Tuesday, September 20, 2016

US government makes small, smart move toward accurate alcohol levels on wine labels

One of my longtime criticisms of US wine law is the inaccuracy of alcohol levels on labels. While all of Europe (and Argentina) requires the alcohol level listed on the bottle  to be within 0.5% of the actual alcohol level, the US allows it to be off by as much as 1.5%.

That law hasn't changed, unfortunately. But the federal TTB (Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau) made a small rule change yesterday with big implications.

This rule change will not only lead to better information; it will lead to better wine.

The rule change is a simple, smart one. When applying for federal label approval for wine, producers and importers no longer must list the alcohol level on the application.

Wine companies also no longer need to list the vintage on the application, which makes sense. If the label hasn't changed in a generation, why should a winery need to reapply for approval? But I digress.

The federal label approval process has always been the No. 1 reason wine producers give for not being able to provide consumers with accurate alcohol information.

In many cases wineries have to submit the label for approval before the final blend of the wine has been decided. They have to guesstimate how much alcohol the actual wine will have. That means label approval has driven many winemaking decisions, which is bad for everybody.

This was especially true for large wineries. A boutique producer of Pinot Noir might be able to wait for label approval before bottling -- in fact, it's for just this kind of wine that accurate alcohol labeling can be a big selling point -- but the companies that make most of the wine we drink simply couldn't hold up the production process that long.

Now, there is no excuse. If a winery is bottling wine, it knows how much alcohol is in it. That can be tested moments before bottling. In Argentina, the alcohol level is stamped on, and why not? Alcohol level does not need to be part of a preprinted label in Argentina. Now it doesn't need to be here either.

The tax levels for wine haven't changed; wine under 14% alcohol will still be taxed at a rate 50 cents per gallon lower, or about 10 cents less per 750 ml bottle. 10 cents tax difference isn't significant for fine wine but it's important for companies trying to sell low-margin wine under $10, so many of those wines will still be treated however they need to be to be under 14% alcohol.

The 14% dividing line hasn't changed, but at that line better winemaking decisions will be made. It's a big problem to say your wine has under 14% alcohol on the label when it actually has 14.1%, so previously wineries might remove some alcohol with intrusive physical processes, dilute the wine with weaker bulk wine, or just add water. Now they can make a decision to sell it at 14.1% and pay 10 cents more tax per bottle. Wine will be better because of this rule.

This move by the TTB is also great for consumers who care about what we're drinking. No one is calling for restrictions on alcohol level. Zinfandel at 17.2% alcohol and Pinot Noir at 12.7% can coexist on the same store shelves, just as cask strength Bourbon sits alongside 25% alcohol liqueurs. We just want to know which is which.

I still want to see the TTB tighten the level of tolerance for alcohol level. But this is a great first step: it's good for the wine industry and good for consumers as well. Nice move, TTB.

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1 comment:

  1. I don't see how this rule change makes any difference in terms of the alc content actually listed on the label, and therefore a potential benefit to consumers via 'truth in labeling'. Yes, we don't have to guess at it at the time of submitting for label approval - that makes sense. But, when we actually print the label it still has to conform to the same under/over 14% constraints...and wine making practices to conform to the appropriate (advantageous) tax bracket are STILL present. i.e. I can still print 14% on my label and pay the under excise tax as long as my wine is 14.21 or less (14x1.015).

    So, as far as this change making a difference in the quality of the wine - I don't see that happening. It just makes the approval and printing process easier.