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U.S. Government Puts Hold on Montepulciano and St.-Emilion Wines

New labels won't be approved for import until Italian and French governments clarify controversies, federal agency reports

Mitch Frank, Tina Benitez
Posted: August 8, 2008

Some bottles of wine from Tuscany and possibly Bordeaux are currently trapped in United States customs limbo, due to concerns of the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The federal agency, which oversees alcohol labeling and taxes and must approve the labels of all imported wines, is withholding approval for new labels—including previously imported wines with a new vintage on the label—for all wines from Montepulciano and St.-Emilion.

In June, the TTB sent letters to both the Italian and French embassies asking for more information on recent controversies in those two appellations. Until it receives a satisfactory explanation, no new labels will be approved. "We're holding any new applications for certificates of label approval while waiting for clarification from their governments," said TTB spokesman Art Resnick. "We're not rejecting them, but we're not approving them."

The controversies stem from two very different legal squabbles. Italy's financial police are currently investigating Vino Nobile di Montepulciano producers for allegedly using grapes from southern Italy in their wines. One winery under investigation is Gattavecchi, which is owned by the president of the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Luca Gattavecchi, who has temporarily stepped aside.

In St.-Emilion, the dispute is over the appellation's classification system. Last month a Bordeaux court struck down the 2006 classification of Grand Cru Classé and Premier Cru Classé properties, ruling that the rating process was biased. (St.-Emilion's wine industry reclassifies its top producers every 10 years.) A week later, the French senate temporarily restored the 1996 classification until a new ranking can be conducted, but eight châteaus promoted in 2006 are objecting, leaving producers unclear about what ranking to put on their labels.

While the legal battles rage in Europe, the TTB decided it had to get involved to protect consumers from possible fraud. "This is not a safety issue," said Resnick. "We're concerned about consumer deception." According to Resnick, the French government has responded to the agency's letter, but neither country has settled the issue satisfactorily yet. Wines already approved by the TTB can be imported, but new labels, including new vintages, will be held up. "Without a certificate of label approval, a wine cannot be sold," said Resnick. "They won't make it past customs."

This is the second time this year that the TTB has threatened a European appellation with a wine blockade. After news broke in April that Brunello di Montalcino producers were being investigated for allegedly using grapes other than Sangiovese in their wines, the TTB asked the Italian government for an explanation and demanded any Brunellos be certified as 100 percent Sangiovese by a lab. Before any wines were blocked, however, the two governments worked out an agreement. Since then, two of the wineries under investigation have been exonerated, while the others wait for laboratory tests.

The news of a possible customs block came as a surprise to both wineries and importers. Only one importer of Vino Nobile, who did not wish to be identified, reported having wines delayed. No St.-Emilion importers have reported any problems, yet.

"I haven't heard anything about it until now," said Miriam Caporali, general manager and co-owner of Tenuta Valdipiatta in Montepulciano. "The Consorzio del Vino Nobile didn't get any communication from the Italian Embassy and nobody is having any troubles in shipping wines to the US."

"We haven't received any communication from the embassy, from our compliance department, ministry of transportation or customs," said Beatrice DeMarco, vice president of imports and purchasing at Winebow, which imports Valdipiatta and a few St.-Emilion wines.

But if the matter is not cleared up soon, it will begin to impact imports, and at a time when both Italian and French producers are worried that the weak dollar will hurt sales. The United States is a major market for both Montepulciano and St.-Emilion. And the move could be a sign that the TTB plans to be far more vigilant with wine imports in the future. Resnick insisted it was not part of a larger effort. "What's triggering it is the news from these countries."

Industry members may not be satisfied by that explanation. "I don't know how the U.S government is benefiting consumers by checking the wines," said Gordon Hullar, president of Vintner Select in Ohio, which imports Vino Nobile from Dei.

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