Friday Rant: Arsenic and Wine

As a researcher, before you claim anything to be “true” you try your darndest to prove it to be false. Sure, you hold out hope that your groundbreaking hypothesis turns out to be true, people consider it to be revolutionary in your field, and you become famous. This then leads to incredible wealth, there are books written and movies made about you, soon, you start dating super-models and drive a Tesla.

I just made that up—no one really thinks stuff like that, particularly me.

Promise.

Swear.

Any way, the point is that any good research starts with a hypothesis, which you then try to disprove.

At least that is the way it is supposed to go.

Many of you have no doubt heard the “news” this week concerning the levels of arsenic in wine. For those of you that have not, basically, Kevin Hicks, the founder of a lab called BeverageGrades filed a class-action lawsuit against several wineries stating that some of their lower priced wines had dangerously high levels of arsenic. Arsenic, of course, can do some rather nasty things to your body.

Hard to find a picture of Arsenic that looks like anything menacing...

Hard to find a picture of Arsenic that looks like anything menacing….

Like kill it.

Dead.

My first reaction to the story?

“Well, that’s not good.”

My immediate second thought?

“Wine snobs like me always say ‘Life’s too short to drink bad wine.’ I guess we should change that to ‘Life becomes short if you drink bad wine.’”

Yeah. I really thought that…

Then I put the snarkiness aside and started to think a bit more about it and right from the beginning, it just did not “sound” right. I wondered if there was something nefarious afoot, but given the number of producers and labels involved (83 wines from 28 wineries), some sort of “plot” is highly unlikely.

Second, arsenic is a tasteless, odorless metalloid (has some metal and non-metal properties), which would not add anything to a wine, so it is doubtful that it was added deliberately.

rantThird, all of the wines cited were inexpensive–in fact the “study” (which was not released–another red flag) stated that the levels of arsenic in the wines were inversely related to the cost of the wine (as the cost of the wine went down, the arsenic levels went up). This seemed rather odd to me since these wines are usually produced in great volume and therefore need to be sourced from numerous sites so the chances for a common thread are greatly diminished. Even further diminishing the common thread is the fact that the wineries are not all even on the same continent.

Fourth. And this is a big one as a researcher. Apparently, the people at CBS (the news outlet that “broke” the “story”) tried to replicate the findings and tested four of the wines that were cited by BeverageGrades. They found much lower amounts of arsenic than did those who are filing the lawsuit.

Hmmmm.

cbs2[Why CBS still felt compelled to run the story is evidence of mass-media at its absolute worst–even though they had reason to question the veracity of the claims, they ran the story regardless, since they no doubt knew that it would spread very quickly. Shame on CBS.]

So I dug a little deeper (which did not take all that much effort, honestly) and found that while the U.S. has no standard for the amount of arsenic allowed in wine, Canada and Europe do. Canada’s limit is 100 parts per billion (ppb) and Europe’s is twice that (200 ppb). The highest level, apparently, in BeverageGrades test (I say “apparently” since, as I mentioned above, the report has not been released for scrutiny) was 50 ppb. Instead, for some reason, BeverageGrades based their lawsuit on the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation for drinking water, which is 10 ppb.

So does the amount of arsenic that is allowable in water have any thing to do with the amount of arsenic in wine? Perhaps. If one was consuming equal amounts of both. Most of the sites that I have seen suggest that we all should consume around two liters of water a day. Now, I do not know about you, but I do not drink anywhere close to two liters of wine–almost three 750ml bottles–every day (if you don’t count the weekend, that is).

The last bit of “evidence” that I present? BeverageGrades is an “Independent Third Party Lab Testing Facility of Wine, Beer and Spirits” according to their website. What does that mean? That means it “tests wines, beers and spirits for such chemical compounds as heavy metals (e.g. lead, arsenic, cadmium, etc.), pesticides and sulfites…” (emphasis added).

For a fee.

On the same day they filed the lawsuit and caused this huge s*itstorm, they issued a press release stating that they were there to offer “alcoholic beverage retailers a tool for screening their offerings to ensure the quality of their supply chain.”

In other words, the company that just scared the crap out of the entire wine drinking world by inventing a problem that really does not exist, would happily test your product (for a fee) to ensure that your wine is safe from this problem (that really does not exist).

How magnanimous of them.

 

About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
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44 Responses to Friday Rant: Arsenic and Wine

  1. Jesus. You scared the arsenic out of me. Glad that was a misnomer. As Vince Vaughn said in the Wedding Crashers, “ERRONEOUS!”

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  2. Nice synopsis!! I had read about the ppb comparison to water, but that last bit about offering to test wines for a fee makes the whole story so much more clear!! What a scam.

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  3. Very interesting my friend! Was recently at a wedding where one of the table wines was a Beringer Pinot grigio (one of the wines named in the press release) and everyone was in a tizzy about it, but we’re all alive to tell the tale.

    Cheers
    Josh

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  4. ‘Hmmm’ is a pretty sensible reaction to a lot of stuff that appears in the media it seems – the old adage that if something doesn’t seem quite right…

    And a cool picture of some Arsenic too!

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  5. susielindau says:

    It sounds like an over-reaction to a scary word, ARSENIC! I don’t drink anything anymore since, (I’ll give you a scarier word and this correlation has been proven) CANCER!

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  6. There has also been an Arsenic scare involving rice. Scary stuff and glad it turned out to be unfounded/

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I meannnnn supposedly the pits of cherries have arsenic and my family was all up in arms when I made a cherry clafoutis for dessert. My aunt called my mom and told her to tell me that I’m going to die of arsenic poisoning. I appreciate the concern, but, I’ll take my arsenic…in my wine, in my cherries, in my coffee, cheese and chocolates. Those are the best things in life. 🙂 Great post.

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  8. Reblogged this on Kathy Marcks Hardesty and commented:
    I started following the “Drunken Cyclist” because he has a respect for wine that Hold. And here is his witty repartee on this ridiculous idea that cheaper wines are poisoning you.

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  9. At first i was hopeful this would mean the end of Franzia and 2 buck chuck, but then that would mean more competition for the better stuf… One thing that did jump out was that Beringer was on the list and theyre private reserve is a thing of beauty. Was wondering if that implied that was unsafe too or if they just poisoned their swill.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of the things that really jumped out at me initially was that this only affected the inexpensive wines. While I guess that is possible, it is not very probable. As you said, all these producers make other wines too, presumably in the same factory, er, winery. How is it that only some were affected?

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Damon says:

    Thanks for shedding some additional light on this for me. I thought that this guy started off trying to help consumers and was using the lawsuit to pursue the consumer interest. I didn’t realize his original intent was to get these companies to use his lab for services… Not so righteous.

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  11. jimvanbergen says:

    I was forwarded the original article from several readers and it made me mad, as I expect there will be trace arsenic in many wines if not most, and I assumed it was a scare tactic. Appreciate that you did some digging, and confirmed my suspicions. Cheers!

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  12. Well researched; well said!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. chef mimi says:

    So classic. And my mother falls for all of it. She has to tell me all of the doomsday stuff she hears on the news – bees, fish, flu, global warming – you name it. So i’ll be hearing about this soon. They’re such alarmists and I don’t’ understand their motivation, unless it’s simply the claim to fame of being the first to “break” the story.

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  14. Duff's Wines says:

    Arsenic? Given all the poisons that we ingest just being alive, I’m good with a little arsenic in my wine. Homeopaths use it as a curative FCOL.
    The scariest thing is having Food Scientists involved in wine production. Tricking up the product with flavouring. I thought that you were going to tell us that they were actually putting arsenic in the wine a la Cary Grants’ aunts. But in this case, because in a double blind study, focus groups preferred the wine with just a soupçon of arsenic.

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  15. Reblogged this on PETTYJOHN'S and commented:
    A nice viewpoint on the arsenic and wine debacle. Don’t believe everything you hear!

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  16. I can’t believe CBS ran that story. Wait. Yes I can. 😉 Thank you for the additional research, what a bunch of hogwash!

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  17. Dalo 2013 says:

    Simply unbelievable ~ but why does this not surprise me. Great post…

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  18. Nicely put (and researched). It’s good to know my initial skepticism about the veracity of this report was well-founded.

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  19. merrildsmith says:

    Thanks for this. The more I read about it, too, the more it seemed like a bogus study, and that people were getting panicked for no reason.

    Like

  20. Shelley says:

    Whew! They had me scared. Thanks for debunking their claims.

    Like

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