Berger on wine: Wine labels a complex issue
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part look at wine label issues.
In this era of allegations of widespread fibbing, I began to muse about all of the “facts” we see on wine labels, some of which are conscious mistruths.
Does this mean wineries routinely avoid veracity when creating wine labels? It’s true that some label terms are confusing if not undefined. For instance, is there a difference between “produced and bottled by” and “vinted and bottled by?” (What does “vinted” mean anyway?)
In many cases, wineries don’t know they’re violating federal regulations, some of which are nearly impossible to understand.
But since the government must approve all labels on alcoholic beverages, you might think that intentional or accidental violations would be caught by the Tax and Trade Bureau’s (TTB) label approval specialists — the “experts” who grant Certificates of Label Approval (COLA) for every wine, beer, and spirit.
But as with many branches of government, some bureaucratic confusion always is a part of the process.
I always fear writing columns like this because the subject is so inordinately complex. To find out more about it, decades ago I began a non-law school investigation of a few of the legal issues that can arise.
It starts with wineries run by relatively intelligent people who decide to read TTB’s label regs and design their own labels to conform. At some point in this absurd process (about 10 minutes after looking at the federal regs), the relatively intelligent winery owner opts to remain sane and contracts with a company that specializes in compliance issues. Many exist.
Then we get to the TTB. It has a daunting task. Chronically underfunded, its staff of label approval specialists is small (about 500), yet it has the task of approving some 175,000 labels each year for all alcoholic beverages, so it cannot be expected to catch all of the mistakes (or intentional misstatements) wineries throw at them.
One more problem: TTB and its prior agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) both worked with poorly trained staffs. In 1989, I alleged the same thing in a column. An ATF agency official asked me to prove it.
I upped the ante: I said I’d go into a wine shop, one I had never been in before, and that within a half hour I’d find three labels that violated ATF regs. The official said he welcomed my call back.
I called him a week later and left a message: I had found five illegal labels in 10 minutes. The official never called me back.
Even wineries that contract with professionals for compliance can find they have run afoul of some misguided, ill-trained label approval “specialist.”
A Napa Valley winery once said on its back label that one of its white wines was “refreshing.” An ATF denial letter said the word may be used only on a sparkling wine!
A Paso Robles winery submitted a COLA application for a wine it called Grenache Blanc. TTB denied the use of the term, arguing there was no such grape! The winery was forced to use “Grenache” on its label for one vintage, even though the wine was clearly not red.