Government regulations

I have lived in Memphis for most of my life, but I usually don’t think of myself as living in Tennessee, except at election time. I mean, it’s such a long state, and West Tennessee, where Memphis occupies the far southwest corner, is the most liberal section of the state; there are also Middle and East Tennessee. On the other hand, to read the letters to the editor of the newspaper where I work and especially to read the comments on the paper’s website, you would think that Memphis is about as liberal as Myanmar. When I travel and people ask me if I’m from Tennessee, my first impulse is to say, “No, not me,” but then I catch myself and say, “Uh, yeah, but I live in Memphis.”

These ruminations are prelude to offering some facts about selling and buying and obtaining wine in Tennessee, whose nickname is the Volunteer State.

Now, Tennessee is a felony state, which means that it’s a felony to ship wine to an individual inside the state; the penalty goes against the shipper, so a winery could lose its license to do business in Tennessee. Last spring, the Tennessee state legislature, for the umpteenth time, voted down proposals that would have allowed grocery stores sales of wine and shipping of wine to tennessee.jpg consumers in the state without going through a wholesale distributor. It’s the same old story: The lobbying efforts of the retail and wholesale associations and the state’s fundamentalist religious element defeat these bills every time, though since the U.S. Supreme Court decided that states could not allow wineries in-state to sell directly to consumers if they didn’t allow out-of-state wineries the same right, if don’t see how that notion can stand much longer.

Each county and municipality in Tennessee can decide, by vote, whether it will be “wet” or “dry” or in what degree. Memphis did not get liquor-by-the-drink until 1972; people brown-bagged their bourbon and paid for set-ups. Some entire counties are dry; some towns allow certain alcoholic beverages to be sold and not others. It’s a puritanical patchwork designed to diminish the simple (and moderate) pleasure of consuming alcoholic beverages.

While wine and liquor stores in other states are allowed to sell wine glasses and cork-screws, may hold wine tastings in the stores and can even sell gourmet food items and other comestibles, none of these are allowed in Tennessee. Think of that: In Tennessee, a wine store cannot hold an event that brings in a winemaker or producer to introduce new products to customers. The motivation seems to be to allow as little contact as possible between those who make the wine and those who sell the wine.

An example of this retrograde philosophy occurred recently when a winery in California wanted to send me some samples. “No problem,” I said, “I’ve been getting samples delivered to me for many years.” “Yeah,” said the winery, “but Tennessee is a felony state, we don’t want to take a chance. How about if we send it to the wholesaler?” “Well,” I said, “that’s OK, but I may not see the wine for six months, or I might never see it. Wholesalers get lots of wine all the time, and they don’t necessarily look at who the box is addressed to or in care of.”

I thought perhaps the winery could ship the samples, in my name, in care of a local retail store, but to make sure, I called the owner of a store in my neighborhood and asked: “Can you accept a box of wine for me in care of your store?”

“No can do, F.K.,” said the owner. “That’s against the law in Tennessee. The ABC wants to keep contact between suppliers and stores to a minimum. So I can’t call a winery and ask to have some samples sent to the store. And that means that we only get to try wines that the wholesalers bring us, we can’t ask the wholesalers to bring in wine we’ve sampled here. We,re trying to get the law changed.”

That particular situation may be a minor annoyance, but it fits an age-old pattern of a seemingly paternalistic government making matters as difficult as possible for adults to enjoy alcoholic beverages that are legal to sell and consume and, in fact, to make the selling of those legal adult beverages as difficult as possible.

Did you know that in New York City, wine and liquor stores can be open on Sunday if they choose? Holy moly, what blasphemy, allowing alcoholic beverages to be sold on the Sabbath! New York certainly lives up to its reputation as the New World’s center of sin and decadence!

A bulletin recently published by the Office of Champagne and the Center for Wine Origins carries the title — or “hed,” as we call it in the Worshipful Company of Ink-Stain’d Wretches — “Poll Shows Majority of U.S. Wine Purchasers Against Misleading Labels.” korbelnvchardchamp-w.jpg

One would think that this issue would fall into the category of “It Goes Without Mention.” I mean, isn’t this rather like saying “Poll Shows Majority of Major League Baseball Players Against Random Drug Testing” or “Poll Shows Majority of Vegans Against Beating Baby Seals to Death”?

Anyway, according to the report, “79% agree that consumers deserve protection from deceptive claims on food and beverage labels.” Only 63 percent, however, would “support a law prohibiting misleading labels because they believe it is the best way to protect the names of wine regions around the world, including domestic names such as Napa Valley and Sonoma County.” (I love how pollsters word their questions.) You have to wonder who the 21 percent are who do not agree that consumers deserve protection from deceptive claims on food and beverage labels or the 37 percent who would not support a law prohibiting misleading labels because they believe it is the best way to protect the names of wine regions around the world etc etc. What are they feeding their children?

The Center for Wine Origins is based in Washington D.C. Financed by the European Union and the governments of France, Spain and Portugal, the CWO’s purpose is to lobby on behalf of the regions of Champagne, Sherry and Port against misuse of those andre_champagne.jpg widely-known terms, meaning that only products made in those regions should be called Champagne or Port or Sherry. How serious is the problem? Says the CWO: “47% of the U.S. sparkling wine market is dominated by products mislabeled ‘champagne.'” And: “4 out of every 5 bottles of ‘Sherry’ sold in our country are not products of Jerez, Spain.”

Now either the semantics or the logic is a little fuzzy here. If “47% of the U.S. sparkling wine market is dominated by products mislabeled ‘champagne,'” than 53 percent of the products are not mislabeled champagne, right? So actually the U.S. sparkling wine market is not dominated by mislabeled labels. Or am I missing the point?

But let’s get to the real point. Sparkling wine made anywhere in the world other than Champagne should not be labeled as such, and the same principle applies to Port and Sherry, as well as Chianti, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Brunello di Montalcino, Rioja and any other wine named after and associated with a definite place; those place names evoke a sense of history, tradition, technique and style that are inseparable from those places. In 2006, after years of negotiating with the EU, the United States agreed that no new labels of sparkling wine produced within our borders could use the term Champagne. The truth is that reputable producers of traditionally-made (that is in the Champagne manner of second fermentation in the bottle) sparkling wine in California, Oregon, Washington and other states had long ago abandoned the use of the name.

But large producers of bulk sparkling wines, such as E.& J. Gallo, Korbel and Cook’s, were grandfathered into the deal, so that cooksgrandreserve.jpg millions of gallons of sparkling wines made in tanks and often selling for as little as $4 a bottle, as with Gallo’s Andre Champagne — the best-selling brand of sparkling wine in the country — were allowed to use the term.

By the way, lists (lower case) “andre champagne” as a verb meaning to pop open a bottle of sparkling wine, hit a girl in the eye with the cork and douse her with the foaming beverage, as in “Hey, dude, let’s andre champagne those babes!” I have simply got to get out more.

All right, let’s go ahead and say that it’s unfair that Gallo and Korbel and Cook’s are allowed to use “champagne” on their labels in defiance of the wishes of the EU and the ancient houses of Champagne. But before the CWO gets too much in a twitter, let’s remember that the person who is suddenly conscience-stricken and decides not to fling down four georges for his Andre Champagne because it is mislabled is not going to turn around and drop 50 big ones on a bottle of Pol Roger. It’s a matter of price and perspective. Pol Roger and Taittinger and Roederer and all the other venerable Champagne houses are just not going to capture the Andre market, no matter how the labels look or how they are worded.

On the other hand, a guy could be so bitter nowadays that even a bottle of Andre might look pretty good.

Once more a wine direct shipping bill has been introduced into the Tennessee state legislature. Will it be doomed to failure as the others have been, brought low by an unsavory alliance of the state’s wholesalers and retailers with conservative Christians?

Senate Bill 2686 was introduced by Doug Jackson, a Democrat from Dickson County, in Middle Tennessee, not far from Nashville. The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville

It would seem that the timing is propitious to give residents of Tennessee the right to purchase wine from retailers or wineries in other states and have it shipped to them, just as they can with clothing or food or books or furniture or just about any other consumer item. In its decision in 2005 in Granholm v. Heald, the U.S. Supreme Court stated the case pretty plainly: “States may not enact laws that burden out-of-state producers and shippers simply to give a competitive advantage to in-state businesses.” In other words, if retail stores and wineries can sell wine to consumers in-state, so can sellers from out-of-state. The prevalence of Internet wine sales and auction sites makes this tendency inevitable, and retailers and wholesale distributors in Tennessee need to face the reality of the wine world of the future and make adjustments.

Some state legislatures have done an end-run around the Supreme Court. Illinois, for example, enacted a law that forbids ANY winery, in-state or out-of-state, from shipping directly to consumers, dealing a serious blow to the state’s small wine industry. Surely that act will be challenged soon.

Summarizing the bureaucratic language of Senate Bill 2686, the propositions, besides details of enforcement and paperwork, are these:
1. Any “wine manufacturer, producer, supplier, importer, wholesaler, distributor or retailer” in-state or out-of-state may register in Tennessee and obtain a license — the initial cost is $500 with annual renewal for $250 — to ship up to two cases of wine annually “directly to a resident of Tennessee who is at least twenty-one (21) years of age” for personal use. Shipments must be clearly marked as containing alcoholic beverages.
2. The wine may not be shipped to “a county or municipality that has not authorized the sale of alcoholic beverages by local option election.” That’s right, readers, Tennessee still has dry or partially dry counties and towns. Until 1972, you couldn’t buy a cocktail in a restaurant in Memphis, and as many people know, Jack Daniels in distilled in a dry county.
3. Sales and excise taxes must be paid on the wines, whether shipped from in-state or out-of-state entities.

Tom Wark, executive director of the Specialty Wine Retailers Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the passage of direct shipment legislation — and proprietor of the Fermentation blog — called S.B. 2686 “a good bill.”

“The proposed Tennessee direct shipping bill means that consumers in the state have complete access to the wines they want,” Wark wrote to me in a recent email message. “This also means that the bill conforms to the requirements that states must treat in-state and out-of-state shippers equally, as noted in the Granholm v. Heald Supreme Court decision and the recent Siesta Village Market v. Perry decision in Texas that proclaimed that retailers as well as wineries are protected by the principles announced in Granholm. The bill provides for the state to collect taxes on retailer and winery shipments, which is important for the state. And, finally, it provides for safeguards with regard to minor access to wine, a very prudent addition to the bill.”

While Wark — and everybody who would potentially benefit from passage of the bill — would like to see a higher limit on the amount of wine that can be shipped to an individual, “this is something we can live with,” he said.

Now let’s hope that the politicians, the retailers and wholesalers and their fundamentalist allies don’t try to inject fear and loathing into a campaign against the bill, conjuring the horrific — and completely false — specter of crazed teenagers using their parents’ credit cards to order cases of Screaming Eagle over the Internet. That scare tactic is complete baloney.

The term “old vines” on a wine label conjures an image of a hillside in Sonoma County that supports thick, gnarled, somewhat oldvines2_01.jpg stunted grapevines, usually zinfandel, planted in the 1880s or 1890s or early 1900s by Italian immigrants. The vines are so old that they must be carefully tended, and they manage to bring forth only a handful of grapes in each vintage. Yet how deep, rich and flavorful are the wines that these venerable vines produce, like the essence of the grapes, the vine and the vineyard itself. Drinking an “old vine” zinfandel, we feel as if we are imbibing not merely wine but the history of California itself, the struggle of the immigrants, the tales of failure and success, the origins of the Golden State’s wine industry.

But how old is an old vine? Sometimes a wine label that uses the term “old vines” will state that the wine was made from 50-year-old vines. Is that really old compared to a vineyard planted in the 1890s? If one producer can call the wine made from 100-year-old vines “Old Vines,” does the producer of a wine made from 30-year-old vines have the right to use the same term?

Before we tackle the issue itself — because the term “old vines,” like the designation “reserve” and its many variations, is completely unregulated by state or federal laws — let’s talk about the concept itself.

It is an article of faith, in Europe (especially France) as well as in California, that wine made from old vines is inherently better than wine made from young (or younger) vines. A vineyard, after being planted, usually takes seven to 10 years to produce sineann-old-vine-zinfandel-250p-flat.jpg grapes that might be made into superior wine, while vines at the ages of, say, 25 to 50 years may potentially produce wines of great character. Wines made from those 100-to-120-year-old zinfandel or “field blend” vineyards in Sonoma County can be a models of purity, intensity and integrity.

However, the term “Old Vines” on a wine label does not guarantee, as some writers assert, that a wine will display the highest quality; our notions of “old vine” virtues are enmeshed in romantic ideas about the history of the vineyards and the wines they produce. As Tom Pellechia wrote about the “old vines” concept on VinoFictions in August: “Of course, this whole subject is mere sentimentality. Whether they are old vines or new vines, it still takes good grapegrowing and winemaking to produce the best wine.” Yep, it’s possible to take great grapes from a venerable vineyard and fuck up the whole process; I’ve had “old vine” zinfandels that tasted like stewed raisins on steroids.

Conceding, though, that it’s possible to make fabulous and unique wines from old vine vineyards, what should the consumer who plucks such a wine from a shelf in a neighborhood wine and liquor store think? Since the term “old vines” is officially unsupervised, producers can put anything on labels they want to, even if the vineyards are 25 or 30 or 35 years old. What, then, is the proprietor of truly old vineyards, over which a great deal of pride and work are exercised, supposed to do? Can’t we help out the innocent wine buyer?

I would favor regulation from the TTB that at least required producers who used the term “old vines” to state, on the back label, the age of the vines or vineyard, and if possible the name of the vineyard, from which the grapes derived, as in, 1998-z4.jpg “Made from vines planted in 1920 in the Big Heart Vineyard” or, also acceptable, “Produced from grapes planted circa 1895 in Sonoma Valley,” since sometimes exact dates and deeds are obscure.

Joel Peterson, founder of and former winemaker for Ravenswood, recommends that vines be classified in this way: 0 to 10 years, young vines; 10 to 50 years, middle age; 50 to 80 years, old vines; over 80 years, ancient vines — see the discussion about old vine zinfandel at the website of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission — though I wonder if we need an official classification for young and middle aged vines. Meanwhile, Tom Wark, writing on Dec. 14, on Fermentation in his guise as “Wine Czar,” recommended that all “old vines” be required to be 50 years old or older, a scheme that has the advantage of simplicity.

In any case, consumers need to know with confidence that when they pick up a bottle of wine designated “Old Vines” or “Century Vines” or “Grandfather Vines” that they’re getting something real, not a phrase tricked out by a producer’s marketing department.

FK took the photograph of a zinfandel vine in the Barricia Vineyard in Sonoma Valley, originally planted in 1858 and replanted between 1885 and 1940.

Winemakers and producers in American, though they usually don’t want to admit this, have a much easier time as far as governmental regulations are concerned than their counterparts in Europe. Or maybe they do admit it, but sort of gruffly, in an bvpr_01.jpg American sort of way. In America, the rules set down by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), formerly the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms — and thank god they finally got the guns out of there! now the vice president can handle those directly! — primarily effect what terms can be printed on wine labels and what the terms mean.

In Europe, the story is far different. The regulations laid down by the official wine bureaus of various countries stipulate what kinds of grapes can be grown in what regions and what grapes go into different sorts of wines, often including the minimum percentages of grapes in blended wines. Some rules are so stringent that they dictate what the yields must be in the vineyards, what sort of trellising system must be used and when harvest must begin.

Whew, I’m glad we don’t have to worry about all that stuff in America! Our guiding power is the can-do spirit of frontier individualism which says, essentially, plant any grapes anywhere you want to and make the wine any way you can. The main kjblanc.jpg point, as far as the TTB is concerned, is that fraud not be perpetuated by misleading label terms. So, if a label says that the wine is from Sonoma County, it “must be derived from not less than 75% of grapes, citrus or other fruit or other agricultural commodity grown in the named county AND must be fully finished (except for cellar treatment and blending which does not result in an alteration of class and type) in the state in which the named county is located.” I’m quoting here from the official Department of Treasury The Beverage Alcohol Manual: Basic Mandatory Labeling Information for Wine, a fascinating document written 75% in real English and available here.

If the label states that the wine is a product of an approved American Viticultural Area (AVA), such as Russian River Valley or Stags Leap District, then the amount of grapes in the wine from that AVA must be 85 percent. If the label states that the wine was “Estate Bottled,” then 100 percent of the grapes must derive from land owned or controlled by the winery, which much be located within the same AVA as the vineyard and “must crush, ferment the grapes, finish, age, process and bottle the wine on their premises.”

There are other various picayune label matters that producers must attend to, like the size of the type that the government warming is printed in, but it’s good that generally the federal government wants to prevent, as much as possible, the hoodwinking of innocent wine consumers.

Which brings me to the word “reserve,” a term that we see on wine labels all the time over which the TTB has no control at all and has never attempted to control and the whole reason for today’s post.

The word “reserve” on a label implies that the wine is special in some way, that it was, perhaps, produced from a better part of a vineyard, that the wine was selected from barrels whose contents demonstrated higher quality, that more care was taken with its making and that it is limited in production, therefore commanding a high price. There is also the implication that a winery produces a reserve bottling to augment its “regular” wine in the same genre.

Variations on the term “reserve” include Private Reserve, Proprietor’s Reserve, Vineyard Reserve and Vintner’s Reserve, Special solaris-cabernet.jpg Reserve and such terms as Special Selection, Special Release and Our Finest Selection. None of these terms is regulated, so that Glen Ellen, during “the fighting varietals” promotions in the 1980s, was free to label its wines as “Proprietors Reserve,” even though they were produced in the millions of cases and sold for $5 or $6. Then there’s Kendall-Jackson, whose well-known “Vintner’s Reserve” series, costing from about $12 to $16 a bottle, is ubiquitous in the country’s restaurants. Surely the situation is confusing for consumers when they can buy a bottle of Glen Ellen Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon for $5 while the Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon costs $116 and the Caymus Special Selection costs $136.

I think there need to be some rules, not necessarily the way it is in Tuscany, for example, where the differences between Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva and between Rosso di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino are enforced by government regulations. No, I think it is enough that a producer be required to prove that a wine labeled in some manner to indicate its superiority to a cousin wine from the same winery was indeed derived from a special vineyard or portion of a vineyard, that the grapes received particular treatment in the winery and that the wine was bottled in a limited quantity. These factors should be enumerated on the back label in straightforward language that consumers can understand. Wineries that did not follow these procedures or that could not justify using the terms would not be allowed to produce so-called “reserve” wines.

Next week: A similar rant on an equally nebulous and often misused term, “Old Vines.”

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