What’s in a Label?

Wine

Should the label on a bottle of Pinot or Pilsner match what’s on a can of soda? Alcoholic beverages are regulated by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), not the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They’re subject to different regulations than most foods and drinks. But now TTB has proposed that new labels should get a more serious look, which has many wondering what it could mean for winemakers.

Some vintners have resisted labeling requirements, which they say would put an unreasonable economic and logistical burden on producers and risk alienating consumers with potentially confusing and misleading information. But others think greater transparency would help wine. “I want to know what I’m drinking and I want that to be on the label,” says Pascaline Lepeltier, sommelier and co-owner of the restaurant Chambers and partner at Chëpìka, a Finger Lakes wine project.

A bottle of Fanta must include nutrition facts, including the recommended serving size, and a complete ingredients list, but a bottle of Lambrusco passes regulatory muster by listing its percent alcohol by volume—and even that requirement isn’t as strict as many consumers might assume. If a wine contains sulfites (a common, if occasionally controversial, preservation agent) at a level of 10 or more parts per million, FD&C Yellow No. 5 or cochineal extract (both of which are dyes used almost exclusively in spirits), the label must also disclose those facts.

Current TTB regulations allow, but do not require, winemakers to list ingredients. If winemakers choose to do so, they must follow a tight set of naming rules and include all ingredients. Likewise, winemakers may voluntarily disclose nutritional information. TTB currently allows the use of many additives for “treatment of wine and juice.” Some of these, such as egg whites (for fining), tartaric acid (to achieve balance when acid in grapes is too low) and sulfur dioxide (to preserve the finished wine) are familiar to passionate consumers. Others, such as dimethyl dicarbonate (DMDC), a sterilizing agent, and polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (PVPP), a clarifying agent, are less well-known and can be controversial among winemakers.

All of this may soon change, though substantive new regulation is by no means guaranteed. In response to an executive order by President Biden, the Treasury Department conducted research and released a report, “Competition in the Markets for Beer, Wine, and Spirits,” in February 2022. That report asserted that TTB should “prioritize labeling rules that protect consumers and public health, while reducing or eliminating any regulatory requirements that create compliance costs and can be barriers to new entrants or burdens to small businesses.” It also observed that “regulatory proposals that could serve public health and foster competition by providing information to consumers, such as mandatory allergen, nutrition, and ingredient labeling proposals, have not been implemented.”

In short, the report espouses a belief that more robust labeling requirements may increase competition by making the market more transparent while protecting public health. This view directly contradicts the arguments of many opponents of increased regulation, who hypothesize that the costs of complying with labeling regulations will unfairly impact small producers.

Potential label]

A hypothetical label for a bottle of wine. (Graphic by Danielle Giarratano)

Responding to the report, TTB has announced potential rulemaking on three separate labeling issues: ingredients, major allergens and statements of alcohol and nutritional content. At this time, no actual proposals are on the table. At various stages in the process, the public (including both industry players and consumers) will be invited to comment. It’s important to note that TTB has taken similar steps many times before. Over the past several decades, occasional tweaks have been made to labeling regulations, but the agency has never gone so far as to require ingredient or nutritional labeling on wine.

Do increased labeling regulations, particularly around ingredients, truly stand to serve the interests of consumers, winemakers, and the industry at large? Many winemakers hope that greater transparency will help wine drinkers make more informed choices. On the other hand, some in the industry fear that transparency about ingredients and additives, many of which have unfamiliar and perhaps even scary names, could turn off potential consumers. They also worry about the costs of annual analysis and labeling; since wine differs from vintage to vintage, labels would have to constantly change in order to remain accurate. Ingredient and nutritional analysis can be costly, especially when it must be done year after year for each individual bottling a winemaker produces.

Maria Rivero González, CEO of RGNY, a Long Island producer, told Wine Spectator that she thinks customers would appreciate ingredient labeling, and that “we as producers should be able to say what we use in our wines.” She worries, however, about the possibility that “sometimes consumers don’t have enough information to discern if an ingredient is good or bad. Producers can be transparent about ingredients but still sell a bad wine.”

Lepeltier says she “100 percent” wants to see ingredient labeling requirements. She stresses the need for labels to include not only ingredients but also additives and what are often termed “technological agents” or “treating materials.” The sommelier dismisses the argument that ingredient analysis is cost-prohibitive, pointing out that winemakers already conduct their own extensive analyses at harvest and for export to foreign markets that require it. And then there’s the regulatory and economic burden currently placed on producers who wish to earn organic, biodynamic, or sustainable certifications.

Adam Lee]

Adam Lee of Clarice Wine Co. opposes labeling because wine is not processed food, made with a formulaic recipe. (Courtesy of Clarice)

But when it comes to nutritional labeling, Lepeltier is unconvinced. She feels it’s specious to focus on wine’s calorie count (which for dry wines derives from the alcohol molecule itself, not sugar, and is essentially standard across the board) without considering wine’s other nutritional aspects: namely, the potential health benefits of wine’s non-alcohol components, especially polyphenols, which are still incompletely understood. Moreover, such nutritional labeling opens the door to potentially disingenuous claims of “low-calorie” or “low-sugar” wine by brands marketing an inferior product to health-conscious consumers. A poorly farmed, additive-heavy, low-alcohol wine, for instance, could appear to be “better” (that is, less caloric) than a sustainably farmed, well-made wine with a normal amount of alcohol.

Adam Lee, who co-founded Siduri and now makes Pinot Noir under the Clarice label, opposes the idea of increased labeling requirements. “Some will say that means that I support hiding what is in a wine from the public, but nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. Lee points out that unlike most packaged foods, wine changes every vintage. “That means that the label would have to change from year to year.” And TTB and authorities in multiple states need to approve many, though not all, changes to a label—and processing times, while currently modest, can vary, creating potential logistical puzzles.

“What if a winemaker decides a few days before bottling that the wine would be better with a tartaric acid addition? It is too late to put that on the label, so the winemaker has to either make a poorer quality wine and be legal or choose to make a better wine but break the law.”

He has another concern. “Ingredient labels are actually additive labels.” He points out that yeast would be listed as an ingredient even though it is filtered out of the final wine. If a wine is naturally high in acid, which some consumers might like, tartaric acid wouldn’t appear on the label (even though it’s present in the wine) because a vintner wouldn’t need to add any.

Is there a label rule that would inform consumers accurately? There will undoubtedly be a lot of public comment before TTB finds one.


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