Friday, October 2, 2020

How much is enough?

"In vino veritas -- In wine there is truth."  Words from Pliny the Elder that should be on all wine labels.


How much do consumers need to know about the wine in the bottle?

That's a question that is being shuttled about today in wine circles.  And, perhaps not surprising, there is no agreement on the answer or even if there should be an agreement. 

What sparked my interest about wine ingredient labeling were a few articles I read recently that, either directly or obliquely, addressed the subject of information on wine labels, how much information is sufficient and if the wine consumer really cares.

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What belongs on this label?

Debating the importance of the pros and cons of what should be included on a  wine label is like arguing how many angels will fit on the head of a pin.  But that's the point say those who favor full disclosure. The more information there is on the wine label the more informed the wine purchase. 

Those in disagreement argue that endless numbers and figures like a wine's pH, residual sugar and total acidity, only increase buyer confusion.  Most people can explain and understand residual sugar and total acidity, but few winemakers I've talked with can define pH.  It's like asking someone to describe the taste of a banana.

Wine writer Dan Berger, who often writes passionately about a number of consumer-related questions, supports the idea that more information on labels the better, citing the consumer's need to know, as well as the importance of wine making/marketing transparency.  In a recent newspaper column, Berger called for more information on back labels, maintaining that it would provide the wine consumer with vital information, while helping to foster a more astute buying decision. 

Curiously, not long after Berger's article appeared, the Wine Market Council released the results of an online consumer survey indicating that the wine consumers surveyed were more interested in the type of wine and what it tasted like. 

Here are just a few of the survey's more compelling findings:
* 78% Always Want to Know the type of wine. 

* 69% Always Want to Know about the wine's flavor and taste.

* 42% Always Want to Know where the wine was produced.  

* 36% Always Want to Know the percent of alcohol content.

* 44% Rarely Want to Know how the grapes were grown.

* 41% Rarely Want to Know about Nutrition and Ingredients on wine labels.

* Significantly, 40% of respondents said they were overwhelmed when choosing and buying a wine because there are so many choices, while 80% had difficulty choosing a wine because they were not sure what the wine will taste like.

 Personal Aside -- There is a handful of old timers in the California wine business that spoke their mind and just wanted to make wine and not deal with all the bureaucracy and  paperwork. Myron Nightingale, former winemaker for Beringer Vineyards, was a man I greatly admired for his knowledge of winemaking, ability to clearly understand the wine consumer and his generosity toward wine writers.

Myron could be irascible, impatient and didn't suffer fools willingly. One of his pet peeves was the incomprehensible bureaucracy of the wine label approval process. 

We were discussing the terminology on wine labels, when Myron said, "I want to show you something." He opened a thick loose leaf binder to a specific  form and dropped the folder in front of me.

It was a BATF approval form he had submitted for "Malvasia Bianco," a new white wine that Beringer wanted to sell. "Read that," barked Myron, jabbing a purple stained finger at the Approve/Disapprove block and the typed entry: "Identify the primary grape in the blend: "Malvasia," or "Bianco"

Then, there was an interesting take on the Wine Market Council survey and the growing interest in the subject of ingredient labeling, by a fellow blogger. In a recent edition of "Fermentation," Tom Wark suggests the growing interest is because of the natural wine movement influence. Wark, no fan of natural wine, said that the movement's advocates are pressuring for wine labels to show a long list of ingredients.

Further, Wark says that findings in the WMC survey contradict articles and reports in various publications that consumers do want ingredients included on wine labels. As for the insistence on transparency, Wark warns that it "insinuates that something bad and nasty is being hidden" from consumers. 

Finally, there was this item, not directly about ingredient labeling, but more about information that might show up on a wine label and potentially cause consumer confusion. 


A bulletin from the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), part of the Department of the Treasury (formerly, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), mentioned the approval for American wine labels of five new grapes: Camminare Noir, Passeanto Noir, Errante Noir, Ambulo Blanc and Caminante Blanc. The advantage of the new grapes, the bulletin explains, is the new grapes are resistant to Pierce's Disease, a feared bacterial disease that destroys vines and costs growers $100 million a year.  

The five new grapes were developed at the University of California Davis as part of a long-standing program to help the California wine industry with solutions to costly problems.

Any effort to control Pierce's Disease is to be applauded, yet I found the grape names odd and wondered about the likelihood of growers replacing highly valued and money-making grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon with these new grapes?  And, more to the point: Will we will ever see these new grapes on a wine label?

We are at a time when there is a demand for transparency in everything we say and do. Does that mean wine labels should be loaded down with data that may not improve the wine buying experience?  After decades of asking wine consumers what will help them make more informed buying decisions, this is what I heard over and over and what I believe: "How does the wine taste and how much does it cost?" 

Update: A new ruling from TTB, effective September 29 now makes TTB guidance on wine label ingredient more consistent with that of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) addressing nutrition information including calorie, carbohydrate, protein and fat content in wine, beer and spirits. The last time TTB ruled on nutrition labeling was 2004.


Next blog: California Pinot Noir 

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