It's not always easy to find truth in advertising on the shelves of retail wine stores, prosecutors in Northern California recently discovered. District attorneys in San Francisco and Alameda counties threatened to file suit this fall against two of the United States' largest grocery-store chains -- Albertson's and Safeway -- over what prosecutors described as false and misleading in-store wine promotions.
To settle the case, without admitting any wrongdoing, Albertson's and Safeway agreed in late October to pay $30,000 each and to ensure that wines would be promoted accurately in the future.
The promotions in question, known in the industry as shelf talkers and bottle neckers, commonly decorate the shelves at wine retail outlets. As in many stores around the nation, the promotions used in the Northern California supermarkets featured positive wine ratings and tasting notes from Wine Spectator and other publications.
Last fall, prosecutors in San Francisco and nearby Alameda County found that store shelf talkers and bottle neckers sometimes did not match the wines they advertised -- potentially misleading customers.
"We discovered that frequently the wine that was offered for sale in connection with the shelf talker was a different year or sometimes a different varietal," said Tony Douglas, a deputy district attorney in Alameda County. "The rating, for example, might have been for a 1999 Merlot but often what was on sale was a 2000."
That practice, the counties argued, violates California law. Douglas, who specializes in consumer protection for the district attorney's office, began investigating the case in August, following a consumer complaint.
"Upon notification of the problem, Albertson's took steps to rectify the situation," said Stacia Levenfeld, the chain's public affairs manager for northern California. "We took the actions throughout the state of California, and we're not aware of any problems outside that area."
Safeway's corporate director of public affairs, Debra Lambert, said her company took similar action. "We're working closely with our suppliers and distributors and have created a compliancy program." That is being put in place in Northern California, and will eventually be implemented across the country, she said.
Lambert said that while Safeway's employees stock the wines, they do not post the promotions, which are instead placed by local wine distributors. That is a common practice in wine retail outlets around the nation, although laws vary from state to state.
Shelf talkers and bottle neckers are typically produced by wineries and wholesalers, although some specialty wine shops create their own. Consumers rely on them for on-the-fly buying advice, and the industry considers them an effective way to draw attention to products on increasingly crowded store shelves.
"I think they're very powerful," said Tim McDonald, director of trade public relations for Trinchero Family Estates. He frequently relies on such promotions for the company's brands, such as Sutter Home and Trinity Oak. "But we have to be responsible marketers."
Failures to keep the promotions current with the latest releases have long been a sore point with consumers and wine publications whose ratings are cited. Although retailers may claim that any mislabeling on store shelves is unintentional, in the Northern California case, Douglas argued that judging intent is not the point.
"That would really be speculation on my part," Douglas said. "Intent is not the big issue. We were not alleging that it was being done intentionally, but it remains a violation."
Asked if the case represents a larger problem of mislabeling at the nation's wine stores, Douglas declined comment, saying only: "I think part of the reason laws like these were passed was to create an incentive for the industry to police itself."