The vegan wine conversation usually goes like this:
“So, I’m looking for a vegan wine…”
“Wait; isn’t all wine vegan?”
“Dude, no. A lot of wine is clarified using egg whites, or gelatin, or a milk protein called casein, or this stuff from fish bladders called isinglass. Wine isn’t just fermented grapes, you know. Winemakers can use a bunch of other stuff for processing steps, and they often don’t have to put it on the label.”
“Wow. I never knew that. I don’t want animal products in my wine! So, are any wines really vegan?”
“Yes! Not all winemakers use those products. Some use a kind of powdered clay called bentonite, and some just let the wine sit for a longer time so the particles settle out by gravity. But all of that isn’t always on the label, so you have to look kind of carefully for “vegan friendly” or “no animal products” or “fined with bentonite” on the label or something like that. Some big brands, like Bonny Doon, are known for making only vegan wine, so that makes things a little easier.”
That whole dialogue sidesteps a crucial question: what counts as an animal? And what counts as exploiting it? Talking about whether wine is vegan, in other words, should sound more like talking about whether honey is vegan. Do the bees count? Do the yeast count? Are they being exploited?
A Slate article about the vegan honey question way back in 2008 makes the central point: “any vegan who eats honey but avoids milk is making the tacit assumption that the pain experienced by a bee counts for something less than the pain experienced by a cow.” From caring about bees, it’s a short and slippery slope to caring about silkworms, or yeast or, heck, plants. And then where does that put the conscientious vegan?
Ways of stopping that slide – and not expiring for want of ethically acceptable calories – generally fall into three tracks:
Pain – The “I’ll eat things that don’t feel pain” argument which, troublesomely, requires deciding what can feel pain. Assuming that scientists understand the basics of how pain works, yeast don’t have a nervous system equipped to feel pain. However, both yeast and plants can respond intelligently to their environments and will activate stress responses following damage or when deprived of enough food and water. I often hear microbiologists talk about their yeast being unhappy. On the one hand, they’re being metaphorical; on the other, they know their yeast uncommonly well and recognize their distress signals.
Compromise – If you’re concerned that all living things suffer in some way when killed or dismembered to become food, you face compromise. Everyone has to eat, so some suffering is regrettably inevitable. Where to draw the line becomes a matter of individual conscience and dietary inclination. Avoiding honey, silk clothing, and red dyes to avoid exploiting bees, silkworms, and cochineal bugs is relatively easy. Avoiding all products made with yeast and bacteria isn’t. Stringently avoiding all animal products entirely is extraordinarily hard given the long and complicated histories of most twenty-first century products; include microbes in the category of life that matters and you might need to rescind from contemporary society altogether.
Exploitation – Eating to avoid exploitation might be a way of avoiding compromise. It’s possible to argue that humans can eat plant foods (and maybe even the occasional animal dead of natural causes) without exploiting either the source of the food or the environment around it. So then we have to ask: are yeast exploited? Put another way, are yeast more like cows kept on a farm to do work for the sole benefit of the human farmer, or more like companion animals (dogs and cats and so-on) who live with humans to the mutual benefit of everyone involved?
Like questions about when and where an animal is exploited, I’m not sure that that question has a single clear answer. Even if humans and yeast have domesticated each other, is that relationship more like a human and dog co-habitating or like a human keeping a barn-full of milk cows? The key difference would seem to be that good human partners try to respect dogs’ doggyness, ensure that dogs have good lives, and try to work with the individual personalities that they expect dogs should have. Dogs are individuals and friends; factory farm cows are milk machines. And yeast? Yeast are tricky. Humans surely use them as alcohol and carbon dioxide factories, but also constrain their yeasty activities very little. Humans, you could argue, just ask yeast to do yeast things in a place that benefits everyone.
With few exceptions, humans have just never cared much about the potential for microbial suffering. Whether veganism is chiefly about the emotions of the vegan or weighing the environmental damage or ethical burden of supporting a human life isn’t a question I’m interested in taking on. Asking whether yeast lives count is, even if that question has no answer. It’s a good reminder that the lines between what we treat as alive and not alive aren’t always easy to draw, and that “ethical” wine isn’t just about a stamp on the back of the label.
All of this said, one great thing about conventionally vegan-friendly wine is that, unlike so many vegan products – heavily processed and potentially just as environmentally exploitative or more so than a non-vegan alternative – vegan wine replaces animal products either with gravity or with clay. Plenty of winemakers who don’t care about veganism use one of these options anyway because they think it’s better for wine quality. Weighing the many factors involved in wine quality and making a judgment call is difficult. Weighing factors and making a call on what’s for dinner, or what to drink with it, might be even worse.