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Full Exposure?

Posted on  | February 7, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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Labeling rules have evolved, but pressure to reveal wine ingredients continues to mount.

It doesn’t happen often, but it happens often enough. A customer, looking at wine bottle in a retail shop, waves over an employee and asks: “Do you know what’s in this, other than grapes?” Or a diner at a restaurant, who has come especially for the vegetarian tasting menu, wants to know: “Is this wine vegetarian, too?”

Welcome to the controversy that is wine servings facts. The dispute over whether wine should have basic ingredient labeling, nutritional labeling like food—or some combination—has been going on for at least a decade. Yes, new rules in 2013 allowed producers to add some sort of ingredient-minded content, but that didn’t end the controversy.

On one hand are several consumer groups, some big multi-national drinks companies like Diageo and some smaller producers, each of whom supports some kind of facts label, but for their own reasons. On the other hand, most wine producers, domestic and foreign, as well as the industry’s leading trade groups, see labels as unnecessary and burdensome.

The challenge for operators, both off- and on-premise, is to negotiate the controversy-—understanding what’s happening and why, and sharing that knowledge with customers who want to know why soup and candy and even club soda have serving facts information but wine—which is so much more regulated—doesn’t.


The first thing to understand about the label controversy is that different regulators are in charge of different labels. A tomato soup can, with its recommended daily allowance percentages, calories per serving and the like, is under the mandate of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because it includes nutritional content. The Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which oversees alcohol regulation for the U.S. Treasury, makes regulations for alcohol-related labels and uses different criteria.
Light beer has actually been listing calories since it came on the market in the 1970s, even though regular beer doesn’t have to. That’s because light beer made a nutritional claim, that it had fewer calories than regular beer, and so brewers had to include information to support the claim on the label.

The move toward a tomato soup-style label for wine—called Serving Facts—has been going on since the late 1990s. TTB first asked for public comment on a serving facts proposal in 2003, and the bureau expected labels to be on wine bottles by 2010. It was part of a trend toward increased ingredient transparency and it was supported by several prominent consumer groups. As dietician Kathleen Talmadge said in 2009: “Any time the consumer gets more information, that’s a good thing. You want them to be knowledgeable about what they’re buying.”

Yet the proposal went nowhere. Some of that was Washington politics. The Bush administration didn’t see more regulation, even on alcohol, as a priority and was also busy with the Iraq war.  The Obama administration, even if it had been sympathetic to the proposal (and which was never clear), was preoccupied with the recession and the global financial meltdown, which took most of the Treasury’s resources.


What’s more, the wine industry objected more strenuously than anticipated. Not only did it cite label clutter and the cost of labeling, but it argued that it would give a competitive advantage to imported wines. How could a U.S. agency enforce U.S. law in France, Italy or Australia, for instance?

“I don’t think you can underestimate the cost of the labeling for small wineries and the burden it would impose,” says Michael Kaiser, a spokesman for the Wine America trade group, which has 600 members in 50 states. “The label aesthetic is also very important, and we don’t want that taken away, which would serving facts would do.”

In addition, the wine, beer and spirits industries balked at calorie labeling and how to handle serving size, which the proposal defined as the more alcohol in a product, the smaller the serving size. There was disagreement about the proper serving size, not only for wine (five ounces? four?), but also for beer and spirits. Most beer is about 5% alcohol, but craft beers can be twice that, and producers didn’t want a label that said a bottle of their product contained two servings of beer when it was compared to one serving for a bottle of mass-market beer.


There was also a suspicion, says Randall Grahm of California’s Bonny Doon Vineyard, that wineries “don’t want people to know the various tricks and certain stylistic effects that they use on their wine.” This includes the 60-some ingredients legally allowed in wine that aren’t grapes, including Mega Purple (grape juice concentrate used to darken red wine), oak chips and sulfites. The industry is worried, says Grahm, that any additional sulfite labeling, would “freak out” consumers. Ditto mention of the 60-plus approved winemaking materials, from acacia and albumen (egg whites) to isinglass (fining agent derived from fish bladders) and polyvinyl-polypyrrolidone.

Yet Grahm and other influential producers, like Ridge’s Paul Draper, are convinced that some form of serving facts will pay off for wine in the long run. Grahm has listed ingredients for four vintages; Ridge added ingredient labeling in 2013. Draper says quality wine doesn’t need additives like Mega Purple, and consumers deserve to know whether their wine has any.


Hence the 2013 tax and trade bureau decision to allow voluntary serving facts labeling, which has appeased most of the industries involved. “In their minds, the issue is settled,” says Kaiser. “It has been going on for seven years, and the way things are at the TTB, they have more important issues to deal with.”

Wineries who want to add ingredient labels, like Bonny Doon, Ridge and a small New York producer, Shinn Estate Vineyards, can. Or they can use a modified serving facts label that comes in two sizes to fit on the bottle and that includes serving size, servings per bottle, alcohol, calories, carbohydrates, fat and protein. This will almost certainly please the biggest producers, like Diageo, who can then use alcohol and calorie content in their marketing.

In the end, though, the debate comes down the consumer. What does he or she really want? “So far, the consumer hasn’t paid close attention to what we put on the labels,” says Shinn’s David Page. “They have yet to come to realize what’s in their wine. Which is probably why we need to tell them.”


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