How many servings are in this magnum of wine? How many calories are in this beer? Soon, consumers may be able to find answers to these questions by reading the backs of their bottles and cans.
Two consumer advocacy groups -- the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the National Consumers League -- are petitioning the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) for a standardized label on all alcoholic beverages that includes information on serving size, alcohol content, calories and ingredients. So far, reaction from the wine industry has been mixed.
George Hacker, director of CSPI's Alcohol Policies Project, said the labels would provide valuable nutritional and diet information and alert consumers to possible allergens (such as fining agents used to clarify the wine). Currently, wine labels are required only to mention the presence of sulfites.
The new regulations could also fix jurisdictional cracks between the TTB and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Hacker said. Right now, the FDA requires nutritional labels only on beverages (excluding malt beverages) that contain less than 7 percent alcohol by volume. "There are several layers of confusion here," Hacker said. "I don't know why there are different regulations. I believe some standardization is necessary."
For one thing, Hacker said, the labels would make it easier for people to understand how much they are consuming. "People should be able to recognize that a 12-ounce beer with 4.2 percent alcohol by volume might be considered one serving, but a 12-ounce can of malt liquor that contains 7 or 8 percent might be two servings."
The proposed labels would also contain the wording "U.S. Dietary Guidelines advice on moderate drinking: no more than two drinks per day for men, one drink per day for women."
That wording is likely to meet contention from producers. "I can see a lot of people in the wine industry quarreling with that statement," said David Sloane, president of Wine America, a trade association representing wineries across the country. "Other countries would certainly quarrel with the guidelines. They already adopt a more aggressive policy in terms of promoting wine for its health benefits."
The U.S. wine industry tried for years to convince the government to allow labels directing consumers to their doctors or to the complete federal dietary guidelines for more details about the health benefits and drawbacks of wine consumption. CSPI opposed those efforts; it proposed making the warning labels on alcohol beverages larger and more vivid, but the government rejected that idea.
Winemakers may also oppose the labels because requiring them to list ingredients could cause difficulties for them, depending on how specific the listings need to be, Sloane said. (A sample label provided by the CSPI lists wine's ingredients as "grapes, yeast, sulfating agents and sorbates.")
"Wine, unlike beer and spirits, is a 100 percent agricultural product," Sloane said. "It's not a processed thing that's absolutely consistent every harvest. The alcohol levels vary, the sugar levels vary, all kinds of things that would effect the nutrition information and ingredients, so it may present unique challenges for wineries to be able to comply. This could present some significant burdens for smaller wineries."
Patrick Campbell, owner of Laurel Glen winery in California's Sonoma County, agreed. "Every wine a vineyard produces is slightly different," he said. "And a lot of wineries only make 100 cases of wine. The cost of getting the wine analyzed would be crippling. That would pretty much eliminate small-lot, hand-crafted wines."
Ingredients aside, Campbell said the other parameters are "perfectly reasonable."
The CSPI said the benefit to the consumers outweighs the cost to the wineries. "I think the regulators need to determine to what extent it is practical and feasible for producers to list their ingredients," Hacker said. "They already do it with food, and I can't imagine it would be any more difficult for winemakers."
One company has already announced it will voluntarily comply with the proposed labels. Beverage giant Diageo -- which owns beer and spirits brands such as Guinness and Johnnie Walker and wineries such as Beaulieu Vineyard and Sterling Vineyards -- announced Wednesday that, starting in 2004, it will begin printing more information on its products, including alcohol content, serving size, macro-nutrients, carbohydrates and calories.
"We applaud the coalition of consumer advocacy organizations for their proposals to provide increased product information to consumers and endorse its content and purposes," said Guy L. Smith, Diageo executive vice president.
However, Smith said Diageo is still against the idea of mandatory labeling requirements. "More government regulation is just not necessary. Voluntary approaches to providing consumer information will work. Broad mandates from government are not called for."
The TTB said it will carefully review the petition and request more information from the involved parties, if necessary, before making any decision. "We've got a lot of work to do before we can make any recommendations," said Arthur Resnick, the TTB's director of public affairs. "What we're looking to do is find a balance."
Wine America and the Wine Institute, a California winery association, both said more time and deliberation is needed before deciding how the regulations, if adopted, would affect the wine industry. "We will study the proposal from the unique perspective of wine production, with an open mind, but we are concerned about the potential burdens," Sloane said.
Read past news articles on the debate over wine labels: