Recently, Cameron Diaz launched a new wine brand called Avaline, marketed as a “clean wine.” While the term didn’t originate with Diaz or her brand, Avaline has shone a major spotlight on the phrase — and caused an uproar among wine professionals, many of whom believe that the terminology is misleading.
In fact, there’s no legal or agreed-upon meaning for the term. No governmental, trade, or private organization that certifies or verifies “clean” claims. Many wine professionals have said that brands labelling their wine as “clean” are trading on customer misinformation around wine ingredients and processes as their currency, creating a false dichotomy between “clean” and “dirty” wines. This growing trend piggybacks on the existing “clean eating” trend, which holds an equally opaque meaning. On this week’s episode of the VinePair Podcast, Adam Teeter, Erica Duecy, and Zach Geballe unpack the term, explaining why it is so often exploited, and offering advice on how to avoid being fooled by marketing gimmickry.
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Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Erica: From Connecticut, I’m Erica Duecy.
Zach: And in Seattle Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the VinePair Podcast. Guys, it’s late July, which is weird.
Z: Oh my god.
E: Very weird.
Z: How is it that time is going both incredibly slow and incredibly fast? It’s bizarre. It always feels that way a little bit, but man, this year has been so weird.
A: It has been. When I realized it was late July, last night I said to Naomi, “Oh my gosh! We’ve been in quarantine for a year.” And it’s been four months. Wow, these four months have felt super long like you said, but also, everything has felt quick. How are we already at the end of July? We just had July 4th. It’s really weird.
E: Yeah, and with two kids, it’s like “Lord of the Flies” all of the time.
A: I can only imagine.
E: It just keeps getting worse.
A: Are you on the edge of your seat wondering what’s going to happen with school in the fall?
E: Oh yeah.
A: Have they already made a decision?
E: No, they’ve made no decision. We’re not going to know for a couple of weeks. It’s crazy. At this point, the kids are just running around the yard in tatters, playing in a pond, covering themselves with mud. I don’t even know where they are right now.
A: So it really is “Lord of the Flies.”
E: It really is. They paint themselves with mud. They’re way out there these days.
Z: There’s got to be a local farm you could get a pig skull from if you really wanted.
E: That’s next.
A: So ridiculous. We’ve all gotten so used to this, and also not at all. It’s such a nuts time to begin doing anything in this world, especially in this country.
Z: I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in a country that had handled this thing reasonably well. You could actually be thinking about a normal fall.
Z: It’s hard to believe.
A: I had a call earlier today with some people who have a well-known spirits brand here in the U.S. but it’s also huge in Asia. I was talking to them and they discussed that in Asia, coworkers are back to normal in the office and wearing masks. But they have a different attitude where they all protect each other. Here we say, “A mask? Eh. I don’t want to smell my breath.” That’s our attitude in this country. It would be interesting to see what it’s like being in a country that handled it well.
E: We should talk to someone from New Zealand or Australia, some restaurants or wineries, to hear what it’s like on the other side.
A: Even in Italy. They’re very much back to normal. Not to say it’s totally normal, but a lot of people are taking legitimate summer vacations and eating out a lot more. A lot of the businesses are back in their offices. Everyone’s wearing masks. That’s the one thing that everyone has to do, and it’s the one thing that here, we just won’t do. That makes it frustrating. It actually is that simple. Get the cases down, and wear this thing on your face. No one likes to wear it. It’s not comfortable.
Z: I would like to interject. My two-year-old really likes to wear his mask. He wants to keep it on.
A: I could see how kids like it. It’s kind of like a costume. It’s a little bit of a superhero feeling. My niece has a cute mask with fairies on it. She loves it. I could see how it’s like playing dress-up almost. For us, it’s a little more uncomfortable, but it is what it is. You have to wear one. Just get over it. We’d all get through this a lot faster, but no one wants to do it. It really boggles the mind. Anyways, speaking of health, let’s transition into our topic for this week, which is something that’s been bubbling in the world of alcohol in general for the last few years. It’s seemed to come especially to a head in the wine world, over the last two weeks. It’s this idea of marketing beverages, let’s talk specifically about wine today, as “clean.” There are a few instances of people releasing wines, including Cameron Diaz, using the word “clean” to describe the wine. There’s a lot of uproar over that, but the wines are actually selling like crazy. People can’t keep them in stock. There’s been a large debate over what is and isn’t fair marketing practices when it comes to selling wine. What is dubious? What isn’t? What are we allowed to say? What aren’t we allowed to say? I understand that people hustled, and they used something that’s a word that people care about, like clean eating. You can’t hate on those people for it. The only thing that I had issue with was the hypocrisy coming from a lot of people that were the loudest criticizers against the word clean because they’re the people who use the word “natural.”
A: For me, my issue was that I want to be on their side, but they aren’t admitting that they use a word that they think also means a lot, that to a lot of people means to people exactly the same thing that “clean” does. Whether they want to say that clean wine isn’t as fair as natural wine, the reality is that all you have to do is look at the essay written in The New York Times last summer in the Style section, by a writer who literally said the reason they drink the wines that are labeled “natural” is because they think they are cleaner and better for them. No one has ever tried to refute that because it also helps you sell wine. It also packs your wine bar. It also gets people to try wines they wouldn’t normally try. Everyone is using marketing terms in order to sell their products. Let’s get over both of them. Maybe I’m in the minority. Maybe we should just hate the word “clean” and not the word “natural.” I don’t know. What do you guys think?
E: Cameron Diaz last week, or maybe two weeks ago now, launched this brand called “Avaline.” If you watch the video on social media and see how this thing is marketed, it really does set up this dichotomy that her wine is clean, and all wines by definition are dirty. That is the thing that makes me most upset. It’s just a continuation. First we had Dry Farm Wines. They did this clean marketing in a clever way, but the thing is, it’s built on misinformation and the lack of consumers really understanding what’s going on. For Dry Farm Wines, they package up commercially available, organic, and biodynamic wines. They mark them up, and they sell them under the guise of sugar free. “These are sugar free wines.” “Low carb.” All this sort of stuff. But guess what? All wines, any dry wine is going to be sugar free or nearly sugar free and also very low carb. It’s that misnomer. Winc recently, with their Wonderful Wine Company, they’re marketing it as “clean wine for better living.” Their tagline is “Health conscious wine lovers, meet the low carb, low sugar, organic wine you’ve been waiting for.” The problem with this is just that it’s not accurate. It’s misleading. Over and over, we’re getting this pick-up from what was clean eating. Now it’s transitioned over to clean drinking. I just don’t think it’s accurate. If you really look into Avaline and how this wine in particular was made and packaged, it’s not that much different than really any other organic wine that is middle-of-the-road, industrial produced that’s out there right now.
Z: I think the problem starts with this simple fact that is very easily misconstrued and possibly abused by both natural and clean-wine people, and that is that there are very minimal requirements for labeling of wine. If you look at marketing material for natural wine, for clean wine, they both harp on this fact that “you don’t know what in your wine.” It could have fish bladders, it could have egg whites, it could have mega-purple. It could have all these things. And there’s some truth to that, it’s true. There is no mandate in the United States. There are 60-odd additives that can be used as part of the winemaking process that don’t have to be disclosed on the label. This idea that because there isn’t disclosure on the label, it means that every wine has these things lurking in it, is first of all silly. Second of all, for the most part, who gives a shit? Yes, I don’t like mega-purple in my wine because I want my wine to be an expression of place and what actually happened in a vineyard, not what happened in a lab to concentrate grape essence. But you know what? I’ve had some wines with mega-purple in it, and sometimes they’re all right. They’re not amazing, but let’s get over ourselves a little bit here. It comes back to this fact that they harp on this lack of labeling. There’s a lot to be said about the idea that maybe we should, as a consumer base, be advocating for more labeling in wine. Maybe you shouldn’t be able to put these things in without having to disclose it. That’s a bit of an adjacent conversation to this. The reality is, there’s this abuse of that fact. What if I packaged up a wine and said, “This wine has zero asbestos in it.” Would your question then, as a consumer who didn’t know better, be, “Well, wait. Does other wine have asbestos in it?” We’re basically talking about the same stuff, in that claiming that your wine doesn’t have something that most wine doesn’t have doesn’t set you apart except for with the majority of consumers who don’t know any better. Most people don’t know much about how wine is made because it’s complicated, and why would you bother to know unless you’re us?
A: We’re creating problems for consumers in both ways. Erica, I completely agree with you. I did not like how this was done. It’s interesting that it’s not on the label for Avaline. It was just something they said in this video, but then that’s what went viral, which was actually pretty smart on their part. In both regards, why are we scaring consumers about sulfites? What all of a sudden is that something we’re deeming as bad? That’s the same thing in terms of marketing. It’s interesting that especially in the world of spirits, you don’t have people react as negatively to marketing, which is curious. In the world of wine, we want to really believe in a lot of ways, and again this is not to say that I agree in any way with how they marketed the wines, but we want to believe that everyone is an artist. At the end of the day, if people were artists, then they would be independently wealthy, and they need to make a living. They need to sell it. Some people use celebrity spokesmen in order to sell their wines, some people use different marketing terms to sell their wines, some people just make really damn good wine that everyone gets excited about and that’s how they sell their wine. At the end of the day, everyone needs to market it somehow, somewhere. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t remember the same massive reaction when George Clooney came out and said that his tequila didn’t give you a hangover. People thought it was really smart. Casamigos did a really smart thing, and a lot of other tequila brands started emulating that positioning. No one said, “How dare George Clooney say that his tequila is more pure and doesn’t give you a hangover.” People thought he had a really good idea.
Z: I do think if he said that today, there would be a little bit more pushback on that, in part because there’s also this complicated issue of a white dude saying that his tequila is clean and others are not.
A: Totally. Don’t worry. There’s an article today on the site about that.
Z: There you go. Perfect.
A: I agree with you there. It was only four years ago. It wasn’t like it was super long ago. I do feel like there’s this weird anger that comes out only in wine in a way that’s very different from beer or spirits. Maybe I’m wrong. That’s just what I feel.
E: It’s this mindset. Especially recently in wine and spirits, we’re seeing such a huge shift in celebrities building this space. It’s this mindset of, “Rich celebrity, bestow upon us your godly wisdom. Thank goodness you decided to tackle the problem of dirty wine. It took someone with your talent to uncover the truth about wine and its disgusting practices and its disgusting winemakers. Now, we are saved. The end. Perfect soundbite.” You know? That’s the thing. Further, it’s elitist. This one in particular, Avaline, with this clean-dirty dynamic, it is so elitist. It’s saying, you can’t drink clean unless you can afford to shell out $24 for my Cameron Diaz bottle of wine. Then, if you can’t do that, you clearly don’t care about what you’re putting in your body. That’s the knock that clean eating has gotten because no one can afford to go to a farmers market and hand-source every piece of food they’re putting in their mouth. That’s this mindset that’s getting shifted over, in this particular celebrity case that really pisses me off.
A: It is all Gwen’s fault?
A: Goop really started pushing this earlier than anyone else. This was a thing that happened really early on. Goop’s been a proponent of a lot of these ideas of natural fermentation versus inoculation. It’s all so complicated. I want to be really angry about this whole thing, but it’s hard for me to because I feel like there’s this whole other category of wine that’s been doing it for so long. They were some of the people that were the angriest. I can’t be as angry as I need to be about how this is annoying and the way that they marketed it. Zach, are you as conflicted as I am?
Z: No because to me, there’s a fundamental difference. Look, you all listening to this know I’ve had my issues with the natural wine crowd plenty of times. But I will say with some notable exceptions, they’ve mostly struck me as people who are pretty earnest. I find the clean wine crowd to be much more nakedly opportunistic.
A: That’s what always happens.
E: I completely agree.
Z: Here’s the thing. If I were to believe that Cameron Diaz was really passionate about wine, then you would think that says the variety, or even the place where this wine is made, because it’s not that Cameron Diaz is going to Spain and picking the grapes and making the wine. She contracted with a large winemaking consortium. There’s a great article out by Miquel Hudin about this.
A: But he doesn’t say who it is, right? No one knows who it is.
Z: He doesn’t disclose, because he chose not to. Because he felt like it might blowback on the producer, the actual people who make the wine. The point is, he was able to figure out who was making it. The wine itself might actually be pretty good. I don’t think there’s any reason to think that the wine is inherently bad.
A: He says it’s a respected producer whose wines he enjoys. So probably the wine is good.
Z: Yeah, and Xarello, which is the grape that they’re largely using, as he points out in his piece also, I think is a variety that is overdue for some recognition. It’s that exact fact that for him and for many of us, is galling about this, because had this line and this wine been positioned slightly differently — where there was a little bit of attention paid or marketing shine given to the grape, the place, the people who actually made it, not just the ones who slapped their name on it and branded it — it could possibly be inoffensive. Look at Miraval. Feel how you want to feel, but look, it’s true that Brad and Angelina Jolie being involved in it helped catapult it onto people’s radar, but it’s a legitimately good rosé. It brought some attention to a category that maybe didn’t need a lot of help, but certainly didn’t hurt for it. That’s the issue that I have with some of these clean wines. They seem almost the opposite of a lot of natural wine. They seem interested in obscuring the place of origin, the variety and whatever else of the wine because really, it’s a marketing ploy. It’s about being able to shift the source of the grapes. Often they don’t have a vintage on them, so that they can be sort of remade at any given time due to demand. For all of their complaining about lack of transparency and labelling, to me, these wines are some of the least transparent wines out there. The only thing like them are some of the mass-produced grocery-store-brand wines that also have almost no information on the label. They don’t even have a variety sometimes, or a vintage. It’s just a proprietary name. That’s really what this is, just with a different marketing gimmick.
A: But this is what happens in business, having to recognize that wine is a business. There are movements that are truly organic — ha! I used that word. There are movements that start, and people find ways to exploit those movements. I completely agree. There’s a lot of people I know who are proponents of natural wine who I respect a lot, who have had me taste wines that I think are absolutely amazing, and who I know aren’t in it because they’ve also been duped. They know the producers. They’re passionate about it. And they’re some people who won’t use the term “natural” that often. Then, there’s other people that became crazy zealots of the category without understanding wine in general. To them, all other wine was bad. This was the only good wine. That became something that they were putting out on social media and marketing. A few well-known companies then tried to exploit it. We predicted this, Zach, you and I, over a year ago, that someone would exploit this. I thought it was going to be Aldi or something. Turns out that it’s Cameron Diaz. I never knew this. One of our friends is a fashion designer. She told us, did you know that if you send a product that’s made in China to Italy and it just gets a final stitch, you can say it’s made in Italy?
E: No way.
A: There’s a lot of people that will do that. They know that a lot of American consumers care about that label. They’ve been told that “Made in Italy” matters, so some of these lower-cost fashion brands, the way they can charge and sell a little bit more is to send a suit or dress to Italy for the final stitching. It costs very little compared to what it would cost if you were buying Armani or Billy Reid or any of these really high-end fashion brands. But they get the final stitch made and it can have this label in it, which is crazy to think about. It’s the same idea, right? It’s these larger companies that realize this is what consumers want. It’s what they’re being told is a signifier of quality, so in fashion it’s a “Made in Italy” label. In wine, it’s the word “clean” or “natural.” Let’s exploit it because there’s very little regulation from stopping that. That’s what happens. When you don’t have regulation, companies will go as far as they can to exploit it and take advantage of the consumer. It’s annoying, but I’m not surprised it happened. I’m actually surprised it was Cameron Diaz. I’m surprised it was a celebrity first and not just a really big company. I’m sure there’s a really big company behind her, but again, we don’t even know. It was bound to happen.
E: It’s true. It is just going to continue. It’s going to get worse and worse unless there’s more labeling transparency and some sort of legislation around that and around the terminology of things like “natural” and “clean.” We’re going to keep heading further and further down this path.
Z: Some of this is inevitable because the reality is that marketing and industry forces are what they are. From a journalistic-media side, one thing that has to be worked on is how these categories of wine, in particular, are talked about. It’s because they have so little legal guideline, in a way, that organic and even biodynamic have government-imposed or at least sanctioning-body-imposed rules that you have to meet for labelling — and natural and clean are in the eye of the beholder at the moment. One thing that has to come out of this from the wine industry and the media side is standards about: Do we use these terms? When do we use these terms? How confident do we have to be that what someone is saying in their marketing pitch is actually true? I would personally like to say that this is where the big issue comes up. So much of what happens is, this information is conveyed to a credulous public, often laundered through respected publications. I’m not talking about VinePair here. I’m talking about some other ones that I’ve read. I’m not going to shit-talk and specific articles on this podcast. You can DM me if you want to know what I think. The reality is that a lot of these non-wine-focused publications that are more general publications use this terminology. Like you were talking about The New York Times Style piece from a year ago, they’re written by people who may not know a lot about wine. They’re sometimes pay-to-play articles. They just muddy the water so badly that I think it’s important for those of us in the media to do better in terms of when we are going to use these terms. And we can’t let the producer define if their wine is clean or natural. Unless there’s a certifying body that, at a minimum, it has to come down to a standard that’s set by an outset organization, because everyone’s going to call themselves “natural” or “clean” if it becomes a selling point. That’s what’s happening. We have to, as a media body, do better and have standards that — whether or not the winery or wine seller thinks that they’re wine should be called natural or clean — there has to be some outside standard imposed. If it’s not a certifying body, then it has to be us.
A: I agree.
E: From my perspective, I have not seen any wine or drinks publications that fell for the bait on this one. It was all People, InStyle, all of the big consumer publications who came out with this Avaline wine and said, “Cameron Diaz, the savior.” That was 100 percent across the board for anything that was not a drinks publication. There is just a huge amount of, a fundamental lack of, consumer understanding. In this case, the consumers are also the journalists. That’s what we’re dealing with here. The people who are writing these articles probably have zero experience or understanding about wine. This is just one of five articles that they’re writing in a week, and they’re just flipping through the press release. That’s the real problem here. A lot of the gatekeepers really have no idea about wine. What can we do as wine-interested people and people in the wine industry to better convey what is honest and accurate? How do we get people to understand what is a buzzword?
A: There’s a few things here. One, I can’t speak for other publications, but Erica, when you came onboard, one of the biggest things, which is pervasive in lifestyle media, we try not to take pitches from what I call “book report writers.” They basically had facts regurgitated to them from a producer on a press trip. They wrote it and then they never challenged whether or not they were being told the truth. That happens a lot, especially in lifestyle publications because you’ve been given this free thing. You went on a trip and it was fun. The winemaker was charming. They served you a beautiful dinner. They said, “I’m the first producer to ever grow organic Nebbiolo in Piemonte.” You wrote it, but it’s not true. You didn’t do the research because they said it. You took them at their word. It’s the same with a lot of the lifestyle people. You’re going to be given access to Cameron Diaz. You get to talk to her. Are you going to challenge Cameron Diaz? She’s telling you that her wine is clean! You got to interview Cameron Diaz, and it’s dope. At the end of the day, we’re humans. There’s a cool thing about talking to the star of “The Mask.” A lot of these lifestyle writers are not going to challenge a celebrity telling them something. They’re just going to write it, which is a problem. It also speaks to what’s unfortunately happening in newsrooms, which we talk about all the time. There’s less budget, because there’s less advertising for more editors over the writers to do fact-checking to make sure that this stuff is actually accurate before publishing. It’s really unfortunate. The reason we’ve taken a position, and I don’t want to say a publication position, but my personal position on natural wine is, my issue with it is that it’s not regulated. I don’t want to give it a carte blanche. I’m very open to talking to someone who says they’re a biodynamic producer and is certified that way because they do it and can prove it. That’s a different thing. I try to avoid those buzzwords, doing podcasts like this, writing articles that are critical when these things happen, and saying that this is bullshit, on both sides. This term “clean wine” is bullshit. These other terms are bullshit, too. You, as a consumer, should be aware of it because you’re the one getting duped. If you want to buy the wine because you like Cameron Diaz, and she’s showing you a really great wine from Spain that’s made from a grape you should know about, that’s awesome. You should buy that wine. But if you’re buying that wine because she told you it’s clean, you should think twice, because that should not be a factor because that’s not true.
Z: Last piece here from me. As always, there’s alcohol in these wines. They can only be so healthy. It’s just the reality of it. It’s not like, in the end, there isn’t a poison in there. Now look, it’s an an awesome poison that we all really like, and we like the effect it has on us, and we like what comes along with it, but unless Cameron Diaz is going to start selling non-alcoholic wine, it’s a little rich to be saying, “This is ‘clean’.” It’s not. We might be willing to deal with the side effects and the consequences, but as far as we know, there’s no universe in which you can fairly say that about any product that has alcohol in it. That’s a safe statement to make.
E: Totally. As a last takeaway, of all of these bald marketing ploys, clean wine is the worst marketing ploy that I have seen in all my years of covering wine. At least 15 years that I have been doing this, this is the thing that I wish would go away more than any other term. I see this coming down the pike, and people have seen the success of Avaline. They’ve seen the success of Dry Farm Wines, which does this, of Wonderful Wine Co., which does this. It is only picking up steam.
A: Oh yeah.
E: For consumers, if you want to pay a marked-up price for a wine, make sure it’s labeled “clean” because that’s where you’re going to be spending those marked up dollars. If you’re really concerned about how a wine is made or wanting to make sure that you have organic or biodynamic grapes, or that you’re looking for wines where the vineyard workers are treated fairly, go straight to the source. Do not go to these gatekeepers like celebrities or these wine clubs, because that is not the source of truth.
A: I love it. Erica came in hot today. I love it.
E: I had coffee.
Z: She’s been yelling at the kids. She’s ready.
A: I know! But I agree with you. There’s something to be said for, the wine world especially is very confusing. Our food ways, in general, are very confusing in this country. Be a smart consumer. And if it matters to you, be a smart consumer, call out bullshit when you see it, and ask real questions. If someone tells you this wine is clean or organic, ask to see the certification. Ask them to show you something that proves what they’re actually saying. If they can’t produce it, then realize that it’s bullshit. At the end of the day, across the board, whatever term someone is using, ask them what that means and how they define that. If they can’t show you any of those defining characteristics, then just know that you’re buying bullshit. If you still want to buy that bullshit, it’s totally fine. It’s your money. Spend it the way you want to. In everything in this world, there’s marketing speak, and marketing speak works. If you want to be a smart consumer, be able to identify marketing speak, decipher speak, and question it. That’s it!
Z: Can’t say it better than that.
A: I will chat with both of you next week for some random subject that will be determined based on whatever happens in the week before we record. Until then, we want to thank everyone for listening, as always. Drop us a review or give us a shoutout on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. It really helps people discover the show. And, if you agree or disagree with us, always shoot us an email at [email protected]. Erica, Zach, and I really love to know what you think. If you’re comfortable with it, we’d love to share your thoughts on the next show. Thanks so much.
E: Thank you.
Z: Sounds great.
A: Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe, Erica Duecy and me, Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again right here next week.
Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.