Skip to content
A wine label overhaul: Meet the man who'd change your AVA
IN a small, windowless laboratory -- far removed from romantic vineyard vistas -- scientists at the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) are attempting what most wine lovers would say is impossible. They are developing a test for terroir, the seemingly indescribable site-specific character attributed to fine wines (and named for the French word for soil).
The effort to find physical evidence of wine's geographic origin, spearheaded by John Manfreda, TTB administrator and the nation's chief wine regulator, is decades from completion. But whether or not Manfreda succeeds in quantifying terroir, that concept of "place" is a focal point in a battle brewing between his agency and the U.S. wine industry.
Should a winery using grapes from Carneros be permitted to name itself Calistoga? What if the winery was there before the AVA (American viticultural area)? Should wines from an AVA that's within the boundaries of a larger AVA (for instance, Rutherford within Napa Valley) continue to be allowed to identify itself with both? Or does the smaller AVA trump the larger?
If Manfreda has his way, more of the wines you buy will have brand names that also are AVA designations, even though they may not contain grapes from that AVA, and wine labels, along with those on all alcoholic beverages, will be jammed with other new information, including nutrient serving facts and a list of potential allergens as well as a list of ingredients.
The wine industry is reeling from Manfreda's grand plan, potentially the most sweeping overhaul of industry rules since the 1978 creation of the AVA system, the American version of certified wine-growing areas. The AVA proposals, in particular, are an unwelcome surprise that will do nothing but confuse consumers, according to industry insiders who asked not to be quoted for fear of offending Manfreda.
For his part, Manfreda says he is addressing issues that have been festering for years. He is frustrated by the industry's desire to force his office to act as an arbitrator in internecine conflicts, a role he says is inappropriate for government.
Outside the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, there is no governmental or commercial support for the new AVA rules, says U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (D.-St. Helena), who represents Napa Valley and is co-chairman of the 200-member Congressional Wine Caucus. "The TTB seems to have taken this on its own initiative," he says. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who oversees the TTB, appears intent on allowing Manfreda to proceed, Thompson says, a conclusion he reached after meeting with Paulson.
"The juice to do this? It's all us," Manfreda says. The patchwork of wine rules that has evolved since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 serves no one well, he says. The 62-year-old government attorney doesn't expect to fix all of the problems before he retires, but citing a mandate "to collect taxes, to protect consumers and to make certain that the industry trades on a level playing field," he says it is his job to start the cleanup. After all, during his 38 years at the agency, he had a hand in creating the mess.
Nutrition info too
BY the end of this year, Manfreda hopes to finalize any AVA rule changes along with a rule mandating nutrient serving facts (calories, carbohydrates, fats, proteins and alcohol content) on labels. Other label requirements would follow, with all of the changes to be reflected on labels for wines offered for sale as early as three years from now.
The wine industry is fighting Manfreda on all fronts, with the AVA rule changes generating the fiercest opposition. "There is consensus within our group that the rules in place have served us well. No new rules are needed," says Robert Koch, president and CEO of the Wine Institute, which represents the California wine industry.
The Napa Valley Vintners Assn., representing Napa's winery owners, considers Manfreda's initiatives a threat to decades of work establishing Napa Valley as America's premiere AVA. If Manfreda is really the power at play here, says Pat Stotesbery, association president and Ladera Vineyard owner, "I'm amazed what one bureaucrat sitting alone in his office in Washington can do."
The immediate issue: Manfreda would allow Calistoga Cellars to continue to use its brand name after the establishment of a Calistoga AVA regardless of whether it adheres to AVA requirements that 85% of the grapes in its wines come from Calistoga. To Stotesbery, that opens the floodgates to new brand names that are also AVA names. "Consumers should not be deceived when they see a recognizable name on a label," he says.
"I know, I know," Manfreda says when asked about the wine industry's vociferous opposition. "I'm not making fans in the industry." He plans to address the industry's concerns in the final rules, and may even withdraw certain provisions. But, he says, it would take an executive order from President Bush to accomplish the full stop that the industry desires.
That can perhaps be arranged. Manfreda tried to institute one aspect of his sweeping alcohol beverage label proposal -- the list of ingredients -- in the late 1970s. When President Reagan entered office in 1981, he ended the effort with the stroke of a pen.
GEOGRAPHY is a tricky topic for the U.S. wine industry. European wine regulators can rationalize their appellations on centuries of tradition and grape-growing experience, but American geographic indicators are created in a relative void. Brand names are real property, whereas regional identities are collective initiatives that don't necessarily translate to the bottom line. As a result, the U.S. wine industry has never taken a stand that "place names" are essential to consumers. The industry wanted, and got, an AVA system that did not confer any quality designations or controls. Political boundaries are as relevant as viticulture criteria.
Manfreda wants to change that. According to the current rules, he says, an AVA simply must be "distinct from the area outside of it." That vague standard also is applied to smaller AVAs created within larger AVAs, compounding the lack of meaningful distinctions in Manfreda's view. "I want to get away from random geographic designations," he says. "We want more clarity, to be more specific, not less."
As the rules read today, he says, the correct thing to do would be to cut the smaller AVAs out of the surrounding AVAs, leaving something that looks like a circle of cookie dough with holes where the cookies have been removed. In that case, the Napa Valley AVA would be reduced to the bits and pieces of land that are left when Stags Leap District, Oakville District and the rest of Napa Valley's 14 sub-AVAs are removed.
The industry, according to Wendell Lee, Wine Institute general counsel, thinks not. The government has been granting AVAs within AVAs for decades and allowed both AVAs on wine labels. Changing the rules now would create confusion.
Wine has been made in California since the 1800s. It wasn't until 1978 that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the precursor agency to the TTB, established the AVA system, stipulating that at least 75% of the grapes in wines with country, state or county designations must come from those regions. AVA wines must source 85% of those grapes from that AVA.
Originally, if a brand name was also an AVA, all it had to do to continue operation without being subjected to the 85% rule was to add the word "brand" to its name. In 1987, that rule was changed to allow brand names in existence before the AVA system was established (such as Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in Stags Leap District) to continue in operation outside the 85% rule.
The rules, however, did not address future conflicts in new AVAs, such as Calistoga Cellars’ clash with the pending Calistoga AVA, Manfreda says. He does not want to force this vintner or any other in a similar situation to conform to the AVA rules when they built their business long before the AVA was established. "I don't think the government should make winners and losers out of people with established businesses," he says. "I don't think the government should be used as a weapon to eliminate competition."
Right now, this is the only AVA-brand name conflict before the TTB. But those opposed to Manfreda's proposal say they expect a rush of opportunists to file geographic brand names hoping to be allowed one day to operate outside of AVA regulations.
The new wave of wine-label rules looks like a package, but it didn't start out as one. In 2005, a federal law mandated that all prepared foods include health warnings for allergens. (For wine, potential allergens include wheat paste, egg whites and fish extracts.) When it became clear that there would be a change in wine label requirements, Manfreda says, the opportunity existed to consider other changes without asking vintners to incur additional costs. He accepted a 2003 request by the not-for-profit watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest to consider requiring all alcohol beverage labels to indicate serving size with percentages of recommended daily amounts of protein, carbohydrates, calories and fats. In addition, Manfreda says, he decided to revisit a rule proposed in the 1970s to list ingredients.
'CSI Napa Valley'?
BACK at the TTB lab, Manfreda's ambitious initiative to develop terroir tests continues. Using a mass spectrometerand an array of computers, chemists are working on a system to identify minerals and heavy metals in wines from individual AVAs. The first-of-its-kind work is theoretical now, with no specific markers identified yet for any particular AVA.
So far, the project's most concrete accomplishment has been to identify the chemical markers for certain grape varieties. Like an experienced connoisseur, the lab can test a glass of wine and determine whether it is Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir or Zinfandel -- but only if the wine sample is made from 100% of one of those grape varieties.
If the scientists can identify varieties and their relative quantities when more than one is blended in a wine, Manfreda says, they'll be able to catch fraudulent vintners. Is that bottle of California Pinot Noir really 100% Pinot, as the label indicates, or has the winemaker beefed it up with Syrah? They'll be able to run the same tests on imported wines.
Does Manfreda believe there's a lot of fraudulent wine in the market? No. The industry is amazingly free of scandal and maintains high quality standards, he says. He just wants to keep it that way.