The wine professionals and consumers here for the wine and Cheese Festival at the D.C. Armory this week probably will visit some of the city's wine shops and sample bottles from our restaurant wine lists. It is unlikely, however, that they will be drawn to the most significant wine center in the town: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF)
In offices and conference rooms off the bewildering maze of corridors that comprise the old Post Office Building at 12th and Pennsylvania NW, decisions are being made that will significantly influence the future of the American wine industry. BATF controls what goes on wine labels, what the public can be told about the product inside the bottle. By extension their regulations also indicate certain things growers and producers must do to gain label acceptance. Without an approved label, wine cannot be sold. So when BATF proposes to change its regulations, the entire industry must pay attention.
For those tending grapes or blending wine in the countryside of California or New York state, however, anticipation has sagged somewhat. Proposals have been made and remade for nearly three years now and the end is not yet is sight.
Frustrating? Yes. An example of wheel spinning and bureaucratic red tape? No, argue the bureaucrats.
On the eve of what they hope will be the final public hearings on regulation change (in San Francisco Nov. 1, 2 and 3), BATF officials are in a positive mood. They contend that the democratic process not only has been served, but has been shown to work; that the current proposal has been forged from consumer and industry reaction to earlier proposals, that there has been input from all sides and the points of disagreement have been narrowed to a few issues.
While no one will say it publicly at this point, the big winner so far is the Wine Institute of California and its new president, John DeLuca. In this most political of cities, calling a person "politically astute" is a high form of compliment. DeLuca, one official said last week, "has accepted the idea that the old regs have to change. The industry appears to be thinking positively about what they can come up with that works. I'm very impressed."
Under DeLuca, a former deputy mayor San Francisco, the Wine Institute has taken the initiative. The industry's largest pressure group - made up of more than 200 California wineries - successfully objected to the government creating a special category of "seal" wines, but proposed lifting the minimum amount of a grape type (Pinot Noir) in a bottle labeled "Pinot Noir" from 51 to 75 per cent. At a hearing here last month they proposed a new category, "estate grown and bottled," that will be fully explained in San Francisco. BATF's current proposal would eliminate use of the term as essentially meaningless. They have made numerous other proposals, not all of them in the best interests of the large wineries often thought to control the organization.
If, as the BATF official put it, "this set of hearings is gonna do it," the following are among the problems that will have to be resolved:
Estate grown and bottled ; The Wine Institute proposes this label claim be allowed only on labels of a winery that has produced 95 per cent of the wine from grapes grown in its own vineyards. The winery would have to crush, ferment, age and bottle the wine itself.
Whether exact percentage of a primary varietal grape be shown on the label. BATF proposes any varietal wine of less than 100 per cent list the percentage in the same size type as the grape name ("81 per cent ZINFANDEL"). The industry argues that Americans think bigger equals better and would be drawn to those bottles with the highest percentage, without considering the quality of the grapes or the possible beneficial effect of blending. One consumer testifying at the recent Washington hearings, Ray Garcia, proposed allowing percentage listing, in smaller type, as an option.
The option to label a wine produced within strict guidelines "Controlled Appelation." The Wine Institute argues this, like the earlier seal proposal, would give consumers the impression the government was knighting these wines as superior products.
Whether to forbid use of the word "vineyard" or "vineyards" unless 95 per cent of the wine comes from the designated vinyard or unless the word "Brand" or a symbol such as "TM" is added to existing brands that do not satisfy this requirement. Firms that have not had labels prior to November 1976 would not be allowed to use the word at all. The Wine Institue, wanting to keep the door open for new wineries (potential new members), suggests allowing old and new wineries to use the term for its consumer appeal, but only with the qualifying word or symbol.
The so-called name and address provision. BATF proposes that labels contain the name, address and registry number of the bottler. The industry objects to this and other requirements, such as adding the word "county" to names such as Mendocino and Sonoma, as causing unneccessary label clutter.
The proposed definitions of the terms "produced," "prepared" and "blended." Leon Adams, a strong critic of the bureau's proposals, would not change the present 75 per cent requirement for wine "produced" by a firm (BATF wants to raise it to 95 per cent) and would allow the terms "made" and "cellared."
There are other concerns. The Wine Institute has reserved five hours to testify in San Francisco. Several growers organizations will take the stand. Leon Adams and Robert Benson, a law professor and an outspoken consumerist, will be on hand as well.
"We have an open mind," insisted the man from BATF last week. "We heard some meaningful testi-money here and will be very interested in what is said in California."
There will be a 30-day comment period, from Nov. 3 to Dec. 3. After that the proposals, if not too severely modified, could be published as final regulations. Or they could be published in part as final regulations, with some sections withheld for more study and put forward separately at a later date. Or they could be withdrawn and rewritten, as has happened twice before.
"But it's safe to say something is going to come out of these hearings," the offical said, "and I think the director (Rex Davis) will put a very high priority on finalizing these regs."