Artist or Mad Scientist? The Folly of Label Disclosures

If it were up to me, I’d want no information to be required on a wine label except that which I deem useful. In particular, I would not want to have to disclose any particular ingredients or winemaking methods on a label. It’s not that there’s some stuff going in our wine that’s harmful. It’s just that some of the stuff that does go into the wine and some of the methods that are used to make wine don’t sound good.

A new survey (PDF) by confirms my suspicion that consumers don’t like the sound of a the things winemakers do to wines. The survey asked both consumers and members of the wine trade to respond to various wine manipulation techniques by saying "those are ok", "those are ok, but need to be disclosed or those should not be allowed.

As you can imagine the consumers and wine trade folks had different ideas on these subjects, substances and techniques.

For example, 87% of consumers said that using oak staves (planks of oak basically) inside a stainless steel tank to give the wine an oaky character was OK to do. However, 52% of consumers said this practice should be disclosed on the label. What I find really interesting is that 13% of wine trade respondents also think it should be required to disclose this technique. Fully 13% of consumers believe that using oak staves in a tank should not be allowed at all.

This kind of result leaves me with a lot of questions. It appears that 52% of consumers believes there is something about using oak staves in a stainless steel tank that demands the practice be disclosed. You have to assume their view of this technique is so negative in some way that consumes need to be warned about it. Here I think we run into two things that are perceived as negative. In some case consumers must think something about this is bad for your health. That of course isn’t true. This goes to why I’d like to see no requirement on the labels for anything. Many winemaking techniques are so misunderstood that they can only have negative connotations to those who don’t understand them.

Meanwhile, there is so much misunderstanding of the use of oak staves in stainless steel among 13% of respondents that they don’t even believe the technique should be allowed at all. Now it’s possible that some of these folks are simply offended aesthetically by the idea that wine would be flavored with oak by staves rather than barrels that can’t see their way to allowing such an anti-natural technique. These folks are crazy.

A variety of other techniques are examined in the survey including the use of oak chips, the acidification of wine, the addition of sugar to wine, the addition of dyes to wine and the dealcoholization of wine among other techniques of winemaking.

I’d like to have seen more folks included in the study. The opinions of only 469 consumers and 123 wine trade folks were examined. However, the results in most cases  confirm my suspicion that putting many sorts of winemaking techniques on labels is likely to confuse consumers who don’t understand the nature of the technique.

It’s a pretty interesting survey that should give pause to those folks who make wine about various moves to require that more and more information be put on wine bottles.


13 Responses

  1. Michael - February 28, 2007

    I think the oak example is an interesting one simply because I wonder if more than 13% of 469 random consumers even know that wine is typically aged in oak barrels. I have a feeling that if you took a poll on if milk were allowed to be cooked (pasteurized) before arriving at a consumers table a statistically significant number of respondents would say no. Given that wine is an even more complicated product I think it is a little misguided to take a poll of random consumers and use it to make an argument either way on this issue.
    As an example, I recently had dinner with a family friend who brought a bottle of wine from a winemaker friend of hers to dinner. She promptly told us that the winemaker did not make this wine anymore. I was very confused, as I know that the wine is a very successful Santa Rita Pinot. What she meant was that he was sold out of the vintage, but she didn’t really understand the difference. This was a $50 bottle of wine, she knew enough to know it was good, but she didn’t know or care how it was made.

  2. lmacschaf - February 28, 2007

    I also think this is an interesting study and one that points to a bit of confusion in the marketplace. I believe that most consumers still want to think of wines and winemaking in a more ‘romantic’ way – that there is a bit of alchemy involved to get from grapes to wine. And the wine industry in general continues to reinforce this concept with advertisements and attitude in general.
    If the public really knew what went into wine, (I’m not saying anything that goes in is BAD, just that it may not be anticipated by consumers) we might see some consumers turn away from it at a time when more and more in the US are embracing it!
    I can understand the need to state some things on a label – if you have severe allergies to eggs or nuts and a substantial amount of egg products and/or nuts are used, this should be stated for health reasons. Other than that, I don’t think more disclosure is a good thing at this point.

  3. MJ - February 28, 2007

    “putting many sorts of winemaking techniques on labels is “libel” to confuse consumers”
    Are you sure you meant “libel” ( a written or oral defamatory statement or representation that conveys an unjustly unfavorable impression) and not liable ? Just wondering 🙂

  4. mommysalame - February 28, 2007

    I would be so turned off as a consumer if they had to list added sugar and I would choose a wine that did not add it to theirs just because I could. If they do go on to have to list “fined”, I sure would NOT want to know if they used those shark parts or egg parts to do it. I’d rather be in the dark on that part.

  5. Randy - February 28, 2007

    Tom, very cool post.
    The whole fact that “CONTAINS SULFITES” appears on just about every wine label points to the problem. Some people who look at that phrase think, “Oh, there’s something wrong with this wine.”
    It’s only after they see that just about every wine label bears the phrase that they realize that it might just be normal (like putting “CONTAINS ALCOHOL” on the label).

  6. Ben - March 1, 2007

    Hey mommy, better stay away from Burgundy!
    As for me, I’d much rather stay away from a wine that had to list “water” as an addition.
    Just showing the differences in what is considered acceptable due to the climate….

  7. caveman - March 1, 2007

    what info about how a wine was put together should be available, and not necessarily on the label.

  8. caveman - March 1, 2007

    what info about how a wine was put together should be available, and not necessarily on the label.

  9. Dino - March 2, 2007

    Who are these “Trade Respondents”? I find it hard to believe that anyone knowledgable about wine would approve of acidification, let alone 89%! This is a severe manipulation of the wine. Is it even legal?

  10. Keith - March 5, 2007

    In response to Dino. Almost every winery in the world acidifies at some point or the other. None of your high alcohol fruit bombs that are popular today with the super extended hangtimes could be made without acidification by adding tartaric acid (the main acid found in grapes). They are picked so late the pH of the grapes is usually in the 4.+ range and would make a very short lived, flabby, oxidized wine without the acidification.

  11. Wine Boy! - March 6, 2007

    TMI Too Much Information. It’s amazing to me that some people believe that wine (purchased in Europe) does not have sulfites in it. People ask me at least 2 or 3 times in a year “Why do American wines contain sulfite?” The answer is quite clear that only in America do you have to put contains sulfites on a wine label. Wine should be made according to natural conditions.
    Peace and chicken grease

  12. WineSpecialist - March 16, 2007

    I think that you are underestimating the consumers, or at least some of them. I personally would like to know if oak staves were used, because I find that those wines to be over-oaked and not to my liking. Certain basic characteristics like the use of oak staves, stainless steal only, malo-lactic fermentation, etc, will effect the purchases of informed consumers if they are looking to try something new.

  13. UK Wine Direct - April 17, 2008

    Tom, One thing which constantly surprises me about wine is that the cost of a bottle has almost no relationship to the quality of the wine.

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