February 29, 2012 | He Said, She Said | REX HILL

Our rules suck: What should we do about American labeling laws?

He Said...
- Mike Willison

The laws governing the making, selling, labeling and manipulating of wine in the US read like stereo instructions translated from the Dead Sea Scrolls into the Wookiee language of Shyriiwook and then into American English. You can find them here. The sad part about them is that they basically boil down to a very scant few loose rules about what you can and cannot do, but sometimes can anyway if you feel like it or if no one is looking. There's a lot of text there, but the main threads with respect to grape-based wines are these:

  • To label a wine with a grape name like, "Pinot noir," the wine must be made up of no less than 75% of that grape.
  • To label a wine with an AVA such as, "Willamette Valley," at least 85% of the fruit must have come from that place (the rules are a slightly more generous 75% when it comes to states and counties).
  • To label a wine with a vintage date, or a single-vineyard designation, 95% of the wine and fruit must come from that vintage or vineyard.
  • "Estate," may be used to signify that a wine has been mostly put together under one general roof.
  • Table wines shall not exceed 14% alcohol by volume, but no specific designation exists before "Dessert Wines" at 17%.

I know that when buying certain foods there is an assumption that it’s not 100% that specific thing, but 75%?!  These rules were/ are likely designed to give the American farmer a better chance of being successful, and I respect that. But go to Napa Valley and look at the excesses all over the place. Explain to me how adding 25% Ruby Cabernet or Alicante Bouchet to your Cabernet Sauvignon does anything other than extend your yield and lower your overhead, and buying you another Maybach for your armada.

Here's an idea: let’s get together and classify the AVA's according to variety, like the French do, and create real standards for quality. Sure, it’ll be confusing for some, but it will also make the wine industry criteria valid. The county, regional and state appellations can remain under the current system, but the AVA's will have significance beyond some broad suggestion of what the wine might be.


  • A wine labeled with the AVA, "Napa Valley," must:
    • Be comprised of 100% fruit grown in the Napa Valley
    • Be made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon if red
    • Be made from 100% Chardonnay
    • 95% of the fruit must come from the designated vintage
    • Brix at picking is not to exceed 25.8˚
    • Maximum yield at harvest is not to exceed 3 tons/ acre

And if they don't like it, they can call it California Red Wine and make it however they like. Until then, our system doesn't have any authority or credibility. Sure, Americans like varietal labeling, but we also expect it to mean something, don't we?


She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

I agree with the assessment that we need a stricter set of rules, but not to the level that you're proposing. I've always liked the idea that we exist outside of the stringent rules like those that France imposes.

The rules as you propose them don’t allow for the best part about our current leniency: artistic license. Going from nothing to everything will upset the balance to a staggering degree. Consider France and Italy. France has been doing the same thing for centuries, yet has only been making wine under the current wine law since 1935. Their regions were tried, tested, marketed and set. They knew where to grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet, etc. through decades of trial and error. Placing rules around these was for marketing purposes and an afterthought as far as regulations are concerned. They were already doing it that way, in order to market what they were doing to other nations, they slapped a strict-looking label on the bottle and away they went.

Italy, on the other hand, has only been a country since 1856. They were growing grapes willy-nilly on every available surface then and they're still doing that now. They had no rhyme or reason to their wine program until 1963, when, in an attempt to achieve the success enjoyed by France, they mirrored France’s wine laws and, in my opinion, jumped the gun on regulations – same as you are suggesting we do now. They still don't have their business together to a degree that they will anytime soon be enjoying the wine marketing success of France, and some of their most successful wines have actually had to secede from the DOC union in order to thrive both from a quality perspective and a marketing perspective. Too much, too soon.

Our wine program has really only been growing since 1933, when we repealed Prohibition. Since then, we’re advancing at a rapid rate, but are still discovering exciting new wine regions and determining which varieties grow best in them. I agree wholeheartedly with your call for accountability, but are you really telling me that Merlot is just off the program in Napa? That’s a shame. I think that a better plan for us is to start small. My take:

  • Yes, 100% if it's called by a varietal name.
  • Yes, 100% from the AVA it says it is from.
  • Yes, 95% from the stated vintage.
  • But no to your Brix proposal. What ever happened to letting the vintage speak for itself?
  • Also no to your tons per acre. If it has to be 100% from the AVA and 100% of the stated varietal, these yields will work themselves out naturally.
  • And finally, a big, emphatic NO to your proposal that we begin, at our very young wine age, to limit our regions to specific varieties. It's too much, too soon.


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The REX HILL team