Food & Drink

How can a wine made in Georgia be labeled ‘Napa Valley’?

Laura Irmer and Milan Matulich of Dobra Zemlja Winery in Plymouth, California, sample wine during the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium at the Sacramento Convention Center earlier this year.
Laura Irmer and Milan Matulich of Dobra Zemlja Winery in Plymouth, California, sample wine during the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium at the Sacramento Convention Center earlier this year.

A California-led proposal to tighten wine-labeling rules has rallied the state’s lawmakers, split the industry and spurred a debate that shows no signs of resolution.

Flexing political muscles, 48 members of the House of Representatives, including three dozen Californians, are seeking tighter labeling rules to protect the value of names like “Napa Valley.” Opponents fear the consequences, with one Texas winemaker warning that new rules would prove a “devastating blow.”

On Thursday, at the request of the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, federal regulators extended a public comment period that’s already proved to be revealing despite some distractions within the industry.

“Their members are currently preoccupied with the grape harvest,” the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau noted in explaining the extension.

Winemakers, oenophiles and others now have until Dec. 7 to opine on the new labeling rules proposed in June. The rules would further restrict how out-of-state producers can use viticultural areas on their labels.

So far, the 65 comments posted reflect diverse views that aren’t always determined by geography.

The current regulations allowed a wine produced outside of California using some portion of imported grapes to be labeled as coming from “Napa Valley” in certain situations. This loophole allows unscrupulous companies to deceive consumers.

U.S. House Wine Caucus

Concerns raised by Texas winemaker Kert Platner, for instance, were echoed by Lodi, California, winemaker Dave Pechan, who called the rule changes “absolutely unworkable.” The California Association of Winegrape Growers, while requesting more time to study the proposal, warned of lost grape sales.

“Tread carefully when proposed regulations may disrupt long established commercial relationships,” the association’s president, John Aguirre, wrote Aug. 19.

On the flip side, lawmakers from New York and Oregon joined the California House members in urging regulators to act soon.

“A final regulation is needed (to) protect consumers from deceptive labeling practices as well as the integrity of American viticultural areas,” the U.S. House Wine Caucus members wrote on Aug. 19.

The label rules in question govern appellation of origin and certain other identifying words. An appellation of origin is a designated and distinctive region, such as the 22,400-acre Edna Valley American Viticultural Area in San Luis Obispo County or the 2.6 million-acre Sierra Foothills Viticultural Area.

Federal rules require that at least 85 percent of a wine whose label includes a viticultural area be derived from grapes grown within the designated region. The wine must also be fully produced within the state.

In this interview from 2014, Napa Valley wine pioneer Peter Mondavi describes how from the beginning he loved the wine business, "even with the ups and downs." At 98, Mondavi said he still stopped by the office every day. Mondavi died Monday, Febr

A loophole, though, exempts wines that are sold strictly within single states rather than being placed into interstate commerce. A wine made in Georgia with Napa Valley grapes, for instance, has been labeled as “Napa Valley,” according to Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena.

The rule proposed in June would extend the general interstate labeling requirements to those wines sold within single states. In their Aug. 19 letter, the U.S. House Wine Caucus members urged regulators to “quickly finalize” the rule to ensure labels are “accurate and truthful.”

“As an aspiring boutique winemaker, the thought of others, especially ultra-large wineries from out of the area, being able to capitalize on a region without actually being there is fraud in my eyes,” Napa resident Garett Savage wrote.

From New York City, though, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce cautioned that the tighter rules would have “unintended negative effects” on small urban winemakers, while the conservative, Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation warned the label restrictions raise “serious First Amendment concerns.”

There are, Wine Institute President Robert Koch acknowledged in asking for more time to review the proposal, a “complex set of considerations” at play for the California grape growers who sell to out-of-state producers.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10