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Should Wine Labels List Ingredients?

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TTB is considering rule changes that would require ingredients
and nutritional information on wine labels.

By Jeff Siegel

The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the federal agency that oversees alcohol regulation, is currently considering proposals that would require wine producers to include ingredients, calories and the like on wine packaging. In other words, the same information that’s on canned chicken soup, vegan sausage and soft drinks.

Technically, the process is just starting — it’s called Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, or the “pre-rule” phase — meaning the agency is asking for comments and will consider all responses. If there are enough comments supporting the proposal, the agency could move to a Notice of Rulemaking, which requires another comment period before a final decision. All told, the process could last well into next year, and an agency spokesman said there is no timeline yet for how the process might proceed.

Still, it’s a change that many in the wine business say can’t come soon enough.

Define and Embrace the Change

“I think the industry should advocate for what the change [will] look like." —Rob McMillan, Silicon Valley Bank
“I think the industry should advocate for what the change [will] look like.” —Rob McMillan, Silicon Valley Bank

“Some wine industry players will still resist the change to labeling,” says Rob McMillian, Silicon Valley Bank executive vice president and founder of its wine division. “I think the industry should advocate for what the change [will] look like. If I had a vote, I’d advocate for giving the consumer what they want. Then we become the poster child for transparency in ingredient labeling that the rest of the alcohol industry could emulate.”

So what would such labeling look like? There’s no indication yet about what ingredient listings would have to include. Would it be enough to generically use the word “grapes,” or would it require naming specific grapes? What about grape juice products like Mega Purple, used to add color and sweetness? And would oak barrel alternatives, like chips and dust, have to be listed?

The European Union recently started a similar labeling trial using QR codes that are linked to a website that contains complete information. EU’s on-bottle labels will require calories and allergen information; the website can include almost everything else. It will move to full compliance in 2023. 

The Timing Is Right

Many are wondering why the proposal for ingredient labels is gaining traction now after almost 20 years of inaction (save for a voluntary rule in 2013 that is almost universally ignored). There are several reasons.

"Consumers want to know more about where their food and beverages come from and what they contain." —Michael Wangbickler, Balzac Communications & Marketing
“Consumers want to know more about where their food and beverages come from and what they contain.” —Michael Wangbickler, Balzac Communications & Marketing

First, because of a growing awareness that younger consumers want the labels. “As consumer behavior continues to evolve, authenticity and transparency are becoming the norm,” says Michael Wangbickler, the president of Balzac Communications & Marketing in Napa, Calif. “The growing trend is that consumers want to know more about where their food and beverages come from and what they contain. Frankly, I don’t understand the resistance and fear involved in the decision [to add labels]. It’s time for the industry to embrace change and catch up with the rest of the consumer goods marketplace.”

Additionally, improved technology, like the EU QR code initiative, which will make it easier for small producers to add the labels. This has always been a key obstacle, since more than 80 percent of  U.S. wineries make fewer than 5,000 cases per year.

Finally, to address the growth in so-called “healthy wines,” which claim to be better for you but seem to be mostly like every other wine. The TTB has warned producers to stop making these kinds of health claims, and ingredient labels and nutrition facts would make sure they don’t.

Too Soon to Tell

Right now, few are willing to predict what will happen. A Wine Institute spokesman said the trade group wasn’t aware of any proposed rulemaking; a WineAmerica spokesman declined to comment since nothing was official yet.

And there may still be resistance in the industry to the idea. For one, says Jane Kettlewell, a New York City wine marketer, the technical issues involved in accurate ingredient labeling may still be overwhelming. In addition, she asks:  “Will listing nutritional content inspire Gen Z to make a detour to their nearest wine store and give wine another look?”

That may be the biggest unanswered question.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Many of what you call ingredients are really additives used for processing that are not really in the wine when bottled. Any other besides oak or sorbate are really substances that could be part of the wine naturally from fermentation. There are no grapes in a wine. There is alcohol, but its not an ingredient added. Wine is pretty much not like regular food. I see ingredient or nutritional panels as irrelevant. I don ‘t even like the “Contains Sulfites” on the labels as it has only lead to a lot of misconceptions. Only thing I could see as any benefit is may be some sort of indication of degree of residual sugar. Other than that all the calories come from the alcohol, which are not like other calories as the body only burns alcohol calories. Alcohol is not a fat, carbohydrate, nor protein. on a diabetic diet it is referred erroneously as a fat replacement as the liver will delay processing fat for alcohol. I prefer the way we have it here where alcoholic beverages in past were not really considered foo and not subject to ridiculous food processing regulation which for the most part is inapplicable as there is no history of real food safety issue with wine. Even if this happens I will still call it BS. Time for younger people to live without constant fear of anything they drink, especially after looking at a label that does not contain what the label says was put in it.

  2. We have ingredient labeled since the week it became possible thanks to the efforts of the folks at Ridge.
    Everything needs to be listed. Our list is pretty short. Grapes, yeast, bentonite, SO2
    I question the nutrition label. Most things would be zero except sugar and calories. Perhaps we could have a nutrition label that was short? I’d like to have room to tell folks we use zero pesticides of any sort.

    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol Winery and Organic Vineyard

  3. We are trying to give allergen information on our labels and they get shot down by the TTB as health claims. 4 or 5% of the wine drinking public are allergic to SO2 at levels above about 12 or 15 ppm. This same demographic and more are sensitive to histamine in wine, which can produce headaches and contributes to hangovers. We want to list the SO2 level in our wine, 12ppm at release and the histamine level, 5ppm. This and other allergens should be part of the ingredient and nutritional statement on the label. Grapes, yeast and bentonite is not enough.
    Also, how about M/L bacteria and CO2 (sparring before bottling – many ppm stays in the wine) Where do you draw the line allowing and draw the line limiting. I believe the more information and transparency the better.

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