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TTB ducks more precise ABV rules in new labeling law



Ridge famously became the first California winery to commit to truth-in-labeling last month, with CEO/winemaker Paul Draper arguing that his winery would henceforth “include an ingredient list on its labels” (although not of their quantities; there’s not enough room). Since Ridge wines contain few ingredients–grapes and yeasts, of course; malolactic bacteria, as needed; sometimes calcium carbonate (to reduce excessive acidity) or tartaric acids (to increase it), SO2 (for preservation), occasionally egg whites (for fining)–the information will take up hardly any space on the label. But what will wineries do who use up to the 60 “materials authorized for treatment of wine and juice” permitted by the Tax and Trade Bureau of the federal government?

These include everything from acacia gum Arabic (a stabilizer), thiamine hydrochloride (a yeast nutrient), silica gel (a clarifier) to the infamous “Mega-Purple” that’s been such a bee in the bonnet of bloggers (why they should be so upset at the thought of a $10 Lodi Merlot being purpled is beyond me).

Anyhow, Ridge anticipated what the Feds just announced: “Truthful, accurate, and specific voluntary statements about nutrient content, including calorie and carbohydrate content, in the labeling and advertising of wines, distilled spirits, and malt beverages.” Before the Libertarians freak out over yet another imposition from nanny government, relax: the new rule is voluntary. (But warning to wineries: Don’t lie. TTB, with Papal sternness, intones: “We will take appropriate action with regard to labeling or advertising representations that mislead the consumer about the nutritional value or health effects of alcohol beverages.” In other words, no “This Zinfandel will improve your sex life.”

The oddest and saddest thing about TTB’s ruling is that it had the opportunity to make wineries be clearer and more truthful about alcohol-by-volume numbers on the label, but sidestepped that opportunity and instead allowed the current giant loopholes (talk about misleading!) to continue. They did do something useful in prohibiting wineries from listing alcohol content in fluid ounces instead of by volume (properly recognizing that consumers “might be confused by a statement of alcohol in fluid ounces without some context in which to evaluate this information.”). But wineries can choose to list alcohol by fluid ounces in addition to listing it by volume, although why they would want to is another mystery.

Wineries argue that being held to strict ABV labeling would be just too hard, but it’s not clear to me why, or why it would be too expensive for them. Consumers are (properly) concerned with knowing the alcohol level of the wines they drink (especially with this talk about lowering the national blood alcohol level yet again), and while I’ve never been one to criticize a wine simply because it’s high in alcohol (which really has no bearing on its quality), I do think people have a right to know how much alcohol they’re ingesting.

One of these days the TTB is going to make wineries print the exact alcohol level on the label, so why not just do it now and get it over with?

  1. Steve,

    Hey there. You mention that it isn’t clear to you why it would be hard or expensive for wineries to be held to strict AVB level labeling. Let me see if I can explain both.

    Hard — you use the phrase “exact alcohol level” in your last sentence. There really isn’t an exact level. I get results from ETS labs on my wines that show slightly different alcohol levels on the same sample of the same wine depending on the temperature of the sample. Likewise, you can get a wider range of alcohol levels depending on what methodology you use to measure the alcohol (ebuillometer vs. gas chromatography). So exact doesn’t exist. Personally, I do think we could move to a standard of plus or minus 0.5% without major problems (much more narrow than we have now).

    Expensive — But even moving to that standard would be expensive. You write as if the TTB is the sole arbiter of alcohol laws in the United States. Our wines also have to be licensed in other states and have to be reviewed by their individual ABC departments and are subject to state laws. So, for example, if I put 14.9% on my label then my distributor in Alabama can sell the wine. If I put 15.1% on my label, my distributor in Alabama can no longer sell the wine, it can only be sold by the state. 11 states have what are called “local option” laws, which allow municipalities to decide what can and can’t be sold. So, for the longest time (no longer true), the Plano, Texas area (a suburb of Dallas, home of EDS….so not a backwater) wouldn’t allow for the sale of wine labeled over 15%, but you could go literally across the street and buy such a wine. — New labels, in some states, may require new licensing (depends on how they are new and differs from state to state). Lest you think this is inexpensive, last year I spent $37,500 alone in (combined state and federal) licensing fees.

    Hope this clears up some of the confusion on the difficulties and expenses involved.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. I’m fairly sure that Bonny Doon was putting ingredients on their labels before Ridge

  3. DR,

    Actually neither Ridge nor Bonny Doon puts an ingredient listing…they put an additive listing…but folks call it an ingredient listing.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  4. Good article, but one class of wine was required to ingredient label in 2002 and 2003, that being certified organic wines. For a couple of years USDA label approval followed TTB label approval which followed the organic certifier approval. It was a about a six month process getting all the approvals in place, but even the TTB/USDA realized the foolishness after a while.
    Blended wines with different treatents will require pretty extensive ingredient labels.

  5. Adam,
    Fair enough. I was really commenting on Steve’s “First” comment

  6. Adam, thanks for walking us through some of the hassles of the ABV issue. It sounds like a nightmare.

  7. Mike Officer/Carlisle Winery says:

    Also, don’t forget that sometimes the “final” alcohol isn’t determined until the a week or two before bottling. Labels cannot be printed that close to bottling. We start the label generation process about 4 months in advance of bottling. Even so we usually don’t get our labels delivered until a day or two before bottling. A lot of winemaking can happen in those 4 months.

  8. Steve, Tony nailed it for the small winery; the main answer has to do with the expense and lead time of label printing.

    1. Small lots: If you produce small amounts of a wine, such as in the case of our Rose and Gruner Veltliner, because of the expense of setting up to print small amount of labels, we often run two vintages at a time to save money. Although I hope my alcohol will be in the high 12’s to mid 13% range, nature usually throws us some curves. So it would be difficult to reliably get closer than within, say, 1% of the estimate.

    2. Bulk blends: If you are buying bulk wine to blend into a final product, or making a blend from bulk lots, your blend may not be completed until a few weeks before bottling. The actual alcohol may change slightly even during the final filtration and stabilization. However the COLA process and label printing process need to be underway long before this for the labels to be ready on the day of bottling.

    In conclusion, I do believe that the range could be tightened up a bit: maybe 1% and not 1.5%, but there needs to be some slack. A bigger peeve for me, though, is why there is an arbitrary differentiation at 14% alcohol. Many of us have blends that are ‘on the fence’ between the high 13’s and the low 14’s, yet the wine needs to definitively state if it is above or below 14%, and the amount of discrepancy between label and reality is different for each scenario (+/- 1.5% for under 14%; +/- 1.0% for above 14%). Why should the 0.2% difference between 13.9 and 14.1 be any different than an 0.2% difference between 13.5 and 13.7? That should be part of the discussion and hopefully changes at the TTB level.

  9. Rudy,

    As part of my legal counsel role to WineAmerica, I’ve heard your concern voiced many times. The thing to bear in mind is 14% is a divide written into federal excise tax law. TTB would need an act of Congress to resolve the 13.9/14.1 issue.

    Cary Greene
    Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP

  10. Thanks Cary. Before Congress does ANYTHING, monkeys will fly out my bung holes… I mean my barrel’s bung holes. Above 14% is considered Desert Wine, not Table Wine, and thus is treated differently. Lots of things to think about.

  11. We live in a time where a blood alcohol measurement of .08% can send you to jail, whereas at .01% less you can walk. There is quite a bit of research that shows these measurements are reasonably accurate.

    In wine, both gas chromatography and infared spectroscopy return accuracy of ± 0.1%vol with repeatabilities of ± 0.01%vol.
    I use an antique 19th century ebulliometer with a hand painted thermometer that is accurate to ±0.5%, but anyone like me who uses one is an antique as well… and that includes the TTB.

    There is no valid reason why TTB could not tighten up the labeling requirement to ± 0.2 and require analysis in licensed labs at a standard and mandatory fee of (let’s say) $50 per wine or in-house at the wineries discretion. That done it would be a simple requirement to also set the taxes on wine to be in direct proportion to the alcohol content. This would seem like a no brainer both for consumer information, fair taxation, and also encouraging more moderate alcoholic content in beverages. But it will probably never happen because the industry and TTB bureaucracy will stand in the way.

    Regarding additive labeling there should be two classes, additives that remain in the wine (ingredients) and additives that don’t. They should be clearly dilineated. It would be misinformation if we led consumers to believe they were drinking something they aren’t. Imagine someone thinking they were getting extra nutrition from clay or fish bladder only to find out they were gypped.

  12. Mike Officer/Carlisle Winery says:


    I’ve witnessed greater than 1% difference between alcohol analyzed by ebulliometer (and by a skilled enologist) vs the same sample analyzed by NIR. And I strongly disagree that there is no valid reason why the TTB can’t tighten up the tolerance to +/- 0.2%, unless you want to slap handcuffs on winemakers and prevent them from making the best wine possible. Labels cannot be printed right before bottling. It just isn’t possible. And in between the time labels are printed and wine is bottled, the alcohol level can change. Here’s a real example. I had a Zin that was 16.0% alcohol. Labels were already in the process of being printed at 16.0%. The Zin tasted great in barrel initially but a couple of months before bottling, I realized I was beginning to sense the alcohol. Hence, I decided to de-alc a small portion of it and blend it back with the main lot. The wine was much improved but was now at 15.3%. If I could only deviate +/- 0.2, I would have been stuck bottling an inferior wine. Is that what consumers want? Do most consumers care so much whether a wine is 16.0 or 15.3 that they want winemakers prohibited from making the best wine possible?

  13. Mike – I suggest you learn to make decisions on your wine a little earlier. I cannot imagine de-alcoholizing a wine right before bottling. Not exactly the best winemaking practices in my opinion. Also, there are label printers who can work on shorter deadlines than a few months. Regarding not being able to measure alcohol in greater accuracy than + or – 0.5% the only reason you haven’t improved your methodology is because the TTB lets you get away with it.

  14. Mike Officer/Carlisle Winery says:

    Thanks Morton. Apparently I’m just not as skilled as you are at making great wine. I’ve only been doing it commercially for 16 years. Perhaps in another 16 years I’ll be better. I certainly hope so! And by the way, we have all our alcohols measured by ETS. I’ll be sure to tell them they need to improve their methodology.

  15. St. George says:

    Preach on, Mike.

  16. Jake Bilbro says:

    Your comments have always been some of the most intriguing, well thought out, and professional I’ve read. Your last comment however was none of the above. Besides rude I find it interesting when a well respected and accomplished winemaker, in the interest of transparency, shares his experience and/or an artistic decision he made for the furthement of a discussion and he is criticized by a guy with a fake name. You just lost a notch in my book. Use a fake name and surf blogs if you’re going to be positive and encouraging. If you’re going to call people out and not put your name behind it then shut up.

  17. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Steve, I hope have you heard the word that abv varies by temperature, humidity, air pressure, and probably by bottle sample between cork, plastic, and screwcap seal over time. 1% or 1.5% allowance seems to me to work well enough, there is no upset in consumer-land, nor any revolt in the wineries or labs.

    Now comes my editorial: Govt. and some busy-bodies are busy trying to justify their existence and grabbing higher percents of our incomes by making themselves look important. Nutrition labeling on food has done a dandy job, as the % of Americans who are overweight gets higher and higher, along with juvenile diabetes, high blood pressure etc. People are handing over to supposed health-minding govt. agencies their own responsibility of taking care of one’s health. And with very poor consequences. They get fooled into thinking that the govt. and rules are sufficient to protect us from all things bad. Not a good outcome. Letting govt. be your agent for your eating habits? Oy.

  18. TomHill says:

    Well said, Jake….exactly what my thoughts were as well.

    Been awhile since we talked. I have a few questions I’ve been wanting to ask you re. Gibson.

  19. Now, comes the fun part. There is a new movement to add another nutrition-like box on the label. This one regarding the impact on the environment: water use, electrical use, carbon use, etc.

    Literally, and figuratively, there won’t be any room for the winery on the label.

    I think knowing the environmental impact could be of interest to the winery, and they may want to share it with the consumer, but I definitely think we are on the verge of taking the fun out of wine.

  20. Jim Lapsley says:

    An interesting topic. Most other countries allow a 1/2% variance between actual (however determined) and stated alcohol on the label. Years ago I sold several pallets of wine to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and their lab showed that my label alcohol claim was .7% from their lab determination. We ended up applying strip labels to the wine.

    A 1/2% tolerance is certainly workable for the rest of the world and should be used in the U.S.

  21. Steve,
    As always a great article. This seems like a topic that we are going to be discussing for years to come. I think that labeling ingredients is great for people who have food allergens (dairy finings). I even recently had a customer ask if our wines are “gluten free.” I give Ridge props for putting their “ingredients” on their label. I wish that all of our vineyards were as great as Ridge’s, where I would only need to add water, acid, and sulfur, but that’s not the case with all of them. I think that it all comes down to the consumer…someone who buys a $40 plus bottle of Zinfandel might appreciate knowing that minimal ingredients went into the wine, but that ingredients list for the $10 Lodi Merlot might not all fit on the label and could alienate the customer. The last thing I want to do is explain to customers what di-ammonium phosphate is, instead of explaining what truly makes that wine special.

    And even though the TTB doesn’t allow us to put it on our labels…our Zinfandels do improve your sex life.

    I can’t believe that you are giving Mike Officer winemaking advice. That’s like telling Picasso that his portraits need to look more realistic. Your comment was the funniest thing I read this week.

    @Mike O.,
    Don’t let all of your tears water your dry farmed zin. 🙂


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