As is customary for the new year, many people will vow to change their ways and pledge to improve their health. Chief among their concerns will be wine and other alcoholic beverages. Dry Januarys have become fashionable, as has what has come to be called the new sobriety.
I don’t know whether the emotional cost of enduring a pandemic for almost a year will diminish the appeal of a drinking hiatus. It could be that a dry January this year will go the way of dressing for work and regular haircuts.
But even if abstinence is out in 2021, wine has joined the cluster of mental and physical health practices that are now referred to generally as “wellness.” Not in the sense that self-care requires inebriation, but in the suggestion that wine, like clothing or beauty products, can be pared of toxins and made “clean.”
The United States has had a tormented relationship with alcoholic beverages. They have often been seen in religious terms, attacked as tools of the devil or praised as evidence of God’s devotion to the flock.
They have been called immoral or dangerous by temperance movements, and they have been rationalized through scientific studies as healthful additions to a well-rounded diet (in moderation).
Rarely has anybody sought to advocate for wine or other alcoholic beverages simply as pleasures, because they taste and feel good. It may be a residual puritanical streak in American culture that requires wine to do good rather than simply feel good.
Most recently, we’ve seen the commercialization of natural wine, repackaged for supermarket wine shoppers as “clean wine.” These bottles — with names like the Wonderful Wine, Good Clean Wine, Scout & Cellar and Pure the Winery — are intended to connote immaculacy, as simple and hygienic as the natural-fiber clothing their promoters habitually wear.
Each of these wines presents itself as a reaction against a world of “unhealthful” processed wines, beverages that are routinely made from grapes grown with pesticides and herbicides, and manufactured using additives and technological tricks.
None of these companies has made as big a splash, or drawn as much criticism, as Avaline, propelled by the celebrity of actress Cameron Diaz and her business partner, Katherine Power, a beauty entrepreneur, who introduced the brand in June, in the middle of the pandemic.
In an Instagram post promoting their brand, Diaz and Power described their shock at learning that wine could be manufactured like other processed foods. Then, having discovered Jesus, they decided to open their own church.
“I thought that it was just fermented grapes, I felt so naive,” Diaz said in the video, adding: “it was one of those aha moments, why don’t we make our own clean wine? Why don’t we make wine the way we want to drink wine? Not only are we going to make it clean without all those additives, we’re going to make organically. We wanted organic grapes, and also we just want wine that tastes delicious.”
Diaz should feel no shame for her naiveté. Though additives and manipulations have been a hot topic in the wine world for 20 years or more, most casual wine drinkers know little about what they are drinking and care less. They simply want something intoxicating that tastes good, no questions asked.
But having asked the questions, it’s not clear why, aside from sensing a good business opportunity, Diaz and Power felt compelled to provide the answer. Plenty of wines, whether marketed as natural or not, are made without additives, from organic grapes. These wines are easy to find at any decent wine shop.
That was not their aim. They wanted to make wine, they said, for people like themselves and their friends, people for whom patronizing local shops is an inconvenience.
“We wanted to bring it to your grocery store, not have to go across town to a specialty store to get the wine or special order it,” Diaz said in the introductory video, noting that “we just really wanted it to be accessible for everyone.”
In other words, Avaline is for those who have never been curious how the sausage was made. For these consumers, wine may be a pleasure, but not one worth the modest effort to visit a specialist or to learn a little more about it themselves.
Nothing is inherently wrong with that, even if Diaz and Power exaggerate both the ills of conventional wines and the benefits of Avaline. And they have corrected some of their initial problems, like promising transparency but offering no information about who made the wines.
This has changed. We now know that Avaline’s sparkling wine, introduced for the holiday season, is made by Raventós i Blanc in Catalonia, an excellent producer whose wines I’ve recommended regularly. The rosé comes from Mas de Cadenet in Provence, and the white from Can Ràfols dels Caus in the Penedès region of Spain.
The red, we’re told, is made by a family that requests anonymity. But all the wines, the company promises, are made from organic or biodynamically grown grapes, are fermented with indigenous yeast and are appropriate for vegans, meaning the wines have not been clarified with egg whites or other traditional, animal-derived products.
Other clean wine companies are not so transparent. Instead, they speak generally about selling wine made by “traditional methods.” They use terms like Scout & Cellar’s trademarked “clean-crafted.” They promise, like Good Clean Wine, to “make wine that pairs well with a healthy lifestyle,” without feeling the need to explain what that means.
All of this is marketing nonsense, of course, but why should wine be immune to it? If entrepreneurs like Diaz and Power have discovered what natural wine advocates like Alice Feiring have been writing about for years, well, why shouldn’t they use their bully pulpits?
On the one hand, this is a laudable effort. I’ve urged people to think of wine as food. If political, environmental and ethical considerations enter into your decisions about which foods to buy, they should inform your wine-buying as well.
But let’s not rationalize wine as healthful. The reason anybody should seek out minimally processed wine made from conscientiously farmed grapes is not because it is healthier but because it is better. It’s an aesthetic choice, not a medical or “lifestyle” decision.
No matter how a wine is made, it contains one inherently dangerous substance: alcohol. Drinking too much wine is risky no matter how it is made. The alcohol will do the harm, not the host of legal additives or trace remnants of herbicides or pesticides.
Wine is great because it is delicious, enhances a meal and makes us feel good. It can inspire curiosity and study, and the more you learn about it, the deeper the pleasure in understanding and consuming it.
For many people who prefer not to bother with all this, who just want to know what to buy at the supermarket, a brand like Avaline makes sense. Yet if you really want to drink better, so many other paths are more promising.
Try wines directly from producers like Raventós i Blanc or Mas de Cadenet. Better yet, visit good wine shops, which are full of wines like these.
Buy from good wine shops rather than supermarkets. That’s a resolution I can support.