Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Truth in Labeling? Part 2

Wine labels do not always tell the truth. Do you know how?
Full disclosure labeling, as covered in my last post, would be great. I want to know what is being added to my alcoholic beverages. Fireball has served as an unlucky lightning rod for a conversation that was long overdue. However, listing all ingredients for wine, beer and spirits on the label will take time, if it ever happens at all.
Here are some loopholes you may not be aware of for wine labeling. (I use domestic rules because they are relevant to more readers and because the rules are in English)

The Grape:
That pinot noir you drank last night from California might have had 25% of another grape (or grapes) in it and the winery does not have to tell you this. As long as the grape listed on the label is 75% of the wine, the rest is up to the winery. Syrah is a classic addition to inexpensive pinot, it adds color and body for a low price. The same percentages hold true for any variety of wine, white or red.
Oregon is stricter. In Oregon a pinot noir would have to be at least 90% pinot to be labeled as such. The other 10%? Legally, any other grape is okay. Some other grape varieties (18 of them) are allowed to be 75%. This was mostly allowed due to Bordeaux varieties, red and white, and the tradition of blending them. Rhone varieties are the remaining majority in the list.
To be labeled as coming from Oregon, 100% of the fruit must come from the state. However, if a specific appellation is listed, 5% of the wine can come from outside that appellation as long as it's still from Oregon. For a single vineyard bottling, 100% of the wine must be from that vineyard if Estate bottling is claimed. If not, 5% can come from other sources - within the state. Good luck keeping all this straight.

The Vintage:
The wine can be from different year(s) and still carry a single vintage date. 5% other vintage(s) are allowed if the wine lists a specific American Viticultural Area (AVA). If the winery lists only by county or state then the required percentage for wine of the vintage on the label drops to 85%.

You can read more from the Alcohol and Tobacco Bureau here.

There is more. The division that approves labels often displays inconsistencies. There are plenty of tales of labels being submitted and rejected only to have a re-submission of the same label get approved. The original denier might have been on vacation or at lunch or just having a better day.
Bonny Doon once got a label approved for their zinfandel and they described it as "Beastly Old Vines." Some of these got into the supply chain when the TTB said they could not use the term beastly. Labels had already been printed so Randall Grahm and his merry band took a hole punch and "erased" the word beastly from the label.
The term old vines has no regulations whatsoever. A winery can call their wine old vines whenever they want. Believe the ones that actually tell you how old the vines are on the back label. A winery with a nod to scrupulousness could designate their ten year-old vines as old if they planted some new ones.
Another labeling quirk the TTB allowed was the designation, by Sea Smoke, of a "Grand Cru" vineyard (see Dr. Vino's post). France has a dedicated Cru system but the U.S. does not. Still, it is not forbidden by the French nor regulated by the TTB. Approved...but confusing.

Alcohol is another place wineries can deceive you. Below an alcohol level of 14%, a producer has 1.5% leeway to change the declared level on the label. That's a lot. Taxes increase once the level is over 14% so wineries have an incentive to tell you the percentage is lower than it really is. Once the 14% threshold is surpassed, the adjustment allowance drops to 1%. If the wine is 15% alcohol, an unacceptable level for some drinkers (rightly or wrongly), a winery can label it 14% and skate by. For more on this and to learn about a yeast strain that might reduce alcohol, see an earlier post here.

In the end, truth in labeling is a great concept but if/when it gets fully argued, negotiated and regulated the new labels may still not tell you what you need to know.

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