“Tonya Kay’s a vegan,” my girlfriend says to her farm-town mother on the telephone.
“What is that?” comes back her mother’s innocent reply.
“Someone who can’t eat meat, milk or eggs,” my friend explains.
“Is she seeing a doctor for that?”
Oh, bless the small-town folk who haven’t yet heard the word vegan! I wanted to shout out loud after my girlfriend told me this story, “Actually, I’m not seeing a doctor for that—and that’sthe point!” But that’s not the point of this particular blog entry. The point is that the most common definition of vegan remains someone who doesn’t consume meat, milk or eggs. I have been a vegan for 15 years and, even in my opinion, that is still the basic requirement before claiming the title.
But consciousness accelerates one’s education and choices are made based on this continued information gathering. Where individuals go with their veganism after figuring out the diet part is completely up to them. Many vegans forsake leather, circuses, zoos and pets. Others support green living, organic foods and environmentalism. Still others become shelter volunteers, animal rescuers, anti-vivisectionists or political activists. I am a bit of them all: I own leather-free weightlifting gloves. I won’t have pets. I shop local, eat organic and do volunteer work with abused animals.
But even inside all of this care and consciousness, I am a hypocrite. I end up confined to contradictions as a vegan because the movie-theatre film contains gelatin. The crayons contain tallow. The antifreeze contains glycerin. And jeeze, as I’ve written about before, the leather-free gloves are made of purely synthetic materials. If you want to look far enough, the manufacture of the plastic used to make my leather-free shoes pollutes enough groundwater and breathing air that I am slowly killing an entire eco-system—all its animals, foliage and humans included, rather than the one cow for its skin. How can vegans win?
I was wine tasting recently and in deep discussion about this particular vineyard’s exceptional commitment to organic, biodynamic and sustainable farming. The conversation rolled and was filled with detail as to what green practices went into my wine, which I appreciated very much. When I asked what animal products went into my wine, however, the winemaker’s entire demeanor changed. Instead of just answering my question, he ranted about vegans and how hypocritical they are. I wondered if some jerk-vegan ruined it for me by getting all up in arms and judgmental on him before my arrival.
I wish vegans wouldn’t ruin my work by being jerks. Because I didn’t want the conversation to end with this winemaker. I just wanted to know what animal products were used in my wine. Luckily, he opened up to me after he got his rant out and did give some valuable information. In the end, it is my opinion that all vegans are different and draw the lifestyle line in varying places. We just want the opportunity to make our personal choices. Information gives me the opportunity to continue living life based on conscious choices.
Besides a huge schism in communication and available information between winemakers and vegans, what I have learned about animal products in wine is that where most vegans are concerned, they are added during the fining process. Wines generally go through a standard filtering and then fining process where in the former, fermentation sediment and large particles are filtered out and then in the latter, a fining agent, such as isinglass, egg whites, casein, gelatin, bentonite clay, activated charcoal or plastic are used to clarify the wine, basically removing its haze and creating a visibly clear glass of wine.
There are very few wineries that commit to producing all of their wines without animal-based fining agents; one is Frey. Rather, vintners generally make decisions during the winemaking process as to what a particular wine requires at the moment. So this year’s merlot may get the bentonite, while last season’s got casein. This is why you will find specific vintages as well as varietals in this Vegan Wine Guide.
That being said, we are lucky as vegans that none of the fining agents are left in the wine. After they are used to remove impurities, they themselves are expunged—and so never imbibed by the consumer. Thus, vegans can rest assured that they are in line with the true definition of vegan—someone who doesn’t consume meat, milk or eggs—when drinking any wine because dietarily, all wine is vegan.
If you are concerned about the vegetarian lifestyle (not just diet), you can choose wines fined with egg whites and casein (but not isinglass or gelatin), as those two fining agents do not involve the killing of animals. If you are concerned about the use of animal products throughout the winemaking process, you can increase your chances of remaining true to your vegan lifestyle by choosing a kosher wine. The Vegetarian Journal reports: “The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations stated that all of their kosher-certified American-made wines do not currently use either gelatin, isinglass or egg whites. They cannot vouch for the status of the international kosher wines.” And the vegan lifestyler can also choose white wines, which “require” less fining; none in many cases.
I, myself, am a fan of completely unfined wines, when I can find them. They look hazy, it is true, but I consider that the true color of the wine. Their nose is more powerful and they age better, too, when compared to excessively fined wines, whose desirable aroma and tannins (beneficial to the aging process) are stripped. Unfined wines also tend to form wine diamonds—what I call fairy crystals—in the wine, which are really special to me. These gorgeous crystals, composed of potassium bitartrate (also known as cream of tartar), are formed as a result of a natural chemical reaction during fermentation. They are tasteless and inert, but simply beautiful to see—looking like black diamonds underneath the cork in red wines or floating like crystallized tear drops in a glass of white. It is a shame when these wine diamonds are filtered out. They are the most special, visual part of a natural wine. And I hope that unfined/unfiltered wines become widely popular because this, to me, is the true revelation of what a wine can be.
I want to thank all winemakers who make fining-agent information available, without judgment, to interested wine enthusiasts. And I want to ask vegans, as they question vintners about their use of animal products in the fining process, to remember that this is information freely given to aid consumers on their eco-conscious journeys. Stay cool and don’t ruin it for the rest of us who are already cool! And remember, all wines are vegan (contain no animal products).
If we start delving into the production methods of our wine, it is important to put the fining-agents discussion in perspective. Biodynamics uses cow horns, after all, as integral to its natural farming process; it sees plastic replacements as neither natural nor spiritually beneficial. Also, certified organic farming allows animal reductions in its fertilizers for both wine and food. And the tires of every wine transport truck—even your own car tires—contain animal reductions.
The best we can do is to inquire, stay educated and make conscious decisions based on that education. It’s true that standing for something creates the possibility for hypocrisy in our lives. But I’d rather take a stand and risk being a hypocrite than to stop trying to improve myself and the world.