Score One for Vintners in Label Wars
By Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor
The recent action of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which approved two different labels on wine bottles alluding to the potential health benefits of wine consumption, stands as one of those rare instances when the federal bureaucracy was both decisive and pro-wine.
Late last year, it appeared that the labels were doomed to a slow bureaucratic death. John De Luca, president of the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, a trade organization, wasn't very hopeful that the labels would ever appear. Two powerful senators, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, had each stated their opposition to the labels.
In March 1998, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin seemed ready to approve the labels in light of the growing body of scientific literature showing the positive health benefits of moderate consumption. Then Thurmond raised a ruckus. As a senator with decades of seniority, his voice could not be ignored. He was joined later by Byrd, who apparently believes that his position best represents his Bible Belt constituency. Throughout most of 1998, they tried to stop the label approval dead in its tracks, threatening to strip the BATF of its authority over labels as well as holding up approval of its personnel appointments and its funding.
Thurmond is the author of the current warning labels you see on wine bottles, which first appeared in 1988. Many at the time believed Thurmond's label to be a punitive reaction to the warning label put on cigarettes, supported by anti-tobacco California congressmen. (South Carolina is a tobacco-producing state.) He is also fiercely anti-alcohol because one of his daughters died in a 1993 car crash caused by a drunken driver.
He says that the new labels will cause more people to drink and abuse alcohol, and he's now threatening to make the wording on the current warning labels even more stern. The vintners' labels will not supplant the current warning, but can be added voluntarily. They also do not make any direct health claims, which is prohibited under BATF regulations.
One of the two newly approved labels is the Wine Institute's version, which guides consumers to federal health guidelines published in 1996 referring to alcohol's potential role in lowering rates of coronary heart disease. It reads, "To learn the health effects of wine consumption, send for the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans." The label also includes Web and mailing addresses for those interested in getting the information.
A second label, first proposed by California vintner Patrick Campbell of Laurel Glen Vineyard almost six years ago, is more direct: "The proud people who made this wine encourage you to consult your family doctor about the health effects of wine consumption."
Whether or not those statements will encourage people to drink more is up to the social scientists to debate. But it is apparent that science may take a back seat to the politics of federal alcohol and health policy, which is coming into sharper focus given recent court decisions against the tobacco industry.
Indeed, at least from the Wine Institute's perspective, the new health label is part of a strategy that the best defense is a good offense. Big Tobacco, you may remember, has been stung by recent product liability lawsuits ruling that it knowingly sold a dangerous substance. With the wording in the federal dietary guidelines and the reference on wine bottles, the Wine Institute and its supporters hope that there's enough cover to provide protection to the wine industry from similar lawsuits.
"I think the BATF's decision is historic on the public policy side. This is not a marketing ploy to sell more wine," De Luca said. "Because the health issue was joined, we had to respond this way." De Luca said that the Treasury secretary, faced with little opposition to the labels within the federal bureaucracy as well as a recent spate of eight scientific papers detailing evidence of the health effects of moderate consumption, could not legally deny the labels. The only delay came when the Surgeon General challenged a reference to "moderate" consumption in the original label, saying its definition was unclear. De Luca signed off on rewording to drop the term from the label's language, and it was approved shortly thereafter.
For Campbell, the battle has not been over the minutiae of federal health policy, but over the free-speech rights of vintners. He first wrote his label in the aftermath of a BATF decision in 1993 against Leeward Winery, also in California, against a reference on its labels to the famous "60 Minutes" program on the French Paradox. That program associated the lower French death rate from heart disease, despite a high-fat diet, to wine consumption.
Campbell is part of a group of vintners called the Coalition for Truth & Balance. Ecstatic over the label approval, he already had some printed up and waiting in the wings. He began putting them on his bottles as soon as the decision was announced.
In the meantime, Thurmond, caught off guard by Rubin's decision, has once again threatened to strip the BATF of its authority over labels and give it to the Food and Drug Administration, which has been a lead agency in the tobacco wars and is seen as the most anti-alcohol agency in the federal bureaucracy. On the other side, there's a lawsuit by the Competitive Enterprise Institute to overturn the BATF prohibition of health claims, on free-speech grounds.
Public hearings will be held this year to help come up with new federal dietary guidelines, to be published in 2000. There is also a move afoot in the Department of Health and Human Services to declare alcohol a carcinogen.
Whatever the final outcome, vintners can at least claim a first-round victory in what promises to be a busy year in the politics of wine and health.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from assistant managing editor Kim Marcus. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions