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Sassy labels stretch tastes of wines

Published: March 21st, 2012 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON – Pimpnho raspberry wine is, perhaps, not everyone's picture of good taste.

Still, regulators several years ago gave the sassy beverage label out of Lodi a go-ahead. Much tamer names, too, win approval, such as the green light given "Wavelength" in January.

But when the same Paso Robles winery that succeeded with "Wavelength" sought approval for "Antidote," the federal label bosses said no.

"That was knocked back, as curative claims can't be made," Deodoro Cellars owner Robert Fuller said.

The nation's 4,800 commercial wineries speak carefully on their labels, balancing artistic freedom and government obligation. Some things, they want to say; some things, they must say. The result can be a tussle over the limited label space that's the first impression made by 300 million-plus cases of wine sold annually in the United States.

Every year, federal regulators review more than 100,000 proposed wine labels. Most are pretty routine. For instance, an Arizona winery recently won label approval for an apparently countrified red wine called "Hop in the Cab, Darlin.' "

In just the past two weeks, records show, federal officials have approved more than 3,500 other wine labels, allowing the likes of French Kiss, Sweet Sunset and Whipped Cream.

More blatant provocations, too, have won approval.

"You can go pretty far toward risqué," noted Robert Lehrman, an attorney who specializes in labeling and other alcohol-related issues.

Label questions go well beyond sauciness.

Winemakers in Shasta County want to label their bottles as coming from the "Inwood Valley" viticultural area? They need federal approval, and they're seeking it now. Winemakers want to use the name "Valiant" for a grape variety? They needed approval and got it last year.

Consumer advocates want nutrition facts and allergens listed? That could be coming down the pike.

Since 2007, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has been considering whether to require "serving facts" that would list fat content, calories, carbohydrates and protein data on wine labels. The still-unresolved debate is recorded in the federal agency's public comment files.

"There is already plenty of mandatory information on wine packaging," said Jennifer Wall, a winemaker in Sonoma County.

"This requirement to have such labeling could help Americans to do their drinking more intelligently," countered Dr. Calvin Holloway, a retired physician from Dunnellon, Fla.

Separately, the agency has been considering proposed requirements that major allergens be listed on wine labels. The serving facts and allergen proposals are now backed up in the regulatory pipeline, along with other, newer label proposals.

Most recently, at the request of European Union winemakers, federal officials have been considering changes in some vintage labeling rules.

The European proposal would allow a vintage date to appear on a label associated with an entire country, such as France or the United States. Currently, vintage dates, listing the year a wine is produced, are limited to labels identifying regions or viticultural areas, such as the Napa Valley.

And with wine, the technical becomes political while the political becomes regional.

The proposed rule change, because of other regulatory definitions, would allow vintage dating of American wines that include up to 25 percent foreign wine. California- labeled wines, by contrast, must come entirely from California. That means some winemakers fear unfair competition if vintage- dating rules changes.

"American-labeled wines are fundamentally misleading," Amy Blagg, executive director of the Lodi District Grape Growers Association, said in a January public comment.

To resolve these kinds of disputes, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has a total of about 480 employees, not all of whom handle wine. It is a modest cog in the Treasury Department, which employs more than 100,000 workers worldwide.

Wine industry leaders track the ins and outs closely enough that bureaucrats become no longer faceless.

Lehrman, for instance, noted that the Treasury Department in February swapped officials in charge of the wine label office. Teresa Knapp, well-known in the industry for her wine work, moved to a new assignment, while an official who formerly worked with spirits, Gracie Joy, took over the wine label shop.

Federal officials could not be reached to comment.

Winemakers, meanwhile, can still struggle to figure out exactly what will pass muster.

"I have resubmitted the same rejected label, and then had it approved," said Fuller, the Deodoro Cellars owner, in an email interview. "Obviously the staff has some latitude."