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Stir Over Selling Wines of Different Times

Wineries and growers are split on raising the percentage allowed from older vintages.

September 29, 2003|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

If some California winemakers have their way, imbibers could one day say they made a fine 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, with a good measure of 2003 thrown in.

In a battle pitting growers of the state's best wine grapes against their winery customers, the $14-billion wine industry is debating whether to ask the federal government to relax the rules regulating how much of a particular vintage is actually in the bottle.

Today, a wine label that says it's a 2002 vintage may contain as much as 5% of wine made from grapes picked during another year's harvest.

Next month, a committee of the Wine Institute, the state industry's top trade and lobbying group, will discuss whether to petition the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau about increasing to as much as 15% the amount of the non-vintage wine allowed.

The rule change would apply only to wine labeled by political boundaries, such as Napa County or California. Wine labeled by appellation -- a legal definition of a wine region, such as Napa Valley or Carneros -- still would have to follow current regulations requiring that 95% of the contents come from the same vintage.

Some winemakers say that increasing the percentage of non-vintage wine would put the U.S. industry on par with other nations. It also would give vintners more options for creating a better product and help offset the effects of a poor harvest by allowing more wine from a better vintage.

"It can help with quality by blending in older wines that are softer and more approachable," said Daryl Groom, chief winemaker and executive vice president of Peak Wines International, the Healdsberg winery that produces the Geyser Peak and Canyon Road labels.

Critics of the proposal contend that wineries just want to use supplies amassed during a three-year grape glut and reduce the amount of fruit they buy from grape suppliers.

Premium grape grower Andy Beckstoffer called the proposal, "a long-term solution" to the glut, which he said was "a short-term problem." What's at stake, he said, is California's position as a premier wine producer.

"I think there will be a perception by consumers that we are reducing quality," said Beckstoffer, whose 3,000 acres in Napa and the North Coast make him the largest independent grower of top-quality grapes. "The credibility and image of California wine is at risk here."

The issue has grown so hot that most of California's major winery and grower associations are recoiling from taking a stand, fearing that there is no consensus among their members.

"We are going to wait to see what the final proposal is," said Paul Kronenberg, president of Family Winemakers of California, which represents 540 mostly small wineries.

Similarly, the 500-member Allied Grape Growers cooperative, which accounts for a fraction of the 3 million wine grapes grown annually, has not taken a position.

"Nobody wants to get out front on this," said Allied President Nat DiBuduo, who also sits on the board of the California Assn. of Winegrape Growers.

DiBuduo said there were growers in his organization who may be in favor of changing the vintage percentage. Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, for instance, whose grapes generally sell for less than fruit grown in Napa and Sonoma counties, appear more amenable to the idea.

"They just want to be on a fair playing field in the world market and think if the Australians and Europeans do it, we should be able to," DiBuduo said.

Australia and the European Union, the two largest sources of U.S. wine imports, require that 85% of the grapes in a vintage-dated bottle come from the same harvest. Chile and South Africa, which also are major importers, have a 75% rule.

Andi Stebel of Los Alamitos admits that she couldn't taste the difference between an 85% vintage and a 95% vintage wine. To her, it wouldn't matter.

"If there was some wine that was fermented in an earlier year, I wouldn't mind," she said, picking up an $8.49 bottle of 2001 Baron Herzog at Ralph's recently.

If the Wine Institute decides in favor of the rule change, it would attempt to gain the support of other states' trade groups before petitioning the Tax and Trade Bureau, a U.S. Treasury Department agency that oversees the wine industry. The agency then would begin a review period before making a ruling.

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