September 10, 2004

Wine Industry Continues to Debate Change to Vintage Dating Rule

Michael Brill Newman

For several years the California wine industry has debated a proposal to the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau to change the current federal rule on labeling wine with a vintage date (e.g., 2000).

Wine Institute, the primary trade association for California wineries, has been considering a proposal from some of its members that would change the federal requirements for labeling wine with a specific vintage year. Currently, 95% of the wine has to be from grapes harvested in the vintage year stated on the label. Originally, some wineries proposed that the 95% requirement be reduced to 85% for all wine produced in the U.S. Proponents of the change claimed that the US needed to adopt the 85% rule used by virtually the rest of the world to better compete with the European Union and Australia. They claimed that winemakers could make better wines if they could blend in up to 15% grapes from another year because it would allow for greater consistency from year to year. Opponents claim the change would make the vintage date misleading to consumers and also result in the perception that the U.S. is diluting its quality requirements, thereby harming the international reputation of US wines. Responding to opposition proponents modified their proposal calling essentially for a tiered system where the 85% requirement would apply to all wine except wine labeled with a viticultural area appellation (e.g., Napa Valley).

After discussing the proposal at its most recent board meeting in June, Wine Institute has reached out to other major wine trade associations to determine what their positions are. Wine Institute again intends to discuss the change at its board of directors meeting in September. Another modification has surfaced which would maintain the 95% requirement for county appellations in addition to specific viticultural areas.

Even if the California wine industry ultimately reaches enough of a consensus to go forward with a change, it will then face having to convince TTB. What will happen with this issue over the next year or so is anybody’s guess.

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