Generally speaking, it’s nice when things are clean. Clean clothes, clean lines, clean kitchens. The word has a way of putting people at ease. Surely if something is clean, it must be inherently, well, nice. And while that may be true for a pile of laundry, it’s not as clear what clean means when used to describe wine.
“When I hear the words ‘clean’ and ‘wine’ placed next to one another, my brain shuts off for a split second,” says Eric Moorer, director of sales and customer engagement at Domestique, a natural wine shop in Washington, D.C. “I don’t love it as a descriptor and certainly not for branding. It’s not a way to define wine because you’re simply talking about the product in front of you. Wine is about people and how you treat them and the earth.”
And yet, “clean wine” is a pervasive turn of phrase in modern wine marketing, often used in the ever-expanding intersection of wine and wellness culture. Wine brands looking to tap into the $4.5 trillion wellness economy organize 5Ks through vineyards, or lead luxury wine-and-meditation retreats with four-figure price tags.
Most recently, actress Cameron Diaz and fashion CEO Katherine Power launched Avaline, “a new, clean wine brand,” according to a company press release. Last month, popular wine delivery service Winc stepped into the “clean wine” business with the launch of its own wine label, The Wonderful Wine Co. Similar to Avaline, it’s not selling itself as a natural wine, but rather as something that’s wellness-adjacent, using language like “organic,” “sustainably farmed,” “low sulfites,” and “no added sugar.” Similarly, in 2017, former commercial litigator Sarah Shadonix launched Scout & Cellar, a direct sales company specializing in “clean-crafted wines.”
The clever marketing targets people who want to be able to go to yoga class and enjoy a “clean” rosé afterward, as a treat. The issue is that clean in the context of wine doesn’t necessarily mean what you might think.
Can a wine really be considered clean if consumers don’t even know what’s in the bottle? Is the expectation that wine drinkers just need to take a brand’s word for it?
“There aren’t legal definitions,” says Moorer. “There are common sense guidelines, but there isn’t anything legally. Natural wine as it stands begins with a bare minimum of organic farming, but then you get into differences between people about where it goes from there. The lack of oversight allows for people to use buzzwords that match the intent of the people you’re trying to sell to.”
Wine labeling is regulated by two federal agencies: the Food and Drug Administration and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The latter handles the bulk of wines, since it oversees any with an alcohol content of 7% or more. Although these agencies are tasked with reviewing labels for accuracy and standards, those standards can be somewhat of a gray zone.
Wine manufacturers, for instance, are not required to list information about nutritional content. Can a wine really be considered clean if consumers don’t even know what’s in the bottle? Is the expectation that wine drinkers just need to take a brand’s word for it?
“Most people assume that when they see a bottle of wine with a chateau on it that there’s a person—usually a man—who owns that house, tends to the vineyard and makes the wine,” says Chevonne Ball, a certified sommelier and French wine scholar behind the wine travel company Dirty Radish. “That is not how it is, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Consumers are going to have to do a little more research to know who is making their wine, and winemakers are going to have to make that information a little easier to attain and understand.”
Despite the lack of federal guidelines concerning how a wine is marketed, winemakers using the term “clean wine” could be opening the door to potential legal troubles all the same, explains Candace Lynn Bell, an attorney with the firm Eckert Seamans who specializes in intellectual property. Bell has written extensively on trademark issues associated with wine, spirits and craft beers.
Deerfield Ranch Winery is listed as the owner of a U.S. federal trademark registration for the term “clean wine” when used with virtually every type of wine, Bell notes. The registration was issued in June 2016.
“Clean wine may be a popular trend highlighting consumer demand to disclose on the label what goes into the wine you are about to drink,” Bell says. “However, users of ‘clean wine’ may have a trademark fight on their hands—use of the mark ‘clean wine’ in connection with wines or other related goods may constitute trademark infringement. ‘Clean wine’ might, however, be a phrase that’s becoming or has become generic. Which side of the argument will win will be interesting to see.”
Whether or not “clean wine” remains the buzzword du jour, consumers will still be tasked with cutting through the slick marketing speak to really figure out which wines are best for them. It’s a task they must take on because no one else is positioned to hold wine brands accountable.
“Life is crazy, and wine, like everything else, is fashionable,” says Ball. “This is just a new fad. Personally, I feel consumers are very disconnected from how products are made in general. If they understood farming practices better, I am sure they would all change the way they consume food and beverages.”