Organic, Vegan, Gluten-Free Wine

We get a lot of questions about winemaking, our wines, and our wine ingredients. Today we'll talk about two that come up frequently.

First, Angela from San Diego writes:

Dear Master Vintner,

I've been making wine for a while and I love it. But one of my friends is celiac and has a terrible problem with gluten--are Master Vintner wines gluten-free?

Gluten and its effects on the human body have been a hot topic for the last few years, and while many people are concerned, the amount of confusing and downright contradictory information out there on gluten issues is disheartening. We're not doctors, but we can sort out wines for you.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other cereals. It's tricky to keep out of your diet because even things like oats, which are normally gluten-free, can be contaminated by being grown in fields side-by-side with wheat or other grains. Gluten serves an important purpose in bread making, giving dough its sticky elasticity (the name is Latin, and means 'glue'), which helps it trap carbon dioxide bubbles from the yeast, giving bread a light, airy texture.
Celiacs as well as Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitives suffer terribly if they ingest gluten, so it's important to keep it out of their diets, even in extremely small amounts. But we have good news: wine is made from grapes, which are gluten-free. Technically this is defined by US labelling laws as less than 20 parts-per-million of gluten, but it's lower than that in a finished bottle.
Also, at no point are Master Vintner Wine Kits processed with any cereals, and no wheat or other grain is added to, or used in the winemaking process with our Wine Making Kits.
The two places where gluten could possibly enter the winemaking process would be if it was used as a fining agent, or if a barrel was sealed with a flour paste. Gluten is a very effective fining agent and has been experimented with for vegan-friendly winemaking, but with the proliferation of concern about gluten exposure, there are no wines that use it--Master Vintner never does.

Sealing a leaky barrel with flour paste is an old trick--hundreds of years old. But it's been supplanted by neutral paraffin wax, which doesn't change the flavour of the wine and never needs upkeep. Master Vintner wines with oak have gluten-free French and American cubes and chips in them, so there's no worry there.
For all wines the single remote concern is for people with Refractory Celiac Disease, where even the most minute amount, even below 20 PPM could be an issue. Doctors would still discount wine as a gluten source for these people, but they do have the final say.
We hope this helps out--and good on you for taking the time to make sure your friend can enjoy our wine!
Our second letter is also dietary! Otto from Sandusky writes:

Dear Master Vintner,

I love wine and beer, but I'm a vegan--I don't consume any animal products or by-products. Are your wines vegan friendly? If not, is there something I can do or another wine kit I can choose that is?

Great question. The juice and concentrate blend in our wine recipe kits is completely vegan, containing only crushed grapes, and treated only with a small amount of bentonite to aid in protein stability during settling.
You'll have to decide for yourself whether the action of Wine Yeast is the product of an animal. Since yeast is a fungus, not a fish, bird, or mammal, we're pretty comfortable with its status.
The place where you need to be concerned is our fining agents. One of them is kieselsol, which is a mineral-based fining agent, mostly silicon (like beach sand), so it's safe. The other one is Chitosan, a long-chain polysaccharide derived from crustacean shells.

Two things: first, there's no worry about shellfish reactions for non-vegans. Shellfish allergy comes from proteins or protein fragments causing an inappropriate immune response. The proteins in Chitosan have all been completely destroyed in processing, and all that's left is the polysaccharide. People with the most severe shellfish allergies can safely consume Chitosan, even in large amounts (don't. It tastes yucky).
Second, it is made from shellfish, so despite the fact that almost zero fining agents remain in the wine (kind of the point, really) using them means your wine is not vegan.
How to get around this? The simplest way, if you're not in a hurry, is to not put any fining agents in at all. You can simply add your sulfite on fining day and wait for it to clear on its own. This may take six months or longer, so you'll need to pay attention to sulfite levels and to keep your carboy sealed and fully topped up.

The other possibility is to swap it out. You can replace the Chitosan called for with Carrageenan or Agar.

Carrageenan is a linear sulfated polysaccharide extracted from red edible seaweed. It's 100% vegan and you can buy it on the internet or in health-food stores. It's widely used in the food industry as a gelling agent and thickener for things like ice cream.

Agar is derived from algae, is a polymer made up of subunits of the sugar galactose. It's also vegan and available in health food stores, and if you've ever had a dental impression made, it's the goop that hardens to make a mold of your teeth.

To use either one in a Master Vintner kit, buy it in the powder form and dissolve a half-teaspoon into a cup of hot tap water. Stir until completely mixed, and then heat in a microwave to 180F, remove and stir to ensure it's thoroughly dissolved. Add to your wine exactly as you would have added Chitosan and you're in business. Follow all of the rest of the steps exactly, and your wine will clear. It may take a bit longer than normal (some grades and types of Carageenan and Agar have different properties and we can't predict all of the results) but patience is always your friend in winemaking.
Good luck Otto--enjoy your vegan wine!
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