The next big controversy in the wine business won’t be about high alcohol, terroir, or wine scores. It’s going to be about nutrition and ingredient labels, and it’s going to be a tizzy.

KetchupThe federal government, through the Treasury’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Trade Bureau (TTB), is considering proposals that would require wine producers to include the same sort of label information on wine bottles that is required on ketchup, chicken noodle soup, and applesauce. The industry, from the Wine Institute on down, sees this as impractical, unfair and anti-competitive, especially as it relates to wine’s position vs. beer and spirits.

Says the Institute, in its comments to the proposals: “We hope that TTB will also not believe it an appropriate government role to make choices that provide commercial advantages to select entities within an industry.”

Yet this approach, say consumer advocates in and out of the wine business, puts the industry outside of the mainstream given developments in food labeling and consumer information. The goal, they say, is more information, not less. “It’s all about transparency,” says dietitian Kathleen Talmadge, RMA, RD. “Any time the consumer gets more information, that’s a good thing. You want them to be knowledgeable about what they’re buying.”

No one is sure when TTB will make a decision. That was supposed to happen at the end of 2008, but the recession and the change in presidential administrations delayed the decision. Since then, the TTB’s bosses at the Treasury Department have been busy shoring up the world financial system and have not gotten to the wine label proposal. In fact, the process started in 2004, when TTB said it would consider allowing “Serving Facts” panels on alcoholic beverages similar to the “Nutrition Facts” panels found on food products.

Also in  dispute: Whether TTB has the authority to issue the regulations for wines with less than 14 percent alcohol, which the Wine Institute claims falls under the requirements of the Federal Alcohol Administration Act. TTB, on the other hand, says the alcohol limit for label regulation is 7 percent, according to spokesman Art Resnick.

What is certain is what TTB has been considering:

• Equivalency measurements; that is, how many servings of beer or cocktails is the same as one glass of wine?

• Ingredient labels, where everything—from egg whites used for fining to grape concentrate added at the end of fermentation to boost sugar levels—would be included.

• Nutritional information, including calories, fat and carbohydrate content,  and alcohol percentage.

“What’s far more at issue is the ingredients vs. the nutrition,” says wine writer Alice Feiring, the author of The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization. “It’s the crap that goes into the bottle of wine vs. the romance of the wine. That would be my preference.”

This is not a popular stand in the wine business, which doesn’t see the point of the most of the TTB proposals. The Wine Institute, in its comments to the proposed rules (34 pages worth of comments, in fact), wrote that “our comments seek to balance TTB’s regulatory direction with sensible and reasonable alternatives that will accomplish TTB’s goals while lessening costs to the wine industry.” And, it noted, nutritional labeling as a concept is a lousy idea if past performance is any indication of future results. Since the first nutritional labels appeared in the 1990s, it said, American obesity has increased dramatically.

“You can’t actually think of this as something that benefits the consumer,” says Lisa Mattson, director of communications at Wilson Daniels Ltd. in St. Helena CA, a sales and marketing company that represents small and family-owned wineries in the U.S. and overseas. “If you look at the opportunity and the labor costs that go into this, then you have to ask, ‘What’s the consumer going to get out of this?’ ”

Few people in the wine business are convinced that consumers will read a “Serving Facts” wine label. Yes, light beers and low carbohydrate beers are required by federal law to include nutritional information because they make nutritional claims—lower in calories and carbs. But the rest of the beer sold in the U.S. doesn’t have the labels. And besides, they ask, what does light beer have to do with buying a bottle of wine for dinner?

Another objection: It’s one thing for the beer business to able to afford to slap a nutritional label on a can of light beer. The two largest U.S. beer companies, ABI and MillerCoors, control about 80 percent of the U.S. market and the 20 largest companies have 96% of the market. Wine is also top-heavy, but not like that: The 10 top companies control about as much as the two biggest beer conglomerates. And this doesn’t take into account wine imports, which are a key part of the U.S. market. Who is going to explain to a French or Italian producer—who already struggle with U.S. label mandates like the health warning—that they need to add yet another TTB-required label for their wines that go to the U.S.?

Finally, many wonder where the new label will go. Or, as Don Brady, winemaker/director at Robert Hall Winery in Paso Robles, says: “Has anyone at TTB looked at all the stuff that goes on the bottle now?” The back label, which already contains the  alcohol warning, would need to be bigger to include the “Serving Facts” label. And how, exactly, would that work? asks Brady.

No one knows, and Resnick says there is no timetable for a TTB decision or any indication what the labeling will include. The industry’s feeling is that equivalency and specific dietary guidelines won’t be included. But until TTB announces its decision, that’s just a best guess.

Jeff Siegel is the proprietor of The Wine Curmudgeon, and writes about wine for a variety of national and regional publications.

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19 Responses

  1. Greg Roberts

    It’s already a tedious process getting labels approved by the TTB especially for imported wines. Nutritional facts, ingredient labeling, the govt warning plus the marketing info will take the entire back side of the bottle if it will even fit. Also, this would require the additional expense of lab analysis for each wine.

    That being said, I’m all for transparency in terms of what’s going into wine. Would the wineries using additives like mega purple to doctor their wines continue doing so if they have to list it as an ingredient?

  2. Tom Mansell

    Even if this did appear there’s no way it would be called “nutrition facts”. TTB and the FDA would never allow any alcoholic beverage to be conceived of as nutritious or healthy. Labeling of fining agents, etc. is a whole other issue, which would (at least at first) lead to more consumer confusion than education.

  3. Kelly

    I’d be very happy to see bottle-specific information on sulfur and chaptalization, since some people have adverse reactions to these additives.

  4. Tish

    Another what-if angle to keep in mind: Even if final label format is scaled down to bar minimum “serving facts,” the end result would bring calories into the public consciousness. What happens if a significant number of consumers decides to switch back to white, in that great American tradition of weight-watching?

  5. Tom Mansell

    all wines contain sulfites (that info is already on the label as “Contains Sulfites” for any wine with >10 ppm). A good rule of thumb is that whites will have higher sulfites than reds since reds have more built-in antioxidants. I’ve never heard of a reaction to added sugar (except getting more drunk from higher alcohol). 🙂

  6. Tobias Øno

    Absolutely. The US and EU should join to enforce mandatory declaration of sugar levels, pH, sulfites, and additives, whether it be time in oak, oak chips, saw dust, egg whites or mega purple and so on. No quarter on this.

  7. Mark

    Wine is a beverage. It deserves no special privileges over any other consumable beverage. Consumers have a right to know what it is that they’re drinking that is beyond crushed berries.

  8. Ashlynkat

    Well I would hope that the wine lobby will push back on this until the spirits & beer industries are included in the proposal. While wine certainly has some health benefits, these labels will do little to highlight that for the consumer. On the contrary, I think these labels will do more harm than good in prompting the consumer to wonder what these additives mean (while Mega Purple is lazy winemaking it certainly isn’t “bad” or unhealthy) and encouraging decisions based on misconceptions. Look at all the misinformation among consumers about sulfites because of the “contain sulfites” warning label. Overall, I wouldn’t be opposed to listing calorie information providing that other alcoholic beverages are held to the same standard.

  9. Tom Mansell

    Ashlynkat: I totally agree. Wine fined with isinglass labeled “Contains: Fish” would wreak havoc on consumer perceptions.

  10. Mark

    Caloric intake? Consumer perception? Image of the industry?

    That doesn’t seem to be slowing down too many people from drinking a Starbuck’s mocha whatever with an extra value Big Mac meal that comes with a 2-liter bottle of Coke and a bucket of fries and afterwards having a few cigarettes to wash it all down…

    The bottom line is that if you enjoy wine, you’re gonna drink it regardless of whether or not it has a nutrition label. Yes, I do agree that a nutrition label may make a consumer drink less or possibly make them be more selective about the wines that they’re drinking, but in the end – If you enjoy drinking wine, you’re not going to stop drinking it just because the label tells you that it’s not good for you.

    On the flipside however, the new generation of wine drinkers does seem to be very much about biodynamic and organic. As a result, we’re seeing many if not most wineries changing their processes to meet those demands.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that I know that drinking too much of any beverage such as coffee and soft drinks is probably not best for me, but I still drink them anyway. A nutrition label on the back of a wine bottle seems no different to me than looking at any other beverage that is sold to the public with a nutrition label in the same manner. The only difference in this particular case, is the alcohol content.

    “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold”.
    — Helen Keller.

  11. Frank

    “Consumers have a right to know what it is that they’re drinking that is beyond crushed berries”

    How can you tell those of us who drink wine what we have a right to or not? I don’t believe I have a right to know. From what source did I acquire this right?

    I have to assume that you don’t drink wine, since the rights which you do actually have include the right to choose not to consume anything which you do not choose to consume.

    Would you demand of a host to know how the peas you have been served were grown? the irrigation source, fertilizers, soil amendments? Isn’t that the same right you allege to exist for wine drinkers?

  12. DBL

    This is such a stupid proposal, the proponents ought to be tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail. The alcohol percentage is already on the label. You can see what color the wine is by looking at it. Fine wines usually tell you the name of the grape or terroir. What else could you possibly want or need? I would wager a large sum of money that any independent survey would show that less than .1% of wine drinkers, if that many, would find these proposed informational labels useful in any way, shape or form.

    Let’s lock the nanny staters up and throw away the key.

  13. Natalie Kronick

    I was thinking about this topic today and wrote a discussion post on the subject. I think I might be swayed a little by the label if I don’t like what I see. I mean, I absolutely love wine, but I might go for the lower calorie / sugar wine depending on my priorities of health, rather than my mood that day… we’ll see. It’s certainly an intersting idea!

    Here is my post and thanks for sharing your thoughts as well!


  14. Vegan Gingerbread

    […] with the facts if they make certain claims, like the beer is organic or low-calorie.  I read one comment against labeling alcohol that was particularly hilarious: "Wine fined with isinglass labeled […]