Prohibition of alcoholic beverages was repealed in the United States in 1933, but the effects are still felt—in federal wine labeling laws, in the marketplace, in the convoluted system of state and local regulations. We will start with wine labeling regulations.
- If only wine were labeled according to the rules of the Food and Drug Administration
- The FDA is a part of the Department of Health and Human Services
- The FDA’s purpose is to protect the public from unhealthy or adulterated foods
- Wine labels would have content information like this useful food label
Notice how we have highlighted the enormous amount of sugar in this product, which happens to be grape juice (but not the type of grape juice that makes good quality wine). You might want to enjoy this hyper-sweet product in moderation, but if you want to chug down the whole bottle, at least you know what you are putting into your body. If this were wine, the label would tell you nothing about the sugar level.
- Wine labeling is regulated by the Department of the Treasury, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau
- The all-powerful TTB
- A good understanding of the limitations of this system will come in handy next time you visit the wine store
The TTB runs the American Appellation (Wine Place Name) System. The design and content of every label that goes on American wine must be submitted to the TTB for approved.
Each American state automatically qualifies as an appellation that may be indicated on a wine label. Here are three examples.
We could give 47 further examples. Not all states produce wine grapes, but there are wineries in all 50 states.
Within each state, each county automatically qualifies as an appellation. This has its greatest significance in wine powerhouse California.
The other type of appellation other than a state or a county is an American Viticultural Area (AVA). This is pronounced “A-V-A. “
- AVA status is awarded by the TTB based on petitions from an area’s winemakers
- The winemakers try to convince the TTB that their proposed AVA has unique climate, soil or other attributes that set it off for special status
- The process of approval is difficult
- The TTB puts out 35 pages of instructions on how to apply for an AVA
- AVAs can overlap or nest
- AVAs vary greatly in size
- AVAs can encompass parts of more than one county or state
- As a general rule, a wine producer can command a higher price for wines labeled with an AVA name rather than with a county or state name
- When smaller AVAs are nested into larger ones, the smaller AVA usually commands the higher price
- AVAs function, essentially, as brand names, tending to indicate quality
U.S. appellations, state, county or AVA, relate only to place. Compare this to France, where appellations describe a place, of course, but so much more:
- grape or grapes allowed
- pruning and vineyard management rules
- whether irrigation is permitted
- harvesting rules and maximum vineyard yields
- type of yeast allowed in the winery
- minimum and maximum alcohol levels
- and to qualify for that place name the wine must be reviewed by a professional tasting panel
Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, California is an AVA.
Santa Barbara County in the map above is a good study for the AVA concept. Note that the Santa Maria Valley AVA in the north is separate and self-contained, but the Santa Ynez Valley AVA itself contains three “nested” AVA’s: Santa Rita Hills AVA, Ballard Canyon AVA, and Happy Canyon AVA. If the wine label reads “Santa Ynez Valley” the supposition is that the grapes were sourced from within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA but not within any of the nested AVAs, or from a combination of each. The winemaker, if in doubt, could always label the wine “Santa Barbara County” or even “California.” The smaller the appellation, the higher the perception of quality (and the higher the price). Note we say “perception of” quality.
Dundee Hills in Oregon is an AVA. In fact, it is a sub-AVA of the much larger Willamette Valley AVA
Above is a map of the southern New England states. Notice that the Western Connecticut Highlands AVA is completely within the state of Connecticut, but that the Southeastern New England AVA straddles three states, and includes the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, but not the island of Martha’s Vineyard, which is a separate AVA. It stands to reason that Martha’s Vineyard would get its own AVA. After all, it is named after a vineyard. The only troubling part of this is that the island produces neither grapes nor wine. It does have a great number of well-connected summer residents.
The three wine labels from Rhode Island’s Sakonnet Vineyard shown above illustrate a winemaker’s choice to use different appellations for three different wines. On the left, the winemaker chose to release her Rhode Island Red under the Rhode Island appellation (remember that every US state is automatically an appellation). She could have probably used the Southeastern New England appellation for this but the state name was more in keeping with the wine name. On the right, she labeled the wine as Southeastern New England. Notice that she labeled the wine in the center “American Table Wine.” This would tend to indicate that the percentage of the grapes used to make this wine was not high enough to qualify it for the Southeastern New England AVA or Rhode Island state appellation. Most probably, some or all of these grapes were shipped in from elsewhere, probably from New York State or even California.
Now here comes the confusing information (on the wine label, not here). According to TTB rules, if the winemaker uses an AVA name on the label, at least 85% of the wine must derive from that AVA. There is no requirement to divulge where the remaining 15% comes from. In the case of an American state or county, at least 75% of the wine must derive from that state or county to earn the right to a place on the label. State rules can tighten (but not loosen) these limitations—California requires wines labeled “California” to be 100%.
If a grape variety is mentioned on the label, the rule is 75%. This means that a wine labeled “California Pinot Noir” could be up to 25% Syrah, or Merlot, or something never meant to be blended with Pinot Noir, with no way for the consumer to tell. The tax people are regulating the labeling, not the food protection people.
Do you want to know how much sugar is in a wine? Too bad. The label tells you nothing. How much acidity? Ditto. How much alcohol? Well, that the label does reveal.
Meaningless American Wine Terms
- Reserve – no legal significance
- Old Vines – no legal definition (in any country)
- Sustainable – no legal definition
- Organic – meaningless unless certified organic
- Natural – as with foods, meaningless
- Special selection, limited release, private stock – no legal significance
Single Varietal Wines
- It is disturbing to us that wine labels only guarantee that a mentioned grape comprises 75% of the wine, since we Americans are heavily skewed toward single varietal wines: Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah – etc., and not blends
- And while we use place names, they are not as important as they are in Europe
- Why are single varietal wines, that is, grape names, so important in the American system?
It goes back to…no prizes awarded for guessing…Prohibition.
Many vineyards were forced to shut down entirely. Some stayed alive by producing grapes for the country’s new hobby: home winemaking. Grapes were shipped with a warning: “Do not add yeast otherwise the grapes might ferment.” Of course, these were actually instructions for do-it-yourself wine. Those vineyards that did not shut down entirely converted from fine wine grapes to varieties like Alicante Bouschet and Thompson Seedless, which could survive shipment to home winemakers around the country. These grapes at best produce mediocre wine.
In 1933, Prohibition was repealed, but it did its damage: far fewer vineyards, and inappropriate grapes for fine wine. You cannot just “plant” grapes and reap a crop a few months later. Vineyards take years to yield quality wine grapes. The breweries and distillers were able to go into immediate production of beer and spirits—all they needed was grain. The Great Depression was on, and the public wanted cheap beer, cheap spirits, and cheap wine.
Producers churned out inexpensive sweet wines made from poor quality grapes largely produced in California’s hot climate Central Valley. They used European place names to describe their wines, despite the fact that these wines and the grapes that made them had nothing to do with the European appellations they appropriated: Burgundy, Chablis, Chianti, Sherry, Port, Sauternes, Champagne, and many more.
World War Two in the 1940s did nothing in itself to turn the American wine industry toward fine wine production, but it exposed American soldiers to better quality European wines.
It took decades for fine wine to recover in the US. For most Americans, until at least the 1960s, good wine was something imported from Europe that you splurged for on special occasions. American wine was something you poured out of a jug. Winemakers who strove to change this perception fought an uphill battle. The land and the vines bided their time. Eventually, two influential champions of American fine wine arose.
- Frank Schoonmaker (1905-1976) was an influential wine writer. Writing in the 1940s and 1950s, it was largely Schoonmaker’s idea to label American wines by their grape varieties as a means to indicate quality, to distance them from the mass-produced American wines that continued to use stolen European place names (without mention of the grape content). California place names like Napa and Sonoma did not yet have the association with quality they have today, so calling a wine Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay seemed the way to go. Progress here was slow.
- Robert Mondavi (1913-2008) founded his winery in Napa in 1966. A convert to Schoonmaker’s single varietal concept, Mondavi put the full force of his magnetic personality behind it with crusade-like zeal. The quality wine industry took his lead, and varietal labeling became the norm.
In American wine, for better or for worse, grape type comes first, place second. Of course, American winemakers experiment with blends, and continue to promote the brand value of their counties and AVAs, but the American public looks at wines as being of specific grapes, and only a short list of international grapes at that.