ASK THE SOMM
What’s in Wine
David Loan on weird stuff in wine
David Loan worked as a sommelier for seven years at ZenKitchen — a go-to restaurant for vegans and curious diners — before it closed in 2014. Katie Shapiro talks with the local food-and-wine guy about vegan wines and why you might start seeing some surprising ingredients on wine labels. How did you get into wine? I got into wine because my ex-wife (chef Caroline Ishii) and I decided we wanted to open a restaurant, and before we opened the restaurant, we started doing monthly dinners — what are now called pop-up restaurants. I realized that while she was focusing on the cooking, somebody needed to focus on the wine service as well. I started taking the sommelier courses at Algonquin College, graduated from there, and became a teacher in that same program while working as a sommelier at ZenKitchen. Since the restaurant closed, I have been working with [wine events group] Savvy Company. Are people seeking out vegan wines? At ZenKitchen, it was a conversation I had with customers half a dozen times every day we were open. “What do you mean, vegan wine? How could there be animal products in wine?”
I explained to them that when a winemaker is almost done with the wine, they’ll sometimes decide that it needs to be filtered in a certain way — maybe because it has too many tannins. One of the techniques to get rid of them is to introduce what’s called a fining agent.
In Bordeaux, for example, winemakers sometimes stir egg whites into the barrel of wine. As the wine settles through the egg whites — or other proteins like milk products, gelatin, isinglass (which comes from the swim bladders of sturgeon) — those excess tannins or other compounds will be picked up. That’s the fining process, and it helps to clarify the wine.
Now, that all settles to the bottom. There’s really a very, very low amount left in the wine, but for vegans, that use of animal products in the wine makes it unacceptable.
I was trying to buy some vegan Italian wine years ago, and the wine rep I was working with got in touch with some wineries in Italy and they essentially said, “Yeah … we don’t really want to talk about that.” Sometimes some old wineries still use some products like blood as a fining agent, but some don’t like to talk about it because it sounds gross. Is the vegan market something that winemakers are tuning into? I think winemakers are aware that many people are trying to avoid animal products, so they are aware of which of their products are fined with animal products and which aren’t.
Now, there are other things they can use as a fining agent, like bentonite clay. But winemakers say that these are all tools in the toolbox, and for this wine, they’ll use bentonite, and for that wine, they want to use egg whites. It just depends on what they’re trying to achieve. But there are wineries, like Karlo Estates in Prince Edward County, that refuse to use any animal products in their wines, and they’re very proud to be 100 per cent vegan. Are wineries obligated to put that kind of information on their labels? Not yet, but many of these fining agents are, in fact, common allergens. There are new labelling requirements that were introduced by the federal government in December of 2016 that require alcohol products that have more than a certain measurable amount of allergens be declared on the label. They gave winemakers and distillers five years to do that — so they have until the end of 2021. You will start to see these things appear on the labels as they are in other countries. I’ve