Wine industry representatives and consumers will gather at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms this week to give their views on a government proposal to establish a new system of wine classification and labels. But heacy fire from both camps during recent BATF hearings on the West Coast may have sunk the proposal already.
The key item in the proposal is a new category of wine, called "AFT Seal" wine. It would be subject to several stringent controls, the most important being that it contain at least 85 per cent of a varietal type (cabernet sauvignon, pinor noir) named on the label and come from more strictly defined growing areas. Under current law, wines with varietal labels need by only 51 per cent wine from the specified grape.
While the decision to seek the seal would be voluntary - thus leaving most winemakers free to produce wines with only minimal changes in procedure - government spokesmen have spoken of it as a "transitional" system that "will open the way" for development of an appellation controllee system that would be an indication quality.
But the proposal was attacked 10 days ago in San Francisco for failing to close loopholes in the present law, for inconsistancies and, most important, for its potential to confuse the consumer without offering guarantees of quality.
The wine industry charged the seal would be taken as a government sanction, a seal of approval. Consumer spokesmen contended a wine with a borrowed European name, Chablis for example, containing only table and raisin grapes in the right propotion could qualify for a seal.
As a result of the opposition, a source within the bureau said this week, "It is extremely likely we will drop the seal concept. But," he continued, "that doesn't mean we will drop everything associated with it."
Persons within the bureau still insist that they had no intention of making the seal a symbol of quality. "We were not prepared to go that far," one man said, "we avoided it. Also there are regulations in a country such as France (such as control over yield and what can be grown where) that we are incapable of dealing with at this time."
The seal proposal marked the government's second attempt in the last year to define wine content through its authority to approve labels before wine can be sold. The initial proposal was to turn the job of defining appellations of origin and viticultural areas over the states. Both producers and consumers opposed this approach, in effect tossing the ball back in BATF's court. The seal proposal represented a second serve.
If it is ruled out, as appears likely barring surprise testimony at the hearings scheduled for Thursday and Friday, there is sure to be "considerable modification" in the proposal.
One new development that has excited considerable interest at the bureau is the voluntary proposal by the Wine Institute, which represents many California producers and is the domestic industry's largest trade association. As an alternative to the seal requirement that 85 per cent of the wine in a varietal bottle be from the named grape, the institute wants to lift the minimum content from 51 per cent to 75 per cent. This still is below the requirement for trade with the Common Market, but would represent a significant change. "Instead of 85 per cent in a few wines, we'd have 75 per cent of all of them," said a pleased bureau official.
"They gave us something more than we had asked. I don't see how they can back away from it and it's an absolutely safe bet that we'll hold them to it."
The bureay stressed its efforts to garner consumer comment and participation in the hearings. Therefore, being "treated very seriously" were concerns individuals had voiced that 75 per cent of a varietal leaves 25 per cent undefined and still is misleading without additional label information, an official said.
"We'll make some basic decisions very shortly after the hearings here," he said. "We'd like to get this over and done with."