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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 57.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Label that wine
Ingredient lists will improve quality and consumer confidence
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The U.S. government recently announced it will allow alcoholic beverages to voluntarily include nutritional labeling. It's a move the wine and liquor industries fear is ultimately a path toward required labeling — a change it claims will cost millions. The surprising driving force behind this new ruling may have been liquor giant Beam Global. The company now has permission to advertise that its Skinnygirl brand "wines" contain only 100 calories instead the typical 110-120 per five-ounce serving.

That's right. Rather than labeling being required out of concern for consumers, it's used to boost a low-cal product. Lost in the fray over nutritional labeling is ingredient labeling — something more useful to consumers than calorie counts.

U.S. alcohol laws suffer from a Prohibition-era hangover. For instance, today if you sell something that is considered a food — say, lemonade — you must label your product with nutritional and ingredient information, per the Food and Drug Administration. But if you make a hard cider from that lemonade, you fall under the regulation of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and you don't have to do either.

The lack of ingredient labeling on alcoholic beverages has led to — surprise — bad things. Consumers might want to know if their alcohol contains animal products or GMO corn. As it is, they have to guess which beers are vegan or GMO-free. The concerned can drink microbrews they trust or beer from the EU, which bans GMO corn.

Wine is not exempt from additives, either. Dozens of chemicals and animal products could be in your glass, even with high-end wine. The U.S. currently allows 200 different additives.

Leading the charge in real ingredient labeling for wine is Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, who since 2007 has listed all additives on his bottles, even if that additive is just water. Paul Draper, the great minimalist winemaker at Ridge, has also taken to labeling his bottles. And there are others.

Most in the industry, however, are against transparency. Additives are ways they hide mistakes in the vineyard, or boost attributes like flavor and acidity. And who wants to tell consumers about Velcorin, a toxic sterilizing agent that supposedly breaks down after use? Allergic to some wines? Well, who knows what's in them?

Labeling ingredients in beverages is long overdue and has been hindered by what wine writer Jon Bonné calls the "Whole Foods gap." That is, the people who are hyper-aware of what is in their food still don't care enough about what's in a bottle.

Moreover, labeling would likely lead to better practices in the field and better wine on the shelves. A winery that is manipulating its juice as a shortcut to "improve" it would be exposed. And wineries that believe in minimal intervention, that treat their fields with care, would be rewarded for all their hard work.

This isn't to say that realities in the field don't sometimes require intervention. But truth in labels could spark a goal of reducing reliance on additives.

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