What You Don’t Know About Wine Won’t Hurt You

I’m going to let you in on a little something you may not know and may be appalled to learn: Winemakers don’t wash their grapes.

Does that freak you out? You might want to get over it, or start favoring a different libation.

Last week there was a big to-do made in the media about how Trader Joe’s infamous wine, Two Buck Chuck, allegedly contains rodent blood and other miscellaneous nasties because the grapes they use to make the wine are harvested by huge machines that grab anything and everything, throw it all in a receptacle without sorting and make vino, essentially. In case you missed it, here’s the article that explains how the mess got started and what the owners had to say about it after this accusation was made:

The really big ruckus over ‘Two Buck Chuck’

I’m not saying I think Two Buck Chuck is as exceptional for the price as others believe it is. But certainly, if you like it and enjoy it, then drink it. I myself think you get what you pay for and sometimes that’s A-OK with me if I’m in a bind and need some vino, ANY vino, STAT. And furthermore, if you simply don’t like how wine tastes or a winery/winemaker’s ethics then those are good reasons not to drink the wine. But it’s not rodents that should keep you away (or even the stomping bare feet of strangers). The idea of wine having animal blood in it is ridiculous. But I realize that many people probably don’t know why it’s so ridiculous, especially if the fermentation process has never been explained to them. I certainly didn’t understand until Von started making wine years ago and I saw the process myself.

So I’m going to give you my version of how this all works. If you’d like a more scientific one, feel free to contact my husband or go Google crazy.

Grapes are harvested, sometimes by machines if it’s a major production winery and often by the hands of vineyard workers who can pick an insane amount of grapes in a couple hours. I know this because two years ago we chose to pick our own grapes from one of the vineyards we purchase from out in Sunnyslope and it took four of us adults and one toddler HOURS to get 1,000 pounds of grapes. The people out in the fields? They can knock that out in about an hour, I’m sure.

Courtesy of Luce Della Vite
Courtesy of Luce Della Vite

The grapes get to the winery, where we put them in the crusher/destemmer to sort through the stems and leaves and weed out all the junk (this would apply to rodents too, if you’re still hung up on those). We do NOT wash our grapes. I know that causes shock to some since we live in a world obsessed with sanitation yet we want our food fresh. We do see spiders, ear wigs, occasional wasps and other insects. Typically vineyards don’t use a lot of pesticides because pesticides can change the natural fermentation process. This is good news for you, the wine drinker, as well as the wine itself. The thing is, all that grapey bacteria – the must and flora and natural yeast – is stuff we want in the wine. Washing it off would be…dumb. Have you ever thought you’d like to see a winery who advertises that they have the cleanest wine? Me, I want my wine DIRTY.

After all that stuff is sorted out, we start making the good stuff. Depending on the varietal, some grapes will get pressed (or stomped) and tossed in with the skins, others will get pressed and the skins will be thrown out. No matter which way it goes, all will start the first phase of fermentation, which is a very active process because the yeast (both added and natural) works like wild fire. It’s so active that it needs open air to do its thing. It never gets old to see the thick cap of skins on wine when it’s fermenting the first few days. We “punch down” the cap of skins often so they can continue to mix with the yeast. This is fun for me, because I’m punching things with the knowledge that my punching will be rewarded later on with lots of glasses of liquid happiness.

Punching down the grape cap
Punching down the grape cap

The second phase is when the yeast calms down and does its hard work quietly, so it’s time to cover it. There’s more appropriate and more wine-sophisticated ways to say that but I don’t have those words for you.

Now here’s the important part, so pay attention: This 2-phase fermentation process, the one I just walked you through so eloquently? It is responsible for killing any crazy bacteria or virus that could possibly infect a human being. Wine is not a place for human diseases and, subsequently, it is not a place for animal blood. The yeast bacteria destroys any and all harmful pathogens during fermentation. While an occasional rodent may have been spotted at some point between the field and the destemmer (although we have yet to witness that ourselves), I assure you there’s not even a micro-trace of it anywhere in that bottle of wine you’re thinking about buying. There is only good, productive, and essential bacteria.

So now you know. And you’re feeling good about it, aren’t you? So drink up!

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