Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wine producers aren't allowed to use "100% grapes" on label

What's in your wine?

Producers aren't required to list everything that's in it, which is why so many people wrongly fixate on sulfites when they get headaches. Sulfites are just a few of the 59 approved additives in the EU, but they're the only one required to be listed on US labels.

Although wine is food, wine gets a pass on ingredient labeling from the US government, as it does in most of the world. You can add diammonium phosphate and copper sulfate and a bunch of other chemicals, but you don't have to tell anyone. I'm not going to bitch about that here; chemists have told me that the alcoholic fermentation process is a big dividing line and you might not ingest what was added beforehand. OK, stipulated.

However, if a company makes its wines from 100% grapes, without even adding commercial yeast, it should be able to brag about it, right?

Not in the USA, not anymore.

Gideon Beinstock, proprietor of the natural winery Clos Saron in the Sierra Foothills, said he had a label rejected because it said "100% grapes."

"The TTB said it would make other wines look bad," Beinstock said.

That's awful. The TTB, the federal agency in charge of approving wine labels, has had to deal with layoffs because of the financial crisis, and wineries report that not only are label approvals coming more slowly than usual, but the individual bureaucrat's decisions are becoming more unpredictable.

But there's no excuse for that. And Beinstock's not alone.

Tony Coturri, one of the most purist of all winemakers, said, "We have submitted the same label 300 times that said it had no preservatives. And then they rejected it."

That's also awful. I think preservatives -- sulfites -- are crucial to good winemaking, and the great majority of winemakers agree with me. Yet Coturri should have the right to say what he's doing.

Monsanto has been pushing for this sort of law for years. When a federal court of appeals last year overturned an Ohio law preventing dairies from announcing that they didn't use bovine growth hormone, it seemed like the sort of ruling that might set a precedent. It's hardly a great one: it would be better if rBGH-using dairies were required to list it on the label. But to tell dairies that DON'T use it that they can't say so conflicts with the 1st Amendment.

Look at me with the rose-white-and-blue glasses! Nobody gave the TTB the memo.

Would somebody mind alerting the Obama administration? TTB label approval is such a tiny corner of the massive federal government. I believe this is only happening because nobody in the adminstration knows about it.

Stifling the right of wineries to announce what they are and aren't putting in wine isn't just un-Democratic; it's un-American.


Tom said...

It might be true that TTB could in fact allow some of these claims if they were pressured to do it. Aren't there any big-money winery donors to make that point?

But most of it is statutory, and if we start messing with the laws who knows what we'll end up with. This is why congress hasn't amended the Clean Air Act since 1990.

About sulfite labeling -- if a wine has less than 10 ppm of sulfites, which are also produced naturally during fermentation, there's no need to say "contains sulfites" on the label. Saying "no preservatives" in any wine is probably inaccurate -- "no added sulfites" would be more to the point. But I'm sure that's not allowed either.

Sequoiagrapeboy said...

I 100% agree. Hopefully the TTB will allow that comment.

This is the same bullsh*t the TTB is currently getting away with in my case (and I am certain many others).

All my grapes (100% certified organic), no outside bought grapes in my wines, I DO NOT certify my winery and therefore, due to TTB flawed logic, I may not state that the grapes used to make my wine are organically grown.

Follow? I don't...

Nice read though and thanks for banging the drum -- as always.

Gideon said...

In order to get a "sulfite declaration waiver", aka the right to not use the warning 'contains sulfites' on the label, or to label a wine as 'no sulfites added, but may contain naturally occuring sulfites', a winery has to submit a sample of that wine to the ttb lab and then apply for a new label. Every year, every wine. As you may guess, preparing and submitting samples and then the application and then waiting an unknown length of time (officially 21 days, practically much more) for the approval to come before you may order the labels at the printer's - that's a serious ordeal, especially for small wineries.
This law at best is an oversight, at worst an expression of someone's agenda.

Anonymous said...

I hate to do it but I completely agree with the TTB on this one.

Unless I am missing something, the statement "100% grapes" would mean just that. Grapes in a bottle, seeds, skins and even a few spiders from the vineyard.

I think this comes down to a point being made by the wineries producing organic and biodymamic wines. In a sense they are saying, our wines are more healthy, more responsibly grown, more "natural" for you( the consumer) than the other guys. But when it comes down to the science of it, in a majority of the situations these clams are not necessarily true.

In some ways, they are saying the other guy's wines are not healthy, not responsibly grown and unnatural.

Just because a winery follow best practices so there wines don't turn into vinegar, oxidize, get contaminated with Brett and have other flaws, doesn't mean the wines have 300ppm total SO2 or that they dumped in 20 lbs of DAP into a one ton fermentor.

If you did a complete chemical analysis on US grown, organic- biodynamic vs. conventional wines, I doubt the wines would be significantly different in terms of pesticides, fungicides or any other chemicals used in wine making besides sulfites and other associated flaws with the low sulfite wines.

So, If my hypothesis is true, I don't see why Organic-Biodymamic growers deserve special recognition for the term 100% grapes.

Its some what ironic, that wine made without the use of sulfites, and or taken through Malolactic fermentation using "natural" LAB are more prone to contain higher levels of biogenic amines.

Gideon said...

Nothing to do with Organics and/or Biodynamics; let's leave the various religions and camps alone. What it has to do with is what is in the wine. Anything other than grapes? perhaps it ought to be disclosed. And with pride, if it indeed makes the wine more stable, better balanced, darker, richer, etc. And if anybody wants to disclose the true fact that their stuff is nothing but 100% grape juice, with nothing added or taken out and, if to anybody that seems desirable - why should that be forbidden by law?

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


In my opinion, there is an often-blurred line here that needs to be clearly defined. For those people who want labels on wine, do they want Ingredient Labels or do they want Addition Labels?

Currently, the TTB has a very minor form of ingredient labels...."Contains __% alcohol" and "Contains Sulfites." Sulfites were added as a consumer protection due to allergic reactions to sulfites suffered by some folks. If they wanted to be consistent, we would need to come up with a list of other ingredients which need to be tested....such as biogenic amines or histamines or acid levels, which some people have reactions to. In the case of all of these ingredients, testing would need to be done on each wine, each vintage, and the label "100% Grapes" wouldn't be allowed because wine, with nothing added, would contain these chemicals.

The other alternative would be to have a list of additions....such as "tartaric acid, color pro, etc." The issue there is that listing "tartaric acid" on the label would persumably lead people to think that wines without "tartaric acid" on the label has no tartaric acid, when that level might be higher than a wine with tartaric added to it. Likewise, additions like Velcorin, which are added no longer remain in the wine, so you list it even though it isn't in the wine? And then there's filtering, which is a process but isn't in the wine.

The cost of ingredient testing would be very high and perhaps lead to a great reduction in the number of small wineries.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Kristy Charles said...

This whole story seems very familiar. Our winery had a label rejected because we listed "wild ML" in the back label description. Apparently, that's not recognized by the TTB (even though we've had numerous labels approved with it before). Our other proposal of writing "no malolactic cultures were added" was also rejected as disparaging to other wineries, who may have added ML cultures. ...

This happened during a six-month back-and-forth with the TTB while attempting to get a label approved listing the ingredients grapes and sulfur. And nothing else. They simply didn't believe that you can make with without yeast, tartaric acid, yeast nutrients, or anything else.

Eventually, the label was approved, but all mentions of wild ML had to be removed. (More on our blog at