Feds consider new labels on wine

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 22, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Read the label on that Thanksgiving bottle of wine now chilling in the fridge. It might get edited, if federal regulators step in.

Wine labels would add new "serving facts," under one proposal. Major allergens would be listed, under another.

And, in a third proposal that worries major U.S. winemakers in the vineyard-rich state of California, regulators could impose stricter definitions on label terms such as "estate," "reserve" and "vineyard."

Makes sense, some say.

"'Estate' should only be used on bottles if the fruit is in fact grown, produced and cellared on the property it claims," Arroyo Grande, Calif., resident Jackie Ross said in a comment to the government on the proposal. "It is otherwise misleading to consumers and takes away from the charm of these hard-working wineries."

Ross is one of dozens of individuals to weigh in on the label definitions, through comments submitted to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The Treasury Department agency first floated the notion of tighter wine label definitions last November.

In the year since, regulators have gotten an earful. What they'll do next, and when, is uncertain.

"It's a trial balloon," said Wendell Lee, general counsel of the Wine Institute, an advocacy group for the California wine industry, of the label proposal. "They threw this idea out there to see what people were thinking."

But stricter definitions, Lee noted, are not the only potential changes coming to wine labels, nor are they necessarily the most controversial.

Since at least 2007, federal wine-label regulators have been considering whether to require "serving facts" concerning fat, calories, carbohydrates and protein. This still-pending proposal leaves a sour taste with many.

"Consumers already receive adequate information on the identity of wine," the Family Winemakers of California cautioned in public comments, adding that "extensive and costly laboratory testing and relabeling requirements will undermine industry growth and dampen product innovation."

Since 2006, similarly, regulators have been considering whether to require wines, distilled spirits and beer to list major allergens on their labels. For now, the allergen listing is optional.

A lot of wine verbiage already is regulated.

Winemakers, for instance, need federal approval to designate a wine region that can be cited on a label. Most recently, officials this month approved, at the request of Gallo Family Vineyards, a 14,044-acre expansion of the Russian River Valley viticulture area in California's Sonoma County.

The approval took three years.

Moving more quickly, regulators in late October approved after about nine months the use of more than 40 new wine grape names, including the likes of "Valiant" and "Princess." The terms, officials declared, could be used even if some consider them "self-indulgent or silly."

Certain label phrases, too, already are closely defined. An "estate bottled" wine, for instance, must come from grapes crushed and fermented, and juice bottled, all "in a continuous process" on the winery premises.

Regulators, though, do not currently define the stand-alone term "estate." It can be used more freely on labels, as can other undefined terms such as "reserve," "bottle aged" and "select harvest." As a result, some worry that wine drinkers can be misled.

"Most consumers do not speak or understand 'wine' language or terms, therefore many terms used on wine labels and in advertisements can be very misleading and confusing," Calabasas, Calif. resident Ashley Rosenfeld advised officials.

But the Wine Institute and major companies such as Diageo, which runs 36 wine brands, including Beaulieu Vineyard, caution that the imposition of stricter label definitions could undermine U.S. dealings with the European Union, which uses label terms competitively.

"They should be careful in establishing domestic definitions, when there's an effort by the European Union to preclude use of traditional expressions," Lee said.

An Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau spokesman could not be reached Tuesday.

ON THE WEB

Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau website

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