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California wine industry asks feds to tighten labeling standards

BILL SWINDELL,

At the behest of the local wine industry, a new proposal would toughen federal labeling standards on a bottle of wine, controlling more tightly wineries’ claims of vintage dates, varietals and geographic region where the grapes are grown.

Local vintners have complained that exemptions currently allowed by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau are misleading consumers and hurting the reputation of their local wine regions.

“This was our baby,” said Rex Stults, who heads up government relations for the Napa Valley Vintners trade group. “We are such passionate advocates for the integrity of the Napa name.”

The Brooklyn Winery, for example, has made a name for itself in the Big Apple by crafting boutique, small-batch wines that appeal to affluent consumers around the New York metro region.

It sources grapes from New York state but also reaches beyond, even to Sonoma County, trucking grapes in a refrigerated truck almost 3,000 miles to make its wine. About 40 percent of its grapes come from the West Coast. Its 2012 pinot noir from the Carneros region sells for $45 and, because of federal rules, can only be sold within New York.

The bottles are labeled as coming from the “Los Carneros” region. The new proposal could mean that the label wording would need to be changed, given that the wine must be fully finished in the state where the grapes were sourced.

Vintners have complained about more egregious examples. For instance, the Napa vintners group found one Southern vintner that produced a bottle of wine labeled as “Napa Valley” wine, even though there was no way to verify that the grapes actually came from there, Stults said. The vintner sold the bottle out of state as well, which would be against federal rules.

Last year, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and other California lawmakers wrote to the bureau to complain about the circumvention of federal rules. Thompson also met with TTB Administrator John Manfreda.

The bureau is responsible for regulating the system of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Vintners may use an AVA designation on the bottle if at least 85 percent of the grapes come from that particular region and the wine is produced inside the state where the AVA is located. The TTB, however, has limited authority over products sold solely within the boundaries of the state in which the wine is produced.

“Given the longstanding laws and regulations on this subject and the significant resources TTB expends to enforce these laws, we are greatly concerned with recent TTB actions that allow these requirements to be ignored,” the lawmakers wrote. “Put simply, any wine label that contains an AVA term should meet the standards for that AVA.”

The new TTB proposal would give the bureau more authority to go after rogue out-of-state operators, said Richard Mendelson, an attorney for the Napa Valley Vintners.

“The applicant is going to have to be able to justify the claims,” Mendelson said.

Jean Arnold Sessions, executive director for the Sonoma County Vintners association, said she was also concerned about vintners not putting “Sonoma County” on the label on their bottles when their grapes are primarily sourced from an AVA within the county. Her group worked very hard to get such a conjunctive labeling state law passed in 2010. The Brooklyn Winery’s pinot noir bottle did not have a “Sonoma County” designation on it as required by state law. But it does include “Sonoma, Ca.,” based on a view from the company’s webpage.

Much of the wine involved comes from the bulk market, processed wine that typically has not been bottled and is being sold as excess. The proposed rule would allow a winery to use a particular AVA label through an exemption if they have purchased bulk wine that has been finished in the state where the AVA is located and bottled elsewhere, according to WineAmerica, a trade group representing wineries across the country.

“I can guarantee these wines I am making can hold up to the highest levels of standards,” said Brooklyn Winery winemaker Conor McCormack, who honed his skills in California. McCormack said his winery will obtain legal counsel to determine if Brooklyn Winery’s current labeling practice would run afoul of the proposed regulations, especially given he does all the production on-site in New York.

He further complained that Napa and Sonoma vintners are looking out for their parochial interests as opposed to the consumer and such labeling regulations should be less restrictive, especially as federal rules mandate he not sell his California wine outside of New York state.

“I feel I can pull [grapes] from the entire country,” McCormack said. “It’s completely antiquated.”

Stults, however, disagreed and said the consumer benefits when there are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that a bottle that says “Napa Valley” actually came from there.

“We don’t know how big of a problem it is, frankly,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.