Photo by Prova de Vinhos/Wikimedia
If you're a wine lover who's prone to headaches and opposed to genetically modified crops, you have a nemesis. His name is Dr. Hennie van Vuuren, he's at the University of British Columbia's Wine Research Center, and, after sixteen years of research, he figured out how to genetically alter yeast to remove the headache-inducing properties of red wine and many white wines.
The choice between drinking conventional wine and getting walloped and drinking wine made with GM yeast and feeling vibrant poses a gastronomic conundrum for many consumers. Wine production is deeply rooted in artisanal traditions. There's nothing artisanal or traditional about GM technology. And a genuine headache, as any serious wine drinker knows, is something fierce.
The yeast in question, called ML01, became commercially available in 2006. Consumers of U.S. wine, however, have no way of knowing when it's used--unless they buy organic wine, in which case it's not. U.S. labeling laws do not require producers to reveal the presence of GM ingredients. Americans overwhelmingly think this omission is bad policy--around 90 percent, according to a Gallup Poll. But because the producers of GM corn, soy, and cotton think that a GM label would be a stigma--and because the FDA agrees--consumers remain in the dark.
To call this yeast a surefire cure for a hangover would be extreme: everyone knows that's the job of a greasy burger.
And the dark is a confusing place to be. The initial Californian reaction to the yeast was schizoid. The Wine Institute, which represents many California wineries, decreed that "no genetically modified organisms be used in the production of California wine." At the same time, California's sole distributor of ML01, American Tartaric Products, Inc., said that it was doing an active business with several vineyards. Beginning this year though, American Tartaric no longer distributes ML01. In fact, as Dr. van Vuuren explained in an email to me, he is the sole distributor "at this stage," serving 40 clients in the United States and Canada, the only other nation where GM yeast is not currently not banned.
If the presence of ML01 is shrouded in mystery, how the yeast works is not. Although laboratory studies haven't been done to prove the connection between ML01 and reduced headaches, there is little scientific justification to think that manipulated yeast won't work. ML01 converts malic acid into lactic acid, a metabolically simple process that eliminates undesirable compounds in wine called biogenic amines--compounds that are known to be a major cause of headaches and allergic reactions in many consumers of red wine, and of certain varieties of white wine. To call this yeast a surefire cure for a hangover would be extreme: everyone knows that's the job of a greasy burger. But there's every reason to assume that its preventive potential is real.
Many vintners and scientists (in addition to van Vuuren) and vintners have been vocal in their optimism. Dr. Paul Chambers, a molecular biologist at the Australian Wine Institute, explained in a 2005 Australian Wine Research Institute press release that "having access to this yeast might be a good thing for Australian winemakers." When fellow Australian Andrew Hardy, a senior winemaker at Petaluma in Southern Australia, was recently asked what he thought of GM yeast, he remarked, "I am all for it." Australia, it's worth noting, has banned the GM yeast, so Hardy and all his colleagues can't do anything, however strongly they think ML01 is a great idea.
Whether or not you are all for ML01, I think we could all agree on one thing: Instead of skulking around the issue, wine producers who use GM yeast should voluntarily label their product as being genetically modified. They could even claim it's genetically modified in order to reduce headaches. Granted, this would be a bit of a PR gamble, but my hunch is that such a decision would not lead not to a Frankenfoodian backlash but to increased sales. It has long been argued that a major reason the vast majority of Americans disapproves of GM crops is that the individual consumer doesn't benefit. It's true that an informed cadre of activists speaks reliably to the potential dangers of GM crops. But the fact remains that most consumers base decisions less on diligent research than on perceptions of personal and immediate gain.
If consumers knew they could buy wine that would prevent headaches, they'd almost certainly give it a shot. And, of course, they'd need a label to do so. Any producer able to market a high quality wine for 10 bucks that had the advertised benefit of reducing the chances of a headache would certainly have more than a fighting shot at success. And if the GM label succeeded, everyone would win: waiting in the wings are a host of GM products that offer concrete consumer advantages--vitamin-fortified GM cassava , for example--but have not been marketed because of fears of a backlash.
Wine, of all products, could break down the barrier. If you're opposed to GM technology, labeling would be a major development for the good; after all, you'd finally know what you were buying. If you didn't want GM wine, you wouldn't ever have to drink it again. At least until your next hangover.