The Cleanwashing of Wine

Does “clean” wine borrow natural wine’s language—and leave behind its soul?
By Oset Babür
January 08, 2021

Winemaker Megan Bell was both excited and surprised when Cameron Diaz stopped by to taste her Chenin Blanc during the 2018 Raw Wine festival in Los Angeles. But, Bell says, "she didn't engage at all…[it felt like] she and the people she was with were going around and just gleaning the culture in the natural wine world." When Diaz and fashion executive Katherine Power launched their Avaline wine brand, marketed as "wine at its purest, created with discerning drinkers in mind who embrace the pleasure of a whole life and a relaxed approach to wellbeing" in July of 2020, Bell, who makes low-intervention wines in the Santa Cruz mountains under the label Margins Wine, became downright frustrated. "It felt like they saw what [the natural wine community] responds to and said, 'Let's learn what these people are doing and emulate it just to make money without actually doing the actual work."

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, one might expect natural winemakers to feel flush with admiration. Instead, many are worrying about how the clean wine trend's penchant for scare tactics about additives, gluten, and sugar undermines the integrity of their own movement. "These wines [like Avaline] are not grape-to-glass operations where everything is made with love along the way. It's really a branding exercise," says Rachel Signer, an Adelaide-based winemaker and editor-in-chief of natural wine magazine Pipette. In fact, a quick scroll through Avaline's Instagram page makes for an easy winning streak in clean marketing bingo –– there's a crisp, linen-clad picnic set in a lush meadow, leafy stalks of kale and powdered mushroom latte mix in a grocery basket, and a French netted bag on the handle of a Vespa. To an unsaid yet unmistakable extent, there's wealth, whiteness, and womanhood. Glaringly absent, Bell explains, is reality. "Making wine is really dirty and mechanical and there should be pictures of machines and warehouses and dirty people, not people in dresses standing in a vineyard."

Consumers are slowly taking notice. Following considerable backlash from the press and sommeliers, wine producers, and other industry professionals on social media, Avaline finally added a tab to its website just weeks ago, outlining information about the producers who make its white, sparkling, and rosé wines (the winemaking family behind Avaline Red requested to be kept anonymous, as per Abbott Wolfe, Avaline's founding CEO). But from all of this airy marketing emerges a larger, more uncomfortable question: Did natural wine inadvertently open the door for clean wine? Zach Geballe, a Seattle-based sommelier and host of the VinePair podcast, thinks so. "I think that a lot of these clean wine companies have exploited the fact that something could be done to the wine, and use that to allege that it is being done." Geballe explains that the staggering variety in the language natural wines uses regarding pesticides, sulfur, and added chemicals has had real, negative implications. "If you give the true natural wine proponents credit for being honest and earnest, which I largely do, they still have to account for the fact that what they are advocating for is pretty ill-defined. It's created this space people will rush into to take advantage."

Credit: Getty Images

As regulatory bodies across the globe begin to develop clear definitions regarding what makes a wine natural, low-intervention, or clean, many of these companies have been taking the liberty of crafting their own. Jon McDaniel, head of wine education at Scout & Cellar, says "Our wine is backed by our Clean-Crafted Commitment® and satisfies the Clean-Crafted StandardTM." Neither of those terms are sanctioned by any independent regulatory body and are in fact trademarked only by Scout & Cellar for its proprietary use; McDaniel explains only that the Clean-Crafted StandardTM sets itself apart from labels like "natural" or "low-intervention" wine because those categories are "undefined and do not serve as a check for the quality of the grapes." Meanwhile, Wolfe maintains that while neither clean nor natural wine are defined viticultural standards, the mutual "understanding" around what is and isn't clean (though it's unclear exactly who this understanding is between) is sufficient to justify the sweeping wellness claims that companies like Avaline make. "Natural wine producers do a wonderful job in making their product and are very proud of their work.  Though we share in many of their production techniques, we do differ in some areas as we believe that adding a minimal amount of sulfites to our wine is best," he says.

Despite her exasperation towards clean wine's willingness to play fast and loose with terms like authenticity and transparency, Megan Bell has empathy for its customers. "People are drawn to clean wine for the same reason they're drawn to IPAs in beer," she says. "There's just this human need to be validated, like, 'Oh yeah, I'm part of that movement.'" With convenient, approachable buzzwords to latch onto –– keto, healthy, low-calorie–– Bell says it's easy to see why the movement is attractive, and the language around becoming an independent wine consultant, or salesperson, for Scout & Cellar speaks perfectly to this ethos of desperately craving to be 'in the know.' "You don't need wine experience to be in the wine business," the site reads. "You just have to love enjoying it with friends. If you have a passion for good wine and sharing the unknown good with others, the opportunity—much like our wine—is at your doorstep." It's working, too: when Sarah Shadonix launched the company in 2017, Scout & Cellar had 70 independent consultants. By November 2020, that number had skyrocketed to over 15,500. It's a tiny following relative to established multi-level marketing operations like Mary Kay or Herbalife, but there's time—if this growth pattern keeps up, Scout & Cellar could easily become a behemoth MLM in a few decades.

As clean wine inches further and further into the mainstream—brands like The Wonderful Wine Co., from Winc, Good Clean Wine, and FitVine Wine have, in recent months, cropped up in a nightmarish game of vinicultural whack-a-mole—the natural wine community is trying, largely for its own sake, to figure out how to standardize and restore integrity to the conversation. Isabelle Legeron, who founded Raw Wine in 2012, uses a rigorous application process that includes peer references, laboratory analyses, and disclosure around farming practices in order to determine whether a winemaker is eligible to partake in her fairs. As a result, roughly one in ten wines actually make it in. Alerting consumers to the fundamental differences in language, too, is critical. "Natural wine isn't about 'cleaning up' a wine, but rather, it's about producing something alive. That means unfiltered, occasionally smelling of fermentation, and with plenty of bacteria. "'Clean wine' seems sterile to me, but natural wine is living," says Signer. "There's one positive thing that could come out of the clean wine trend. [It could] push more wineries to start adding onto their website, or even onto their labels how their wine is made and what they use in terms of preservatives or additives."

Credit: Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

"Consumers of all ages care more about what they put in and on their bodies, and they clearly understand what clean means in so many other categories like skincare, cosmetics and food...they want fewer, better ingredients. It's about feeling confident that what they're choosing to consume aligns with their values and is the best option available to them," Avaline's Wolfe says. He's correct, and given that the cultural shift he describes is only gaining momentum—seen in the booming success companies have enjoyed with "clean" products in relatively straightforward categories like cosmetics, snacks, and even dog food—it's no surprise that wine, with all of its daunting layers, is, well, ripe for the cleaning. But while consuming most products that root their value in questionable health claims won't really hurt you, wine is fundamentally an intoxicant. "For me, it feels wrong to say you should drink this wine because you won't get a hangover or because it's healthier. Alcohol is still alcohol," says Legeron. 

And so, the race to regulation isn't just to preserve the integrity of a movement that small, independent vintners who produce natural wines as a way of life have brought slowly into the mainstream. It's also to remind consumers who contribute regularly to the $52 billion dollar wellness industry that choosing wine is not, and should not, feel like deciding between a cold-pressed juice and, say, Juicy Juice. It's even ironic, Bell says, because anyone who's been to a natural wine festival can see that the movement celebrates Bacchanalia, and feels the opposite of a white-washed, Goop-ified sanctuary. "[Clean wine] is just clearly playing off of our very American obsession with diet and health—pretend health, not real health."