The past month has been particularly newsy on the wine front. But making sense of it all is not always simple. So here’s what Paul Harvey would have called “the rest of the story” on these happenings:
Arsenic and grapes
The story: Many wines are laced with deadly arsenic, according to a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles. Among the “dangerous” wines are many bottles or boxes from such popular brands as Franzia, Sutter Home and Menage A Trois.
The rest of the story: Thanks in large part to a CBS News report on the issue, this story has had a long shelf-life. As it turns out, the company filing the class-action suit, Denver-based BeverageGradesCQ, is trying to market its arsenic-testing services to wineries. Hmm.
True, many wines have arsenic levels that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum levels of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for drinking water. But that standard is based on the consumption of 2 liters of water per day; anyone quaffing that much wine has considerably more to worry about on the health front.
Also, the Canadian government’s arsenic threshold is 100 ppb, and in the European Union it’s 200 ppb. None of the wines tested by BeverageGrades came in over 50 ppb, and about 75 percent had 10 or fewer ppb, according to several news reports.
Bottom line: There is as much or more arsenic in tuna, shrimp, apple juice and Brussels sprouts as in your average wine. Oh, and I’m glad most lawsuits don’t engender one-millionth of the attention this one has.
Nutrition for grapes
The story: There are bacteria in your wine, and they might be coming from the soil underneath the vines — and having a marked effect on the final product. Researchers from the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois found that the microbes around a vine’s roots find their way to the grapes.
The rest of the story: While it has long been known that wines contain bacteria and other microbes, this study could change the way vintners look at the concept of terroir and lead to advancements in grape hardiness and perhaps flavor.
But at least one winemaker has long known that these microorganisms play a huge part in grape quality. When I visited his Oregon vineyards five years ago, Wisconsin native Ken Wright talked at length about the correlation of soil microbes and the health of his vines.
“Eighty percent of our farming is underground,” Wright said, “making the microorganisms happy all along the root area. Nutrition-based farming — to me it’s the ultimate form of farming. Complex soils have amazing antioxidants.”
For that reason, Wright injects microbes such as fish byproducts and cola into his soil. That might prevent the vineyards from earning organic designation, but Wright couldn’t care less.
“Organic farming doesn’t produce the best nutrition,” he said. “What we really should be demanding is better nutrition. When plants don’t get what they need nutritionally, they struggle. Those kinds of plants are always the first to get diseases, to get insects. Nature is not kind to weak things.”
A starring role
The story: Matthew McConaughey signs on to star in a film version of “The Billionaire’s Vinegar.”
The rest of the story: There’s no word yet on whom McConaughey will portray. Could be one of the bilkers selling bogus bottles for big bucks, such as Rudy Kurniawan or Hardy Rodenstock. Or maybe one who was bilked, billionaire Bill Koch, the estranged brother of the oil magnates.
Mostly, I’m just glad this incredible book seems headed for the big screen. It reads like a Dan Brown novel, a vast panoply filled with twists and memorable characters. It’s completely riveting.
In the mail
The story: Last year, U.S. wineries shipped 47 million bottles of wine, worth $1.82 billion, directly to consumers. That’s a whopping 15.5 percent more than in 2013.
The rest of the story: Most wines make their way here through the three-tier system (winery to wholesaler to restaurant/retail outlet). But smaller wineries have trouble getting much attention from wholesalers and often can survive only with direct-to-consumer shipping.
In Minnesota, we have many distributors actively seeking out a lot of these smaller operations around the country, and with laws that allow individuals to buy directly from wineries in limited quantities. This law also lets Minnesota wineries ship to people in 36 other “reciprocal” states.
A win-win-win, I say.
Follow Bill Ward on Twitter: @billward4.