Following the launch of Avaline, Cameron Diaz and her business partner Katherine Powers parody of an honest, transparent product, the wine industry has been rightfully quick to point out how and why ‘clean wine‘ is problematic. Writer, Sophie Griffiths of Vignette Wine, points succinctly to its disingenuous claims, (Avaline itself by any objective standards is a conventional wine), lack of transparency and the unsettling image it projects of the wine industry as a whole. Opportunistically surfing Diaz’s wave, laden with millennial buzzwords, is Good Clean Wine, the brainchild of Courtney Dunlop and Elle Feldman. Following an unimaginably embarrassing Forbes article, in which the pair took turns to shit on the wine industry, I launched a tirade on social media. From claiming ‘toxic gunk‘ in wine causes hangovers to their suggestions that winemakers simply ‘throw a bunch of junk in the wine as it ferments‘ I decided they needed to be challenged. In the name of transparency, I was of course immediately blocked, as were many others. Critical comments were deleted from their Instagram page and the initial Forbes article edited retrospectively. Perhaps evidence of the pairs reflection? Alas, this was not to be the case. In a further Forbes article, the two double-down on their misinformed, misleading and frankly troubling insinuations about the wine industry and consumer health. Seeing as though the team at Good Clean Wine just doesn’t seem to get it, in this article I will spell out exactly what’s wrong with their brand and how they market it.
There’s more in what you don’t say
Amongst all that has been said about clean wine, Joe Fattorini’s observation in The Buyer, centred around structural linguistics, is perhaps closest to what concerns me most about Good Clean Wine. According to Saussurean structuralist theory, the work of Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, binary oppositions (a pair of related terms or concepts that are opposite in meaning) are fundamental to all language and thought. Typically, one of the two opposites assumes a role of dominance over the other, one is considered preferable. The categorisation of binary oppositions is often value-laden with an illusory order and superficial meaning. Examples of binary oppositions include good versus bad, action versus inaction, young versus old, and yes you guessed it, clean versus dirty.
Marketers and consumer behaviour experts are well aware of binary oppositions and their application in attracting more consumers to a given business. Marketers integrate two opposing ends of some dimension and create a range of fairy tales in order to attract customers. Interestingly the beauty industry has been particularly good at this. Both Dunlop and Feldman are far from naive, they’re astute businesswomen, this ain’t their first time at the rodeo. For this reason, I afford them the good grace of saying that they wholeheartedly recognise the implications of both naming their product Good Clean Wine and having the ‘clean’ reference dominate their marketing and PR.
Words like toxic, synthetic, chemicals (used five times in this article), additives, and junk are the fairy tales Good Clean Wine spins to indirectly paint a picture of everybody who is not them, all who are not ‘clean’. It’s strikingly obvious that they use this language to leverage the valid concerns of health-conscious buyers to sell a product. Whilst the pair claim to be passionate about education, it is, in fact, true that they rely on a lack of education, they rely on being the only source of information at the point of purchase. Their choice of language creates a clear binary opposition, they paint their own product as superior and desirable and everybody else as inferior and untouchable. If you possess even one iota of self-awareness you will immediately recognise how grossly repugnant it is to paint an entire industry of hardworking farmers, winemakers, and more as dirty whilst simeaulteaously pedalling a product which on the surface is at best an average bottle of plonk.
‘When we say our wine is clean, we aren’t saying that other wine is bad or “dirty”’ says Dunlop. Whilst on reflection, the pair now attempt to appeal to our better nature, they can’t surely expect us to be so naive as to lap this up. If they do, in fact, want us to believe (particularly considering the pairs prior experience in the beauty industry) for one second that they did not intend to spin this exact binary opposition from the beginning, that this ‘clean’ trash wasn’t their M.O. from day dot, they must also be telling us that in actual fact they are not the well-credentialled, smart businesswomen they publically portray themselves as.
Talking of transparency
Credit where credits due, the pair raise several valid points regarding the lack of transparency in the wine industry. Much of this stems from the fact that wine, unlike many foodstuffs, is subject to lapsed labelling regulations, and that viticulture, being a broad global endeavour, can be a confusing subject to package easily for the consumer. That being said, there are many competent wine professionals able to this very easily. Any commitment to genuinely progress the notion of transparency is admirable, Feldman explains that at Good Clean Wine they think the consumer should at least be able to make the choice about whether they care about additives or not. On the surface, this seems a respectable motive. In reality, this is an extension of the pairs ‘fairy tale’, an add-on to their effort to spin a binary opposition, another empty buzzword with no substance.
Take a trip over to Good Clean Wine’s website and direct yourself to their wines. How transparent are they? What do they tell us? Well, that’s easy, absolutely nothing of any value. Starting with the vineyard, there is no information available about exactly how the grapes were grown, were there any pesticides or herbicides used? If so, in what quantities? No information is available about the site, the terroir, the places from which the grapes originate, how they are picked or delivered to the winery, nothing at all. Moving to the winery, we are not told how much SO₂ (Sulphur Dioxide) is used through the winemaking process, how the grapes are handled, or how they’re vinified. We don’t know if selected yeasts are used, if there are any enzymes or nutrients added, how the wine is aged, whether any fining agents are used, how the wine is filtered, or how much SO₂ is used at bottling. The pair provide no information regarding the sustainability commitments of the winery or the environmental credentials of the product itself. Instead, we are told the wine is ‘made in Europe‘ with ‘few to no additives‘ Ask yourself whether this sounds like a brand eager to be transparent? Everything I have listed above would be available on the website of any good winemaker. In comparison, Good Clean Wine is far less transparent than the rest of the industry.
What Good Clean Wine does do well, which suggests they did, in fact, know exactly what they were doing when launching this product, is use subjective and ambiguous language. The pair use language which is open to interpretation, seemingly to suggest to unassuming consumers that they are in fact offering transparency. Terminology like ‘tested by us‘, ‘minimal-intervention‘, ‘grown sustainably’, and ‘in small batches‘ are all subjective. Grown sustainably by whose standards? Minimal-intervention when compared to what? Don’t be fooled, this language tells you nothing at all about the objective quality of the product, it’s provenance, the health implications or eco-credentials. I can only assume they choose not to share this information either because they do not have it (suggesting they don’t know their winemakers as well as they espouse) or that if they were to share it their image as puritans would crumble under a shower of pesticides and sulphur dioxide.
So, are we as the pair put it ‘seeing the world through a cleaner glass‘ or is this glass opaque, mucky and not all it’s cracked up to be? I’m inclined to believe the latter. Want to find a wine that matches your personal philosophical leanings? Head to your local independent wine store, they’re warm, friendly and inviting and deserve your custom far more than Good Clean Wine do.
Demystifying the A word
While I understand the concern surrounding additives, more often than not these concerns are either blown out of proportion or taken entirely out of context. Good Clean Wine consistently makes reference to there being up to 60 additives available to winemakers, that wine can include 60 additional ingredients. The pair harp on about Mega Purple, oak flavouring, sugar and more. In their most recent Forbes article, they trivialise critiques of their claims by suggesting that ‘winemakers and experts debate whether these ingredients and processes are harmful or not‘ whilst they (GCW) simply want to be transparent. They claim that ‘artificial flavours, dyes, and extra sulfites are commonly added to wine‘ and that’ fake oak flavour is a big one‘ The reality is this couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only do they not substantiate any of these claims, but it also doesn’t seem they’ve spent any time in wineries in any region of the winemaking world. It simply does not matter what is available to somebody, what matters is what they actually use.
The pair give the impression that winemakers start out thinking ‘what can I add to my wine‘ the reality is that this could not be further from the truth. Simply from an economic perspective, the fewer additions the less cost the winemaker has to bear in both the winery and the vineyard. For at least the past 2 decades there has been a huge focus placed on fruit quality coming into the winery, adjustments made in the winery are acknowledged as being suboptimal and to be avoided at all costs. Whilst there are a number of cheap, conventional wines which contain flavourings, the reality is the vast majority of wines do not contain anything beyond that which is deemed essential for quality, they certainly don’t contain anything harmful to the vast majority of consumers. Drinkers should feel confident that in much of the world there are national laws, such as those in the UK and France, which dictate how much residue and sulfites are permissible in finished wines.
The ‘essential’ additives used by winemakers commonly include SO₂, selected yeast to help achieve an ideal fermentation, enzymes to ensure proper grape processing, a fining agent (which will drop out of the wine before bottling) and SO₂ at bottling to ensure quality upon consumption. If you want to understand wine ‘additives’ in more detail, VInePair does a great job here. Important to recognise is that most good winemakers make this information public on their websites, Good Clean Wine does not. It would be interesting to send a sample of their product to a lab for analysis, I would suggest the results would be revealing.
It appears to me that much of the pairs rhetoric surrounding ‘additives’ comes down to the fact that neither of them really understand winemaking at all. They simply haven’t taken the time to develop a functional understanding of the process which makes their product possible. If you don’t believe me, the pair attempted to explain the process (which Feldman calls ‘Italian traditional winemaking with modern intervention‘) on Instagram TV, judge for yourself.
Public health is not a marketing ploy
Perhaps the most pernicious and dangerous of all Good Clean Wine’s claims are those centred around health and hangovers. Alcohol products which result in less severe hangovers have long been the plaything of marketers devoid of moral principle. Despite editing their original article, in which they claimed their product was less likely to give you a hangover (a claim they reproduced on their website) they claim again in their most recent Forbes article that sulfites in wine are responsible for headaches. The article goes one step further, providing a link to a ‘Harvard study’ which found this to be true. The only problem is that the link does not lead to a study at all, instead, it leads to an article which clearly states ‘sulfite sensitivity usually causes breathing problems rather than headaches‘ the opposite of what is claimed in the article. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence which suggests sulfites in wine result in headaches. Consider a handful of dried fruits may contain up to 3000ppm of sulfites whilst your average wine may contain 1-300ppm, with natural wines well below 100ppm.
Even in their latest Forbes article, Good Clean Wine proudly share the feedback of customers who claim they experience fewer headaches, flare-ups, skin reactions, nausea, etc. If this were a responsible company, one concerned about public health, they would accept this feedback privately. The would not share it publicly at the risk of it being taken as anything more than anecdotal accounts from eager consumers. Furthermore, Dunlop has also previously claimed on Instagram that ‘10% of alcohol drunk is processed by the brain‘, a claim which is entirely false, believe me, I checked with a PhD chemist.
Alcohol has a diuretic effect, it dehydrates the drinker, acetaldehydes and congeners in alcohol can increase the severity of a hangover. There are a number of variables which will influence how frequently you will suffer from hangovers (not toxic gunk as Good Clean Wine suggest) and how severe they will be. However, there is no reason to think that a regular wine (Good Clean Wine don’t even share the ABV) would be any less likely to give you a hangover. One should drink in moderation, alcohol in excess simply is not healthy. Those marketing alcohol products should consider the disparate impact on those suffering from alcohol dependency, and hyperbolic claims intended only to sell products should be avoided at all costs.
If you start a war, you better be prepared to get in the trenches.
If you think I’ve been a little harsh in this article, I politely disagree. I spend a great deal of my time talking with winemakers, understanding their craft, sharing their work, and enthusiastically enjoying the finished product. I care about this industry, I have a deep respect for those who make it possible. These two charlatans have none of the above. I have demonstrated in this article that they do not care about the industry, about how they portray others, about public health, about transparency, or anything else they claim to be the foundations of their brand. It’s simple, they’re out to make a quick buck, they come from an industry where this has gone unchallenged, well not here. What’s special about Good Clean Wine? Nothing at all. Following the first Forbes article, I expected them to go back to the drawing board, they didn’t, they doubled down, so I did too. I hope in future that those wanting to earn in this industry do not do so at the expensive of devaluing others.