I recently came across some wines that surprised me; the surprise came in their intense aromas and great mouth feel; these wines were the product of an exemplary blend of more than 5 varietals.  The sommelier who recommended the wines noted that these were “premium wines” and I should not be misled by the word “Blended” being on the label.  But, how did blended wines become looked upon as inferior wines?

It seems that maybe a decade’s old law/regulation might have, and continues to, influence consumer’s perception of blended wines.  In a 2010 LA Times article on this subject, it highlighted a little understood regulation, “The law is designed to protect consumers, but one consequence is that it has created several generations of American wine drinkers who believe a varietal wine is always better than a blend. That’s certainly not the case …” The real question may be: Who is the regulation really protecting?  You see, a varietal name on a label requires the wine in the bottle must be 75% of that specific varietal—for example a Cabernet Sauvignon.  Is the consumer protected in any meaningful way if a 75% varietal, or 90% varietal, or even a 51% varietal, is in the bottle?  Do consumers buy wine foremost for taste and aroma’s or varietal percentages?  To this point it seems they buy for the varietal name on the label.

Another example of puzzling regulations in the wine business deals with the word: Champagne.  An international  trade agreement with the French, aimed at protecting the champagne moniker, stipulates only the French can use “champagne” to describe a sparkling wine.  Since 2005, it is illegal for U.S. wineries to label any of their effervescent wine products as Champagne; can’t even call it California Champagne.  Again, what groups of U.S. citizens are being protected by this regulation?

Varietal wines that fall within the 75% labeling regulation are produced by wineries that want to show the varietal name on the label (because the name sells), e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, etc.  Absent a varietal designation, consumers will know it is a blended wine, which in many instances makes for a better wine.  Many agree blended wines can be more complex, rich and balanced.  Blended wines start with a very specific profile in the winemakers mind.  For example, from its inception, The Riddler is a wine from seven different varietals that are specifically selected and blended to achieve very specific aroma, taste, tannins, and acid and alcohol levels.

Regulations stipulating what makes a wine a varietal are arbitrary and not based upon fact or logic.  For example, is an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon better than a Napa, California Cabernet Sauvignon?  Well, based upon regulation/law, it must be because Australia requires varietals to be 85% versus Napa varietals being 75%. The EU also requires varietal wines to be 85% from a specific varietal grape.  This is a rhetorical question, but, does a higher percentage varietal make for a better wine?  The answer is clearly–no!

The percentage amount to be designated as a varietal in the U.S. is a minimum percentage.  States can go even further; in Oregon they have stipulated that Chardonnay wine must be a minimum of 90% for a varietal label.

The 75% regulation for a varietal came into existence in 1978 and went into full force by 1983.  Prior to 1978, the varietal labeling regulation was set at 51%. (A wine to be labeled as a varietal had to be at least 51% of that varietal grape.)  Now, isn’t it interesting that it was changed from 51%?  The next question is:  Why would anyone want to change the varietal label regulation?  Could politics have anything to do with this subject? Obviously, any varietal labeled wine can also be, and often is, a blend of up to 25% (75% varietal + 25% other grapes), but at 74% it is a mandated to be totally a blend.  In the spirit of full disclosure to the consumer, why not have the TTB specify that all wines list all varietals in any bottle of wine; problem solved.

Whenever the government gets involved with legislating anything, such as the amount of ethanol added to gasoline or the make-up of wine, there are underlying political ramifications.  Case in point, in 1982 the TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau of the Department of the Treasury), was lobbied to establish rules to regulate approved names for grapes.  This seemingly innocent proposed regulation generated more than 150 public comments from grower’s associations, governments of France and Germany and many foreign wine producers that weighed in to sway the TTB in their final rulemaking on grape varietal naming.  Today, only the TTB approved grape names can be used to denote varietals on labels. But there were certainly a lot of interested parties worldwide getting into a rather straight forward process.

If you read through TTB public comments on any wine related proposed regulation, they say the thrust of their efforts is “to protect the public from fraud”.  How is the public protected, for example, when varietals and blends do not show all the percentages of wines that go into any bottle of wine?  It just seems to be hypocritical and arbitrary relative to the overriding “75% regulation” on varietal labeling versus purely blended wines.  Taking a look at the people and entities who weigh-in during public comments for rulemaking issues, we find they come from politicians, growers, wineries, foreign governments, trade groups, and distributors while very few if any come from the general public.  Remember, the general-public is the ones regulations are supposed to protect.  Rule #1: If it isn’t broke, then don’t fix it.

So what are some of the reasons for wine regulations on labeling?

To protect the public from wine fraud.

To protect wine marketers and their brands and even terroirs.

Balance markets and appellations.

Help regulate grape demand.

Give protection to growers, vineyard owners and wineries relative to their brands and crops.

Protect regional grape markets and revenues.

Address lobbying pressures.

Recognize political issues at the state, federal and international levels.

If any of us question the financial pressures inherent in regulations, I again bring up the ethanol industry as mentioned earlier. When subsidies to corn farmers (ethanol comes from fermented/processed corn) were about to be impacted/changed by the Feds eliminating the ethanol blend in gasoline regulation, that industry put forth a major effort to protect the ethanol industry.  Without ethanol blending regulations established by the Feds corporate revenues would be impacted. We still have ethanol in fuels today.

The underlying question in this discussion: Are consumers better off with the 75% varietal label regulations versus, say the old 51% regulation?  There must have been a reason to raise the percentage component regulation; but I can’t find the answer to this somewhat rhetorical comment.  My personal perspective is: wine drinkers will naturally gravitate to what wines are most enjoyable to them—blended or varietal.  After all, most all wines are blended anyway, to varying degrees.  Even all 100% varietals are not created equally; a Cabernet Sauvignon from two different wineries will be totally different.  Considering terroir, oak barrels, time in oak barrels, yeast used in the fermentation process, vintage, organic/non-organic, etc., two wines from the same varietal at 100% would be different.

“A person with increasing knowledge and sensory education may derive infinite enjoyment from wine.”  – Ernest Hemingway