Make Some Room, You Damn Crocodile!

(Originally published May/June 2008)

Every year there’s more wine and more and more wine too. New producers, new regions being exported and imported, heretofore unknown grapes taking off. Et cetera. Which means increased competition for everyone across the board. Which in turn means the fight for survival turns savage. And what’s more savage than the world of marketing? Not much! Thus, let us have a look-see at the currently evolving state of a wine’s “first impression,” ye olde label.

There’s basic information that wine labels should provide and basic information wine labels must provide. Given that wine is produced across the globe and under innumerable legal and traditional jurisdictions, the should and the must are not consistent everywhere. But since this is America god damn it, that’s all that counts here. So, we’ll start with the “must” angle since that is easier.

Note here at the outset that there is a constraint increasing in importance that rarely receives comment. That is, there’s a limit to how big the wine label can be (uhh, smaller than the bottle?) and over the years to come more and more information may be required to appear on the labels. With this comes a cascading set of decisions. Shrink the font to fit all this gobbledygook in? Unlikely to happen, there’s a statutory limit on how small the fine print can be (2mm). Sacrifice space now allocated to imagery, pretty script or information of interest to the buyer yet not necessarily mandated by law? Hanes can see the back label of the future. It will be like those on a spray bottle of pesticide, basically a fold out six page pamphlet affixed to the back with glue, once you open it you can never get the damn thing closed again. This is a serious practical issue that will only become worse over time.

As it is now, federal law requires that a government warning appear on all labels that pregnant chicks shouldn’t drink booze and blacking out drunk may impair your ability to drive a car or operate a forklift. It’s also mandated that wine be noted as “contains sulfites” - this even though the debate rages yet as to whether or not allergic reactions to wine truly stems from the presence of sulfites or from other causes. Ehh, what can you do. You also have to note on the bottles who produced and bottled the wine (that is, the legal entity, the name of which may not always be the name the producer is known by in common usage, a potential source of confusion for all). And their mailing address. These days make some room too for the telephone number and website address.

The bottle size must be noted, that is, 750ml, 375ml, etc. The alcohol percentage by volume must be clearly indicated. This despite the fact that, due to the difficulty of measuring alcohol content, the actual contents are allowed to vary by certain percentages. As for the two extremes, to be legally considered wine the liquid must not have less than 7% alcohol (this explains the presence of the “wine” in supermarkets where supermarkets are not legally allows to sell wine). These “wines” are not legally considered wine by The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

What a lot of consumers do not know is that, at the other extreme, the maximum amount of alcohol permitted in domestic wine is 14.0%, with an actual, measured legal variance of 1.0%. Hence, a bottle of wine measured as 14.0% can legally in truth be up to 15.0% and not get the producer in dutch with the TTB. However, this measurement variance is for some reason different than the allowed labeling variance. The latter is actually 1.5%, either lower or higher. Of course, knowing all these arcane rules some producers may put a number on the label not as accurate as may be technically possible yet still within that 1.0% variance. Why, you ask? These days there’s two primary reasons.

The first is money! Wines measured and labeled as over 14.0% are taxed at a different rate than wines 14.0% or lower. Under 14.0% (really 15.0% with the variance) the current tax is $1.07 per gallon. From 14.0% to 21% the wine is considered “fortified” and is taxed at $1.57 per gallon. That is a BIG difference. Producers have a real financial incentive to get the measurement of their wines under the 14.0% threshold.

In the past (distant past?) this wasn’t that big of a deal as most wines were easily under 14.0% alcohol, as measured and/or labeled. However, secondly, in recent times bigger, riper wines have been in fashion and in many instances this means the alcohol percentage has been higher. So, making a wine that sells and is more in favor with the critics and consuming public costs more money upfront in taxes. Thus, you either “play games” to get the wine down to the 14.0% + variance level (i.e., newly evolving technologies employed in the winery to the liquid wine). Which itself costs money to do. Or you raise prices and pass this cost along to the customer. $40 bottle of Zinfandel anyone?

More recently there is this annoying trend among wine writers to deride high alcohol wines. They want to cheat the honest drinking public of the best buzz possible. However, the public is slow to catch on and, on the whole, big fruity wines sell best. Back to the topic of labeling, all this makes it very difficult to know how close the alcohol percentage on domestic wine labels is to the actual alcohol percentage. It’s not like the wine’s alcoholic content is measured when in the bottle, it’s done way before and a lot can change chemically in the liquid before it’s bottled. Meanwhile, the labels have to get printed and such, all these practical elements occur concurrently. The measurement of alcoholic content for labeling purposes cannot be practically pushed back much later in the winemaking process. Given the variance allowed, a winery may decide to label below what they suspect the true alcoholic percentage is in order to make their wines appear less alcoholic. Or they may be honest but the wine, unbeknownst to them, has changed. Does anyone ever state on the label a higher alcohol percentage than the actuality? Now, that’s a fun question! Hmmm.

As for alcohol limits on foreign wine labels as long as it’s printed there, it’s there. In Europe they round to whole or half numbers to keep it easy. Other places you get stuff like 14.1% or 12.8%. All Hanes knows is that while the alcohol percentage on the label is useful information, it is in no way anything more than a general guess and not The Word of God. For better or worse, one must trust one’s palate when it comes to knowing if a wine is too alcoholic or not. A gin martini is a good way to prime the palate before tasting and assessing wine.

Among the useful information you should find on labels are the country of origin, the appellation, the viticultural area and single vineyard designation. While it has its uses Hanes thinks “estate bottled” is pure marketing cheese and just a way to puff up a wine’s chest. The vintage is key information as wines do differ dramatically from year to year. Note that for domestic wines to be labeled with a vintage date, 95% of the grapes have to be harvested in that year. The other 5%, who cares. Foreign wines, same deal as with alcohol percentages, all driven by national or local law, no worldwide standards. Hanes normally assumes that the vintage date of his Muscadet wines are accurate enough for his purposes.

Another thing which takes up a lot of room on a label is the bar code. This is a great thing for commerce and eases the sales transaction and makes it a zillion times easier to track stock and see what’s selling or not. But they are big. And not so pretty.

The big tempest in the teapot of late is varietal designations on labels. As we all know from paying attention to Hanes for years, it’s the “new world” producers who made this popular and label their wines as made from, for example, Chardonnay, Merlot, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. These would primarily be the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina. Most “old world” wines from Europe assume that the region and appellation information says all you need to know about what grapes are traditionally used there. But this is all changing as European producers have to pay heed to the globalization of the wine industry and more and more producers there label with varietal information. It should help sales and Hanes, for one, thinks this is a good thing. Levels the playing field and “demystifies” some alternatives to the cheapie wines with the most market share today.

It should be noted that for domestically produced wine the label requires an appellation of origin (Napa Valley, Columbia Valley, etc.) and conveys the fact that at least 75% of the grapes used to make the wine are of that variety (Chardonnay, Merlot, etc.), and that the entire 75% comes from the stated appellation of origin. The other 25% can be any old grape from any old place. 25% is one-quarter of the bottle of wine. It’s up to you to decide if that is a lot or not.

Since 2004 the TTB has allowed wine labels to contain information about the number of calories, as well as the number of grams of fat, carbohydrates, and protein, per serving size or per container size if the container is smaller than a standard serving size. (Is a bottle a container? Always a major conundrum for Hanes.) But what happens if this information is mandated at some point? As wine grows in popularity and reports abound about its positive health benefits, providing additional information of this type may be required as for a can of green beans or gallon of milk. More space on the label sucked up!

While wine labels cannot as of yet positively state any potential health benefits of wine consumption they can offer what is called “directional” statements suggesting the consumer contact their doctor or send for government information on possible health benefits. That is, as long as this directional statement is accompanied by a disclaimer saying this doesn’t mean you should drink more wine. And this health related information doesn’t even touch upon the topic of organic, biodynamic or sustainable wines. If the United States and the world ever settles on standards for these designations, this information will surely demand a lot of prominent label space.

Check out this highly informative PDF from The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)!

Besides all the legal requirements, there’s all the stuff that helps to actually sell the wine. In business school they call this the “brand.” There are SO MANY articles out there now about brand imagery and wine labels with animals, cartoons and quirky names that there is zero sense regurgitating this easily findable information. Suffice it to say that label design and branding has become almost as important as the swill inside the bottle in creating and sustaining market share. With an ocean of wine out there which barely tastes differently, whether it is from Jumilla or Mendoza or Barossa, any miniscule push the label can give the buyer to select the glass bottle it surrounds needs to be and will be taken. It’s worse than internet dating.

The traditional labels of classified growth Bordeaux or top drawer Burgundy aren’t going to change much. The fancy script and etchings of ages old châteaux bespeaks of class and breeding and lots of people eat that shit up like candy. However, these wines also represent a fairly miniscule fraction of the wine industry. Beyond them, magenta lizards and laughing pandas rule. Because they work. You morons. The urge for wine producers will be to keep pushing the brand markers to the front and center of the label, bigger and brighter. However, the space for the legalese and other information has to be there somewhere. As these needs collide, Hanes suspects labels are going to get uglier, more crowded and, likely, bigger. The increase in worldwide product output isn’t slowing down and the competition for shelf space is getting more cutthroat each day. Maybe all wine should come in a box — more room for both the kangaroo and the calorie count!