Sat 9 Feb 2008
Trade organizations exist to protect and promote the products of their members. In the world of wine, that means groups are dedicated to the purity of specific grapes or types of wines or to regional wines and traditions. In California, it would be difficult to find a county, a region or sub-region or valley that doesn’t have a trade organization out there trying to call attention to the unique attributes of its climate, soil and heritage. And while big-time grapes like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot certainly don’t require promotion, lesser-known grapes like petite sirah and zinfandel have their official adherents in P.S. I Love You and Z.A.P. Does anyone remember the Charbono Society?
A new trade organization recently surfaced, one whose very inception embodies controversy, or at least some confusion. This is the brave little Sweet and Fortified Wine Association (website here), whose membership so far consists of Prager Winery and Port Works, Quady Winery, J. Pedroncelli Winery, Pessagno Winery and Belo Wine Co, all in California, and Glunz Family Winery and Cellar in Illinois. Hey, come on, all you wineries that make port-like and dessert-style wines, let’s show some support!
The problem, or, as I said above, the controversy or confusion, lies is legal terminology, because, according to agreements between the government of the United States of America and the European Community, the word “port” may not be used on the labels of fortified wines made outside of the designated port region of Portugal. “Port” is a protected term, in the way that “Sherry,” “Champagne” and “Chianti” are. These are wines that are firmly tied to the geography whence they originate, and it is right that they be protected. Just as producers of sangiovese wines in California may not label their wines as Chianti, so bottles of Le Montrachet may not assert that they’re “A Napa Valley-Style Chardonnay.” The principle works both ways.
Still, these practices make matters rather difficult for producers of fortified wines in the United States. The SFWA is aware of the dilemma and mentions on its website an inquiry sent to the TTB (ttb.gov), the federal agency that oversees the granting of COLAs (Certificates of Label Approval). In response, the TTB representative said: “It is my understanding that we would not allow (COLAs) for the use of the term ‘Port-Style,’ ‘Port-Type,’ etc. since those references would be in conflict with our commitment to the Agreement in Trade in Wine between the US and EC.”
So, no port or porto, no port-style or port-type or port-like, no portish or portiness or portly or purportedly (though that would be pretty clever), no “we-can’t-call-it-port-but-you-know-what-we-mean.” All right, fine. We’re all law-abiding citizens here. Obviously, the label for the Heitz Cellars Ink Grade Vineyard Port, released in 2003, would no longer be allowed.
However, the response goes on: “Also, the term ‘fortified’ or similar terms are not allowed on wine labels.” WTF, readers! The term “fortified” doesn’t even appear on labels of real Porto from Portugal! When was the last time you saw a Taylor-Fladgate or Fonseca label that said “Port: A Fortified Wine!” And port isn’t the only fortified wine in the world. There are sherry, madeira, vermouth, malaga, marsala and a few others. I find that ruling almost deliberately dense and prohibitive. One imagines a couple of pasty-faced bureaucrats in a windowless office in an anonymous suburb chuckling to each other: “Tee-hee, let’s see how they squirm out of this one!”
TTB helpfully offers “possible label options.” These include such colorful terms as “Dessert Wine,” “Grape Wine,” “Red/White Wine,” “Sweet Dessert Wine,” “Sweet Grape Wine, “Sweet Red/White Wine, etc … ” I particularly like “Grape Wine.” I mean, I like to know exactly what I’m getting in the bottle.