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Berger: Regulation of wines is scattershot


Most people assume that what they see printed on wine labels is accurate.

They say, “The government monitors this stuff, don’t they? Wineries can’t just go around making stuff up, can they?”

It’s not quite as simple as all that, and for the most part wine labels are accurate and reflect what’s in the bottle. But there is a lot left to the discretion of the winemaker, and the government basically doesn’t care about any of that extraneous stuff.

The government’s Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which theoretically regulates the wine industry, has done a rather poor job of it in the last few years. Their defense is that they lack the funds for a strong enforcement task force.

Ask any winemaker if they got through a federal audit (showdown inspection, is more like it) unscathed. Most will tell you they did OK — but they say that the TTB’s bureaucratic process has wineries doing a lot of record-keeping that seems to be required for the purpose of annoyance.

I have spoken with winemakers who say some inspections are so nit-picky they drive them bats.

One thing is certain: The power the government has to suspect a winery’s operating license has rarely been used because wineries monitor one particular situation very closely.

The main situation is the alcohol listed on the label. If it is listed as 13.9% or less, the winery pays the federal excise tax for that wine ($1.07 per gallon). If the actual alcohol is 14.0% or more, the winery owes more in tax (an additional 50 cents per gallon), and if that additional tax isn’t paid, the winery can get in a whole mess o’ trouble.

There is no penalty, incidentally, for over-paying the tax.

Except for a few other trivial issues, that’s where the TTB’s real wine interests end.

For instance, the federal regulation says that for wines over 14.0% alcohol, there is a 1% fudge factor. That is, if a wine is listed as having 14.5% alcohol, it can have as much as 15.5%. If it really has 15.6% alcohol, the wine is out of compliance.

At that point, in theory, the offending winery can be penalized. And what is the penalty for being out of compliance on the alcohol in an over-14% alcohol wine?

Nothing. Over the years, I have spoken with various people who work in government labs testing for wines’ compliance issues. Every one of them has admitted that when they find a wine to be out of compliance, they mail a letter to the offending winery informing them that their wine is out of compliance.

Period. No fine, no license suspensions.

Not only that, but the chances that an iconic wine would ever even be tested for such a violation is just about zero. That’s because the government laboratory system set up to test wines for compliance issues calls its test a “market basket test,” which means the government doesn’t ask wineries for samples. (Does the government mistrust wineries to send them a random sample?)

The government buys such wines off the shelf to do its testing. And virtually no iconic wines are ever on shelves to begin with.

There are a lot of other issues here. For instance, a varietal wine has to have 75% of the named variety on the label, but the winery can do anything it pleases with the other 25% and never disclose it.

There is nothing nefarious suggested here, just simply that the consumer will never really know what’s in that “Cabernet,” even if the other 25% is Chenin Blanc. Or just how much Mega-Purple, a grape concentrate, has been added to a red wine.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.