The Controversy Over Arsenic In Wines

MacRostie's 2013 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is perfectly balanced FILE PHOTO

MacRostie’s 2013 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay is perfectly balanced FILE PHOTO

The California wine world is fomenting over allegations that a host of wines contain a “dangerous” level of arsenic.

At the risk of sounding alarmist, I wanted to present both sides of the issue. There may be a larger issue than simply pointing out which wines have higher amounts of arsenic than others. reports: “The suit, filed last week by a Southern California law firm against 11 wine companies, claims a Denver-based lab analyzed wines and found that many had more arsenic than the federal standard for drinking water, which is 10 parts per billion (ppb).

“There is no federal or state standard for arsenic levels in wine. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in soil, and can be introduced into wine as pesticide residue or through filtering for clarity with bentonite, a type of clay mined in South Dakota and Wyoming.

“Arsenic is present in many foods, including apple juice, Brussels sprouts, brown rice, chicken, fish and beer. The lawsuit claims that up to 50 ppb of arsenic were found in some of the wines tested. While the U.S. has no standard for arsenic in wine, the OIV standard used in Europe is 200 ppb or less.” reports:

“The genesis of the suit is the work of a researcher named Kevin Hicks, whose Beverage-Grades laboratory offers beverage testing and certification services. Hicks tested some 1,300 wines. He found that all but the 83 named in the suit have levels of arsenic in or under the 10 ppb range.”

The Wine Institute has countered with this:

“The lawsuit claims that certain wines contain unsafe levels of arsenic based on the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for drinking water — 10 parts per billion (ppb). However, there is no scientific basis for applying the EPA drinking water standard to wine. The U.S. government has not published a limit for arsenic in wine, but several countries including Canada, the EU and Japan have set limits ranging from 100 ppb up to 1000 ppb — 10 to 100 times the level the EPA determined to be safe for drinking water.

“When the U.S. government considers limits for arsenic in food and beverages, they take into account how much of that food or beverage an average person may consume in a day and the age of people who likely consume that food/beverage.

“Daily intake levels for water are significantly higher than for wine. The risks from potential exposure to arsenic in wine are lower than the risks the EPA considers safe for drinking water. For perspective, eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day is the recommended daily amount, whereas one to two 5-ounce glasses of wine a day is defined as moderate wine consumption, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

“Arsenic is prevalent in the natural environment in air, soil and water and food. As an agricultural product, wines from throughout the world contain trace amounts of arsenic, as do juices, vegetables, grains and other alcohol beverages, and this is nothing new. The U.S. government, both TTB and FDA, as part of its Total Diet Study, regularly tests wines for harmful compounds including arsenic, as does Canada and the European Union, to ensure that wine is safe to consume.”

I don’t know enough about arsenic to be able to say, but is arsenic stored in the body?

I may only drink one glass of wine a day, but the uptake and elimination of arsenic might depend on its chemical form, particularly at high exposures.

Are there forms of arsenic that would pass into tissues or bones more quickly as compared to other forms? Does it pass through our digestive and uric systems? Which one is most malevolent to our bodies?

It appears that both concentration and cumulative consumption are keys to this issue. Even though there may be no laws broken in this suit, it does bring to light the fact that there are “acceptable” levels of arsenic in our wine (and food).

What other chemicals are “acceptable” in our wine and food?

How will this affect consumers’ choices moving forward?

Will there be more FDA labelling and testing in the future?

Only time will tell.

We all have a choice in what we drink and, thankfully, there are plenty of choices.

The full list of wines that are identified in the suit can be found at

Recommendation: 2013 MacRostie Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($20) This is a beautiful Chardonnay, perfectly balanced, poised and brimming with ripe white and yellow orchard fruits. I love the lingering aftertaste of vanilla and fruit. It is graceful and lithe.

It is a perfect pair with any sauteed fish dish, particularly with any citrus component, and even a roasted chicken with herbs would be great.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier.
Twitter: @Pinotpusher