By Erika Szymanski of the Winoscope

The vegan wine conversation usually goes like this:

“So, I’m looking for a vegan wine…”

“Wait; isn’t all wine vegan?”

“Dude, no. A lot of wine is clarified using egg whites, or gelatin, or a milk protein called casein, or this stuff from fish bladders called isinglass. Wine isn’t just fermented grapes, you know. Winemakers can use a bunch of other stuff for processing steps, and they often don’t have to put it on the label.”

“Wow. I never knew that. I don’t want animal products in my wine! So, are any wines really vegan?”

“Yes! Not all winemakers use those products. Some use a kind of powdered clay called bentonite, and some just let the wine sit for a longer time so the particles settle out by gravity. But all of that isn’t always on the label, so you have to look kind of carefully for “vegan friendly” or “no animal products” or “fined with bentonite” on the label or something like that. Some big brands, like Bonny Doon, are known for making only vegan wine, so that makes things a little easier.”

That whole dialogue sidesteps a crucial question: what counts as an animal? And what counts as exploiting it? Talking about whether wine is vegan, in other words, should sound more like talking about whether honey is vegan. Do the bees count? Do the yeast count? Are they being exploited?

A Slate article about the vegan honey question way back in 2008 makes the central point: “any vegan who eats honey but avoids milk is making the tacit assumption that the pain experienced by a bee counts for something less than the pain experienced by a cow.” From caring about bees, it’s a short and slippery slope to caring about silkworms, or yeast or, heck, plants. And then where does that put the conscientious vegan?

Ways of stopping that slide – and not expiring for want of ethically acceptable calories – generally fall into three tracks:

Pain – The “I’ll eat things that don’t feel pain” argument which, troublesomely, requires deciding what can feel pain. Assuming that scientists understand the basics of how pain works, yeast don’t have a nervous system equipped to feel pain. However, both yeast and plants can respond intelligently to their environments and will activate stress responses following damage or when deprived of enough food and water. I often hear microbiologists talk about their yeast being unhappy. On the one hand, they’re being metaphorical; on the other, they know their yeast uncommonly well and recognize their distress signals …