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TUESDAY TRIBUTES
11/01/2011
Tuesday Tributes
Time For New Alcohol Labeling Rules

By Charles Olken

What you read on wine labels has always been a little misleading, but nothing is more out of touch and out of date than the requirements for alcohol labeling.

The Government of these United States requires all kinds of statements on wine labels. Whether any of them make sense, or make enough sense, has always been a subject of debate. Yet, in this era of increased scrutiny of alcohol levels in wine, the alcohol statement itself is just about meaningless in its current guise.

There are several things wrong with what our Government allows, and none is more frustrating to me personally than the tiny, non-contrasting type size that wineries get away with. If the alcohol statement is so very important, then why are wineries allowed to hide it?

The second bother is the rather new way in which wineries are allowed to place their tiny, non-contrasting alcohol statements sideways on the label in the most obscure location they can find. Nothing else on the label can be stated sideways. Not the winery name or the appellation or the vintage or the variety. Yet, the alcohol statement gets different treatment. Some wise person will know doubt tell us that the reason has to do with European labeling requirements—to which I say, we do not live in Europe. If the alcohol statement is so important, then why are wineries allowed to hide it?

The third thing that bugs me about alcohol labeling is the wide latitude that wineries are given in what they say on the label. If the alcohol statement is so important, then the current set of regulations that allows a 1 ½ per cent range from the actual truth is simply absurd. It caters to lazy wineries that do not want to do the needed testing. It caters to wineries that mislead by bottling several versions of wines under a non-changing label even though the wine itself is changing. And it caters to wineries that intentionally understate the alcohol in their wines because they afraid of the truth.

And, while it is true that the allowed range for wines above 14% alcohol is 1%, that 1% is still far too wide and is used by wineries for the all the reasons cited above. Indeed, in today’s marketplace with so much emphasis on alcohol level, whether that emphasis is overblown (as I believe that it is) or not, wineries have added reason to misstate the alcohol despite knowing exactly what the level is.

It comes down to this. If the alcohol statements on wine labels are important consumer information, then those statements need to be a lot more accurate and a lot more visible than they are today. If they are not important, then the regulations should not exist. But this fiction that the statements are important but the legibility of them is not makes a mockery of those statements. The wineries are laughing up their sleeves, and the consumer are forced into an absurd search for tiny print in non-contrasting color put sideways into the most obscure locations that wineries can find.

Here are a few simple proposals.

Wineries should be required to use a standard testing procedure for each wine and given that the existing procedures do have margins of error, the allowed variation in the label statement should be 0.2 per cent.

Wineries should be required to put the alcohol level on the label in standard location. I personally prefer the bottom of the front label but could live with the bottom of the back label.

The alcohol statement should be of a size that is easily readable. Because we make a note of the alcohol statement for each and every one of the thousands of wines we taste every year, we have taken to having a magnifying glass present in order to decipher some of the most egregiously cynical of those statements.

The wineries are going to complain about these recommendations, yet if one looks behind those complaints, and we have heard them all before, each of their counterarguments is blatantly anti-consumer. Winery labeling regulations are not for the wineries’ benefit. If we have learned anything about consumer protection, it is that the consumers’ needs should be driving the regulations, not those of the industry—no matter how much we love its products and are willing to spend on them.


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Comments

consumer protection
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:10/31/2011 2:55:18 PM

Does this mean that you may favor ingredient labeling, for consumer protection purposes?

No agenda in the question--just wondering.

 

What, Me Complain?
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:10/31/2011 3:05:49 PM

Charlie,

FWIW, there are rules mandating the alcohol content type size, "Alcoholic content statements shall not appear in script, type, or printing larger or more conspicuous than 3 millimeters nor smaller than 1 millimeter on labels of containers having a capacity of 5 liters or less and shall not be set off with a border or otherwise accentuated."

As far as an winery's complaints about your proposed changes being anti-consumer, well, I don't think so.  My complaint would simply be the amount of money that it would cost me to re-register in a number of states (yes, states require registration for each label...at least some of them do), because of a change in label alcohols.  As it stands now, changing the alcohol on a label from 14.3 to 14.6 would cost me upwards of $1300 in registration fees in states where that is considered an important change. 

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Alc Labeling
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/31/2011 3:30:35 PM

Mr. P--I frankly have no problem with ingredient labeling. It has not stopped me from eating sausages of all kinds or other items that I deem good enough for my fragile constitution. American consumers are very familiar with ingredient labeling. I don't see the problem.

Adam--A couple of points. The requirements of point size and placement are ludicrous on their face. No other ingredient in any comestible can be in print so tiny and be so hidden as the alcohol statement can be on wine labels. I have to search to find it and then have trouble reading it because it is sideway on the label, in tiny print and is not in contrasting colors that have enough contrast to make it readable. That portion of my complaints can be easily addressed.

Your point, however, greatly concerns me. Do you not have to register each new vintage? If so, why would changing the alc statement on the label be a problem? I can think of a solution, but it would take label control out of the hands of the states and I recognize that such a solution may lie in the realm of wishful thinking. If you can, please comment further. I do think that changes need to be made, but obviously, I prefer to be asking for rational changes, not dysfunctional changes.

 

Registration
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:10/31/2011 4:01:02 PM

Charlie,

Let's talk about registration requirements.  First, there is the Federal Label Registration.  This is not required from vintage to vintage....only if there is another substantive change in the label, including a change in the tax class (above 14%/below 14%).  There is no fee for changing the alcohol on the label....except the fee that I pay the Compliance Company to make that change.  --  There are then various state registrations if you want to sell wine in certain states.  Some states have registrations for selling wine direct....more states have fees for registering labels for sales thru distributors.  Some of these states require new registrations each vintage, some require new registrations if there is a change in pricing (price posting states), and others require them if there is a change in substantive information (such as alcohols).  Again, we pay a compiance company to make the changes....and some states have fees assocaited with these registrations, others do not.  Thus far this year we have paid a little over $40,000 to our complaince company for their fees and for fees for registrations and shipping compliance in various states.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Ingredient Labeling
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:10/31/2011 4:04:08 PM

Charlie & Thomas,

A question on ingredient labeling.  Would you want "tartaric acid" to be listed as an ingredient on a wine....

1) .....that had 9grams/liter of tartaric acid but had none added to it?

2)....and on a wine that had 5g/liter of tartaric acid but 1g/liter of that was added?

Thanks,

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Ingredient Labeling
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/31/2011 7:04:25 PM

Hi Adam--

Since I don't know the technical ins and outs of ingredient labeling for other products, I guess I would ask for consistency. What happens when things are added to fruit juices when those additions are also components found in the fruit when picked?

No Subject
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:10/31/2011 8:36:54 PM

Charlie,

It depends on a number of factors and what is being added.  I believe acid would need to be listed if added, but not if taken away....but something such as velcorin (which is in Gatorade and a number of other products) doesn't have to be  listed because it no longer remains in the juice after addition.  --  If you would like to check out the listing of regulations for additions, etc. for various products (plus brix limits for juices, etc) you can start here:  http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm

And if you want to end the growth of small wineries and consolidate them all down into just a few companies, much like in the food business, you can implement these same regulations.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Alcohol on Wine Labels
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:10/31/2011 11:57:36 PM

Whoa, Adam, on that last point. I see absolutely no evidence that existing regulations discourage the growth of small food companies. Just the contrary. You can't go into a grocery store these days without finding new locally produced specialty-food products, from cookies and candies to pasta sauces and jams. Despite these trying economic times, the industry looks to be full of drive and creativity. I'm with Charlie in that the alcohol levels on wine too often don't meet the spirit of the law, and I suspect many don't meet the letter of the law, but TTB officials are too busy looking for sexual, political and health connections to pay much attention to the really, really fine print. Adam, you bring up some new and valid concerns about governmental regulations, but I'm also wondering whether your compliance agent might overstate the issue for the hefty fees it is collecting; it isn't a subdivision of the Bank of America, is it?

Small Food Companies
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:11/1/2011 6:52:14 AM

Mike,

Hmm...you see no evidence that small food companies are discouraged by existing regulations?  The reason for that is that the regulations are so burdensome that the FDA purposefully exempted smaller companies.  You can read that here: 

http://www.fda.gov/food/guidancecomplianceregulatoryinformation/guidancedocuments/foodlabelingnutrition/ucm053857.htm

As far as the compliance requirements, I was going to send Charlie a copy of the forms that need to be filled out for direct shipping permits and also for label approvals....would be happy to send it to you so you can see it for yourself....but not sure I have your email handy.  My email is adam@siduri.com and I can send it to you, if you want.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Alcohol
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:11/1/2011 7:03:01 AM

I also realize that we've gotten a bit off the topic of alcohol label specifically without me saying one thing...

The TTB, in 2010, checked alcohol labels on wine and found that approximately 96 percent of them were within current standards.  That same number was true for domestic and imported wines.  The survey results are summarized here: http://www.ttb.gov/sampling/10sampling-results.shtml

Personally, I think Charlie's proposed figure of 0.2% variance is too narrow, as that number could easily occur within the few months between getting your label printed and applying them, due to changes in the wine.  However, I think 0.5% either way is certainly doable and I'd have no problem with that.

That being said, I'd also be in favor of me paying the same tax for my  over 14% wine as my under 14% wines (instead of almost 400% more).

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Labeling...One More Time
by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:11/1/2011 8:54:05 AM

BTW, that exemption for smaller companies on labeling is for nutrition labeling.  For ingredient labeling, it is entirely product dependent as to what must be listed....and things like velcorin, which prevents sweet juice from referementing, are not required to be listed as they no longer remain in the item.

As far as small companies cropping up, I guess I don't see it.  Most orange juice is sold by just a few companies.  Most grapefruit juice is sold by a few companies or larger companies buy the juice from these larger companies and repackage it.  Most grape juice is sold by a few companies.  And on and on.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Disclaimers don't mean a thing...
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:11/1/2011 12:57:32 PM

Adam (Charlie),

As i posted, "No agenda in the question--just wondering."

When someone makes a statement about one regulation on a wine label that does not meet his or her need I am compelled to wonder whether that statement is just a picayune "meet my need" or part of an overarching "meet the consumer's need." I wonder because I am interested in subjects of many shapes and forms and especially in how consistent or not people are being.

Adam, I used to own and operate a winery. I am simpatico with the notion that regulation by 51 separate entities is not only a pain in the rear, it is redundant, wasteful, and often meaningless, unless it's been designed specifically to raise state revenue and nothing more--oops, I may have stumbled on the answer...

Alcohol Percentage labeling
by Rusty Gaffney
Posted on:11/1/2011 5:45:47 PM

Although I agree that the type size used on most labels for alcohol percentage is way too small, especially for the presbyope.  I prefer it written in 2-3mm size type horizontally on the back label.  That said, the vast majority of wine drinkers, excluding wine geeks and serious enthusiasts, pay absolutely no attention to the alcohol percentage of the wine in the bottle.  Some day I am sure we will see back label information like that on all other retail food products and the alcohol will then be more clearly stated.

Government Waste
by Kathy
Posted on:11/1/2011 10:24:15 PM

None of this is as troubling as the money we waste paying government workers (and funding their retirements) to ensure an alcohol warning designed to protect me from myself appears in 2mm type as well the level of alcohol in the wine whose measurement can vary depending on the testing  method used. 

Next, you will be proposing every package of food be plastered with a label - front and center - that says, "Warning, eating food can make you fat".

Studies have proven there is little difference in drinking a 14.2 and a 14.7 wine.  No one is trying to deceive the consumer and very few wineries lie on their label.  You make it sound like its a common practice.  Honestly, if you spent one day working in the business, you'd realize how much of this is absurd and ridiculous.

Unreadable Labels
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/2/2011 12:23:37 AM

Kathy--

If you have worked in the wine biz for more than a day, then you know that the alcohol statement on many labels is simply unreadable. It is type so small that is cannot be read without a magnifying glass and it is often set in colors that are hard to see. I see the examples every time I taste wine.

It is amazing to me that anyone can defend the intentional hiding of this information. Some people may not care about it. Most people may not care. But, increasingly, people do care, and, more importantly than that, it is required information.

Why required information that would be important to some people is allowed to be hidden is beyond reason.

Re: Unreadable Labels
by Kathy
Posted on:11/2/2011 9:00:11 AM

Charlie -

If people do care more, it might have something to do with the campaign by some writers to tell them they should.  I drink alot of wine with collectors (my job) and funny how it never comes up in conversation.

All government required information is displayed in at least 2mm type.  This has a tendency to appear smaller as we age - I know for me it sure does.  It can't be intentionally hidden because the label would never pass the approval process.  Do I read the government warning?  No.  I don't need the government to tell me that drinking can get me buzzed.  Do I care if I can't read the alcohol percentage?  No.  As long as the wine doesn't taste hot to me, I'm fine.  I only drink two glasses anyway.  I'm don't drink wine to get wasted.  I drink it to enjoy.  Maybe that can be your next campaign -- take responsibility for yourself and perhaps we don't need to waste our tax dollars on more regulation.

Unreadable labels
by Lisa
Posted on:11/2/2011 9:31:45 AM

I can't tell you how many times I have had a hard time finding the statement of alcohol by volume on a wine label. I've been known to say: "I know it has to be here; can you find it?" There's no downside to having a .05 variation and a readable number.

No Subject
by gdfo
Posted on:11/2/2011 9:33:49 AM

I have to agree heartily about putting the correct alc level in wines, in one specified location.

And If a wine has Napa on the label it better BE from Napa.

No Subject
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/2/2011 9:51:20 AM

Kathy--

The problem with being right for your limited clientel is just that--it is a limited clientel. I have argued vociferously that wine should be judged by taste, not by label, but that argument does not negate my other points. Wine labesl should be readable. The alc statement, as Lisa points out, is not always readable--adn some consumers do want to know.

If the number is required, then it ought to be readable. Otherwise, the regulation is a sham. And, frankly, my dear, I don't see a downside in making it readable. Do you?

No Subject
by Kathy
Posted on:11/2/2011 11:41:10 AM

I could make an argument an alcohol designation is not needed at all.  If you drink responsibly, it doesn't really matter how much alcohol is inside the bottle.  Feeling buzzed?  Slow down or stop drinking.  Duh.  How hard is that?  Be responsible for yourself.

If you have a glass or two, there's no perceivable difference to your body between a 14.2 and a 14.7 - proven fact.  If you're going to drink more than that, or perhaps the whole bottle, you're going to be drunk anyway.  So are you telling me you're fighting for the right to gauge how drunk you're going to get when you drink more than you should?

I'm not advocating we take it off but its really a non-issue.  Just drink responsibly.

A Non-Issue??
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/2/2011 12:14:58 PM

To whom?

To the Govt?

To Raj Parr?

To thousands of consumers?

Drinking responsibly is always a concern. It has little to do with the right of the consumer to know what he or she is ingesting--if they care.

No Subject
by Susan
Posted on:11/2/2011 12:32:32 PM

I consider the alcohol to be just one more data point on the wine, such as vintage, appellation, varietal, etc. Though I certainly know I'm about to drink a Pinot, I usually taste the wine, give it a quick evaluation, then perhaps look at the label to see what the alcohol is, what the back label copy says, and so on. Sometimes I'm surprised that the alcohol is higher/lower than I might have guessed, but that bit of information never changes my thoughts on the wine or my decision to have another glass.

Yes, finding it can sometimes be a challenge, especially when the text color is just a tad different than the label background. Because I have been on the creative side of labels, I understand that designers try to make it blend in because it's just not an attractive design element. I like the idea of just tagging it onto the government warning text, as some wineries already do.

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