Viewpoint

 

Allow Vintage Dating

March 2010
 
by Cary M. Greene
 
 
A winery might have plenty of reasons to use a vintage date on an “American” or other country appellation wine. But under longstanding federal regulations, wineries don’t have the option, since country appellation wines are prohibited from bearing a vintage date. As with many technical rules in the wine business, it’s a case where the purpose of a once-coherent policy restriction has been lost through a combination of market and regulatory changes. It is time for the federal Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) to revise its policy.

Having grown from 1,600 wineries in 1990 to more than 6,000 today, the U.S. wine industry has evolved at a rapid rate. Regulatory policy has gradually adapted along with it, slowly improving with a lot of hard work by our industry’s dedicated policy minders. In a general sense, the regulatory environment for wineries is pretty good. But there’s significant room for improvement, particularly in areas where outmoded policy hinders winery marketing and development.

At WineAmerica, our job is to figure out how we can make the American wine industry work better. With member wineries in 48 states, we try to take a broad view of where American wineries are going and how to implement policies that get them there. Our members are the key drivers in this process, and through them we learn about the issues that are giving them problems, as well as those that are making them successful.

In state after state, local winemakers are gaining significant local market share. In the process of building a loyal consumer base, these winemakers are developing the next generation of wine consumers and making the United States a true wine-drinking nation. We can protect these gains by advancing policies that encourage the success of local wineries. Since wines produced by these wineries sometimes utilize out-of-state fruit—and therefore may be required to use an “American” appellation—there are substantial domestic implications for how “country” appellation wines are regulated.

The case for changing TTB’s vintage date restriction begins with how vintage dates are used in the market. More than anything, this is a matter of truth in labeling. Vintage dates act as shorthand for knowing whether a wine needs aging, is ready to drink, or is over the hill. They also promote product transparency and lot identification, shelf management tools that protect producers and allow consumers to more clearly identify wines they like.

There are few, if any, policy justifications for restricting use of vintage dates for country appellation wines. As was stated eloquently in comments to TTB in 2006, “With the exception of the luxury-priced wine market, where a particular vintage is often celebrated for its uniqueness, nearly all other wine consumers, both domestically and abroad, have specific style and quality expectations that are consistent from purchase to purchase.”

The vintage dating restriction can also unfairly mark a wine as inferior or unfamiliar. It can give the false impression of product uniformity from year to year (that a wine is in a “house” style produced from several vintages), when that is not in fact the case. It can likewise create consumer confusion, leaving a particular varietal wine ordinarily produced as a vintage product suddenly non-vintage.

Likewise, TTB’s vintage date restrictions often have unintended consequences. Some countries, principally in Europe, restrict use of varietal labeling except in instances where a wine bears a country appellation. This means that many foreign wineries selling in the United States are forced to choose between vintage labeling and varietal labeling.

As long as the information on a label is truthful and not misleading, there is no reason to prohibit it. TTB has acknowledged in rulemaking that “vintage date information may be used by consumers in various ways,” and has expressed a willingness to take up petitions seeking changes to their regulations. During the next few months, WineAmerica is considering answering this invitation and petitioning TTB to allow use of vintage information on American and other country appellation wines.

Regulatory improvements are brought about through savvy advocacy and strong grassroots. Getting TTB to lift the restriction prohibiting wines with a country appellation from bearing a vintage date would be one step on a long road to improvement. Going forward, we will face many greater challenges as an industry, but working together, we can secure our continued success.

Cary M. Greene is the vice president and general counsel of WineAmerica, the National Association of American Wineries. You can learn more about WineAmerica at wineamerica.org. To comment on this Viewpoint, e-mail edit@winesandvines.com.

 
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