UPDATE: Trader Joe's says we shouldn't be freaking out about arsenic in wine.

Arsenic-tainted wine? It's not just the fate that befell Napoleon — Californians are unwittingly drinking it, too. 

Many popular, low-priced brands of wine sold in California contain illegal and dangerously high levels of poisonous arsenic, according to a class-action lawsuit filed March 19 in California Superior Court. 

The suit claims dozens of California wineries are violating state law by knowingly producing, marketing and selling arsenic-contaminated wine. Independent testing showed the wine contained up to five times the maximum amount the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows for drinking water.

Some of the popular wine brands named in the lawsuit include Franzia, Ménage à Trois, Sutter Home, Wine Cube, Charles Shaw, Glen Ellen, Cupcake, Beringer and Vendage. The wines named in the lawsuit are primarily white or blush varietals including moscato, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc that are priced under $10.

“These wineries have long known about the serious health risks their products pose to customers,” said Brian Kabateck, managing partner of Los Angeles–based law firm Kabateck Brown Kellner, which filed the suit. “Yet instead of reducing the exposure to acceptable levels, the defendants recklessly engage in a pattern and practice of selling arsenic-tainted wine to California consumers.”

Arsenic is an odorless, colorless and highly toxic poison known to cause illness and death when ingested. Some of the long-term health effects of arsenic exposure include various types of cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, medical experts say.

Of the two forms of arsenic, organic and inorganic, the inorganic version is accepted to be hundreds of times more toxic, scientists say. The arsenic in the defendant wines is the inorganic type, according to the lawsuit.

“Until now, consumers have no way to know how much arsenic they’re getting in their wine,” said Michael Burg, partner in Denver-based Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh & Jardine law firm. “This class-action suit will help shine a light on the wine industry’s dirty secret.”

The 28 California defendant wineries “produce and market wines that contain dangerously high levels of inorganic arsenic, in some cases up to 500 percent or more than what is considered the maximum acceptable safe daily intake limit,” according to the lawsuit.

The arsenic testing referenced in the lawsuit was conducted by BeverageGrades, an independent lab in Denver. Its results were confirmed by two additional labs. Of 1,306 different types of wine tested, 83 showed dangerously elevated arsenic levels.

“What we found was profoundly disturbing,”’ said BeverageGrades CEO Kevin Hicks. “The levels of arsenic in some of these wines were beyond belief.” Among Hicks' findings: Trader Joe's famed Two-Buck Chuck White Zinfandel, which came in at three times the EPA's limit, a bottle of Ménage à Trois moscato that was four times the limit and a Franzia white grenache that had five times the limit.

One factor he found in common: “The lower the price of wine on a per-liter basis, the higher the amount of arsenic.”

Hicks, a former beverage-industry executive, says he first went to the winemakers more than a year ago to show them his discovery. “They didn’t want to know about what was in their wines,” he said. “They heard the words ‘arsenic' and 'wine’ and the conversation was over.”

Hicks then went to the attorneys at Denver’s Burg Simpson with his findings. The attorneys have established a website for consumers seeking additional information at TaintedWine.com.

The federal government does not regulate wine the way it does water. However, California law requires businesses to warn consumers if their products contain “a chemical known to the state to cause cancer.” California's threshold for arsenic is 10 parts per billion, the same as the EPA's water standard. “There is more regulation in the caramel corn industry in the United States than in the wine industry,” attorney Kabateck said at a March 19 news conference.

It's not clear how the arsenic gets in the wine, but the attorneys said it may come from a clarifying agent or from inadequate filtration of pesticides used on grapes. 

The lawsuit does not specify a dollar amount but seeks “injunctive relief, civil penalties, disgorgement and damages.” The goal, Kabateck said, is to get the wines recalled, customers' money refunded and the wine industry “clean[ed] up.”

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