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Follow the Rules for Label Approval

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Note: This article has been updated in 2009

A high school homework assignment I’ll never forget was the time we were asked to write a sonnet. Most people have written poetry in their lives — sometimes just for fun — but a sonnet is the kind of challenge that’s usually reserved for English class. The rhythm, line length, number of lines, and rhyming pattern must all obey strict rules. It’s a lot like designing a wine label...

The choice of grapes, the proportionate blending of wines, the marketer’s inspiration, and the artist’s vision all seek creative expression on the label. But like the writer of a sonnet, the designer of a label must find a way to uniquely convey his or her message while obeying a set of rules that make sonnets seem simple.

All labels are subject to not just one, but two levels of review. First, before it can be used, every label must obtain federal approval from TTB's Advertising, Labeling, and Formulation Division in Washington, D.C. The specialists there evaluate the text and other design elements for compliance with the label regulations of the FAA Act.

Fully one-third of all label applications are rejected at this stage. Why? Many labels are rejected because of mistakes on the application itself the label artwork is unclear or has handwritten changes; the trade name or bottler’s registry number was forgotten.

Many others are rejected because of technical mistakes. One of the most common is separating the appellation from the wine designation on a varietal label. Sometimes the label fails a more esoteric standard: for instance, a late harvest label that does not state sugar content at harvest and residual sugar. Then there are the more subjective decisions. Labels can be rejected if deemed to be offensive or misleading.

Even if your label passes muster in Washington, that doesn’t give you cart blanche to use it. For example, you may have obtained federal label approval on a label that says "estate bottled." But I you didn't comply with any one of the many production restrictions for estate bottling, the label is not legal even though it's approved!

The specialists in Washington have no way of knowing how you made the wine, or which wine you actually put in each bottle. The appropriateness of label for the wine inside the bottle can only be determined by TTB inspection the second level of label review, (0f course, not every label is reviewed by an inspector. Labels are randomly chosen for examination at product integrity audits conducted periodically at each winery.)

During a product integrity audit, the inspector will determine whether a particular bottle of wine is entitled to the claims made on its label. This is done by examining harvest and winemaking records, formulas if any, and the label approval file.

An easily avoidable "transgression" often found in product integrity audits is making a change on a label without reapplying for approval. There are several changes you are allowed to make without a new approval. For instance, you can change the specified alcohol content (within the same tax class) or the vintage year (if the approved label was vintage dated).

The back side of the certificate of label approval carries a list of allowable changes. Rearranging label elements, re-writing descriptive text, changing the appellation or varietal, and any other changes not listed on the back of the form require a new approval.

Satisfying both specialists and inspectors requires understanding of many regulations, policies, and procedures. Some of these found in Part 4, some in Part 24, some in Revenue Rulings, and some just haven't been published. Here for your ready reference is a summary of some of the important ones.

Label Terminology

  • Blended

Two or more wines mixed without changing class or type of wines used.

  • Cellared, prepared, or vinted

The wine has been aged or treated (example: filtered) without changing the class and type of the wine.

  • Grown, produced, and bottled

100% of the grapes must come from vineyards owned or controlled by the producing and bottling winery.

  • Estate bottled
  1. Must have a viticultural area appellation, and both the vineyards and the winery must be located there;
  2. the winery must have grown the grapes in vineyards it owned or controlled;
  3. the wine must have been crushed, fermented, aged, finished, and bottled in a continuous process never leaving the premises of the bottling winery.
  • Produced or made

The bottler fermented at least 75% of the wine or changed its tax class by the addition of spirits, flavors, colors, carbonation, or secondary fermentation. (If estate bottled, 100% of the wine must have been fermented by the bottler.)

  • Varietal designation

At least 75% of the grapes must be of the designated variety, all of which must come from the appellation mentioned.

  • Multiple varietal designation

The names of 2 or 3 varieties can be used as the type designation if;

  1. all of the grapes used to make the wine are of the labeled varieties;
  2. the percentage of each is shown on the label;
  3. and if labeled with a multi-county or multi-state appellation, the per-centage of wine derived from each variety from each county (or state) is shown on the label.
  • Vineyard designation

At least 95% of the grapes must come from the designated area (if the wine is estate bottled, 100% of the grapes must be from the designated area).

  • Vintage designation

At least 95% of the wine is from the designated vintage.

Appellations of Origin

  • County, state, country appellation

At least 75% of the grapes must come from the named appellation.

  • Multiple county designation

The names of 2 or 3 counties may be used as the appellation of origin if

  1. the counties are located in the same state;
  2. all of the grapes used to make the wine are from the counties indicated;
  3. the percentage of the wine from each county is shown on the label, with a tolerance of 2%.
  • Multiple state designation

The names of 2 or 3 contiguous states may be used as the appellation of origin if

  1. all of the grapes used to make the wine are from the states indicated;
  2. the percentage of the wine from each state is shown on the label, with a tolerance of 2%;
  3. the states shown on the brand label
  4. the wine has been fully finished (except for certain permitted cellar treatments) in one of the names states;
  5. the wine conforms to the laws and regulations concerning composition, manufacture, and designation of wines in all of the listed states.

If the percentages are shown on the brand label, TTB will review on a case-by-case basis the placement, size, and type of label statements to ensure the label does not create a misleading impression.

  • Viticultural area appellation

At least 85% of the grapes must come from the designated area (100% if the wine is estate bottled).

  • Multiple viticultural areas

The names of more than one viticultural area may be used as the appellation origin if not less than 85% of the wine derived from grapes grown in the are where the named areas overlap.