This week’s wine news: What does wine do to your teeth? Plus, another massive French wine fraud and an essay calling wine labels “little white lies”
• Brush up: It’s the enamel – the thin covering on your teeth – that is most affected by wine, reports the Wine Spectator in a surprisingly well-done piece discussing the dreaded purple grin. And while red wine does tend to stain teeth more than white, both can cause the enamel to decay thanks to the acid that’s present in all wine. Interestingly, while white wine doesn’t stain teeth the way red does, it can make teeth more susceptible to stains. That’s because it has more acid, which breaks down the enamel more quickly. That leaves the teeth more open to thinks like coffee stains.
• Not the real thing: More than 5 ½ million cases of French wine were sold as high quality Côtes-du-Rhône label in one of the biggest French wine scandals in years. Some of the wine was even sold as high-end Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which can cost as much as $70 a bottle. French officials saids that the 2017 involved a major wine producer, which they did not name. However, the company;s top official was indicted for deception and fraud.
• Wine lies: “If you think that wine labels don’t matter, that they don’t affect the way a wine tastes, think again,” writes Felix Salmon on Vinepair. This short essay discusses the label’s “little white lies” – how labels are used to convince us that the wine we drink is consistent from vintage to vintage, even if it isn’t; to alter our perception with a cute label or fancy paper. It’s an intriguing piece, though I’m not sure Salmon needed to use the word semiotic.
A proposed change to federal wine label laws could mean the end for wine that says For Sale in Texas Only – a term that implies that a wine is local when it might be made with grapes from anywhere in the world.
The Treasury department’s tax and trade bureau announced this week that it wants to revise the regulations that allow a wine to carry For Sale in Only designation. In Texas, we call it FSTO – which stands for For Sale in Texas Only – but you’ll see FSO labels in every state: For Sale in Colorado Only, For Sale in Pennsylvania Only, and so forth.
Under the new rules, wines labeled FSO won’t be allowed to list the vintage or the grape it is made with, like cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay. Currently, FSO wines can list both and look local in almost every respect, save that they don’t have a state name or other appellation on the front label. The only clue that they aren’t local is a line in small type on the back label that says FSO, and that only wine writers, wine geeks, and winemakers understand.
FSO is sometimes used to circumvent appellation laws when the wine isn’t made with enough local fruit for it to have a state name. This is unfortunately common in regional wine, and has been an especial problem in Texas for the past decade or so, as the number of wineries has almost doubled and grape acreage hasn’t kept up.
That’s because appellation laws require that 75 percent of the grapes used to make the wine must come from that state for it to labeled Texas (or whatever). If a wine is made with less than 75 percent local grapes, it must use the word American on the front label, something producers don’t like to do because it’s obvious that the wine isn’t local. And what’s the point of local wine that isn’t local?
Hence the FSO label.
It’s important to note that FSO isn’t illegal and that many producers use it legitimately. The problem comes when it’s used to disguise non-local wine as local. That, apparently, was the impetus for the rules change – a Georgia winery selling an FSO wine made with Napa Valley grapes in North Carolina, and which caught the attention of a key Napa trade group and the Napa Valley’s U.S. congressman.
In fact, a spokeswoman for U.S. House Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif)., who chairs the Congressional wine caucus, emailed me to say that FSO in the Georgia case was “a TTB labeling loophole” and “works against strict and rigorous labeling rules to ensure that consumers know exactly what they are purchasing.”
The actual rules proposal is almost indecipherable unless you practice liquor law. My thanks to Austin attorney Kimberly Frost, who did her usual brilliant job in explaining it to me. The new rules will limit FSO wines to terms like red wine or white wine on the front label, in the hope that producers will use the more accurate American appellation so they can list the grapes and the vintage..
One irony to all this? The new FSO rules may give regional producers incentive to buy California bulk wine and put their label on it. That means we could see more California wine sold by wineries in the other 47 — Texas-bottled Russian River pinot noir, anyone? That’s because the revisions will allow producers to use grape names and vintage on California bulk wine, which they couldn’t do if they bought California grapes or grape juice and combined them with local grapes to make FSO wine.
The tax and trade bureau is taking comments until Aug. 22, but there’s no time frame on when the rules will take effect. My guess, given how slowly the agency works, is that we won’t see anything until the middle of next year, and it could be even later than that.
? Why would you buy that? Blake Gray looks at the provenance of a handful of grocery store sale wines, using the federal government’s handy and epic “who made this wine?” website (which isn’t what it’s called, but should be). Not surprisingly, most of the wines are made by companies that make cheap wine under a variety of different names, and only three of the nine sale wines are made by companies that were upfront about who was making it. The rest, as noted here many times, are made to sound good on the label, usually by a bulk producer who does a lot of this sort of thing. Blake, as always, wonders why no one complains about the poor quality of the wine, overlooking the fact that most consumers don’t think it’s poor quality. For that, we can thank the wine business for all the time and effort it puts into wine education.
? Even in the islands: This is taking local wine where even the Wine Curmudgeon didn’t think it would go — grape wine from the Caribbean, from a coastal region in the Dominican Republic and made with one of my favorite grapes, colombard. The verdict on the white Ocoa (part of a $24 million resort development)? “It ?s got an aroma of citrus, tropical fruit and oak, with a flavor profile of mango, dried fruit and citrus… wine with a good, crisp finish. If you didn ?t know, you ?d never guess this was a wine from outside the world ?s traditional winemaking spots. And it ?s actually quite good, perfect for a hot day on the beach in the Dominican Republic.”
? Tart up that label: Nielsen, the consumer research organization, discusses why wine label design is so important in selling wine. Some of it is obvious, but there is also the sense that there are too many wines — 4,200 new ones in 2014, about 12.5 percent of the market — and that consumers “are making most of their decisions at shelf. Relative to other major consumer categories, wine is a fragmented category with lower brand loyalty and more decisions being made at point of purchase.”
Four things that would make wine more fun to drink after a summer and fall spent traveling and tasting, because I really don’t want to have so many wine complaints:
? Better restaurant wine pricing. I mention this yet again not because I expect it to change, but because so few people in the restaurant business truly understand. I had a restaurateur approach me at a recent event to tell me how wonderful her wine list was. “We’re the only restaurant in this area that cares about wine,” she said. The list? Not awful, and even a couple of interesting bottles, but every wine, even the $8 Big Wine riesling, was marked up at least three times. This restaurant in a tiny town in Arizona was charging $40 for crappy grocery store wine, and the woman was proud of the list. How am I supposed to answer that?
? Back label honesty. I did a tasting this week for cheap holiday wines for a Dallas publication, and what struck me — besides how awful so many of the wines were — was how little the back label description had to do with what the wine tasted like. Soft, syrupy cabernet sauvignons without any tannins were described as elegant, while chardonnay made with so much fake oak that it hurt to swallow were said to be rich and full bodied. How about truth in labeling: “We made this wine to hit a certain price, and it really doesn’t taste like much, but what do you expect for $8?”
? If the wine is sweet, call it sweet. Why does the wine business insist on confusing consumers by leaving sweet off the label when the wine is sweet? I realize that the industry has taught “real” wine drinkers that sweet wine is inferior, and that only old ladies with cats drink it. But I’m tired of tasting wine labeled as dry that is sweet, and I have heard from many consumers who feel the same way. Besides, isn’t it possible that sweet wine labeled sweet would sell better?
? Lidl can’t get to the U.S.too soon. The German discount grocer, known for its quality cheap wines, broke ground on a U.S. distribution center last month, and should start opening stores in the next couple of years. If Lidl does wine in the U.S. the way it does in Europe, those of us who care about cheap wine will have an alternative to the wines in the second item in this post. Or, as my brother emailed me during a trip to Europe, “Love Lidl — great wine selection.”
For more on making wine more fun:
? Wine education: Four things you don’t need to know about wine
? Five things that make me crazy when I buy wine
? Five things the wine business can do to help consumers figure out wine
More news last week that the food business is embracing ingredient transparency, and this included grocery stores — hardly the most progressive part of the food business. So why is wine still so adamant in opposing wine ingredient labels?
Panera, the high-end sandwich chain, said it would eliminate a variety of artificial preservatives, flavors and colors, as well as different kinds of sweeteners, reported the New York Times. This followed news that Nestle, which has been on the wrong side of many of these discussions, would eliminate artificial flavorings and colors from Butterfinger, Baby Ruth, and Nesquik. Meanwhile, Simon Unwins, former chief marketing officer for British mega-grocer Tesco, said it was time for his business “to be seen as leading the fight for less processed foods, on behalf of their customers.” And the woman at the deli counter at my local Kroger spent a couple of minutes telling me how the chain was eliminating fillers in its private label sandwich meat.
Said an expert quoted in the Times story: “To me, this has gone way beyond anything that could even be remotely considered a fad and become a powerful trend.”
Unless, of course, you’re in the wine business. Then you hold your breath, stomp your feet, and pound the table, shouting, “No, no, no, no!” when you do take a breath.
Which doesn’t accomplish much. As the expert noted, ingredient transparency is here to stay, whether the wine business wants it or not. Over the next couple of years, Big Wine will add ingredients and nutrition facts to its wine, thanks to the new voluntary program, and reap the benefits. And, as the rest of the wine business holds out for reasons that no one who isn’t in the wine business understands, consumers will start to wonder if wine has something to hide. The industry squeezed through the arsenic scare, but only because the people doing the scaring were so dodgy. What happens when the next scare comes from a consumer watchdog like the Center for Science in the Public Interest or the federal Centers for Disease Control, hardly well disposed toward wine? Or even the FDA?
Good luck squeezing through then.
One final note: It is possible, despite industry protestations to the contrary, to include nutrition facts on a wine bottle without the world coming to an end. This link shows how Toad Hollow did it on its Risque sparkling wine, which needed nutritional information because it was less than seven percent alcohol. Amazing how easy that was, isn’t it?
Because the controversy about soup-style wine nutrition labels is not going away.
? What do consumers want? As much information as possible, reported the British wine magazine Decanter, citing a study that says two-thirds of UK adults “actively support” calorie labeling on alcoholic drinks. Not surprising: That four out of five people surveyed couldn’t accurately estimate the calories in a large glass of wine. The study “shows there is now a clear public appetite for this information to be extended to alcohol to help individuals make informed choices,” said the chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, which paid for it. Sainsbury’s, one of the country’s biggest supermarket chains, said it would put calorie counts on all of its private label alcohol within two years (pictured above).
? Let’s not go too far: That’s the opinion of Mike Steinberger, one of the best wine writers working today. “But allow me a moment of devil’s advocacy; while full disclosure on labels (or as much disclosure as a standard wine label will permit) is a laudable goal, there are a few sticking points worth acknowledging. To begin with, the comparison with food is misguided. Unlike food, wine is not necessary for sustenance (it only seems that way), so the need-to-know argument does not carry nearly the same weight.” The longish piece is worth reading, though I don’t necessarily agree with all his points. I think Steinberger overlooks the 20-somethings who are the next generation of wine drinkers, and that labels could change the way they buy wine.
? Yes, absolutely: That’s the opinion of Alice Feiring, perhaps the leading natural wine advocate in the U.S. “For a long time I’ve been in favor of less government in wine instead of more, but in this instance I have to fess up that with so many additives allowed in wine, an ingredient label is best. If there’s an ingredient list for soda, there needs to be one for wine. If you are warned about an orange juice from concentrate, the same should be true for wine that has been reverse osmosed/concentrated.”