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Feds Debate Stricter Wine-Label Rules

TTB asks for public opinions on regulating terms like single vineyard, estate, reserve and others

Ben O'Donnell
Posted: December 1, 2010

Single Vineyard, Old Vines, Estate, Reserve—the terms are common on wine labels, but are they self-explanatory? Or do they allow marketers to dupe consumers? The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) screens the proprietary terms that vintners use on wine labels and advertising materials to ensure that “the representations on the labels truly and correctly represent the content of the containers to which these labels will be applied.” And after roughly five years of logging requests and complaints from vintners and drinkers about the usage of such terms, the TTB has started a debate on whether or not the rules should be tightened.

On Nov. 3, the federal agency posted Notice 109: “Use of Various Winemaking Terms on Wine Labels and in Advertisements; Request for Public Comment.” According to TTB spokesman Tom Hogue, while many such solicitations for public opinion are triggered by a specific petition, this one is simply an instance of general canvassing for industry and consumer opinion. “It’s our job to make sure that those labels are not misleading to the consumer," said Hogue. "Our question was, are these terms misleading if there’s no set definition of what they mean? So we thought we’d go ahead and ask and see if the public thinks these terms need to be given official meaning.”

The terms specifically mentioned in the notice that either have no legal definition, or may need a stricter definition, are Estate, Estates, Estate-Grown, Reserve, Old Vine, Barrel-Fermented, Proprietor's Blend, Single Vineyard, Old Clone, Vineyard Select, Select Harvest, Bottle Aged and Barrel Select, but the notice invites other suggestions for terms that beg a legal definition as well.

This type of notice is the first step in deciding if a regulation needs to be created or amended. After a review of public comments, the TTB will decide whether action should be taken and, if so, will craft a more specific set of restrictions and definitions and invite a second round of public comment. While the window for comment closes on Jan. 3, 2011, requests to extend the deadline are regularly honored.

Notice 109 specifically highlights two sets of terms for public scrutiny, those regarding “estate” wines and “vineyard” wines. Under current regulations, a wine may only be labeled estate-bottled if grown, vinified and bottled on a single property. The word estate alone, however, may be used in a wine’s proprietary name no matter where the grapes are sourced from. Additionally, estate-grown wines for which some part of the vinifying or packaging process takes place off the property cannot receive any special legal distinction. Commenters so far have taken issue with both. “I think that ‘Estate’ should only be used on bottles if the fruit is in fact grown, produced and cellared on the property it claims. It is otherwise misleading to consumers,” wrote Jackie Ross.

Brian Loring of Loring Wine Company said he agrees but questions the value of the designation. “It used to be important that someone said a wine was estate-bottled,” he told Wine Spectator. “The way the industry’s moved, with people sourcing fruit from vineyards and single-vineyard names becoming more prominent, it seems to have lost its importance.”

“Most of [these are] terms that are kind of antiquated in a way,” Loring said. While Loring does not own an estate, he could be affected by any changes to the definition of “single vineyard,” as his winery specializes in single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Under current regulations, for a wine to include the name of a vineyard (or orchard, farm or ranch) on its label and in advertisements, 95 percent of the grapes used must be grown there. But to use the phrase "single vineyard," the TTB requires that 100 percent of the grapes come from one vineyard. The TTB is asking whether this standard should be applied to all wines that name a specific vineyard, orchard, farm or ranch as their source.

That might sound logical, but may not necessarily be practical. “As a small winery, we make so many single-vineyard wines that when we top barrels, it’s tough to keep individual topping tanks around, so we have to keep track of what we top with," said Loring. "If they took it to 100 percent, that could be really burdensome on us.” Small wineries could be hurt by the costs of complying with new or retooled regulations in general.

Hogue said that this sort of frontline perspective is exactly why the TTB asks for public comment, allowing the agency to consider “if there’s something that we’ve missed, if there’s something that only an industry member can tell us about how this affects their operations.”

Two producer-advocacy groups, the Wine Institute and WineAmerica, have raised another objection to the notice. In a letter to TTB administrator John Manfreda, the organizations’ trade advisors, Tom LaFaille and Cary Greene, have requested that the notice be withdrawn because it “severely contradicts U.S. international trade policy." U.S. trade policy has been to oppose the European Union's insistence on legal definitions for “traditional terms” like reserve, clos and château, which the E.U. can use to impede imports of American wines whose proprietary names include such terms, like Clos du Val.

“The way we look at it is that some of this stuff is intended to impose hurdles,” said Greene. Legal adoption of more specific winemaking terms in the U.S., the letter states, completely undermines the official opposition to the E.U.’s similar requirements. “The issue is that this gives credence to an argument that’s under negotiation, and it’s not necessarily an argument that we’ve been supporting," said Greene. "It has the potential to upset really delicate negotiations.”

While some public comments have suggested legal age minimums for “Old Vines” and maximum case-production limits for “Reserve” wines, Loring is skeptical. “There can’t be any panel that’s going to say, this is the best or the least," he said. "The more people get involved in this, it’s just going to be so much more cumbersome. And there’s always going to be people who figure out ways to get around it.”

The full TTB notice and comment section can be found at the federal website www.regulations.gov.

Kasey Dubler
Salt Lake City, UT USA —  December 4, 2010 3:56pm ET
I think this would be wonderful! So many people talk about how confusing French wine is, but I think because of these stricter standards French, and other European wines are much easier to understand. With American wines, unless you know a lot about the specific producer it's hard to tell there wines apart because much of what is written on them is just marketing without any real meaning.

On a side not I believe that our policies on labeling foods in general are not right. Parmesan Cheese should come from Parma. Companies like Kraft have ruined Americans opinions on food. When people are lucky enough to try the real product they often wonder what they have been eating all of their life...
Michelle Bainbridge
Denver, Colorado  —  December 7, 2010 11:26am ET
I do not think the governtment should be involved in labeling US wines at this level of detail. It is burdensome to the industry. I would like the industry to police itself, and identify standards for common terms used.

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