Berger on wine: Wine labels a complex issue

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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.

Clos du Val in Napa once submitted a COLA application updating a label that had been approved in 1972 and used every year since. The “offense:” a label specialist (who may never have seen Clos du Val’s label before!) said it was risqué because three naked females were depicted!

All three cases were eventually reversed.

Some wineries take advantage of glitches in the system by seeking approval for “in-joke” terms that should never have been approved.

A decade ago, a Central Coast winery created a brand that, when spoken, was a sexual innuendo.

Decades ago, a clever Sonoma County winemaker created the brand Stu Pedasso, with the fake appellation Sonoma Beach. The wine was for sale only in California and thus didn’t need federal label approval. The wine brand is still available on some northern California store shelves.

When a winery gets a dumb ruling about its labels, old-timers suggest waiting a few days and re-submitting the proposal in the hope it will get a savvier label officer.

Even required terms can be problematic. “Estate bottled” has rigid TTB rules. But the word “estate” does not.

Moreover, there are no legal definitions for the terms “coastal,” “reserve,” “special selection,” “old vines,” “barrel selection,” “barrel fermented,” or many other terms that imply a higher level of quality.

And this is just the beginning.

Next Week: Wine labels almost never tell potential buyers what style of wine is inside the bottle. This can be annoying. But worse, it can lead to wasted money when a buyer seeking one sort of wine ends up getting something completely different.

Discovery of the Week: 2017 Brancott Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough ($13): There are many choices in New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, ranging in price from $10 to $30, with the best being more sublime versions of what can be somewhat simplistic, slightly sweet versions. New Zealand’s largest wine company here offers a fine example of the breed, with lime, tropical fruit and generosity that is nicely balanced and works well with seafood. Often seen discounted.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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