Frances Gonzalez: Heralding Environmental Transparency with Plant-Based Wines
There are many reasons to contemplate going the vegan route—health, empathy for living creatures, or reducing the environmental footprint. Many are making the change, but few consumers know that the wine they are drinking may not be vegan—or even vegetarian! The use of fish bladders, egg whites, and other animal products is standard practice for fining and filtration of most everyday wines. A vegan for over 25 years, Frances Gonzalez realized the need for transparency and education in the industry. In turn, she began importing solely vegan wines through Despacito Distributors and set up an online shop, aptly named Vegan Wines. You don’t have to be a vegan to appreciate the effort; you just need to love good wine.
Despacito Distributors & Vegan Wines was founded by Frances Gonzalez in 2017. THE company focuses on providing high-quality wines vegan from the soil to the bottle. Vegan Wines is a subscription-based club and online wine shop that ships to over 41 states. Despacito Distributors is a wine importer and distribution company that supplies 100 percent plant-based wines to business owners in the hospitality industry. Gonzalez is happy to discuss her business model and how she is changing the industry for the better.
Carrie Dykes: What initially brought you to the wine world?
Frances Gonzalez: During my last pregnancy—my first as a vegan—I would take monthly blood tests for nutrition counts in my body, and during one of my tests, I found out I have a celiac disorder. So I shifted my drinking from cocktails to wines; that is where my love started in discovering the beauty of wines.
CD: How did you come up with your business model?
FG: During my birthday trip to France, I found out some truth about the ingredients in winemaking. When I returned home to NY, I was surprised there was no information on vegan wines. As a vegan for so many years and a lover of natural wines, I said to myself, how many others have nowhere to go to purchase vegan wines? There was a need for a one-stop-shop for people to buy with confidence.
CD: Many consumers don’t realize that most wines are not vegan or even vegetarian. Can you walk us through what ingredients are typically used and the process in which to make a plant-based wine?
FG: I have been a vegan for over 25 years and found out that not all wines were vegan only five years ago. Many of us thought it was only grapes and sulfites for so long. Some of the ingredients are dried fish bladders, egg whites, gelatin, casein, whey, bone meal, or chitosan (relatives of insects in the sea).
CD: What was the first wine you worked with?
Chateau Beauséjour La Petite Robe Poivrée. I attended the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux Tasting Tour 2016 in NYC. I met a wine representative named Pierre from Saint Émilion. Our conversation on wines was the most aligned with my goals, so I asked for his card. He had run out of business cards and wrote his information. When I got home, it was unreadable, and I tried my best to find him. I found a person in Bordeaux that fit all the information I could read and remember. Pierre replied the next day. I laughed because he was so jolly and helpful. I told him that my fiancé and I were planning a business trip to Bordeaux and asked if we could visit his chateau. It was meant-to-be because Pierre is the one person that validated my thoughts—that wines can be produced naturally and vegan by non-vegan winemakers because of their winemaking traditions. The story of what he had to go through to revive the vineyard he purchased ten years prior and his beautiful wines gave me the final push to say, “let’s do this!”
CD: How many wineries are currently in your portfolio?
FG: We currently work with 26 wine producers and 23 of them have Vegan Wines as their sole wine importer.
CD: Are they all certified vegan? Can you explain the certification method and organizations?
FG: Vegan Wines are not hung up on certifications because there are just too many loopholes and unclean ingredients allowed in these products. We have a few wines (Castello Vicchiomaggio’s Chianti Classico Riserva, Champagne Legret & Fils’s Champagnes, and Feudi di Guagnano’s Vegamaro Negroamaro) that are certified vegan outside our private trademark. Our private trademark has our own guidelines because many vegan certifications do not include an advisement of the soil, cork, label inks, etc. Even if it is certified vegan, we still put the wine through our verification. However, the three wines I spoke of do go from the soil to the cork. Vegan Wines’s trademark certification will be going from private to public in 2021 and will include all the mentioned above plus carbon neutral solutions.
CD: You are a vegan yourself—how long has this been your lifestyle, and what made you make the change?
FG: Yes, I have been a vegan for over 25 years. A friend from my younger days was a vegan. He convinced me to watch a documentary on what is done to animals as part of traditions in other parts of the world outside the USA. The video was very graphic on what is done to animals by humans. It was then that I saw I was no different, as I was eating animals from tradition. It was something I never really understood—I just thought that eating animals was the normal thing to do, so my friend opened the journey for my veganism, and it changed my life in such a positive way.
CD: There’s so much talk about how giving up meat could drastically help climate change. Can you speak to that point?
FG: Yes, our animal population is not normal in any way. The earth’s balance is off, and we are feeling it with climate change. If we were to use the land to farm for natural produce, instead of to feed animals in the slaughterhouse, we could start reversing climate change and help to stop world hunger. Also, the waste from animals in the food industry damages our atmosphere and our waters. Our soils no longer have any nutrients left because of all the chemicals used to feed the animals. A good film on this is Kiss the Ground.
CD: Why is the soil composition so crucial in the wines you source?
FG: I always tell people that are non-vegan that we may not agree on our food choices, but we can agree that our environment needs us. We visit every vineyard master/grape grower we partner with to learn their ways of farming. We import from three countries and also work with domestic winemakers. They all say the same thing: too much or too strong of a fertilizer harms a vineyard. A vineyard needs to work for survival to thrive and produce at its best.
There is a part in the movie that explains how animal manure is part of earth’s evolution. But it’s very important to understand the difference between manure used in the natural fertilization of the land and how it’s done in many farms today. Animals were free to roam the earth in herds to feed (and poop) along during their journeys. But today’s industrial farming methods often include the use of animal manure from slaughterhouses and animals that are full of antibiotics and hormones. This manure is manually or mechanically put into the soil, which means it’s no longer a “natural” way of fertilizing or benefiting the land.
CD: In addition to the online shop and the wine club, you also supply vegan recipes and pairings, and the option to add plant-based cheese to your order.
FG: To me, wine is flavor; it’s life moments, mood, experiencing, adventure, gatherings, happiness. Vegan Wines want to share the idea that food and wine pairings are a part of all these life moments. I want to put a smile on your face because you loved your experience with our wines, and I love to share vegan recipes that will complement our wines. There is one vegan recipe for every wine bottle in our 6-bottle club shipment that goes out quarterly. We also pair our wines with three plant-based kinds of cheeses from our partners.
CD: Have you thought about expanding to cider and beer?
FG: Yes! We’re looking to add cider in 2021 and beer in 2022. We are first working on our private brand of wines; then we will add cider to our wine club, and then beer. We’re still in our pitch deck phase. Covid-19 has slowed the process because we would have to visit where the cider and beer are processed to verify it is produced without animal products. We need to see where our product is being produced.
CD: You have hosted events in the past that help out animal shelters and conferences like the Plant-Based World Expo and the VegFest Puerto Rico non-profit to aid in Hurricane Maria relief. Do you have any upcoming philanthropic events up your sleeve?
FG: Yes. We are working again with Plant-Based Expo and their temporarily new platform during COVID coming out in 2021. As for Vegfest Puerto Rico, we are hoping to host an event also in later 2021. I am also a guinea hen rescuer and a veganic farmer, so at our NY property, we are working on building our food garden dome to host some events.
CD: Have you seen a rise in demand for vegan wines?
FG: Oh, yes! When I first started to approach winemakers in California, I remember people being offended (vegans can have a love or hate impact on people) or sommeliers who were not aware that all wines are not vegan. Look at the world now! Many are using the term vegan-friendly on their wine bottles. Winemakers now approach me, which makes my work life easier. The vegan wine demand is there, and it will keep growing.
CD: What’s next for you?
FG: Right now I am seeking investors. I want finding NATURALLY vegan wines to become mainstream. And not just from us, but from more winemakers that are not in our online wine shop or our wholesale distribution portfolio. Vegan Wines is just the beginning for many great things to follow from the soil to your glass.