We are fortunate here in the Twin Cities. Our fair homeland boasts a veritable cornucopia of culinary selections, catering to every possible dietary restriction, adventurous palate, and food trend. It seems that there is hardly a restaurant without a handful of menu items devoted to the gluten-averse, veggie-loving, lactose-intolerant among us. And it's not just diet-driven stuff, either: Our restaurant scene is all about local love, sustainable farming, and ethical cuisine. Those principles might as well be our dining commandments.
But how many times, after we've ordered that seared Wild Acres duck breast or vegan butternut squash ravioli, have we stopped to consider the glass of wine we've paired with it?
Not often. No, usually, we see that holy glass orb filling up with liquid freedom and just feel relief. But begin a closer examination of the winemaking process, and suddenly everything seems a little more complicated.
Traditionally, products like egg whites, casein (milk protein), fish oil, gelatin, and other animal protein (such as blood and bone marrow) are used in winemaking during the fining process. It gets a little science-y, but basically, winemakers take the wine and push it through these fining agents to remove yeast particles and discoloration from the juice. Roger Clark, a veteran wine specialist at Surdyk's Liquor and Cheese Shop in northeast Minneapolis, sheds some light on the process.
"What you do is add something like egg white to the wine, and that bonds with particles in the wine," Clarks says. "The idea is that everything is removed -- the particles and the egg white."
There is no animal or dairy product left in the wine itself, so those with allergies can drink freely, but the use of these elements means that the wine is definitely not vegan. Does this mean that the wines that don't certify as vegan -- the hundreds of thousands of them -- are bad? Not at all, says Clark.
"Using the egg white and other proteins, that's actually a process that's used in a lot of organic winemaking," Clark says. "It's such a natural way of removing the particulates you want taken out of the wine."
Rather than using egg whites and animal proteins, though, vegan winemakers employ fining agents such as bentonite clay, plant casein, limestone, carbon, and vegetable plaques, which achieve the same effect. Vegan winemaking is still a niche practice -- and it's not the only trend rocking the wine industry right now.
Biodynamic wines are all the buzz lately, Clark says, and it's no wonder: These wines are made in accordance with organic farming practices, but they also employ the idea of the vineyard as its own ecosystem, and many biodynamic winemakers consider the seasonal elements and lunar cycles.
"Basically, it just has to do with the winemaking process being completely and utterly in tune with season," Clark says. "There are little subsets -- someone might bury a cow horn filled with animal excrement in the vineyard and the next year or the next season they dig it up, and that gets used as a base for the fertilizer. In some cases it sounds like some sort of black magic voodoo, but to me, the beautiful part is that it guarantees the winemaker is completely in sync with his or her vines. The process guarantees that somebody knows exactly what's going on in the vineyard. You can't mess up -- it doesn't allow it."
The vegan and biodynamic trends are so fresh, Clark says, that, although plenty of those wines are available at Surdyk's, the majority of restaurants haven't latched on to it. A small part of this might be due to some innocent obliviousness -- "Isn't all wine vegan?" is the frequent confused response to inquiries -- but the hard truth is that there isn't a huge population of vegan and biodynamic wine producers, and often even the winemakers that fit the bill aren't credited as such. Jenna Beyer, the wine buyer at Minneapolis's lead vegan and raw food restaurant, Ecopolitan, admits that there was nothing easy about assembling her all-vegan and sustainable wine list.
"It took a lot of research on my part," Beyer says. "Traditionally, a lot of European wines are made in a vegan way, but they don't certify it. Sometimes a small farm can't afford the certification, or it's just not a big deal for them to have it. For our Italian wines, my distributor spoke to the guy who actually harvests the grapes, and he could say it was vegan, but it took the effort of going all the way up the supply chain."
Beyer laughs, but she sounds exhausted by the memory. "We have some wines from California that are organic and vegan, and that was easier. It was a long process, but definitely worth it in the end."
Another local eatery committed to ethical wines is Bluestem Bar, a fairly new addition to the local dining scene (the space opened in June 2013). The extensive wine list at Bluestem is devoted almost entirely to wines that are organic, sustainable, biodynamic, or vegan, and each is marked thusly on the list.
Between by the bottle and by the glass wines, Bluestem's list consists of eight vegan, 12 biodynamic, 50 sustainable, and 31 organic options, but Kevin Koski, the bar's wine buyer, echoes Beyer's sentiments: Just because there is no certification, he says, it doesn't mean the story ends.
"Finding vegan wines is definitely a hunting process," Koski says. "I talk to all my purveyors and reps, and sometimes go straight to winemakers themselves. You can tell them that's what you're looking for, but a lot of time, you get told 'no.'"
Still, Koski remains undeterred by each dead end he finds in assembling his wine list. Bluestem's parent restaurant and neighbor, French Meadow Bakery & Café, has long been dedicated to creative food and beverage alternatives, and Koski's goals don't stray far. "It's kind of been something we've always done here," he says. "We do a lot of organic, gluten-free, and vegan diets on our food menu, and we figured our beverage programs should match that."
When you start to parse all these new winemaking practices, it can seem overwhelming. Wine is one of the oldest industries in the world, but the sustainable food trends that have studded our menus for at least the past decade are only just beginning to take root on our wine lists. Roger Clark chuckles as he considers the recent evolution of the industry and the new standards that wine drinkers are slowly beginning to demand.
"I started working at Surdyk's 25 years ago," Clark says. "All you needed to know were countries and wine, and at that point, how wine was made wasn't really specifically important, only that it was good. Since that time, more and more discussion has taken place between the various types of growers and winemakers, and the bar has been raised over and over again. It's exciting times." ç
Bluestem Bar Happy hour 3 to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday $2 off wine glasses
Ecopolitan Happy hour 3 to 6 p.m. daily $4 glasses and $16 bottles on all wine
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