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What's in a Vintage Date? California Wine Industry Seeks Change in Rules

Proposal would let some wines contain only 85 percent grapes from the labeled vintage

Daniel Sogg
Posted: May 6, 2005

Almost every wine, with the exception of non-vintage bubblies and Ports, bears a vintage on its label. Connoisseurs may use the year to judge the potential quality and style of what's in the bottle, but what does that date really mean?

That depends on the country of origin; more often than not, a vintage date does not guarantee that the wine was made exclusively with grapes grown that year. Now, after five years of contentious debate, advocates for the California wine industry are asking federal authorities to give them more freedom when it comes to labeling their bottles.

Under current rules, at least 95 percent of the grapes in a vintage-dated U.S. wine must be from the indicated year. But a new proposal submitted to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau seeks to lower that minimum to 85 percent on bottles bearing a state, county or multicounty appellation, such as California, Napa County or Central Coast.

Wines with regional appellations, such as Napa Valley or Russian River, would still have to meet the 95 percent requirement.

The proposed change comes as U.S. wineries struggle to retain market share against foreign competitors, many of whom have less restrictive vintage labeling requirements. "This is to try and gain trade equity for California wineries," said Wendell Lee, general counsel for the Wine Institute, the trade organization that submitted the proposal. "There's a large influx of foreign wines that we believe to be coming in at 85 percent."

Australian producers, for example, already have 85 percent as their vintage-date minimum, while 75 percent is the floor for estates in Chile and South Africa. That, according to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, gives foreign vintners a competitive advantage, because having the leeway to blend wines from different years makes it easier to smooth out vintage variation and achieve the consistency consumers seek in inexpensive wines.

The proposal is really targeted at the larger U.S. vintners who make the high-volume, value-priced wines that dominate the American market. In general, small-production California wineries don't take advantage of even the 5 percent wiggle room they have each vintage. (They do, however, sometimes top barrels from the previous year with the most recent vintage.)

That difference in perspective between big California operations and boutique estates accounted for the proposal's lengthy incubation period. "We know this does not meet with all of our [more than 800] members' approval," Lee acknowledged.

Earlier in the debate, the Wine Institute's governing board considered a proposal to lower the vintage-labeling requirement to 85 percent for all U.S. wines, including those with regional appellations such as Rutherford or Santa Rita Hills. But the board stayed deadlocked on that idea. A suggestion that federal authorities enforce a 95 percent requirement for imported wines was judged impractical.

The federal government isn't likely to take action on the current proposal for some months, as it has yet to even seek comments and the issue remains controversial.

Some opposition to the current proposal comes from wineries that fear guilt by association. They believe that more lenient labeling laws might weaken consumer confidence in American wines, even in high-end, regional-appellation bottlings unaffected by the rule change.

Other vintners insist that vintage differences should be celebrated, not effaced through blending. "This [proposal] will make wines more generic," said Doug Shafer, co-owner of Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley. "You lose an essential aspect of individuality and distinctiveness. The winemaker's response to the vintage is what makes the [character of the] wine every year."

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