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What's In A Wine - A Whine About An Issue Of Trust

Last week, I spent a few days in Calgary and was delighted that my daughter Jenny (WHO IS NOW VEGAN!) took me to restaurants serving very high-quality vegan meals. However, on my last night there, we found ourselves in a Moxie’s. I was somewhat in need of a beer, but our server (and the rest of the staff) had absolutely no idea if their (bottled or tap) offerings were vegan, or even any knowledge that beers could be non-vegan.

It’s moderately unsettling that even some long-time vegans are unaware of the fact that not all alcohol is free of animal products. Many are still blissfully unaware that the fining (clarifying) processes used in both beers and wines often use such unpalatable (to vegans) ingredients as egg whites, casein (derived from milk), gelatin and isinglass (obtained from the bladders of fish).

Those who are in the know will perhaps refer to to discover whether a beverage contains these nasties. Barnivore’s free database requires that you simply type in the name of the beer/winery whose products you wish to know more about. Be warned that many may disappoint you. We have had to abandon numerous favourites because they breach our strict vegan code.

You also need to be aware that the Barnivore information is not comprehensive. You may find no listing for what you seek. Nor is it necessarily timely. The data is only as good as the most recent research or response given by the supplier. Wineries, for instance, regularly change wine making practices depending upon the year of production, and there is no guarantee that a listing is altered to reflect changes in the fining process.

Personally, I find it very disappointing that even if they have it, few producers seem to value their status as ‘vegan friendly’. They don’t exactly shout it from the rooftops or boast about it (how many wines have you seen overtly labelled as such?). This is probably because the mass of the buying public might regard obviously vegan wines with the same suspicion and disdain they hold for vegan food!

It’s a great shame that labelling laws don’t require alcohol manufacturers to reveal their ingredients with enough detail to enable us vegans to make our kind choices easily. Whilst they do not, we are still subject to uncertainties. So, it should come as something of a relief when an organisation like BevVeg comes along.

BevVeg is apparently part of a law firm. In an otherwise unregulated marketplace, they are the first to offer certified vegan accreditation, along with a trademarked logo that manufacturers may stamp on their bottles, attesting to their vegan friendliness. They’re creating a minor publicity storm and have been featured by Forbes, PETA and various TV outlets including CBS and NBC. You can download their free app, which in appearance at least, is more than a match for the rather dated and ordinary Barnivore site.

You may, of course, find yourself asking why a law firm would want to step into the fray to look out for vegan rights? Maybe because you have to pay them to certify your wine? But at least they’re guaranteed to be accurate, right?

For years now, I have been a proponent of Bonterra wines. They’re organic, they have a great Chardonnay (my favourite wine) which best of all, is vegan. So when I first heard about BevVeg (they advertised on Facebook), I was keen to check out a listing I knew for sure would be vegan.

To my dismay, BevVeg declared that the Bonterra Sauvignon (not available at BC Liquor stores) was vegan, but uncertified as such; and that all the rest of the Bonterra range is NOT vegan.

Mortified, I cross checked with Barnivore. Their site informed me that the exact opposite was the case. It stated that all Bonterra wines are vegan, with the exception of the Sauvignon!

Determined to get to the bottom of the matter, I wrote to Bonterra. After a week of no reply, I chastened them for poor customer service and got this (immediate) response:

Thank you for your inquiry on Bonterra wines and informing us on the vegan claims. We are a lean team here and have yet been able to do the necessary research on your inquiry. We appreciate your patience and do apologize for the delay.

As this is a sensitive topic, we will need to do further research with our teams before we can respond. What we can tell you at this time is that our white wines are vegan. Our red wines however are fined with egg whites which would preclude those wines from meeting the vegan standards.

Thank you again for bringing this website to our attention and we will investigate the matter. Again, apologies for our delay in responding. We do take consumer inquiries very seriously and value your concerns for Bonterra.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I replied, informing them of BevVeg’s injurious misrepresentation. I assured them that such matters were of great importance to vegans and that misinformation imparted in this way would likely result in pecuniary loss, giving them a legal right of action against BevVeg. (The old lawyer in me coming out there.) I said I would take up their cause with BevVeg and immediately did so, criticising their careless approach and pointing out that if their site proved unreliable in this manner, how could it be recommended across the vegan community they theoretically seek to serve?

I received no reply from BevVeg.

Tonight, I note that the Barnivore listing for Bonterra has been amended. It now avers that their Chardonnay, Viognier, Rose and Sauvignon wines are vegan. But there is a new line that says that ALL their wines (except for the Sauvignon Blanc) are NOT vegan. Clearly, this new line has been added to reflect the BevVeg listing.

Where does that leave the vegan consumer? Who is misrepresenting the facts? If this has happened with one winery, what about the other (more than) 40,000 listings BevVeg boasts of? And can we really rely on anything that is said on any site when production processes change from year to year and such sites as these may not reflect changes?

I am disappointed.

I’m disappointed because I couldn’t tell in an instant if the beer I tried to get last week was acceptable or repulsive to me.

I am disappointed because my favourite winery seems careless about what is said about them.

I am disappointed because alcohol manufacturers clearly don’t believe that the vegan aspect of their production process is really that significant.

I am disappointed because a new ‘champion’ seems to be in it for the money, rather than caring for the vegan consumer.

I’m disappointed because in this matter, I don’t know if there’s anyone who can be trusted.

I'm disappointed because the rest of the world doesn't seem to think it's important.

So does it matter? You tell me.

I think so.

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