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Vintners Rally Against Criticism

October 13, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Responding to what he believes are unfair attacks on wine in the United States, wine maker Robert Mondavi last week unveiled his plan to defend the beverage by discussing it in terms of art, music, history and culture. His defense plan even includes a discussion by physicians of its health benefits.

The so-called Mondavi Mission was a one-day series of seminars here in which experts in various fields tried to show that wine, unlike its cousin potables, beer and spirits, is historically part of fine dining. They praised it as a beverage of health when consumed in moderation, contending that it enhanced life and did not warrant being called into disrepute.

Safety Concerns

Still, all speakers acknowledged that the product could be abused, and many warned that their comments should be tempered by the fact that wine did, after all, contain alcohol, which lately has been under attack because of possible effects on unborn babies and allegations that alcohol consumption causes cancer and has other side effects.

Mondavi said he created this symposium as an answer to what he said were Neo-Prohibitionists who want all beverages that contain alcohol to be banned or at least labeled as a health hazard.

"It is time for physicians to tell people of the healthful benefits of wine taken in moderation," said Mondavi, 75.

However, a wine industry consultant who asked for anonymity said he believed Mondavi created the Mission because he was "furious that the (Wine) Institute and Gallo haven't done anything to promote wine as a healthful beverage." The consultant said the San Francisco-based institute, the industry's trade association, "is so fearful of product liability lawsuits that they aren't saying anything" that might make a health statement about wine.

John De Luca, president of the institute, said, "I have supported what Robert Mondavi has done because many of the elements (of the symposium) are similar to things we have done in the past. But Mondavi brought it to a state of perfection that we never did."

By coincidence, last Thursday, the day after the Mondavi symposium, the executive committee of the institute met in San Francisco to hear complaints from several wineries who believe their product has not been adequately defended by the trade association.

The Smaller Wineries

The meeting was precipitated by a petition signed last April 27 by 55 smaller wineries--all with production of fewer than 200,000 cases a year. The petition sought a more active voice for smaller wineries in how the institute's campaigns are coordinated.

In particular, the smaller wineries (which included such prestigious names as Matanzas Creek, Arrowood, Girard, Sonoma Cutrer and Jordan) asked the institute to begin "wine with food programs to offset prohibitionist threats." The wineries suggested that the institute initiate a campaign to promote the premise that "wine is the answer, not the problem."

The smaller wineries also wanted the institute to address "warning label issues from the point of view of premium producers."

The institute responded by forming a small-winery committee to study the suggestions. But a source close to that committee said the institute fears that an affirmative-action campaign such as the one suggested would be dangerous and could lead to liability lawsuits.

Moreover, it was learned last week that an official of a foreign trade association, that asked not to be named, said he offered institute president De Luca funds to participate in a campaign to discuss the health benefits of wine. That offer was rejected, said the official.

It was learned last week that a series of free educational and promotional booklets that the institute used to distribute to the public have been sealed by the institute. De Luca said the literature was under review by the institute's outside attorneys, who are checking if the booklets could possibly contain claims for wine that the attorneys feel may not be warranted by scientific facts.

At the executive committee meeting, Mondavi and Jack Davies of Schramsberg Vineyards presented separate plans to develop active campaigns outside the purview of the institute. One insider at the meeting called it a "mini-revolt."

'Steam Is Building'

A winery executive who asked for anonymity commented on the small wineries' irritation at its own trade organization: "The steam is building up. We want the services of a trade association and what we're getting is apparently an attempt to combine with the brewers and distillers to make political deals." De Luca said no political deals have been made with distillers and brewers.

Bill MacIver, co-owner of Matanzas Creek and one of those who signed the April petition, said in an interview late last week: "Wine is under attack today and the institute has done little if anything to bring out the scientific facts about the benefits of wine."

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