Tom Wark, at Fermentation, alerted us yesterday to the British newpaper Telegraph’s article on “unauthentic ingredients” in wine in the form of oak chips, but this was only the visible tip of a gigantic iceberg roiling the waters in Great Britain over the use of additives, and about to spill over bigtime to our shores.
In what looks like a testing of the waters, the defense of the use of wine additives a few days ago by the CEO of Britain’s largest wine industry lobbying group, The Wine and Spirit Trade Association, signaled that the alcoholic beverage industry is taking seriously threats to require labels to disclose all the ingredients in the bottle, and is fighting back.
The CEO of the 320-member group of producers, wholesalers, bottlers, retailers and others, Jeremy Beadles, told Channel 4’s Dispatches (a kind of Sixty Minutes program) that “The winemaking process is governed by strict regulations designed to ensure products meet stringent health and safety standards.” Dispatches aired a segment highly critical of additives, of which the European Union allows at least 50, in the form of flavorings, preservatives, enzymes, fining agents and so on. The Dispatches program provoked a storm of controversy throughout England, with bloggers like Jamie Goode yesterday slamming Channel 4 for producing “a desperately poor programme,” while consumers praised it for alerting them to facts previously unknown. Check out this commentary from Jane Moore, a columnist for The Sun newspaper, who’s in favor of complete disclosure on labels. She wrote, “One producer told us it [disclosure] would be tantamount to ‘commercial suicide,’ presumably because it might put the customer off and result in lower sales.”
On this side of the pond, Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm famously came out for full label disclosure last December. The federal Tax and Trade Bureau issued a proposal of rulemaking (Notice No. 62, updated by No. 64) that would require disclosure of all potential “allergens,” which seems to be simply a synonym for additives. Wine Institute, California’s leading association of producers, strongly opposes such a new law, as evidenced by this remarkable 34-page letter to TTB from Wine Institute’s President, Robert P. Koch.
At this point, Wine Institute’s Gladys Horiuchi says she has no idea when or if TTB will issue their final ruling. But TTB spokesman Art Resnick says there will be one, sooner or later. The holdup: the Food and Drug Administration is holding hearings on its Food Allergen Awareness program, “and we [TTB] need to be consistent with what FDA does,” Resnick asserts. TTB, in other words, is dotting its “i”s and crossing its “t”s so they can build up a scientifically airtight case for mandatory disclosure. With heavyweights like TTB and Wine Institute squaring off, the food allergy lobby mobilizing, and bloggers just waiting to stir things up, this smackdown is going to be interesting.
Yesterday’s Reuters announcement that Amazon.com, the world’s biggest online retailer, will be selling wine starting next month hit the industry by storm. I got through to Terry Hall, the communications director for Napa Valley Vintners, late in the day.
SH: What role is NVV playing?
TH: We held a workshop for 29 wineries on Sept. 4 for them to meet the Amazon folks, and we’ll have another one on Sept. 12, with 50 wineries signed up.
Has Amazon been meeting with wineries in other parts of the state?
Well, 26 states are part of the program, based on reciprocity or on in-market pass-through distribution. Amazon’s been talking to wineries up and down the West Coast. They were in San Luis Obispo and were able to go door-to-door, but because of the number of wineries in Napa Valley, we did the workshops as a member service.
Can you tell me which wineries signed up for the workshops?
That’s not for the public record, but it ranges from small family wineries to large wineries.
Have people been expressing skepticism, or excitement, or what?
It’s information-gathering now.
How will the logistics work?
It’s a traditional Amazon direct-to-consumer model. They’ll use New Vine Logistics, the former wineshopper.com, in American Canyon, which has an incredible fulfillment facility. Amazon will store the wine in a temperature-secured location, and then sell it, through orders from the Amazon hub. Amazon makes money because they buy the wine FOB and sell at retail.
Why would a winery sell to Amazon instead of through their own direct-to-consumer program?
They don’t have to worry about staff or packaging. And Amazon’s staff will be able to make recommendations.
Amazon has a wine staff?
They have a group of wine buyers. The head is a guy named Nate Glissmeyer, based in Seattle. He contacted us for the program.
How much quantity is Amazon expected to handle?
It’s sort of infinite. They’re trying to get as many American wines online as possible.
Yesterday I blogged about Sarah Palin’s silly quote that “alcohol isn’t necessary to have a good time” when she spoke last April about Alcohol Awareness Month. (This, despite her Playboy-style thigh tease with a glass of red wine; with those stiletto heels and cleavage-bearing decolletage, she sure seems ready to party hard.)
Actually, Alcohol Awareness Month is a production of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (your tax dollars at work), and specifically of a division within it called SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration. Now, I know I’m going to get into trouble with this post, but I have to say that something about this whole approach to “combating” alcohol rubs me the wrong way. On SAMHSA’s website they lump alcohol in with cocaine, methamphetamine and suicide, and that’s just on the home page. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find comparisons with LSD, ecstasy and marijuana, among other Devil’s delights. It’s as if a nice glass of Cabernet (which, judging by the dark color, Sarah might be enjoying) and a crackhead’s needle were morally equivalent. Go to HHS’s Alcohol Awareness Month homepage and you’ll find it stated that “People who abuse alcohol can be…Professionals who drink after a long day of work” and “Senior citizens who drink out of loneliness.” Now, can we get real here? Professionals who drink after a long day of work can be alcohol abusers? For crying out loud, I’ll bet you that plenty of senior management at Health & Human Services head over after work to the Fairfax Lounge in the Westin Hotel on Embassy Row for a well-deserved Gimlet. (And by the way, does “professionals” mean that blue collar workers can’t abuse alcohol, or does the Republican administration simply not want to piss red-staters off?) Of course, this is the kind of nonsense we might expect from the employees of a President who is an out of the closet “recovering” alcoholic. As for all those lonely old geezers, hey, if a couple glasses of wine-in-a-box or schnapps help pass the hours until snooze time, so what? The website also has one of those “Are you an alcoholic” pseudo-scientific quizzes, which contain such questions as “Do you drink alone when you feel angry or sad?” (Answer: I sometimes do, and I bet you do too. See Proverbs 31:6-7: Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.) and “Does your drinking worry your family?” (It doesn’t bother mine, but what if my family believed drinking alcohol was a sin, even though it’s mentioned, what? thousands of times in the Bible, and mostly favorably.) This approach by the Federal government is so opposite to our own here in California, where Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican but not a bizarre one, just proudly declared September “California Wine Month.”
We still have vestiges of neoprohibitionism in this country, which itself is an echo of the old Puritan ethic that, if it feels good, it’s a sin. Don’t get me wrong: Obviously some people have issues with alcohol abuse (just as some religious fanatics have issues with intolerance), and there are some people who should never drink at all. What bothers me is this suggestion that we should all conform to some white-bread government nanny’s ideas of right and wrong. And while I’m on the subject, now I see the Republicans are planning on promoting Todd Palin (who was busted for DUI in 1986) as “First Dude,” thereby winning the hearts and votes of the rural, beer-drinking, liquor-swilling, country & western crowd. Am I suffering from cognitive dissonance, or just too many glasses of Cabernet?
1. Last April, hailing Alaska’s Alcohol Awareness Month, she said, “alcohol isn’t necessary to have a good time.” Hell, neither is shooting moose. Why does Palin come across as such a smarmy, holier-than-thou schoolmarm?
2. She signed a bill, HB 118, that would fine a person throwing a party where an underage person possesses alcohol $500, even if that person was not responsible for providing the alcohol. For somebody who denounces Big Government, this intrusion into the household has frightening implications.
3. According to the Associated Press, in July, as part of her new Public Safety Plan, Palin called for legislation that will slow the flow of alcohol to rural Alaska. Sheesh. Today it’s rural Alaska, tomorrow it’s the cities, the next day it’s the whole f*****g country.
4. She fired Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan because (among other reasons) he was not making satisfactory progress on resolving alcohol issues. Seems Monegan refused to back up her scheme to raise the drinking age for moose to 25.
5. She signed a bill, SB 128, that requires the state Alcohol Control Board to maintain a database documenting the sale, distribution, and purchase of alcoholic beverages. More big brother stuff. What’s next, library books?
6. She’s a homophobe who supported Alaska’s 1998 ballot initiative to put a ban on same-sex marriage in the Alaskan constitution. Bad news. Everybody knows gay people are huge wine supporters (unless they’re in rehab).
7. She believes creationism should be taught in the public schools. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who doesn’t believe in evolution actually needs to drink more, not less.
Sarah Palin is bad news for the wine industry. On the other hand, Cindy McCain may be good news for the beer industry. Just put a Coors sign on the White House and let the taps roll!
P.S. Please visit my new post at Wine Enthusiast’s Unreserved.
When will California wine give up its addiction to crack, oops, I mean Styrofoam?
For an industry whose every press release touts something green/organic/biodynamic and environmentally-friendly, whose representatives are usually healthy and tanned and wouldn’t dream of polluting anything, who themselves probably recycle, there’s something schizy, if not outright hypocritical, about the widespread use of polystyrene packaging for shipping wine.
You know polystyrene by its trade name, Styrofoam. It’s that bulky white stuff microwaves and CD players come packaged in. If you have a problem getting rid of a few chunks of it, try multiplying that by the tens of millions of pieces that wine is shipped in.
It’s the wine industry’s dirty little secret.
Styrofoam is awful stuff for the environment and for us. Most curbside recycling companies won’t accept it because it’s bulky and fills up landfills. The processes both of making polystyrene or burning it in waste dumps pollute the air and create large amounts of liquid, gas and solid waste. Styrene, its active ingredient, is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA. The ill effects of chronic exposure are well-documented. If that’s not bad enough, Styrofoam is made with petroleum, and its manufacture releases hydrocarbons into the air, causing pollution and playing havoc with ozone levels. Styrofoam is often dumped into the environment as litter. When it breaks into little pieces, they can choke animals and clog their digestive systems.
There are non-damaging, ecological, truly recyclable alternatives to this stuff. It’s not my job to recommend any particular products, but suffice it to say the industry knows what they are, and of tests suggesting they’re as effective as Styrofoam.
The Wine Institute — the industry’s leading trade association, a powerhouse not only in California but in Washington, D.C. — has the power to do something about this situation. Wine Institute has long been criticized as a tool of big wineries, a charge that may be more in the perception than in actuality; but perception is reality. Politically, Wine Institute would do it itself a favor by coming out in favor of something the big wineries are perceived not to like.
When John DeLuca, who fought and won many battles, led Wine Institute, he declined to take styrofoam up as a cause. Both he and his successor, Robert Koch, were and are well aware of the contradictions of a pro-styrofoam policy. But we all know more about styrofoam’s toxicity than we did ten years ago. Mr. Koch’s tenure so far has been remarkably devoid of conspicuous accomplishment. He could do worse than to vow to push styrofoam out of the California wine industry. In one stroke, he would burnish Wine Institute’s green image, and send a signal that he is not entirely the captive of big donors — that he is, in other words, willing to put his money where his mouth is.
PS: Check out my Wine Enthusiast blog.
I was glad to be phoned by John DeLuca on Tuesday evening, barely an hour after he had been named “senior advisor to the board of directors” of E&J Gallo.
My first thought when I got the electronic press release had been, This is a pretty big step for a guy nearly 75, an age when most people are retired.
But John was excited. “I’m blessed with good health. I really want to stay active. I feel like a silk worm eating mulberry leaves spinning out threads of silk.” He’d been intending to write his memoirs when the call from Joseph E. Gallo came. “I’m still dedicated to starting it, and dedicated to finishing it in 2 years.”
The politically-savvy DeLuca, a former White House fellow under President Lyndon Johnson and also a former deputy mayor of San Francisco, headed the Wine Institute for 28 years. He will advise family-owned Gallo on political and business issues, including international competition. “We’re going into a global period, and there are so many issues that arise as a result. This [appointment] is a natural extension of all the work I’ve done for the past 33 years. I don’t want [California wine] to go the way of cars in Detroit.”
The role of a John DeLuca is largely hidden from the public (which is fine with him). DeLuca is a behind the scenes guy, the power behind the throne who takes satisfaction in what gets done, rather than who gets the credit. Under his tenure at Wine Institute, DeLuca was instrumental in a range of complex legal and technical decisions concerning California wine, from preventing higher taxes to settling the lead closure issue in the 1980s to furthering research into the health benefits of moderate consumption.
Four years ago at my urging Wine Enthusiast gave John DeLuca our Lifetime Achievement Award. He said at the time, quoting Shakespeare, “There is a tide in the affairs of men…” He was then retiring as head of the Wine Institute and people perhaps thought DeLuca’s tide was ebbing. Clearly it was not.