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Carl KanowsKy: A merlot is a merlot is a merlot — or is it?

It's The Law

Posted: December 23, 2010 8:46 p.m.
Updated: December 24, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Wine is big business in California.

According to the Wine Institute, during the recessionary 2009 economy, California vintners shipped 467.7 million gallons (196.7 million cases) of wine to the U.S. wine market. The estimated retail value of these sales was $17.9 billion. That’s billion with a “b.”

Being such a massive industry, there are, as you would expect, some specific rules and regulations. Some of them are, shall we say, a little strange.

For instance, you’re about to open a $55 bottle of red wine from California. For most of us, that’s a significant investment in what amounts to fermented grape juice. You want some assurance that what you’re drinking matches the bottle’s label.
If the bottle says it’s a 2005 vintage, shouldn’t that be exactly what it is?  Well, it is — mostly. If a bottle of California wine says that it comes from a specific vintage, then at least 95 percent of the wine in that bottle has to come from that year.

The expensive bottle proudly proclaims it is a Napa St. Helena cabernet sauvignon. Is it? California law requires that a majority of the wine be what the label advertises. Specifically, if it says that the wine comes from St. Helena in Napa Valley, then the bottle must contain 85 percent of juice from that same area.

If a wine names itself after a specific grape, such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot or chardonnay, then at least 75 percent must be exactly that. What?! I just paid $55 for something that says that it’s a cabernet and only 75 percent actually has to be cabernet? 

That’s absolutely correct. So, based on California law, this Napa St. Helena cabernet sauvignon can actually be 15 percent from Santa Barbara vines and consist of (heaven forbid) 25 percent merlot.

The only aspect of California wine label law that insists on 100 percent adherence is when a bottle says that it is from California. We don’t allow any of our fine juice to be contaminated by inferior grapes from other places, like Oregon or New York.

Another curious feature of the wine industry dates back to Prohibition and the 21st Amendment to the Constitution.

Congress was concerned that with the repeal of the Volstead Act that the nation would be swimming in booze. So it allowed the individual states to regulate alcohol sales within its own territory. 

This resulted in the so-called three-tier system of getting wine from the winery to your table. With some exceptions, most wine in stores or restaurants does not come directly from the winery. Rather, distributors representing multiple wineries sell wine to retailers. In a classic example of fuzzy logic (I’m being kind here), distributors (also known as wholesalers) argue that they help ensure that alcohol is consumed responsibly. 

Many producers (that is, wineries) dispute this, saying that the middle tier in the three-tier system only adds more bureaucracy and cost to what eventually reaches the buying public. 

There have been laws proposed, and lawsuits filed, to change the current system, but nothing of significance has happened. It’s likely that all of us winos will unwittingly continue to support the existence of the distributors even though wine prices likely would drop if the wineries could sell directly. 

Ah, it is to dream. In the meantime, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”

Carl Kanowsky of Kanowsky & Associates is an attorney in the Santa Clarita Valley. He may be reached by email at  Mr. Kanowsky’s column represents his own views, and not necessarily those of The Signal. It’s The Law appears Fridays and rotates between members of the Santa Clarita Valley Bar Association. Nothing contained herein shall be or is intended to be construed as providing legal advice.


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