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How about a glass or two of Frankenstein wine?

Frankenstein wine is the name applied to wine made with genetically modified (GM) vines developed in such a way as to make them disease resistant, and modified yeast developed to control flavors.

Currently, certain winemakers in Western Europe are said to be conducting clandestine experiments with vines and yeasts that are genetically modified. In fact, scientists at the Genetic Plant Research Institute in Montpelier, in southern France, have already produced a genetically modified yeast that could influence wine’s flavor by controlling its development.

Specifically, whereas in general yeast converts sugar into alcohol, a genetically modified yeast converts more of the sugar into the sweetish liquid glycerol, thus improving the wine’s structural balance and preventing the alcohol from attacking the wine’s subtle flavors. The professed object of some pro-GM wine professionals is to reduce wine’s alcohol level by as much as 2 percent, and thus create wine of more delicate flavor.

Would you want to drink a GM wine? All the dismaying, often frightening things we’ve heard about the health risks posed by GM foods certainly doesn’t make one want to go on a GM wine-buying binge, to be sure. However, one of the reported benefits of GM-grown grapes is longer grape-growing periods that ensure riper grapes containing more sugar. (The European Union, by the way, permits a maximum 15.5 percent alcohol content — potent indeed.)

Is there such a thing as GM yeast with lethal potency? Word is out about a recently developed wine yeast capable of producing a toxin in small but potent amounts that obstruct the growth of other yeasts, and lessens alcohol content by reducing the volatility of fermentation.

If all this Frankenstein wine lore is making you at least somewhat apprehensive, or more apprehensive than you already were, take heart — well, a little bit, anyway: Winemakers involved in GM-related winemaking say that no GM vines have been planted outside of laboratories.

To France’s credit, a number of its wine producers are said to be extremely concerned about GM-wine experiments in France and are importuning authorities to terminate them. Those even more fearful of a world filled with GM wine foresee the inevitability of great vintages becoming plonklike vestiges of their once vinous majesty. Indeed, some fear the end of the noble art of honest winemaking, an industry that dates back thousands of years.

Recently, I caught a BBC World Service broadcast about the ever-growing GM controversy, one likely to rage on for a long time amid great acrimony on both sides, pro and con. Clearly, many agriculturists, including some in the United States, think GM crops are destined to increase rapidly. A few weeks ago BBC was refused an interview by a U.S.-based company that is at the center of the GM crops controversy, a company that has publicly stated that “without this tool [of GM capability] farmers will be less competitive and less able to meet long-term demand.”

If enough grape growers come to believe that, we may one day have a real situation on our hands.

For their part, consumers in general appear to be against genetically modified organisms, plants with genes altered to improve their resistance to harmful insects and herbicides. As noted by Setsuko Yasuda, the official responsible for food safety issues for the Consumers Union of Japan, “commercialization without sufficient evaluation means people are being treated as guinea pigs.”

A regulatory framework for biotechnology has been in force in the European Union since October 1991. This past June EU ministers reached an agreement that includes a system for risk assessment, monitoring and labeling and mandatory public consultation concerning both experimental and commercial releases. If consumers are ineluctably destined to have genetically modified products — wine included — honest, up-front labeling is an absolute necessity.

For my part, I have great apprehension about fiddling with genes in general, including those of the wine grape. I’ve always appreciated well-made wine from anywhere and I don’t welcome the thought of genetically modifying wine grapes. In the weeks to come I’ll return to the subject of GM wine, a subject likely to gain great media attention as we enter the new millennium. Until next time, find a little time to enjoy a little wine.

Cheers! Bon appetit!

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