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TTB: time to clear up vague, misleading label terms


Do you ever wonder about the real meaning of certain terms on wine labels? Well, so do a lot of other people, which is why the  Federal government is opening up a real can of worms with its announcement that the agency in charge of wine label wording, the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), is launching hearings designed to reconsider the definition of such terms as “estate,” “estate bottled,” Proprietor grown,” “Vintner grown,” “Vineyard,” “Single vineyard,” “Old Vine,” “Reserve,” “Barrel Select” and a host of others.

(You can read the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking here. Scroll down to Notice No. 109, which will give you a PDF.)

Big news, and about time. For too long, wineries have had too much leeway in their creative employment of such words, which are confusing and can mislead consumers into coming to conclusions about the wines that aren’t true.

Take the term “estate bottled.” Up until now, a wine can be called “estate bottled” only if (a) it is labeled with an appellation of origin, and (b) the bottling winery is located in the labeled viticultural area, grew all of the grapes used to make the wine on land owned or controlled by the winery within the boundaries of the labeled viticultural area; and crushed the grapes (there are some additional restrictions).

That’s reasonable enough, right? Here’s where things get murky. For years, TTB has (in their words) “allowed the term ‘Estate grown’ to be used as a synonym for ‘Estate bottled,’” meaning use of the former would have to conform to the same conditions that govern use of the latter. But “some industry members” now are requesting TTB to let them use “Estate grown” even if “Estate bottled” conditions haven’t been met, since, they argue, “Estate grown” says nothing about bottling conditions.

That may sound reasonable, too, except that you have to wander further into the thicket to understand just how radical this proposed change is. For it all centers around the definition of “estate.”

The problem, in TTB”s words, is that “the regulations do not address or define the word ‘Estate’ or ‘Estates’…”. In other words, the word “Estate/s” means nothing…nada…zilch…and never has. So even though the word seems to convey some sort of authenticity or quality or prestige sourcing, it doesn’t. It’s about as useful as the words “New!” and “Improved!” on a box of soap flakes (and using it so loosely erodes the confidence the consumer has in wines that really are estate grown). Therefore, if “estate/s” is meaningless, and “estate grown” is divorced from its connection to “estate bottled,” then “estate grown” is meaningless. And down the slippery slope we go.

TTB is asking the public to weigh in on these things. On their website, they present a list of fuzzy label terms, and then they ask:
“1. Which terms currently used in wine labeling and advertising should TTB consider defining, if any, and what should those definitions be?
2. Why or why not should TTB consider defining such terms?”

I’ll take a crack at some of them.

“Reserve” and “Private Reserve.” These are routinely and wantonly abused because they have no meaning whatsoever. A wine cannot be a “reserve” unless there’s a “regular” but in case after case, you find there is no regular. So change the law. Make it mandatory that “reserve” is a small percentage of the winery’s regular bottling of that wine.

“Barrel Select.” A true barrel selection means you took a portion of your best barrels, as determined by tasting, and bottled them separately. Unfortunately, most wines labeled “barrel select” don’t seem to have undergone this sorting out process. Change the law to make “barrel select” mean what it says. (The term “barrel select reserve,” which quite a few wineries use, therefore would be an oxymoron.)

“Old Vines.” Consumers think this is some kind of guarantee, both of age and of quality, but it’s not. It doesn’t mean anything. Change the law to make “old vine/s” mean vines that are at least 25 years old; and then make it so that the labeled wine has to contain at least 90% of grapes from those vines.

“Old Clone.” Nobody knows what this means, either, because it doesn’t mean anything. There are no “old clones,” properly speaking. There are “old selections,” but just because a vine is “old selection” is meaningless from a quality point of view. Therefore, change the law. If a winery says it’s “old clone,” make them spell out just what clone or selection they’re talking about, and make them prove that the vines the wine is made from, or at least 90% of them, indeed are comprised of that selection.

The following terms also are meaningless, but we don’t want the hand of government to get too heavy, do we, so I’d leave them alone: “Proprietors Blend,” “Select Harvest,” “Bottle Aged.”

  1. Sarah Goedhart says:

    I agree that certain words on label should be defined, but consumers shouldn’t necessarily believe everything they see on a label. I am usually skeptical when I see the word reserve, barrel select, etc… The power of marketing can be great. Here’s one for ya. We made a port-style wine called Fortified. We did not want to call it Port b/c it’s not from Portugal. The TTB wouldn’t approve the label b/c they said that the term Fortified misleads the consumer to think we added spirits to the wine. Hmmm, but we did!

  2. In 40 years in this industry, five wineries, hundreds of SKU’s, all “Estate bottled; I have only had an ATF agent in a winery maybe three times and then only to verify that they were getting all the revenue they were entitled to get. They are not interested in getting into the mess of determining conformance to vague definitions that lack definition. Their interest is in revenue.

    Take Estate Bottled. You quote the definition…”land owned or controled” so how is that requirement interpreted? The answer is as broadly as possible. (“control” was put in the definition thru the lobbying of wineries with the help of the Wine Institute because many wineries had established “Estate Bottled” brands that depended upon grapes purchased from outside growers.)

    When Estate Bottling was first defined, we were advised by our attorney we needed a “long term” contract to buy the grapes (they said minimum three years) which included a clause that we had the “right to control all acts of viticulture on the property”, and we were advised we should actually have an employee go into the vineyard and meet with the grower now and then, and document these visits. (That we actually did anything to “control” vineyard practices was immaterial, create a paper trail.) That lasted for a year of so.

    Soon, it was common that no one bothered with the “visits” that the “Estate Bottled” phrase in a three year contract was enough. A few years later it was common to find wineries buying grapes on one year contracts and asking for the Estate Bottled “phrase” to be put in the contract. Why worry about the meaning of Estate Grown when Estate Bottled has no meaning?

    The simple truth is the hand of the government is not heavy. They may make rules, but they rarely enforce them. The agents are spread out and their emphasis is on firearms. When you see a fine, it usually comes from a tip from someone on the inside.

    After Glen Ellen, Reserve has no meaning. It should be left that way. Similarly Old Vine and Barrel Select…meaningless! Leave it that way. Given the ambiguity and lack of definition and lack of enforcement of labeling claims, this is just another dog and pony show that will make the consumer think they can believe what is on a label.

    The truth is that the one thing that every label should contain is the phrase, caveat emptor!

  3. I think that it is long in coming that wine labels should contain the truth and not jibberish. Hammer down.

    BTW I have not seen soap flakes since I was a very young person. (LOL)

    I do however know an old clone, she is a nice old lady, a bit withered but strong. She drives a Nash Rambler and uses lots of flowery perfume.

  4. Steve–

    You are too kind, too willing to let meaningless gibberish appear on labels because the words have never had meaning and the world has not yet ended. “Reserve” had no meaning long before Glen Ellen applied it to cheap wine. “Estate” comes closer to having a definition, although as Morton points out, it is a definition absent any meaning.

    “Old Clone” is an absurdity, but at least “Old Vine” can be given a finite meaning–not that it will mean anything about character and thus is nothing more than advertising.

    I would argue for intellectual honesty. If a thing can be defined in a measurable way, good. If not, then it is misleading.

    The one area that causes me concern is the term “Reserve” and all of its various offshoots like Winemaker’s Selection and the like. I do appreciate that wineries need ways to differentiate their wines at various levels of intent. It does not matter whether we are talking about Beaulieu and its $100 flagship wine or Castle Rock and its $18 line versus its $12 wines. I do concur with your notion that a winery needs to have more than one level of bottling in order use terms like “reserve” for the one of them. But unless we want to have the Govt dictate what those terms can be and under what circumstances they can be used in some set of highly specific regulations, then we are going to have to accept the randomness of Reserve designations and its relatives.

    We do not, however, need to accept meaningless designations like “Estate” or “Old Clones” or other suggestions of factual difference when none exist. Those terms make wine harder to understand and add nothing in reality. I personally would argue to end them all.

  5. Charlie, most likely it’s going to be impossible to eliminate all meaningless wine label terms, in this present political climate of less regulation.

  6. Eliminate all meaningless wine terms? Wouldn’t that be nice. I agree it is unlikely to happen completely. And as I noted above, there needs to be some way for wineries to suggest that they have wines at several level of intent–which means that some or even all forms of terms like Reserve and its brethren will necessarily survive.

  7. Steve,

    As a winemaker I struggle with these rules, but always have validity to whatever I put on a label. Until recently, I have left off all vineyard designates (because a lot of the vineyards our old winemaker was working with no longer are part of our program) and never put out any reserves. Currently we have two “Reserves”, a Cabernet and and Chard. The Reserve Cab was comprised of my favorite six barrels – 100% New French Oak, while the “production” Cab saw some new FO, but mostly once used FO and some New American. The “Reserve” Chard was barrel fermented, Sur Lie Aged, while our “regular” chard was done in stainless with no malolactic. A clear distinction between the two wines on both varietals exists, which I felt was honest and fair to consumers.

    The terms “Reserve”, “Estate” and the other mentioned do not (or at least should not) suggest one wine is better than the other. For instance our production stainless Chard took Double Gold at the Chronicle while our “Reserve” took Silver.

    It is up to the producer to be honest with the consumer, and I believe it is also just as important for consumers to educate themselves. The tricky part is dealing with dishonest producers, which you are going to come across in every industry, weather regulations are in place or not.

    As far as “Old Vine”, I believe there is already a set of guidelines (could be wrong here) in place that require the vines to be a certain age. Can’t remember how old, but I believe much older than 25 years.

    At the end of the day, honesty is what is important.

    Hope to see you at the Rockwall for Dark and Delicious in Feb – PS look for a sample of my 09 Petite.


    Nottingham Cellars

  8. If wineries have to put ‘contains sulfites’ on the label and also list the alc level then what is wrong with ending the Bravo Sierra also. A wine label should tell you something accurate about the wine.

  9. If it were not for Federal budget deficits, for amusement I would like to watch the TTB define the following terms seen on labels, as well:
    Small Lot
    Barrel Aged
    Barrel Cuvée
    Gnarled Vine
    Cask 23 (or pick a number)
    East Rows
    Harvest Reserve
    Limited Bottling
    Masterpiece Edition
    Old Block
    Premium Selection
    Signature Selection
    Selected Vineyards
    New Vines
    Reserve Estate
    White Oak

  10. Collin, sounds like you are an honest labeler. I don’t know that there are any guidelines for old vine. Anyway I will be at D&D and looking forward to it!

  11. Hello Morton please share what you’re smoking.

  12. As a winegrape grower and soon to be winery operator, these terms are extremely important to me. If I grow the grapes and make the wine, I think I have a connection to the whole process that some consumers might appreciate. I also believe that if we want wine consumers to be more knowledgeable and confident (and I prefer that to ignorant and confused), we need to make sure that the key terms we use on labels are defined and true.

  13. Can we deal with overlapping appellations as well?

  14. Steve,

    If Morton shares the stuff with you, please share with me too. And while we are all having this fun discussion, can we please ask the TTB to define the signatures and titles we see on labels and winery promo sheets?
    Cellar Master, Chef de Cave, Winemaker (owner who never set foot in the cellar), Winemaster (are you kidding me?), Winegrower (I use that one but really refer to myself as a “vinegar stopper”)and I sure soon to bee seen on some Foley Product (unless KJ beats them to it): Galactic Wine Emperor.

  15. Note that TTB does take enforcement of labeling laws seriously. A couple of months ago, one of my compliance clients was visited by a TTB inspector, who discovered that the new winery wasn’t entitled to print “Produced and Bottled by” on the label, since the winery had the wine custom crushed before they received their permit. Upon review of all the facts, and considering that 80% of the wine had already been sold, they approved a “use-up” of the labels on the bottled wine. In general, I’ve found the inspectors to be very reasonable, wanting to educate, yet very specific in their enforcement of the labeling laws.

  16. Collin typed the words right out of my brain. There are plenty of us that use these terms legitimately. The reserves that I make are almost always less than 10% of the total production of any given varietal. They are typically aged in barrel for much longer, and always aged in newer french barrels. We work hard in our tasting room trying to explain the difference between a standard bottling of wine and the reserve, most often the consumer understands and appreciates the information. I’m certainly not in favor of more TTB regulation, defining the terms would be fine but enforcing that would be a different story. As winemaker/general manager/vineyard manager/lead maintenance tech/and plumber I really would hate more forms to fill out. You were right about it being a can of worms a really messy can at that. I do think that using the Estate term should be restricted to wines grown, made, and bottled on that estate, 100% same place no exceptions. I agree Reserves should be a small percentage of total production, but not necessarily that there should be a regular bottling. I have a Merlot reserve some years and no regular Merlot. Those years the merlot may have wound up in my Meritage. Anyway, heres hoping someday producers will wake up and want to be honest for a change. Anyone willing to sell me a bridge, cheap?

  17. Small Lot: Compact cars and motorcycles only
    Barrel Aged: yes this is a hard one to figure out
    Barrel Cuvée: hmmmm really?
    Gnarled Vine: gnarles barkley’s first love song
    Cask 23 (or pick a number): 1 thru 5 or 1 thru 10?
    East Rows: group of former crew teams on EST
    Hillside: as opposed to valley
    Harvest Reserve: trepadations of a winemaker in September
    Unfiltered: lots of curse words on the label
    Unfined: lose it again
    Limited Bottling: low fills
    Masterpiece Edition: bach’s first cuvee?
    Old Block: something in a 57 chevy
    Premium Selection: thats the good beef jerky
    Signature Selection: aspiring athletes and musicians practicing their autograph
    Selected Vineyards: primo vacation spots for nemotodes, mealy bugs and sharpshooters
    New Vines: vines only made in China
    Reserve Estate: a really big tipi
    White Oak: nope, not gonna say it

  18. The majority of wine is bought off the shelves by individuals that like the pretty picture on the label. The rest is bought by people that actually know something about wine. The first group doesn’t care about the pretty little descriptions, and the latter isn’t going to be fooled by them. Seems like a pointless effort to introduce more regulation into an industry that is already regulated beyond reasonable levels. For those of you who really want to know more about a wine, and I hope there are many, try visiting the winery, call, email, write a letter.

    I love that tax dollars are now going to be burned to debate the meaning of words on a wine label. Great that our society has so little other important issues to address. Cheers!

  19. The history of how wine developed in the US is quite different than how it developed over centuries in France, Spain, and Italy. Here, all that extraneous verbage on our labels are recognized by the consumer to be advertising, not a declaration of true facts as to the source and origin of the wine inside. Also, wine today is mostly free of the chemical faults and fraud and so forth that brought about the European labeling classifications systems, so the strictures are not needed. They might be helfpul, but only to those who care to learn what the legalities are for the terms. And in today’s modern world, that is not going to add any value to the great majority of consumers. Price talks more loudly than “reserve”, “old vine”, etc. And given the US Constitution’s protection, I don’t foresee much happening to tighten up the meaning of those subjective words on wine labels. My only wish that I think might be realistic: disallow the use of Founders Estate unless it really is the founders estate, given that there is a legal definition about “estate”.

  20. Terrence Pershall says:

    The word “Integrity” comes to mind when I think about this subject. Unfortunately the spin doctors for the large operations have never set foot inside the cellars they advertise and they use the catch phrases that they think the wine drinking public would like to hear. It’s up to the wine industry to police this issue as leaving it up to the Feds is like having a sleeping dog guard the hen house.

  21. Terrence, it’s not necessarily the big wine companies that abuse language. It’s also little family wineries and everybody inbetween.

  22. Don, the point is that there is no legal definition of “Estate”. There is a legal definition of “Estate Bottled” and few non-winemakers, even professionals in the trade can tell you the requirements. I think that the TTB is going in the wrong direction when they attribute a different meaning to plain English because someone might be confused. If they are, without actual regulation, assuming that Estate Grown or Estate Vineyards means Estate Bottled, they are doing no one a service. We grow grapes on two vineyards, make wine and bottle it on the property. We no longer use Estate Bottled because of the wine can leave the property for cellar treatment if required. We use Estate Grown to indicate that we grew the grapes only on wine made from our grapes. If made from one of the vineyards, we use the name of the vineyard. On wine made from a blend from our two vineyards, we use the term Estate Vineyards. Each back label tells what the name means and it should be no mystery to anyone that can read English. I see no reason that we should change our labeling because someone might think that we mean something other than what we say.

  23. Founders Estate is a term used by a certain large wine company that stretches (or wretches!!!) the use of the word estate and makes a mockery of the specific limited US definition of Estate Bottled. Excuuuuse me.

  24. As a matter of fact, I was all set to approach the State on some other labeling definitions (but the proposition didn’t pass.) I was desperately hoping to have some clarification of the meaning of some of these terms I see on labels…

    Afghani Skunk vs. Afghani Bullrider
    Banana Kush vs. Banana Kush x AK-47
    Blueberry Haze vs. Blueberry Punch
    Dutch Stealth vs. Dutch Treat
    Great White Shark vs. White Widow
    Green Giant vs. Green Goddess
    Hawaiian Snow vs Maui Waui
    Jack’s Cleaner vs Jack’s Hammer
    Northern Lights vs. Northern Bright
    Thai Tonic vs Thai Lights vs Thai Dal Wave
    Gravity vs. Zero Gravity

    The list goes on and on. Needless to say, I’m confused.

  25. Yes there may be and probably is abuse, over use, exaggerations and word twisting, but what Wineries & Vineyards DO NOT NEED IS GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION, what would solve this is through the the Wine & Grape Grower Association, and they should set the Standards by what you should call your wine, but honestly if you read a label, and study about wine, you should know what is going on. But when it comes down to it, if the wine is good and you enjoy it then really who cares. Most of this is Marketing and its all Bullshit anyway, look at 2 buck chuck, Charles Shaw wine,Chardonnay To me Its a GRAND Winner, buttery taste, I get a good Buzz,Do you think the Owner worries about Reserve this or that. QUIT YOU BITCHING, Make & sell your wine, be happy, or get out and find something that makes you happy!

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