Rules for wine labeling

New York’s wineries are facing difficulties in selling their wine, not because their wines aren’t ready, or their wholesalers aren’t willing, or their customers aren’t waiting, but because they are being forestalled by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a division of the US Treasury of the Federal Government.  Wineries cannot sell their wine products until the labels are sanctioned by the TTB.  New York has over 300 wineries and some are complaining that the TTB is taking months instead of days to approve new labels.  Others are having difficulties when they make required changes and then the label gets sent back for additional changes not identified during the first review.

Before, label approval typically took a week, but now it is taking up to several months.  According to an article in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester NY, July 9, 2011) Jim Trezise, President of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, said label approvals have “slowed a great deal because of staff cutbacks” at the federal agency.  “It has generally been a responsive agency for the wine industry, but delays have gotten longer and that does affect the distribution and cash flow for the wineries,” he said.  New wineries face difficulties because they are unfamiliar with the specifics of the Federal label law.  Custom labels are another problem.  Customers often request a limited distribution wine label to celebrate a special occasion such as a birthday, wedding, or anniversary and even these must be approved individually.  Celebration labels cannot be approved with a blank such as for a name, age, or date.

New York Senator Charles Schumer is currently trying to urge the TTB to speed up the label approval process.  In a letter to the bureau’s administrator, John Manfreda, the New York Senator urged the agency to work with the wine industry to find ways to streamline the application process.  “Every day that a label is delayed costs the winery in delayed or lost sales and thus reduces the amount of federal excise tax collected on those wine sales,” Schumer wrote.  Schumer says the approvals can be accomplished faster by streamlining the process for submitting certain types of labels and having the Bureau clearly identify on the first rejection of approval letters all issues that need to be addressed by the wineries.

Wine is regulated by regional, state, and local laws.  The TTB is responsible for regulation and taxation of alcohol and tobacco.  Additionally, they are responsible for issuing federal permits for building wineries, establishing American Viticultural Areas, overseeing health statements on wine bottles, and approving wine labels.  (An American Viticultural Area is a designated wine grape-growing region in the United States based on distinct climate and geographical features, with boundaries defined by the TTB.)

There are mandatory elements to a wine label for bottles to be sold in the U.S. (whether of foreign or domestic origin), some of which must appear on the Brand label while others may appear on any label (side, back, or neck).  The minimum requirements are: 1) Brand identification; 2) Class, type or designation; 3) The name and address of the bottler and the location where bottled; 4) Alcohol content by volume or within range for type; 5) Net volume of contents, which may be molded into the glass of the bottle; 6) Sulfite Declaration; and 7) Health Warning Statements.

Wine label law started in 1933 when the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution repealed prohibition.  In 1978, the TTB amended wine label regulations and developed regulations to establish American Viticultural Areas (AVA). For the sake of wine labeling purposes, all the states and county appellations were grandfathered in as appellations. There are currently 198 distinct AVAs designated under U.S. law.  The 1978 provisions included standards requiring that (1) varietal wines must include 75% juice from that grape variety; (2) wines indicating country, state or county appellation must include 75% juice from grapes grown in the specified appellation; (3) wines bearing the name of an American viticultural area (AVA) (defined with this regulation) must include 85% juice from grapes grown in that region; and (4) vintage-dated wines must include 95% wine produced in that vintage year.  Additionally, provisions were made for pre-existing geographic brand names that conflicted with an AVA name to be differentiated by the addition of the word “brand” to the wine name.  In the 1980s warnings were required on wine labels for sulfite health, pregnant women and people who operate vehicles.  And most recently in February 2011, the TTB revised the regulations for American Viticultural Area designations to provide clearer regulatory standards and for AVA designation and to address nested AVAs (ex. the Seneca Lake AVA within the Finger Lakes AVA).