My end of the year Facebook “see which words you used the most in 2016” prompt put “wine” smack in the middle of that cute word-collage they whip up, so I guess it’s no surprise that my sidebars practically have servers and a sommelier. Lately I’ve been getting a barrage of ads from a company called FitVine, which I noticed because it makes some fairly audacious claims. Like that their wines are “so clean they crush calories, carbs and sulfites” and have higher antioxidant levels than…. Well, than whatever you’re drinking now.
Is wine good for you?
YES AND NO. I think can all agree that in moderation, wine can do you some good, and that if you’re drinking two bottles a night it really doesn’t matter that there are fewer sulfites in it. Are some wines better for you than others? Probably. Red wines have resveratrol, a phenolic antioxidant pigment that might or might not be beneficial to the heart (the research is mixed). White wines have phenolic antioxidant compounds too, and some research seems to show them as equal in their impact on heart health – whether this is due to a teensy phytochemical or the mild tranquilizing effect we get from enjoying something remains elusive to empirical science, but odds are good that it’s both. Excessive enjoyment of wine or any other alcoholic beverage will lead to — well, I believe the fancy scientific term is a “crap-ton of problems” ranging from End-Stage Dad-Bod to lethal situations for your liver, brain, kidneys, pancreas and driver’s license.
Now. FitVine. Are they genuinely making healthier, more performance-enhancing wine than everyone else, or is this a sad little trap for marketing-lemmings who want to down a bottle of Sauv Blanc while wholeheartedly believing that it will in fact improve their workout results? And more importantly, is this wine any good? Let us investigate.
Claim 1: FitVine rules because it has “zero residual sugar,” meaning fewer carbs and calories.
Reality: Less residual sugar does technically equal a somewhat lower carb count. One gram of carbohydrate contains four calories. One gram of alcohol contains seven calories. Fermentation converts sugar to alcohol, so you actually add calories as that ratio goes up. In addition, the human body absorbs alcohol a lot faster than food, which, long story short, leads to low blood sugar and weight gain. A glass of white wine gets less than a tenth of its calories from sugar, whether it’s “dry” or “off-dry” – the range just isn’t that big. Grapes picked at a lower Brix count (less sugar) will have less capacity to create alcohol than high-Brix grapes. But there’s a tipping point – too little sugar and fermentation will stall.
Is less residual sugar better for you? It’s actually not a big deal one way or the other – unless you’re talking about wines to which extra sugar have been added in processing (many Champagnes and all fortified wines such as port add sugar) or super high-sugar late-harvest dessert wines, the calorie count in a 5-oz. glass of wine will range from maybe 95 calories to about 160. Calories that come from sugar are empty. Calories that come from alcohol are empty. FitVine wines claim a fairly low calorie count and I have no reason to dispute it. There are a zillion dry wines out there with basically little or no residual sugar, so it’s far from a miracle.
Claim 2: FitVine rules because “No GMO’s.”
Reality: That’s true of the majority of wines (there is a GMO yeast out there; it’s called ML01 and performs two kinds of fermentation simultaneously). You will only find it in American wines that are not organic-certified, and you won’t find it in most of those either. GMO yeast is almost certainly not a rampaging menace, though I can’t find anyone bragging openly about using it and don’t know who might be dosing their juice with it on the DL.
Now, if you want to get technical here, every wine grape on earth is a genetically modified organism – we used to call it “horticulture” or “plant breeding.” I get that splicing a jellyfish gene into a tomato or creating a self-detonating pumpkin that covers farmers in shrapnel if they attempt to save seeds isn’t quite the same thing as putting apricot pollen on a plum blossom, but you will not likely put anything in your mouth this week that has not been genetically manipulated by humans. Your border collie is a GMO as well. Pick your battles?
Claim 3: FitVine rules because high-altitude growing conditions result in naturally higher concentrations of antioxidants.
Reality: Probably. But you know where many of the primo wine regions on this planet are? Hilly, mountainous areas. Temperatures are lower, water scarcer, light more intense. Mendoza, Argentina; Alto Adige, Italy; Spain’s Canary Islands and many AVA’s on the US West Coast could make the same claim.
Claim 4: FitVine rules because it is lower in sulfite.
Reality: Sulfite (sulfur dioxide) bugs some people, and if you are sensitive to it you’ll prefer to skip the headache and drink wine with a low or no sulfite count. Some things to know: the FDA estimates that sulfite allergy affects less than 1% of the population. Sulfite is a natural byproduct of fermentation and exists in all wine, red and white. It occurs naturally in very low concentrations, around 2-10ppm. It is also added as a preservative to many wines (typically 80 ppm is considered normal). Wines with no added sulfite spoil fast, so drink ‘em quick. If you believe you get headaches from red wine and not white wine because of “the sulfites” you are probably mistaken, as white wines actually tend to contain more sulfur than reds.
Claim 5: FitVine rules because its low Ph makes it “cleaner.”
Reality: Low Ph means a substance is acidic. All wine is low Ph. Please find me an alkaline wine. We will wait right here.
That said, lower Ph is associated with increased brightness, liveliness and overall tastiness. I am not aware of it being inherently healthier, although it does contribute to longevity in the bottle. Grapes lose acidity as they mature and sometimes a lower-acid wine will have a dull flavor or even a soapy sensation in the mouth. One of the beauties of higher altitude fruit is that the grapes don’t over-ripen as easily, so they are naturally vibrantly acidic. Note: FitVine claims secondary malolactic fermentation is how they “bio-hack” their wine into this state of super low Ph cleanliness. MLF is standard for most red wine varietals and common in many whites, notably Chardonnay. Its primary role is to de-acidify wine, converting tart, sharp malic acid to softer, rounder lactic acid. It actually slightly increases the Ph of the wine. Oops. So – often desirable. Not magically better for you and not more acidic.
Claim 6: FitVine rules because cold stabilization, diatomaceous earth filtration.
Reality: Sure. There is nothing wrong with either of these practices. They are both pretty common. Cold stabilization prevents crystals of tartaric acid from forming. While some wines will “fall clear” or lose their initial cloudiness with aging, many winemakers use “fining agents” to clarify their wines and one of these is diatomaceous earth. Winemakers also commonly use bentonite clay, isinglass, gelatin and even egg whites for this process. Upshot? Perfectly fine. Not an epiphany.
So, are FitVine wines a revolutionary step toward creating active-lifestyle-enhancing hooch-a-roonie?
No. No, they’re not.
But are they clean?
Seems like it. They are not organic or biodynamic certified, but that is also true of many exceedingly well-crafted and unadulterated fine wines, and they do claim a no pesticide farming practice which we have no reason to believe is untrue. Their practices raise no red flags, and with their Sierra foothills fruit, I am sure the claims of higher antioxidant count hold water, as they would tend to with grapes from many higher-elevation sites. Big But Alert: wine is still wine and it will still eat your liver, addle your brainium, drop your blood sugar through the floor and render you fodder for angry cops if you overdo it. Also, there are still 600-odd pretty-much-empty calories in that bottle. That’s a little bit more of a free lunch than a wine that has, say 700 calories a bottle. But FitVine is no substitute for plain old moderation.
And… well, is the stuff totally unbearably delicious?
Um… it’s not bad, it’s not revelatory. I would say it is approachable, unchallenging, and inoffensive with the exception of its aggro marketing claims, which annoy the piss out of me. Their Cabernet Sauvignon is indeed clean-tasting, with pleasant tannins and a decent array of blackberry, cassis, leather, cocoa and woodsy notes. The Chardonnay is on the full-figured side thanks to that malolactic fermentation, with a lot of citrus and some vanilla – since they don’t double-down on malo with excessive oak (it’s aged in steel) it isn’t the crazed butter-bomb some California chards are – you’d call it curvy, not fat.
The price point is around 15-18 bucks a bottle, and they ship cases for free. If that is your price range and you like fairly unaggressive, non-weird and, kinda-basic to be major tasting notes in what you’re drinking, there is nothing bad about this wine at all. It’s nice! It’s quite nice. It’s not the most fascinating wine on earth, and I remain unconvinced that it will push you to the front of your peloton, enable you to stick that triple-axle, or enhance your ability to do complex math or operate a forklift because it is wine. Enjoy it in moderation as you would absolutely anything else worth uncorking.