At the risk of inducing a headache, I've been reading a week-old edition of the Federal Register. Between pages 67666 and 67669, representatives of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), responsible for enforcing the nation's wine laws, invite wine-trade officials and consumers to comment on changes to wine-label nomenclature that federal agents are mulling.
Specifically, they are looking primarily at the term "estate bottled," which appears fairly often on labels and in promotional material. Currently, the TTB has several specific standards to qualify the use of "estate bottled." Any bottle of wine bearing that phrase also must bear the name of an American Viticultural Area, or appellation. The winery itself must be in that same appellation. All the processing of the grapes and the making of the wine must be done on that site. Over the years, TTB officials have come to regard the similar phrase "estate grown" as a synonym for "estate bottled."
Federal officials haven't offered any explanation about the need for this review, other than an oblique reference about some unnamed industry members who have asked to use "estate grown" on wine labels without meeting the standards for "estate bottled."
Seemingly as an afterthought, federal authorities figured that if they were going to reconsider definitions for "estate bottled" and "estate grown" they might as well toss onto the table for debate several other wine-label terms that have been either interpreted ambiguously or left undefined altogether. Thus, they also are inviting comments on the use of "estate" and "estates" generally, even in brand names, as well as "proprietor grown," "vintner grown," "single vineyard," "select harvest," "proprietor's blend" and "bottle aged."
Most consumers, of course, don't give a darn about such fanciful terms on wine labels. If they give them any thought at all, it's to dismiss them as winemaker hype, not at all as significant as the numbers on the price sticker, the name of the producer, the type or style of the wine, and maybe the place of origin.
Nevertheless, I do look forward to the debate sure to ensue about a few terms that TTB officials have opened for discussion other than "estate bottled," and those would be "reserve," "old clone" and most especially "old vine." "Old vine" is a label term used widely and enthusiastically in Northern California, in particular in the marketing of zinfandel, yet no standard exists to explain what it means. Is an "old vine" at least 50 years old or 75 or 100 or something else? I've had one winemaker tell me that the vines that yielded the grapes in his "old vine" zinfandel were only about 10 years old, and that "old vine" was a phrase meant to suggest the style of the wine - dark, rich, likely high in alcohol and tannin - and not the age of the vines. OK, so let the debate commence.
Industry members and consumers have only until Jan. 3 to comment. For more information about the issue, and for directions on submitting remarks, go to the Federal Register or the docket with the proposed rules.