From the Beaker to the Bottle

Genetically modified vino won’t give you a headache—but is it worth it?

Wine

image by Paul Reid, istockphoto.com

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The wine is a satiny Sonoma cabernet sauvignon, rich with plum and black pepper. There are secondary flavors as well: a hint of black currant and a loamy thickness on the tongue, evocative of rich California soil. But what the palate—no matter how refined—can’t detect is the presence of ML01, the genetically modified (GM) yeast that has been quietly introduced into some North American wines.

Yeast developer Hennie van Vuuren, director of the Wine Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, says he began experimenting with the yeast to combat red wine headache. In traditional two-step fermentation, natural sugars first turn into alcohol, then tart malic acid slowly converts into softer lactic acid. That second reaction, while it makes wine more palatable, also produces bioamines (such as histamine) that some link to headaches. ML01 condenses fermentation into a single chemical reaction, which van Vuuren says produces bioamine-free wine.

The problem, reports Canadian magazine Briarpatch (Dec.-Jan. 2008), is that no one has thoroughly tested the safety of ML01, which is a hybrid of naturally occurring yeast. The only data the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) collected before giving it “generally recognized as safe” designation in 2003 came from van Vuuren’s own research. The FDA doesn’t have any special regulations for GM foods, deeming them “substantially equivalent” to regular chow. Health Canada has since signed off, too.

It’s difficult to know how widespread ML01 is, because winemakers aren’t required to disclose ingredients (except for sulfites) on their labels. But there’s reason to believe it’s in use. Untested promises of headache relief aside, the fact is that ML01 largely stands to benefit producers. In streamlining fermentation, ML01 doesn’t just eliminate the window for bioamines; it shortens the aging period and ensures a more consistent product, which means more wine faster, with less waste.

Sure, cheaper wine would be great. (Headache-free quaffing wouldn’t be bad either.) But wine lovers have always put greater stock in the story behind what they drink—its origins, how it was made, and who made it—than in improved profit margins or drastically dropping retail prices. Letting lab-produced ingredients slip into the bottle unchecked is antithetical to an ethos based in appreciation of artisan traditions, deep connections between producers and the land, and personal relationships between distributors and consumers. Until North American health organizations start regulating the labeling of GM foodstuffs, it’s all the more essential to be intimately acquainted with what you sip.