Does Wine Need A Healthcare Forum?

HCdebate As I write this, President Obama is holding court at Blair House and discussing with members of congress the issue of healthcare. It's a contentious issue that will define the President's first term and that has highlighted many of the philosophical divides inside congress and among the American people.

While I'm not convinced the Healthcare Summit will do anything more than provide a televised forum for staring into the gulf that is political partisanship, it an interesting discussion and helps clarify for America why it's unlikely the the healthcare funding crisis will be solved.

Still, as as watch and listen to the debate, I can't help but wish that a similar forum could be provided to examine many of the issues in the wine industry that divide its members. What could and needs to be examined at the Wine Industry Forum?

1. The Meaning of "Old Vine"
Until this phrase is given meaning that all can either agree on or at least adopt for labeling purposes, it will remain truly meaningless and abused. The fact is, if you planted vanes in 1985, you can legitimately and legally label the wine made from these vines "Old Vine".

2. The Value of Federally Approved American Viticultural Areas
Is there anything that consumers can know about a wine that carries the "Central Coast", "Sonoma Coast", "Russian River Valley", "Sierra Foothills or any other AVA appellation on the label? I'm certainly not convinced anything of substance can be said about the character of a wine that carries these or any other appellation given how AVAs are created. A discussion of their value and how to make them more meaningful would be valuable.

3. The Legally-Enforced Use of a Middle Man
In nearly every state it is is mandated that producers sell to middle men (wholesalers), not to retailers or restaurants, whether the producers wants or needs to. This situation ensures that wholesalers control the composition of products that come to market, not the producers of the products and the real customers, the consumer. It also ensures that wholesalers possess vast power over retailers, restaurants, producers and consumers. The value of this state-mandated "three tier system" is debatable at best. It should be debated.

4. Alcohol Taxes
Does the wine industry really want to oppose "nickel-a-drink" type taxes on its product while all the time asking that the streets and roads be maintained for the delivery of their wine? Do they want to oppose increased taxes on wine when they demand that huge bureaucracies be put in place to regulate their industry? More often than not taxes on the sale of alcohol are opposed by members of the wine industry. A good debate on how taxes on alcohol ought to be applied should ensue.

I love the idea of an ongoing wine industry forum that has as its ongoing mission the debate and discussion of issues effecting the wine and hospitality industry. I love the idea of a foundation or association or group that sponsors these debates among industry members. I love the idea of an ongoing forum that has monthly debates that are streamed live onto the web and that bring to the table earnest, educated, invested and serious members of the industry representing the various sides of an issue.

Would these debates solve any of the issues listed above or any of the many issues that are not listed above? Would they be able to identify consensus among the different sides of the debate? Would they result in plans for moving forward to implement proposals. I think so.

11 Responses

  1. Evan Dawson - February 25, 2010

    Good stuff. I’d add the importance of asking wine producers to be willing to be forthcoming with everything that goes into a wine. I’m not arguing for forced ingredient lists or disclosure; rather, I’m looking for a new ethos that champions transparency. You don’t have to put it on the label, but if I ask, you should tell me and not be suspicious of my motives. Mega-Purple? Yep, we use it. Bags of acid or sugar? We’ve tried that, too. This isn’t about shame or embarrassment. Everyone has their own ideas about the right and best way to make wine. But when you try to obfuscate, it’s an implication that you’re not proud of your methods. So, how do we get everyone to open up when asked?

  2. @nectarwine - February 25, 2010

    Tom – is there such a lobbying effort for the wine industry? Monetarily it may not have much clout to buy its way into the graces of our corrupt political system, but a unified voice is louder than a bunch of yapping dogs.
    Curious – figured you would know

  3. Tom Wark - February 25, 2010

    There are a variety of groups and constituencies that lobby various government bodies where wine regulations are concerned. The CA Wine Institute, various other state based producer organizations, a variety of state-based retail organizations, National retailer organizations, National wine and spirit wholesaler organizations and state based wholesaler organizations in nearly every state.
    Consumers really have no national organization and few if any state organizations.
    The lines among these groups are artificially created by the existence of the three tier system: producers, wholesalers and retailers. To-date, most power rests with the wholesalers who, by virtue of being mandated in the middle where they control the flow of products and thereby control the entire process, have the most power. They contribute FAR MORE than any other group to state political campaigns in order to keep themselves in control of the distribution of wine in America.
    There will not be any sort of unified voice where wine lobbying is concerned as long as wholesalers continue to be granted the power by legal mandate to determine how wine is sold in America.

  4. Thomas Pellechia - February 25, 2010

    Now you’re talking my language.
    The AVA system is a sham–or maybe a shill…

  5. Morton Leslie - February 25, 2010

    Re: AVA’s, I don’t need a wine industry forum to tell me the difference between a Sierra Foothills Pinot Noir and one from the Russian River. Or vice versa, a Zin. And in both cases it won’t take a special committee to tell me both of those wines are distinctive from the grape grown in Modesto. I feel sorry for those who don’t know the difference and think there is really a need to debate this sort of thing.

  6. Charlie Olken - February 26, 2010

    –Old Vine is meaningless, harmless and no more misleading than a whole bunch of other wine terms. Rather than a forum on Old Vine (and should it not really be Old Vines), I would love to see a forum on all labelling language including the various rules and lack thereof for “xxxxxxxx and bottled by”. Talk about confusing. How can “PRODUCED” have a different meaning from “MADE”? And what the hell is “VINTED”?
    –AVAs were such a good idea. Even in their disgracefully inaccurate state, they have upgraded the focus of the industy. But ATF screwed them up from the beginning and now there are so many compromises, confusions and obfuscations in the AVA listings that we could use a forum on redefining the CA vinous landscape all on its own. Morton Leslie is, of course, correct that one can easily tell the difference between Sierra Foothills PN and RRV PN, but that is not owing to the AVA system. We could make the same distinctions when the wines were labeled by county name. On the whole, the AVA system is better than what we had, but it is not as informative as it should be because of the many examples of misleading definitions that have been allowed.
    –The Three Tier System debate is ongoing, but the problem is that the horse has already left the barn, and the debate ought to be about reworking the mandates of Repeal so that States do not get to regulate this form of commerce or any other form of interstate commerce. We don’t let states have their own FDAs. We don’t let states have state-operated automobile showrooms, etc. It is the basics of Repeal that is the problem or maybe the notion that States should be able to regulate any interstate commerce, including health systems.
    OK, so now for the forum topics you have left out.
    –Maybe it is my age and eyesight, but I can no longer read ALCOHOL LEVEL indications on wine labels. Hells bells, half the time I cannot even find them. How about a debate about the required location, size and specificity of alcohol levels on the label (bottom center, in point size I can read, within O.3% as tested by an independent laboratory)?
    –The identification by lot number of each separate bottling of wines released by a winery. Not only do I suspect that big lots are bottled several times during the year (in point of fact, the industry does not hide this practice), but I also suspect that many first bottlings are intentionally produced with quality that is way above what comes later. I can’t name the winery, even now, but some years back I testified in a law suit about the value of wine lost when a tank seal broke and thousands of gallons were lost overnight. The winery had lost its eighth potential bottling of Chardonnay for the year so it replaced it on the open market with purchased wine (20% Chenin Blanc) when none of its earlier bottlings had contained Chenin. It wanted to get reimbured for Chardonnay. Not only did this place want to scalp the consumer, it wanted to scalp the insurance company. Put plain and simply, there are multiple examples of this version of bait and switch and they ought to be made more difficult by the requirment of lot numbers on wines bottled in more than one batch. We might also include a discussion of whether changes in contents of similarly labeled wines ought to be disclosed. Should a winery be able to simply change the formula for each batch, even if labeled by lot number?
    –Why is 14% alcohol a magic number in the taxation of wine?
    –How far should we go in ingredient labeling? Some items are useful to consumers including real alc. numbers, RS, additives. Wine is a food, a beverage. Why is it exempt from ingredient labelling?
    –Should the Govt create Wine Trains in each county? (just kidding)

  7. JohnLopresti - February 26, 2010

    I think there is some merit to the old vine label designation, somewhat like the clear differences noticeable in a comparison of wines from disparate AVAs. I had the pleasure of attending a few tastings with a winemaker-guide, Mike Topolos; who, at the time, had a contract for selective harvesting from an old vines plots in a southern reach of Alexander Valley, as well as in Valley of the Moon area. There were more perfumy alcohols in the old wood vines’ product. There used to be some old red vines near Windsor, which also produced much more distinctive wine than more recent plantings. One of the reasons the “old vine” benchmark date now has been set in the mid80s is that was the heyday of new plantings. If one was purchasing old vine products in the mid80s the term referenced rare, thick trunked old plots which were planted in the 30s, in other words, about fifty year old stemwood. The trunk serves as a reservoir of carbohydrates which supply nutrition and help ripening. I think there must be buckets of modern research behind the ajevFirewall documenting more than I read in viticulture and enology textbooks in the 80s, showing which constituents are present in increased quantities in wines sourced from old-vine fruit. There is a parallel science in the food chemistry of distilled spirits. Aging container composition and even closure, are important factors in survival of the trace alcohols, as well.
    I agree the three tier system is a remnant of policies now nearly 80 years old, and obsolete in this era of the boutique winery renaissance.
    The suggestion about lot numbers might survive in OIVV, but not in the US. I hear FDA is trying to reinvent its research and oversight departments; maybe there will be something promising which emerges from that reinventing process if it proves to be thorough.

  8. Rich - February 26, 2010

    Every now and again, I make some wine. After reading this entry, I’m thinking about doing a “Truth Blend” – I’ll call it “Estate, Old Vine, Famous AVA, Legally Enforced Middleman, Over Taxed, Reserve, Zinfandel.” I added the reserve and estate because they are as meaningless as the Old Vine and AVA misnomers.
    Thanks for the prespicacious insight as usual, and while I would like to agree and think what you suggest would be effective, I fear any action taken would end in a bigger disaster than the current healthcare debate. Just look at what it takes to get anything of substance done – the current Napa initiative on opening up Napa to a bit more commerce (weddings, etc.); the Sonoma Grapegorwers trying to get “Sonoma County” on all Sonoma wine; and various other measures that seem to be just more bureaucratic BS.
    I believe the problem is that the people who might end up in/on such a committee or forum as you suggest are generally not rational like you (or semi-rational, like me). They are generally in it for their own voice to be heard – like politicians, if they start with the best intentions, they generally end up lobbying for number one and lose track of what they intended. So, I believe such a forum might end up as a committee, then some sort of bureau for some part of government (likely TTB – OH! joy) and the end result would be a tax on some part of winemaking that is not already taxed… To the resolution of nothing and the delight of nobody!

  9. JohnLopresti - February 26, 2010

    Rich has some label insight. There used to be “mis en boutielle”. Maybe in modern terminology that could be ‘shipped in tanker truck from Modesto, blended in a 200kgal tank in Dry Creek, bottled via pressurized steel pipelines 1000′ from stainless aging containers, located on the family ranch in a newly crafted AVA 82%Cab Sauv DNA certified’; pointsize of type optional.

  10. Ned - February 26, 2010

    In CA we have this exquisitely quaint dissonance between our ernest desires and our irrefutable reality. We want to emulate the Old World wine paradigms to the greatest extent possible with “Old Vines”, regional distinctions (AVAs), but commercial considerations always interfere with the integrity of the process. Plus, our history is so short that I think we’re a bit overly ambitious about that stuff anyway.
    Old vines are nice but if they are crappy, high yield clones, what good are they really?
    Because state control of alcohol was enshrined in the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution, changing that is pretty much never going to happen. I don’t what exactly could break the iron grip of distributors on the political process, but it would probably have to be done state by state.
    I would actually like an ingredient labeling requirement. I don’t think the various cheats employed by commercial wine producers should be allowed to remain

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