NAPA, Calif. — Never before in the 13 previous meetings of the Wine Industry Technical Symposium has the main topic of the program, as well as all the discussion in the exhibit halls, been so curious:
"Have you ever heard anything like this?" asked Dr. Richard Peterson, wine maker for Atlas Peak Vineyards. "I don't ever remember hearing anything like this. All the talk is about prohibition."
The first day of the two-day symposium was dedicated to marketing considerations, and even there the attacks on wine, beer and spirits were noted by the speakers.
But on Saturday, which was supposed to be devoted to technical issues, the main topic of almost every speaker was the 1980s temperance movement in the United States.
Concerns about drunken driving as well as health and safety issues about wine have created a wave of what speakers called the neo-prohibitionist movement in the country. One speaker wasn't at all surprised by the demands of anti-alcohol groups.
Once in a Lifetime
Dr. David Musto, professor of psychiatry and history of medicine at Yale University, has made a long study of prohibition movements in the United States and said they come along once in a lifetime, literally.
"The peaks of concern about alcohol are a lifetime apart," he said, noting that in 1835 there was national concern about alcohol "and that led to widespread prohibition by the 1850s. . . . In 1910 the campaign was against alcohol again, as well as opiates and cocaine, and that led in 1920 to the 18th Amendment.
"And now you look at alcohol, opiates, cocaine and tobacco and synthetic drugs."
He said it takes an entire generation for the demand for prohibition to wane and for a new generation, forgetting that the last effort to legislate morality failed, to pick up the demand again.
"The last two centuries of American history can be seen as marked by several eras of either cheerful chemical enjoyment ended by puritanical attacks on (them) or several years of health and stability ended by debilitating debauchery," he said.
He said that during times of temperance many products are seen as being harmful in any amounts. He feels that the current wave of demands for temperance or abstention is still growing.
He added that during times of temperance "the various commodities that contain alcohol, such as wine, beer and spirits, move from being independent and separately perceived substances to just being substances that contain alcohol. The distinction between substances blurs, and this is why I thought Seagram's equivalency campaign was . . . remarkable because you had a major element of the industry trying to achieve one of the major elements of the temperance movement."
Three years ago, Joseph E. Seagram & Sons began a campaign (since terminated) in which it attempted to persuade consumers that "a drink is a drink is a drink" by arguing that the amount of alcohol in a glass of wine, a can of beer and a standard spirits drink were equal. The campaign was opposed by wine industry groups as misleading.
Musto said campaigns that try to equate wine, beer and spirits move these products from being perceived as beverages "to being seen as a poison."
Urethane in Wine
The only session that resembled the WITS symposiums of the past came Saturday morning when Dr. Cornelius Ough gave a presentation of research into formation of urethane in wine, a topic of concern to the wine industry since it was raised about a year ago by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Washington, D.C.-based consumer group.
Urethane is known to cause cancer in laboratory animals, and the CSPI has called for a ban on wine that contains urethane.
Ough said his research confirmed that minute amounts of urethane could be produced in a laboratory if fermenting wine was heated, but "in freshly made wine, there is very little urethane. It's almost undetectable."
He said that what was undetectable some years ago is detectable with today's modern scientific equipment in very minute quantities, in parts per billion, "and as our equipment gets better we can detect parts per trillion," which he said could mean that at those levels "we'd find all kinds of things in everything, from bread to milk. And even at those levels, the Center for Science in the Public Interest starts screaming.
"But it doesn't make any sense to detect chemicals that have no physiological effect on the human body."
Parts Per Billion
He said that he has had discussions with officials of the Food and Drug Administration and that he felt confident the FDA would approve any product that contained 25 parts per billion of urethane, which included not only wine, but also bread (which he said contained levels as high as 1.9 ppb), yogurt (1.2 ppb) and soy sauce (3.9 ppb). Wine contained levels as high as 4.9 ppb.
He said sake producers may have a problem with that level since he found levels of 60 to 600 ppb of urethane in sake samples he tested.
Ough recommended to wine producers that they do not permit their wines to be heated for any length of time (no more than 48 hours), and that they keep levels of nitrogen in their wines as low as possible to reduce the chance of urethane production.
"When you are fertilizing, use a light hand," he recommended.