The BATF, Wine Labels, Vintages and Wine Regions

I recently spoke with Jim Crandall of the BATF about wine labelling regulations. Jim is an expert on wine labels, and was very helpful in explaining some of the more confusing aspects of wine labels.


Section 4.27 of the regulations governing wine state:
Vintage wine is wine labeled with the year of harvest of the grapes and made in accordance with the standards prescribed in classes 1, 2, or 3 of S4.21. At least 95 percent of the wine must have been derived from grapes harvested in the labeled calendar year, and the wine must be labeled with an appellation of origin other than a country (which does not qualify for vintage labeling)..

Jim explained that he did field work in the Pacific northwest, and came across many berry wines. Some winery owners argued the merits of labelling these wines with years, both so that drink-quickly wines would be drunk before they went bad, and so that those which aged well for a while could be properly stored. In order for fruit and berry wines to be labelled with vintages, though, the regulations would first have to be changed. The way they stand now, only grape wines can legally carry a year designation.

The BATF does check, during its inspections, to make sure that a winery really grew enough grapes in a given year to have the 95% qualification fulfilled. They will check cellar records and way tickets to help ensure that the consumers get what they have paid for.

Grape wineries don't have to put a vintage on a bottle if they don't want to. This is strictly optional. But in order for a bottle to carry a vintage year, the wine must be made of grapes, and 95% of those grapes must have been harvested in that year.

We discussed the problem of too-old wines, and Jim explained that usually stores only stock items that have a relatively high turnover rate. In the wine industry, 'buying your way onto a shelf' is illegal. Wine producers cannot pay money to get shelf space, something that happens frequently in the food/supermarket industry. This helps to keep wine stock more in line with consumer demand and tastes. If you are buying a bottle without a year designation on it from a store, you can make a fairly good assumption that it's a recent wine, if it's not marked with a year. If you are then interested in aging the wine, you could mark the year on it and go from there.

Regions and Appellations

The second main point of confusion for most wine consumers is the region or state name which is on the label. Jim began with the most basic. Any grape grown in the US can be turned into "American" wine. Very few wineries label their wines as "American", but the name exists.

Next comes the state level. If for example grapes were grown in California, and then shipped to Oregon to be made into a wine, this wine could be labelled as "Californian" wine as long as at least 75% of the grapes which made that wine were grown in California. The other 25% could be from Oregon or elsewhere. However, the wine could not be called Napa Valley or any other specific region name, even if the grapes in question came from that region. The only thing which can be claimed is the state name where the grapes were grown.

The twist to this level is that the grapes can ONLY be shipped to a neighboring state and still be given a state name. You can ship grapes from California to Oregon, have winemakers in Oregon turn them into wine, and call it a Californian wine (as long as the wine is 75% from those grapes). But you cannot ship those same grapes to Washington State and make a Californian wine, because Washington state does not touch California. So while New York and New Hampshire are very close to each other, since the grapes out of New York have to cross through Vermont or Massachusetts on their way into New Hampshire, they can no longer be called New York grapes. Now they're just American grapes.

Third comes the region level. This is the Napa Valley and Hudson Valley and other specific appellations, which are regulated by the BATF. A winery can only claim a specific appellation for their wine if 85% of the grapes in it were both grown in that region and the wine itself was made in that state. So for a winery to claim their wine is a Napa Valley, 85% of those grapes must have been grown in the Napa Valley, and the wine itself must have been made in California.

This is where it gets even more confusing for the smaller states. Because California is so huge, you could conceivably get grapes from the Napa Valley, ship them down to San Diego, make the wine there, and still call it a Napa Valley wine as long as 85% of the grapes you used came from Napa Valley.

However, if you are a Connecticut winery, and you ship grapes in from the Long Island viticultural region, even though the distance between Connecticut and Long Island is smaller than the distance between Napa Valley and San Diego, you cannot call your wine a Long Island wine. You have crossed state lines, which makes it illegal. The most you can do is call it a New York wine, and then only because Connecticut touches New York. If those same grapes went up to New Hampshire, you're back to just an "American" wine.

Healthy Labels

We talked a bit about the controversial 'talk to your doctor' label that talks about the 'health effects of moderate wine drinking'. The BATF had originally approved the label, and then was taken to court by various groups who wished to stop the label from being used. The BATF won the majority of the decision at the time, and was told not to sit on the issue. They had intended to issue a preliminary ruling on it last week, but this has not yet been done. It should be done at some point in the near future, at which point it will be forwarded up to the main Treasury department for final review.

ATF's Alcohol Page

Wine Label Listing

All content on the WineIntro website is personally written by author and wine enthusiast Lisa Shea. WineIntro explores the delicious variety and beautiful history which makes up our world of wine! Lisa loves supporting local wineries and encouraging people to drink whatever they like. We all have different taste buds, and that makes our world wonderful. Always drink responsibly.