It’s become a staple!
I decided to get in touch with the winemaker directly to talk with him about his approach to vegan wines. He was up for a game of Q & A! Meet Michael Cox, winemaker, Schug Carneros Estate.
Winemaker Michael Cox was born and raised in the town of Sonoma and spent time in Sonoma Valley wine production as a student. His local head start gave him an enviable background that most young winemakers find very difficult to achieve. Mike is of the “old school” of winemakers — superbly trained in a technical sense, but also well grounded with years sharpening his hands-on practical talents.
Mike first attended UCLA, studying chemical engineering. It was then that his love for wine surfaced and took him down the path to a degree in Enology from UC Davis in 1991. Mike also took the opportunity to come home from school during summer, spring and winter breaks to work in Sonoma wineries, gaining invaluable experience every step of the way. Prior to joining Schug in 1995, he was Winemaker at Napa Cellars. Mike has been working with Carneros fruit, and Pinot Noir since 1987.
JL goes Vegan: Mike, explain, in your own words, what a makes a wine “vegan.”
JL: As a winemaker, why did you choose a vegan fining process at Schug? Ethics, taste, or…?
MC: From a winemaking point of view, I believe in minimal processing of wine. At the same time, I don’t feel constrained to not use fining agents, if it makes for a better wine. Hence Schug Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and likely any other white wines that Schug might produce, are fined with small amounts of gelatin (2-3g/Hl = 75-110mg/gallon).
When it comes to reds, I find that wines that are not fined are more true to type and have the best mouthfeel. Conversely, Schug whites are significantly better when they are brightened by the small amounts of fining agents that we use. If a synthetic alternative were available, I would certainly consider it.
JL: To clarify, your whites are fined with animal products, therefore, not vegan; your reds are not fined at all, therefore, vegan?
MC: That is correct. We did use egg whites on one lot of Pinot in 2004, but since we blend wines, wines blended with this lot would have to be considered not vegan friendly – that’s why I mention it on the Barnivore entry. In light of recent news with the egg recall, I’d note that no known human pathogens can survive in wine – the alcohol and pH of a wine are not microbe friendly.
JL: You mention that if a synthetic fining agent were available you would consider it. Have you considered Bentonite?
MC: We do use Bentonite to fine the whites, that addresses heat stability, the gelatin makes a difference in the mouthfeel. (Becomes cleaner.) We have phased out isinglass. We are currently using a product called Nalco, which is a colloidal silica. Now whether that is vegan friendly or not, I am not sure as I have not researched it. [Note from JL: a quick google search indicates that this product appears to be vegan-friendly]
JL: What is an unfiltered wine? Is this connected to the fining process?
MC: An unfiltered wine is simply not filtered by any means (and there are several options for a winemaker.) Many people mistakenly believe that unfiltered denotes a more pure product, but it does not. If you think of a barrel of wine, the wine at the top will be brilliantly clear. That at the bottom is in contact with the ‘lees’ (yeast, grape solids, etc). It may be very cloudy depending on the pH and acidity of the wine. The wine on top will taste fruity and pure as the winemaker intended. The wine at the bottom, will taste dirty, and the taste will be negatively impacted. Filtration removes the sediment and means that a bottle taken from the top will taste the same as one from the bottom. There have been several studies that have shown that filtration, when done correctly, has no negative impact on flavor. It does not ‘strip’ the wine.
If you fine the wine, it creates more sediment at the bottom and you would certainly want to filter that to ensure that no fining agents enter the bottled wine. Which is why, even with a vegan mindset, I have no problem with wines that are fined – the fining agent is completely removed from the wine. But I am not evangelical about veganism.
JL: Are you vegan or vegetarian?
MC: I am striving to be vegan, but there are times when it does not work out. It is more for health reasons than philosophical. (And I have been browsing your recipe list.)
MC: I have been lobbying to add a ‘Vegan Friendly’ stamp to the back label of wines that qualify, but that would not happen until the 2010 vintage wines are bottled next year. I don’t think there is a vegan organization that certifies wines though. And I would probably stay away from that, as I find that a lot of certification organizations are really just ways for people to charge you exorbitant fees. The best way remains knowing what you are drinking, talking to people in tasting rooms, checking out Barnivore and generally being informed.
JL: Do you have wine pairing suggestions for vegan meals?
MC: If you can find a vegan Gruener Veltliner or Riesling, they go great with Asian food – seaweed salad, Thai Summer Rolls, Tofu Gang Pa, etc.
With Schug Pinot Noir, I like earthy dishes based on mushrooms. We had polenta with grilled portobellos this weekend. Just toss a little olive oil and balsamic on the mushroom grill cap side down first, then finish off cap side up. Slice and serve. A mushroom ragout on pasta is also a standard.
There is a place here in town that does a Mediterranean pizza that you can order without cheese – it is a great match for a Schug Merlot.
JL: What are your thoughts on the health benefits of wine?
MC: I think that moderate consumption has been shown many times over to have a positive impact on long term health. That being said, it should be consumed for pleasure, not as a health elixir.
My heartfelt thanks to Mike for taking the time to answer my questions! I found this incredibly informative and I hope you did, too.