By Mike Dorf
The leaders of the Society of Wine & Jurisprudence at Cornell Law School--yes, that is a real organization--asked me to write something for their blog. I agreed to write about vegan wine. Hence the following post appeared there a couple of days ago and I'm cross-posting here today.
As an ethical vegan, I am often asked strange questions. “Would you eat roadkill?” “If you were in a lifeboat with a cow, a chicken and Dick Cheney, which one would you eat first?” Etc.
These questions are not silly merely because they are hypothetical. Lord knows that as a law professor, much of what I do is ask my students hypothetical questions, often quite bizarre ones. I do so to test the principle that a court or a student has espoused (e.g., “the federal government lacks the power to regulate inactivity”) by exploring circumstances in which the intuition underlying the principle appears to break down (e.g., “can federal labor law forbid secondary boycotts?”).
I do not doubt that many of the strange questions I am asked have the same purpose. My interlocutor hasn’t met a lot of vegans and is making a genuine effort to understand the ethical principle that motivates me. I am always happy to answer questions asked in this spirit, even if I have answered them many times before.
Some of the questions I am asked appear to have a different purpose, however. “Are your shoes leather?” is often a question designed as a trap. If I say yes, the questioner can conclude that I am a hypocrite who can be safely disregarded. If I say no, my questioner will conclude that living as a vegan is so demanding as to be impossible for anyone but a single-minded zealot. (In fact, my belts, shoes, sneakers, boots, and all of my other clothes are made from man-made materials, and were quite easy to obtain.) Nonetheless, I try to answer every question as though it were asked in good faith, in part because you never know when it really was.
For a comprehensive effort to answer the sorts of questions people frequently ask vegans, I highly recommend Professor Colb’s forthcoming book, Mind if I Order the Cheeseburger?. But while you’re awaiting that book’s appearance in stores and online (in May), I want to discuss one of the few circumstances in which I find being vegan a bit of a challenge: purchasing vegan wine, beer and spirits.
But wait, you say. Aren’t all wines, beers and spirits made from fruits and vegetables? The truth is a bit more complicated. Although wine, beer and spirits consist almost entirely of liquids derived from non-animal sources, the process by which the raw materials are converted into these liquids frequently uses animal products, most commonly to filter out impurities. As one helpful website explains: “The most common animal ingredients used in wine making are isinglass (a very pure form of gelatine from sturgeon fish bladders), gelatine (extract from boiled cow’s or pig’s hooves and sinews), egg whites (or albumin) and caseins (a protein from milk).”
Now if one were a vegan purely for health reasons, one would not have reason to worry much about the use of animal products for filtering. Occasionally, the filtering would leave a trace of some animal product, but not in sufficient quantities to make a noticeable health difference. However, as an ethical vegan (who sees health as a beneficial side effect of veganism), my chief concern is to avoid consuming products that are made using processes that deliberately harm or kill sentient beings. It’s not enough to avoid eating the animals. I don’t want to eat (or otherwise contribute to the economic demand for) products that have been produced by harming or killing animals.
Many wineries, breweries and distilleries produce excellent wines, beers and spirits (respectively) using non-animal filtering agents. The tricky part is that labels typically do not say whether a particular wine, beer or spirit has been produced with or without filtration through animal products.
Luckily, we live in an age of technological marvels. The website Barnivore provides a great deal of information on numerous wines, beers and spirits. And there’s an iPhone app called VeganXpress, which pulls in the latest info from Barnivore, in addition to listing information about food available in stores, movie theaters and chain restaurants. (Did you know that the corn on the cob and the green beans at KFC are vegan? I’m not recommending that anyone go there. I’m just saying that if I were to find myself in a lifeboat run by KFC, I wouldn’t have to kill and eat Dick Cheney.)
Barnivore and other similar websites have a few shortcomings, however. For one thing, these sites tend to focus on whether the wine (or beer or spirit) is vegan, not on whether it is good. As a result, one needs to cross-index with some sort of quality rating. If you’re ordering online, that’s easy enough, and a well-stocked store will typically have a wide enough selection that you can find a good wine that’s also vegan. But if you’re at a restaurant, you may find yourself out of luck.
Part of the problem is that the listings aren’t fully comprehensive. For example, Barnivore has no listing for Konstantin Frank, one of the better local wineries. Understandably but sometimes frustratingly, Barnivore tends to list the largest commercial enterprises and those that specifically reached out to Barnivore. Again, if one is buying for home, that’s not a problem. But it does mean that one is sometimes left guessing at restaurants.
Finally, even when Barnivore has a listing, it is not always fully informative. For instance, Barnivore lists Johnnie Walker Scotch whiskey as “vegan friendly” based on the following email it received from the company: “In regards to your inquiry, please do note that Johnnie Walker does not contain any animal by-products.” That’s good to know but not quite enough. One can imagine that each bottle of Johnnie Walker whiskey passes through a filter specially made for that one bottle from a chimpanzee brain. If the brain left no residue in the whiskey, then it would contain no “animal by-products” but would be totally unacceptable to an ethical vegan (and, I imagine, totally unacceptable to most everyone else as well). Now it happens that I know a little bit about the making of whiskey and so I have reason to think that it’s extremely unlikely that Johnnie Walker uses animal products at all (much less chimp brains). But the information provided on Barnivore is not quite sufficient to support that conclusion.
Where does this all leave me? Despite occasional frustrations at restaurants, I have no problem purchasing a more-than-adequate supply of high-quality vegan wine, beer and spirits. In other words, if I have a drinking problem, the problem is not that I’m not drinking enough!
Postscript: The post above appears almost exactly as it does on the SW&J website but I wrote it a week earlier, not realizing it would run during Passover. Some readers may now be wondering "can a wine be vegan and kosher for Passover?". Fear not. The answer is yes. All Manischewitz wines are vegan!