Read the Label

My wife sometimes gets way ahead of me in the grocery store because I often linger too long trying to decipher the label on some grocery.

You’d be surprised the things I uncover by reading the label thoroughly and then checking USDA or FDA regulations.

Does ‘organic’ on the label tell us anything of value?

The answer depends on what we think ‘organic’ means more so than on what the packager knows it means.

Have you any idea how many different types of sugars are in foods?

More than you can imagine, I’m sure.

I particularly love the variety of ways in which food packagers allude to but never really back up health claims.

On the subject of health claims, let me digress quickly: it irks me that the food industry is allowed to make certain claims on labels, many of which are more a lesson in artful language than in real health benefits, but the wine industry isn’t allowed to even site a particular health study connected to wine, let alone make a claim.

The Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the Treasury Department regulates wine labels. In some cases, TTB approved labels definitely impart information, some needing no or little research (like the vintage date on a label) but most needing some research (like the words Vinted and Bottled By) and others plainly misleading us (like the contents of the GOVERNMENT WARNING).

If I asked you what a vineyard designation on a wine label means, what would you answer? I’m talking about when the label particularly specifies that the grapes came from one particular vineyard.

Some might answer that the designation is a sign of quality, recognizing a particular grape grower or vineyard. Others might say it pinpoints a special vineyard either on the winery’s estate or that the winery has access to by contract or relationship with the grape grower. Still others might be under the impression that the vineyard designation is a regulated comment that tells us something important about the wine or the winery.

Oddly, each answer above is correct—and incorrect.

When a vineyard designation appears on a wine label of an Estate Bottled wine, it means that 100% of the grapes to produce that wine came from the winery’s estate or vineyards (Estate Bottled means that the entity that is named as the producer on the label grows all the grapes for and does all the production of that particular wine). When a vineyard designation appears on any label other than for an Estate Bottled wine, it means that 95% of the grapes for that wine came from the designated vineyard.

The above is the extent of the TTB vineyard designation regulation.

You might notice that there are no particular growing or quality requirements in the regulation for vineyard designation on a label.

If you ask a wine producer what the vineyard designation on his or her wine means, surely you’ll be told that it means that the vineyard consistently produces some sort of recognizable quality, and that’s a fine answer. But if you ask ten producers, you might get as many as ten different definitions of what defines ‘recognizable quality.’

Without codified parameters governing the designation, the practice of vineyard designation on wine labels can quickly and easily become just a marketing tool to lure the unsuspecting into thinking there’s something special about that wine.

I’m not saying that there is no reason for designating vineyards on wine labels. But it would be nice if what it is that makes any particular vineyard special is spelled out and universal.

What do you think it means when you read the words “For Sale Only In…” followed by the name of a state where the wine was produced?

You probably are on the wrong track.

Before they can be applied to bottles and distributed for sale, wine labels must be submitted to and approved by TTB, with one exception: a Certificate of Exemption from Label Approval can be requested if the wine will be sold within the State of production (and not outside of that State’s borders). This exemption allows flexibility concerning label regulations, such as the Appellation or the Vintage date, etc.

What this means in practice is that a winery, say, in Vermont that sources all its grapes from California, doesn’t have to tell us that on the label as long as the wine is never sold outside Vermont. Instead of the appellation, the winery can state “For Sale Only In Vermont.”

This exemption can be used by wineries with second label products to sell. Their Estate Bottled wine is sold and distributed anywhere in the U.S. but their second label wine, sourced from outside their state, is sold at the tasting room and/or at retail only in that state. I see this situation right nearby my home in the Finger Lakes region.

I have no idea why the exemption is allowed, but those words on the label certainly don’t give the consumer much in the way of information. And it could turn into a negative for the winery—people could imagine that the winery is not confident enough in its wines to compete outside its home state.

Reading the label gets you someplace, but you have to know the regulations to understand how far you’ve been taken.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
March 2009. All rights reserved.

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