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Stricter wine labeling rules? Put a cork in it, vintners say

May 16, 2011|By Michael Doyle
  • Wine label disputes occur often, typically revolving around issues like health warnings, nutrition information and the origin of the wine itself. The current debate centers on what words mean and how much rhetorical leeway winemakers should retain. Above, a worker bottles wine at the Casa Bianchi vineyards in San Rafael, Argentina.
Wine label disputes occur often, typically revolving around issues like… (Enrique Marcarian, Reuters )

Washington — Ready for a wine quiz?

Look at a label and define these terms: Barrel fermented. Bottle aged. Old vine. Vineyard. Reserve.

Surprise: There's no correct answer.

That might change.

Evocative but ill-defined terms have proliferated on labels as wineries seek to distinguish themselves from the competition. Now regulators' proposals to sharpen wine label definitions have incited industry debate and gone global.

"It's already time-consuming to get labels approved, so the more restrictions they put on, that's an issue," said Laurie Kelsey of the Kelsey See Canyon Vineyards in San Luis Obispo. "I would hope that whatever they do doesn't make it more complicated."

Nonetheless, a Treasury Department agency is considering proposals to tighten certain wine label definitions. Dozens of wineries and wine industry organizations, and several foreign governments, including Australia and New Zealand, have weighed in.

Wine label disputes occur often, typically revolving around issues like health warnings, nutrition information and the origin of the wine itself. The current debate centers on what words mean and how much rhetorical leeway winemakers should retain.

The agency known as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau already closely regulates much of what appears on a wine label. The popular term "estate bottled," for instance, can be used only if strict criteria are met concerning where the grapes are grown, crushed and fermented.

In other cases, wineries can be more creative in labeling so long as the words are truthful.

Last year, regulators began soliciting industry and public opinion about the wisdom of imposing stricter definitions. They noted, for instance, that the commonly used word "estate" is not legally defined except when it's used in the phrase "estate bottled."

"One industry member contended that the term 'estate grown' does not convey information about the bottling conditions of the wine and that, therefore, wine labeled with that designation should not have to meet the 'estate bottled' requirements," regulators noted last year.

More broadly, the regulators are wondering whether to require strict definitions for an array of terms that include "proprietors blend," "old vine," "barrel fermented," "reserve," "select harvest," "bottle aged" and "barrel select."

The labeling proposal prompted extended internal debate among leaders of the Wine Institute, which represents much of the industry.

"Our members concluded they were satisfied with existing label regulations," Wine Institute President Robert Koch advised the Treasury Department, adding that the winemakers saw no "compelling need" to tighten definitions.

The California Assn. of Winegrape Growers likewise doubted the need, and New Zealand officials stressed they were "not aware" of any consumer confusion about wine label terms.

Still, some winemakers say stricter definitions could help.

"We plan to use the term 'estate bottled' for any wines we control from growing grapes to finished bottle, but we do not like the fact that others may use the term 'estate' and not follow any of those processes," John Pratt and Shari Eaton, owner of Stone Hollow Vineyard in Oregon, noted in public comments.

Tom LaFaille, the Wine Institute's international trade policy director, added in formal comments that imposing tighter definitions would weaken the position of U.S. negotiators who are wrangling with the European Union over wine label terms.

Regulators haven't indicated when they will take the next step on a labeling proposal.

Doyle writes for McClatchy News Service.

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