Winemaking and Regulation

mega purpleMany European appellations have very detailed regulations about what grape varietals can be used in their wines, and in many cases they dictate specific wine production practices that must be used in order to use the appellation designation on the bottle. By contrast, U.S. appellations have much less restrictive regulations giving winemakers a lot more freedom to make the wines they want to make.

As wine writer Katherine Cole points out, there are some proposals in the U.S, especially in Oregon’s Willamette Valley,  to tighten up regulations about what percentage of a region’s grapes and stated variety must be in the blend. She goes on to describe recent controversies over labeling regulations in the U.S. and then wonders whether we’re drifting toward a more European model, going so far as to speculate about a European style crus system where certain vineyards are designated as superior. Esther Mobley, wine columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, puts the question directly:

“Will this emulation of Europe at some point endanger our distinctively American spirit of experimentation when it comes to planting vineyards?”

Tom Wark weighs in emphatically:

No. There is absolutely no chance that American labelling laws will move toward a European model and require wines that have a specific appellation on the bottle also be produced with specific grape varieties or be made with specific winemaking techniques. It’s not even a possibility. Nor is it possible that an official vineyard hierarchy will emerge in any winemaking region in America.

I found myself agreeing with Tom. It’s a very large leap from demanding Willamette Valley wines be made from 100% Willamette Valley fruit to specifying allowable varietals, vineyard yields, pick dates, or oak regimes. But then I read a comment on Tom’s blog that shifts the debate to a slightly different register.  Commenter Tom Elliot writes:

Jim Bernau from Willamette Valley Vineyards points out that “it is illegal in Oregon-labeled wine to use additives commonly used to make mass-produced Pinot Noir in California… (such as c)olor and mouthfeel concentrates, called Mega Purple, Ultra Red, Purple 8000 and Red 8000…”. It is not difficult to imagine other states adopting similar laws or regulations. Furthermore, questions have been raised as to whether Copper Cane has used any of these additives in their Oregon Pinot Noirs that were vinted in California, as it’s speculated they did in Meiomi (formerly owned by Joe Wagner of Copper Cane and now owned by Constellation, the manufacturers of Mega Purple). Currently, there’s a call for a Federal investigation into this. If that happens and it turns out to be true than it is not legal for those Copper Cane wines to carry an Oregon appellation.

I found this comment interesting. Part of the value of the “American Spirit of experimentation” is that winemakers can experiment to create more interesting, more differentiated wines. Differences are, after all, what makes wine interesting. While the European model creates sharp differences between regions, it tends to homogenize differences within regions.

But is the freedom to add color and mouthfeel concentrates really in that “spirit of experimentation” that produces differentiation? Color and mouthfeel concentrates make wines look richer and feel smoother. They tend to make wines taste the same by cancelling vintage variation and textural differences. This is fine for consumers who want homogeneous “supermarket” wines. But if you’re a wine region trying to differentiate yourself from competitors, you may not want winemakers using additives that will make your wines taste like industrial plonk.

For regions, unlike California, that don’t have a stake in mass produced wine it is not out of the question that they might regulate some winemaking practices if it gives them a competitive advantage.


  1. It’s a given that the EU will move to require ingredient labeling in the near future. If so, will California follow. They will have to for all the wine it exports there but will it extend to wine sold in the US market. Moving to the Euro model inch by inch.

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