Vegan wine is an area that can confuse both businesses and consumers. Many would reasonably assume a glass of fermented grapes would be naturally plant-based. However, animal products can be used in the fining process to remove sediment and improve colour and flavour. Fining agents can include egg white, isinglass, (from fish swim bladders) chitin (from crustaceans), casein (milk protein) and gelatin (from pig or cow connective tissue). Ox blood was used in the past but is now banned in the UK, EU, and US.
In the UK more than 1500 wines carry the Vegan Society trademark which means the product is checked for animal products the production process and finished drink.
There is even an online directory of vegan alcohol to help consumers navigate this tricky landscape.
We spoke to vegan wine expert and businesswoman Frances Gonzalez. She is the founder of Depacito Distributers, a US plant-based wine distributer. She is also the founder and owner of Vegan Wines, a plant-based wine store and club. She explains: “We’re the only vegan-owned wine company that is fully vegan – from the soil to the cork. There are a lot of wine wineries that say they are vegan friendly, but we are completely vegan.”
Frances Gonzalez imports 100% plant-based wine from France, Italy, and Chile, and distributes US-produced wine from California, Oregon and New York. The wine is sold via the online store, Wine Club, and by wholesale distribution. The company ships to 38 states and has customers in New York, California, Chicago and Puerto Rico. She describes what that entails: “I visit vineyards applying a set of guidelines based on everything I have learned, and I make sure the wine I import fits within our guidelines. We research everything from the soil to the glass. With a lot of the wines, we import we are the sole importers into the States. We import from small wineries where patience is the number one ingredient.”
The business was set up in 2017 after a trip to France in which Frances learned that wine could contain egg and other animal products. “I was a wine lover who had been vegan for 25 years, the more I spoke to the farmers and winemakers the more I realised how many animal products can be used in wine legally.” On returning to the US, she did some research, speaking to restaurants and wines schools, and found it very difficult to get a straight answer about whether animal products were involved. The URL VeganWines.com was available and the business was set up. She says: “I am a vegan first, and then a wine lover. I needed to learn about wine, but this was not covered in wine school, so I went straight to the farmers. I hired a sommelier and a nutritionist who are both vegan.”
Frances’s job involves searching high and low for the best vegan wines; “We have visited many vineyards and found a few gems. For example, in Italy I visited farms, tasted the wine, and asked all kinds of questions. I wanted to learn what was behind the label. I asked about how they treat their employees. If they had sheep grazing, I would ask if the animals would become food, or if they used animal manure from slaughterhouses. Do they use fish fertilisers? Does the cork contain beeswax? It takes a long time to get the information and that is why our portfolio is limited. But it is doable. I found farmers who worked without animal manure and instead used a green harvest process to make sure the grapes do well. The younger generation of winemakers are taking the less is more approach, using fewer additives, and they are proud of the wine they are producing.”
The company has two vegan salespeople in California and the wine is available in various restaurants such as Pura Vita and Margo’s in California and Earthen and Soda Club in New York. They also supply many restaurants that are not geared towards plant-based: “We have some restaurants that don’t have a single vegan dish on the menu. They love our wines because they are amazing. When I deliver, I try and convince them that they’d attract more customers if they had some vegan food options.”
The wine is sold to the public via an online shop and a subscription-based wine club. Most wine club members are not fully vegan but are drawn to the range because of the transparency of the products, and the knowledge that they won’t contain any additives like sugar or sulphites. Club members get recipes and the chance to add plant-based cheeses, chocolates, and meats: “Each bottle we sell is paired with a recipe and a vegan cheese. We also do events which are a one stop shop for compatible vegan food and drink.”
The company is always looking for new partnerships with plant-based food producers: “We are always keen to collaborate with people who make vegan cheese and charcuterie. For example I am currently talking to a vegan charcuterie company to make a charcuterie board for the holidays. There are now a lot of amazing plant-based cheeses that appeal to people who are not vegan. We have found some amazing plant-based cheeses to partner with such as Miyoko, and Rebel. We also work with Meaty Max who do excellent vegan charcuterie, and Farmer Jones, a farm where they grow food without animal products in the soil.”
One of the biggest challenges was getting the business to be taken seriously by the wine industry. Because of this, the company now works with the wine educators who train sommeliers, giving them information on what to put in their training packages: “I also make sure I have time to talk to the restaurants we supply. It important that they take to heart the message that if they have amazing dishes, they also need to pay attention to their drink menu.”