If you’re like me, you’ve looked up wines on the web enough times to make your sidebars populate with bottle shots, club membership offers… and detox programs. (Oh, that’s just me, huh?) A while back this Dry Farm Wine entity started popping up with a lot of super assertive claims about having “bio-hacked” the hangover right out of El Vino and a lot of endorsements from “health professionals.” I have always found these ads… perplexing. And by perplexing, I mean triggering. So I jumped at the chance to try their wine for a week. I raise chickens and make my own cleaning products. “Natural” is something I think should go without saying for anything you put in your mouth. I don’t require my wine to be biodynamically produced, but if it is, swell, bring on that wacky Rudolf Steiner voodoo! Lots of winemakers I admire make biodynamic wine.
Lots of squeaky-clean wine is also made without that certification, just to be clear.
So, to get the easy part out of the way, the actual wines in my shipment, three whites and three reds, ranged from “I’d definitely buy that again” to “Ew.” That’s fairly normal for any collection of six wines from different producers in different regions, regardless of who is “curating” it; I’m fine with that. Overall nothing knocked my socks off; much of it was pleasant. Dry Farm is an aggregator, meaning they collect and ship wine, they don’t make it. So I need to point out that if they can buy clean, lower sugar or lower alcohol wine… dude, so can you. But let’s pretend for a minute that you can’t.
Dry Farm claims it is the only health-focused wine club in the universe. They say their wines are different. That their wines will not give you a hangover, that they are made to unusually exacting standards to prevent this. They don’t come out and say that every winemaker they don’t source from is lying about their practices, but they sure as hell imply it. They do basically come out and say that sugar, carbs, sulfites and mycotoxins are the culprit when you tie one on and then don’t feel like running a half marathon. Shall we unpack that?
Sugar. Obviously it’s the culprit behind hangovers, as everyone knows who has ever gotten rip-shit on inherently-sugarless vodka or gin or whiskey and noticed how the next day they feel like a million bucks. Oh, wait.
Here’s the deal. Under some circumstances, yes, additional sugar (beet or cane) is introduced to wine. Champagne gets a burst of added sugar (“Le dosage”) to spark the secondary fermentation that creates the bubbles. In some cool climates, under-ripe grapes are treated to added sugar in a process called chaptalization. This sugar is exactly like the inherent sugar in the grapes in that it is eaten by yeast and converted to alcohol. Chaptalized wines do not intrinsically have more residual sugar than non-chaptalized wines. Like at all. They might have more, they might have less, but when you add sugar to wine you produce more alcohol (and retained CO2 in the case of sparkling wine), not more carbs. Wine has roughly four grams of carbohydrates per serving. There is a little variation, and Dry Farms claim theirs have a maximum of one gram per serving and that might even be accurate. For reference, an apple has about 25g of carbs, a glass of milk has 12g, and a medium sized russet potato has about 40g. If you are the kind of person who counts carbs so obsessively that it matters whether your glass of Zweigelt has 2.2 or 4.4, you should pour your fine self a vodka and tonic and sip it slowly while flexing your triceps in the mirror.
Upshot: Dry Farm Wines tend to be lower ABV, which reduces calories and overall alcohol load on your system. But the range just isn’t that vast: Wine is wine. And for another, lots and lots and lots of wines are on the lower end of the ABV spectrum. If this is something you care about, sure, sign up for Dry Farm. Or read labels. Or both. If you are a person who frequently says “biohacking” without even having the decency to giggle about it, please know that if you want to be ultra-low-carb, wine has a better bang for buck than beer, and less so than spirits. And if you want to optimize well-being, you should probably save alcohol for special occasions, enjoy the hell out of it, and otherwise leave it alone. It is a toxin.
Low Alcohol. There are two factors, broadly speaking, that affect the ABV of a glass of wine. One is the sugar in the grapes you start with, and the other is how much of that sugar is eaten by yeast. In the first case, some grapes tend to have less sugar than others (relatively speaking), and all grapes will have less sugar if they are picked less ripe. They might have less flavor too. Meanwhile, any sugar in the juice that doesn’t get metabolized stays in the glass and goes in your mouth. So having low sugar and low alcohol and high flavor at the same time is… somewhere in the difficult to dubious range. But there are some. Portuguese vinho verde is very often on the low end of the spectrum for both alcohol and sugar, for example. But basically, wine ABV can range from around 5% to around 20%, with both extremes being unusual and the common range being around 11%-13.5%. Dry Farm selects wines that come in under 12.5% ABV. The thing is: you can do that too. It’s always on the label.
Sulfites. Also known as “sulfur dioxide,” it is an inherent product of the alchemical process we call fermentation and there is no such thing as wine that doesn’t contain any. Which is lucky, because wine would oxidize and spoil real damn fast without it. Now, on top of the SO2 that forms naturally, it is conventional to add sulfites to wine as an antioxidant preservative. There are a lot of myths about sulfites. People tend to think red wine has more than white (nope; whites need more) or that there is something inherently bad for you about them (nope, but like peanuts, hornets, cat hair and acacia pollen, it’s possible to be allergic to them and if you are one of those relatively rare souls you can look forward to gastric issues, headaches or hives if you are overexposed). Well but you might have a sulfite allergy? Sure, you might. If you do, you will also have a reaction to all candy, French fries, sausage, bacon, dried fruit, and anything that comes out of a can including soda. If you don’t get hives from all of those things, you are not reacting to sulfites in wine, which has lower SO2 levels than any of the things I just mentioned. (You’re welcome.)
Upshot: It is possible to have a sulfite intolerance but it is nowhere near as likely as you think it is. Sulfur is a preservative that occurs naturally as part of the winemaking process. People do also add it to wine to keep it from going off, and disclosure of the exact amount might not be super prevalent, so if you want to take Dry Farm at their word that they are curating you into a low sulfite zone, go nuts, but the highest sulfite wines on earth have nothing on a dried apricot, a jar of jam or a Coke.
Mycotoxins. Toxins brought to you by fungi can be seriously scary, I am the first to admit it. They can make you insane (ergot alkaloids), cause cancer (aflatoxin), create icky infections (fusarium), or eat your kidneys (citrinin). They can seriously suck and you are probably exposed to them constantly, if at non-clinically interesting levels. As with most things in the environment, some people are more sensitive to them than others, but they’re legitski poisonous if you get enough of them, so it’s perfectly reasonable to not want them in your wine. Guess what is the most prevalent mycotoxin in the human diet, though? It’s a bad one. It claims lives every day, and causes organ failure and brain damage in many more victims. It’s the secondary metabolite of Saccharomyces yeast, known as alcohol. So if you want to avoid mycotoxins, you cannot drink. (Or eat corn, or hard cheese, or realistically, beet sugar or grain.) So there’s that. Meanwhile, Dry Farm wines are lab tested for ochratoxin, a common metabolite of Aspergillus fungi, which can be neurotoxic, immunosuppressive and possibly carcinogenic. I’m all for not having it in your wine, so great. Oh, heads up: you probably want to test your coffee, grain products and pork for ochratoxin too.
Organic and / or Biodynamic. Biodynamic farming is a whole philosophy and it’s pretty damned weird (look it up) but the upshot is it does create healthier soil. This is good for the planet and most likely for us. A lot of biodynamic wine farmers believe these practices make wine taste better too. I can’t prove they don’t; I’ve had conventional and biodynamic wines that are amazing and also amazingly lame. Organic certification is the same deal. It does theoretically guarantee there were alternatives to conventional pest management which means the chemical load on the vineyards was minimized. Great. Excellent. Awesome. The thing I’d point out is that many squeaky-clean wineries don’t bother with certification even if they use the practices of organic or biodynamic farming. The certification gives you some understanding of what didn’t happen to those grapes, but lack of it doesn’t prove the wine is not sustainably and cleanly produced.
Dry Farming. This simply means the grapes are not irrigated. It is nice if you are concerned about water conservation. Some people feel dry farming results in more intense flavors. It might. Dry farming grapes is not revolutionary; it’s an ancient practice and the default in many regions around the world. It’s more common with some varietals (Zinfandel, Grenache, Tempranillo) and less common with others (Pinots). All in all, dry farming is great and to be supported, it’s common all over the planet, and it is probably more ecologically responsible, and that’s more than enough of a reason to look out for it. But the implication that it’s healthier is a bit weird. Theoretically, very depleted soil could result in lower concentrations of anthocyanins like resveratrol. But since they aren’t testing wine for that (theirs or others) it’s not a claim that can be either made or refuted.
Here’s what is going on as far as my admittedly non-exhaustive data set indicates. Dry Farm claims they have “biohacked” wine. I have no freaking idea what that really means but they seem to be making it mean “selected” wine according to the criteria of non-toxic pest management, lower ABV and sugar, and screening for certain mycotoxins. I have no issue with any of that; it’s all fine. Great, really. If you like the tastes of the folks picking out wines for you and you also don’t want to have to do your own research, maybe you are the target market for Dry Farm. Their curated range is, from what I can tell, pleasingly eccentric and supports small producers. They say they are driven by quality and I believe them. Seriously, I moved out of San Francisco and into the burbs because that’s how badly I wanted to raise my own food, and I wanted that because a supermarket tomato and a backyard tomato (or plum, or potato, or apple) are practically not from the same planet in terms of the pure pleasure factor or the nutrient density. I get it. I really do.
But their marketing scheme is so rife with specious crap it just about kills me. It plays on people’s fears and it rests on the implication that everyone not personally hawked by them is slipping poison into your BevMo cart and getting away with it, and that’s not the case. (There is a large array of additives that are allowable in wine and that don’t have to be disclosed, and because they don’t have to be disclosed, we’re engaging in conjecture about whether they were used in a given wine. Most of these additives are things like “tannin” or stabilizers/filtering agents like copper sulfate or egg white, which are then removed. I can deliver a screed on the common-in-cheap-wine dye agent called “mega purple,” for sure, but I also feel compelled to point out that it’s a concentrate from grapes, not Ricin, for Pete’s sake.) If you seriously believe these guys can deliver a healthy-drinking experience you cannot create for yourself, they are playing you for a sucker. So yes, by all means try them out. But please understand that if you immediately become convinced that you are tasting real wine for the first time and all your chronic health complaints are reversing themselves like magic? Either your normal happy hour friend is a cocktail of hydrogen sulfide and spider venom, or you are benefiting from the placebo effect, and hence so are the people who are running your credit card.
Meanwhile, drinking too much will still give you a hangover, no matter how relatively clean your alcohol is. Did I test this by consuming an entire bottle of Dry Farm wine to see what happened? Yes, yes I did. The same thing happened that always happens if you quaff a whole bottle of wine. But importantly, it was tasty and I enjoyed drinking it.