Berger: Regulation of wines is scattershot

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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.

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