," says wine broker Susana Partida. "But they're outrageously overpriced and they're few and far between."

One of the most practical pieces of information dispensed at Tony's wine classes is a surefire strategy for avoiding hangovers. It is this: Drink only wine void of chemicals or sugar. Instructor James Winkler holds up a bottle of sweet German Riesling to illustrate.

"Here are the facts," he says emphatically. "There's no sugar in this bottle. There's no chemicals in this bottle. There's no...basically no calories in it...And hear me when I say this, y'all, there's no hangover in that bottle. Nothing in that bottle will get you sick, unless you're silly enough to drink two of them by yourself and then you deserve it: It's called alcohol poisoning. You will not get a hangover on this wine." Alcohol, he says, is not the cause of hangovers; it's the extra things producers, specifically large American producers, blend into their wines.

Of course this is rubbish. Sweet German Rieslings are loaded with residual sugar. And sugar doesn't cause hangovers. "The most common factor in hangovers is dehydration--too much ethanol and not enough water," says Dr. Roger B. Boulton, a chemical engineer in the department of viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis. "If sugar was the issue, then most of the people in the United States would have hangovers almost every day, because of the sugar intake."

This highlights a recurring Tony's theme: Wines sold at Tony's are potentially safer because they contain no chemicals or additives and therefore will not cause headaches, allergic reactions or hangovers--unless you poison yourself with alcohol. And the list of chemicals Tony's claims large wine producers blend into their wines is alarming.

"Why do you people get headaches?" asks instructor Jean Bernard during a Tony's wine tasting class. "I tell you, it's the glycol, the penicillin, the asbestos filtration, the coloring, the flavoring and the added sulfites. That's your box and jug wine." Bernard explains that Europeans do not put chemicals into their wines, and that all Tony's wines are chemical-free. "We do not carry wines that have chemicals in them," he insists.

Winkler goes even further: "America is the only country in the world that will put a chemical, or will try to put a chemical, in a bottle of wine."

The truth is, virtually all wine producers across the globe utilize at least some chemicals in the wine production process, including sulfites to sterilize the wine, tartaric acid (derived from grapes) to correct acid deficiencies, bentonite (clay) and egg whites to precipitate out proteins, defoaming agents, compounds to remove trace metals, yeast nutrients to assist in fermentation and enzymes to clarify and stabilize wines and remove proteins. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the agency that regulates the alcohol industry, publishes a list of materials authorized for the treatment of wine and juice.

But what of the other substances Bernard alludes to? According to Boulton, it is illegal to use glycol, penicillin or non-wine-derived colorings or flavorings in the standard winemaking process. Added sugar is legal in some states, such as New York and Texas, but is prohibited in California. Asbestos filtration, he adds, hasn't been in use since the 1970s.

"They're all standard wine, whether it sells for $3 for a four-liter box or $100 for a 750-milliliter bottle," says Rich Gahagan, a wine consultant and former wine technical advisor at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, precursor to the TTB. "They're all standard wine, and if you use any coloring materials, it's no longer standard wine."

The addition of colorings and flavorings, Gahagan explains, changes the product designation from table wine to formula wine such as wine coolers or fruit-flavored wine products, and such additives must be declared on the label by law. With respect to wine-related allergies and headaches, he adds that the triggers for such maladies are largely unknown, but it's far more likely the culprits are organic byproducts resulting from yeast or bacterial fermentation than chemical residues that might remain from the wine-making process.

Yet Monzain insists these chemicals are used in large-production wines, especially in the United States. "I had a former winemaker from one of the major wineries claim that animal fat preservative was added to their wine," he says. "But I won't give you his name." Monzain repeats Bernard's assertion, insisting some winemakers use penicillin, asbestos filters and glycol. When told the use of such substances in wine violates federal law, he is dismissive.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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