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Message on a Bottle: Winery Wins Permission to Put Antioxidant Content on Labels

Willamette Valley Vineyards hopes that listing the amount of resveratrol in its wines will appeal to health-conscious buyers

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: February 24, 2005

Having heard about the potential benefits of the antioxidant resveratrol, many health-conscious consumers have sought supplements and foods rich in the compound. Now, trying to capitalize on the high concentration of resveratrol in many red wines, Willamette Valley Vineyards in Oregon has obtained federal permission to print the resveratrol content of two of its wines on the labels.

The winery's move may pave the way for others. In a growing trend, wine companies have been seeking to give shoppers more nutritional details, such as carbohydrate and calorie content, that would reflect favorably on their products. Yet the federal government has largely resisted any efforts to make a direct connection between wine and health, even requiring a disclaimer to be included on proposed labels that directed people to their doctors or the U.S. dietary guidelines for more information on the health effects of wine.

"I do believe the science supports the antioxidant value, but all I am attempting to do is provide more information to wine consumers," said Willamette Valley Vineyards president Jim Bernau. "They could then make up their own mind, just like deciding if they want to drink an organic-labeled wine."

The winery has already seen demand for such listings in other countries. "The Chinese market is very health-aware," Bernau said, "and [the importer] asked us to include the resveratrol content on the label."

On the back label, Willamette Valley Vineyard discreetly lists how much resveratrol the wine contains.
The winery's new labels, which will be rolled out on March 1, are on its Pinot Noir Whole Cluster 2003 (which has 25.9 micromoles of resveratrol per liter) and the Pinot Noir Vintage Select 2002 (28.1 micromoles of resveratrol per liter).

A micromolar concentration above 10 is very high for a red wine, according to Cornell University researcher Leroy Creasy, who studied resveratrol levels in four varieties: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. He concluded that an average red wine could have a concentration of 3 to 4 micromolars, but that Pinot Noir and cool-climate wines tend to have much higher concentrations of the compound.

Resveratrol--which is found in grapes (primarily in the skins, making it more abundant in red wine than in white) as well as certain nuts and berries--has become a darling of researchers who hope to unlock its potential healing powers.

Numerous studies have linked moderate consumption of alcohol, red wine in particular, to improved cardiovascular health, and some research indicates that resveratrol may contribute to that by reducing cholesterol levels. Other recent studies have found that resveratrol may help fight some types of cancer, alleviate some lung diseases , reduce the growth of skin melanomas and sunburn damage and extend the longevity of some basic organisms.

However, other medical researchers doubt that red wine is any more protective than other alcoholic beverages; they instead believe that the potential health benefits of moderate drinking are linked to ethanol, rather than specific polyphenols such as resveratrol.

Bernau said his desire to include the resveratrol count on labels was influenced by his personal experience. Last year, he was hospitalized for a heart problem, which turned out to be high blood pressure. After performing an angiogram, the cardiologist "proclaimed I had the best looking heart arteries he has ever seen," Bernau said. He is convinced that is attributable to the resveratrol content of the Pinots he drinks, and his doctor encouraged him to continue his moderate consumption.

But actually adding resveratrol information to the labels proved a bit of a struggle. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB), which regulates the wording and design of wine labels, initially rejected Bernau's applications. The TTB told Bernau: "You may not make misleading curative or therapeutic claims on labels, or create misleading associations between the consumption of alcohol and health."

To satisfy the bureau, Bernau had to delete most of his intended wording and stick mainly to the resveratrol levels, which he has measured by an independent lab. The 2002 Pinot Noir label makes no reference to what resveratrol is, and the 2003 label simply states, "Pinot Noir develops a natural defense against botrytis (mold) in our moist cool climate--the antioxidant resveratrol."

Bernau is trying to push the labeling wording further, by getting a bill introduced in Oregon's House of Representatives that would give him more leeway within the state. Arguing that the 21st Amendment gives states the right to regulate alcohol sales within their borders, he said what he hopes to do "is to permit the sale of Oregon wine in Oregon where the label has been rejected by the feds solely on the basis of the listing of antioxidants."

While he would not attempt to sell wines bearing rejected labels in other states, he said, "The bigger issue here is that if our state legislation is successful, the federal regulatory agency will get the message that at least one state government feels voluntary listing of antioxidants on wine labels is in the public's interest."

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