Labeling Laws Another Challenge for Wine

Kathleen Willcox·Saturday, 13-Jan-2024.

Wine labeling laws are already in use in the EU. Should US producers be freaking out?


Wines destined for the EU will need to have a QR code on the label, so consumers can see what's in the wine.
© EU-Label | Wines destined for the EU will need to have a QR code on the label, so consumers can see what’s in the wine. 

Between the existential threat of climate change, collectors and investors abandoning fine wine, and the fact that young people are snubbing the thing they’ve spent their career making and elevating, the wine industry had more than its share of stomach-churning challenges last year.

But just before 2023 slammed the door shut, a new law hit vintners’ desks, requiring all wines that are produced or imported to the European Union on or after December 8, 2023 to include ingredient, allergy and nutritional information to consumers on their labels.

Meanwhile, in the US, a similar change to wine labels is afoot. What does that mean for producers – and wine lovers who want to know if there’s more than fermented grapes in their wine glass?

What they mean

In Europe, the label change is straightforward. On December 6, 2021, the EU introduced a reform under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but also said that the rules would not be enforced until December 8, 2023. The CAP requires all wines sold in Europe to list everything that’s in the wine (with some significant caveats, of which more below).

If the idea of listing calorie counts, fat content and a ingredient facts seems antithetical to the grab-a-château-and-chill, recline in a palatial Tuscan farmhouse vibe typically espoused on European labels, the CAP powers-that-be read your mind. All of the information could be made available via a scannable QR code or clearly labeled website link.

Over at the DC-based lobbying organization WineAmerica, the team took the potential for disruption for US producers hoping to make a splash in the European wine market in stride, says Michael Kaiser, executive vice president and director of government affairs.

« We were not overly concerned, because of the fact that it was an off-label solution, and we had such a long grace period for implementation, » Kaiser says. « While wineries need to outsource this, there are a few companies doing this already. »

Kaiser pointed to Scantrust, which provides e-label plans from €0 for three labels and €990 for unlimited labels per year.

The move, Kaiser says, feels somewhat inevitable, and logistically doable.

« We are seeing consumers wanting to know more and more about the wines they consume, » he notes. « If they are already exporting to Europe, then the winery probably has the wherewithal to make the change relative easily. »

In the US, the label change is still completely theoretical. After a successful lawsuit in 2022, a coalition of consumer groups announced in a press release that the Treasury Department’s Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) will also require « standardized alcohol content, calorie, and allergen labeling on all beer, wine and distilled spirits products. TTB also agreed to begin preliminary rulemaking on mandatory ingredient labeling. »

But the timeline is hazy at best, Kaiser says.

« Nothing is currently happening in the US, » he points out. « The TTB has not issued any potential rulemakings. Even if the TTB were to put out a new proposal this week, we are years away from any changes domestically, because it takes roughly two years for a new rule to be implemented. »

Wine America expects the TTB to issue three separate proposals this year, Kaiser says. First up will be an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for ingredient labeling, and Notices of Proposed Rulemakings on nutrition information and allergen labeling. An advanced notice needs to go through two rounds of comments, Kaiser explains.

The first comment period will seek comments on specific proposals and then, from that, the TTB will craft its final proposal. Then it moves to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, in which it puts forth a specific proposal and seek comments on it. The ingredient labeling will require two rounds of comments, whereas the other two will go through one because there was already an advanced notice issued for them.

Looming logistical challenges

Not everyone is as copacetic about the changes as Kaiser. 

Chuck Cramer, the director of European sales and marketing at Terlato, says that getting sought-after brands like Napa’s Chimney Rock Winery into the EU has additional layers now, because the country-to-country requirements are not standardized.

« Chimney Rock is still in negotiations with the EU, » says Cramer. « Members states each have different ingredient requirements, which is creating a lot of confusion. Until this is resolved, wines from California are exempt from applying a QR code and energy value to the back label. »

Several companies, like Scantrust and the Munich-based IMERO have stepped in to help smooth the way for wineries struggling with the changes.

« We have developed the platform to ensure that winemakers across the world can create digital labels within minutes that are 100 percent compliant with EU regulations, » Lauritz Merkel, business development manager at IMERO, explains. « Our platform is easy to use, and doesn’t require any knowledge of the intricate regulations. Winemakers choose ingredients from a preset selection, which can be arranged based on quantity, and nutritional values are generated automatically once they enter information like alcohol content and other information available from standard lab tests and analysis that wineries have on hand. »

The QR codes that IMERO provides can be scanned by consumers and, based on their phone’s language, they will automatically translate the information into one of 27 languages. Wineries can customize the look, color and design of the QR code, and include their logo.

Merkel says that based on tests in the German market, where the program was live before it was legally required, consumers are scanning labels up to 10 percent of time. 

« That rate was actually much higher than we expected, so it shows that not only are people interested, they know how to use QR codes, » Merkel says.

What the labels do (and don’t) include

The labels in Europe – and the ones pending in the US – require a lot of confessions and revelations, some of which many would rather keep to themselves.

In addition to basic ingredients and nutritional information, producers will be obliged to include any potential allergens and intolerances used in the processing of the wine, including, but limited to, eggs and products thereof, and fish and products thereof, both of which are common ingredients used in the fining of wine.

For many producers, that’s as it should be.

« In the US, alcohol is one of the only products other than fresh produce that doesn’t have ingredient labeling, » says Greg Martellotto, president and founder of Big Hammer Wines, One Vine Wines and Martellotto Winery. « Consumers are rightly demanding to know what’s in the food and drinks they ingest. I’m in full support of labeling laws being more transparent and including ingredient itemization. But that’s because we have nothing to hide. It’s worth asking why some large wineries and entrenched business interests fight transparency. »

But Annie Edgerton, a wine expert and educator at New York’s Flatiron Wines & Spirits, worries that the labeling requirements don’t go far enough.

« A lot of commercial producers are still using additives and adulterations that the consumer should be aware of, » Edgerton says. « Additives like Mega Purple have long fallen under a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ umbrella. I have yet to meet a single winemaker who actually admits to using it, but it’s well-known in the industry how pervasive it is. »

Mega Purple is technically a grape juice concentrate made from the variety Rubired. It is used in micro amounts to darken a lighter red wine, and also adds a hint of sweetness.

« If you think of why it is used, presumably to make a wine more visually appealing to consumers, it is, in effect, a sham, » Edgerton says. « It’s a device to hoodwink the customer. »

It is unclear if Mega Purple will be listed as such in the EU, or as « grape juice concentrate ». What the exact listing requirements will end up being in the US is an open question. Currently, dozens of additives can be used to do everything from stabilize and preserve wine, to remove hydrogen sulfide or remove off flavors from wine.

But Edgerton realizes that listing absolutely everything may have a detrimental effect on wine consumption.

« I’m not necessarily advocating that producers list every ingredient on labels like Ridge does, » she says. « People may wonder ‘what is calcium carbonate and why is it in my wine?’ But consumers should know when the color has been adjusted, and when there is an above average level of residual sugar, as 19 Crimes’ Snoop Dogg Cali Red does with 18 grams or more, and Apothic red has at around 15. »

The label laws will never be relaxed or strict enough to truly please many people, and it seems the off-label and slow-mo implementation is the kind of semi-win, semi-lose compromise that both sides will continue to fume and fret over. And like calorie counts on menus, it will be a lot easier to avoid the truth if it’s not staring consumers in the face, and has to be actively sought out online.