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Janet Orsi

Seeing red: Federal officials are less than wild about a wine industry plan to change beverage labeling.

Wine labeling plan prompts sweet talk, sour grapes

By Paula Harris

CONTROVERSY swirls around the issue like pinot noir in a wineglass. Whether that glass is half full or half empty depends on whom you talk to. Some view wine as a time-honored, aesthetic, and sensory delight--a complex foodstuff and magical elixir with the ability to protect against coronary disease and food poisoning and to aid digestion. Others see it (and other forms of alcoholic beverages) as an addictive drug with a grim societal cost, responsible for rampant health problems, accidents, birth defects, violence, crime, and suicides.

Now a recent proposal by the San Francisco­based Wine Institute--the vintners' trade group that aims to counter the U.S. Surgeon General's warnings on wine containers with a second label alluding to wine's health benefits--is coming under fire from federal officials and anti-drinking organizations. The proposed label may add to consumer confusion, critics say.

But there's a catch. Seen by some as a shrewd move by the Wine Institute, the proposed sticker would invite consumers to "learn the health benefits of moderate wine consumption" by sending for a brochure published by no less than the federal government.

The proposed label, to be used voluntarily by wine producers, would refer consumers to the 1995 "U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans," developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services and published in January.

"It's referring to an action taken by the government itself," says Wine Institute president John De Luca, adding that the label is not a self-proclaiming statement.

The proposal is causing quite a dilemma at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which regulates labeling and advertising of alcoholic beverages. The BATF, which is considering the proposal, has convened meetings about the matter with other regulatory agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health and Human Services--a complicated cast, all of whom will have input into the decision.

"This makes the review process more difficult," says William Earle, chief of the BATF's Industry Compliance Division. He adds that although he doesn't believe the proposal is "a crass attempt to sell wine," he suggests that it could be construed that way "by riding on the coattails of the dietary guidelines."

The new federal guidelines, which do not specify wine, but address the consumption of all forms of alcoholic beverages, do not contain a recommendation to drink for health. The guidelines mainly list the potential health risks associated with drinking alcohol.

However, two new sentences recently have been added to the guidelines. The first states that "alcoholic beverages have been used to enhance the enjoyment of meals by many societies throughout human history." The second states that "current evidence suggests that moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk of coronary disease in some individuals."

It defines moderation as no more than one drink per day (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits) for women and two drinks per day for men, and then lists individuals (such as pregnant women, children, and adolescents) who should not drink.

THE GUIDELINES also note that "higher levels of alcohol intake raise the risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, certain cancers, accidents, violence, suicides, birth defects, and overall mortality."

It concludes by stating, "If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation, with meals, and when consumption does not put you or others at risk."

Hilary Abramson of the Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems, a San Rafael­based non-profit organization that uses Buck Trust funds to "prevent the toll from alcohol and other drugs by changing public policy," blasts the proposed labeling and accuses the Wine Institute of being intentionally misleading.

"The dietary guidelines don't say a thing about wine and health," says Abramson. "They say 'evidence suggests in some individuals.' Does that educate you? No. It raises a ton of questions." She adds that, realistically, individuals aren't going to read the new label and send off for the guidelines, "but it gives the patina that the government thinks it's good for you. The [implied] message is that the government is saying, drink for your health. It's a marketing tool."

But De Luca defends the labeling, saying "our proposal is a public policy statement, not a marketing strategy." The new label would counter the "misleading impression" given by the Surgeon General's warnings, he says, which justify labeling wine as a "sin" industry to be punished with higher federal excise taxes.

The Surgeon General's health warning, mandated by the Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act of 1988 for all beer, wine, and spirits containers, states that women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy and that alcoholic beverage consumption impairs driving ability and operation of machinery and may cause health problems."[The warnings] forced a scarlet letter on wine, making it easy for people to argue to raise taxes in 1991," says De Luca.

The Wine Institute argues that the warnings mislead consumers because the wording makes no distinction between use and abuse of beverages that contain alcohol and does not reflect scientific knowledge about the possible health benefits of moderate wine consumption.

"The proposed label statement is an attempt to provide more balanced information to the consumer than now exists with the government warning, referring them directly to the sections dealing with alcohol in the 1995 'U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans'," says De Luca. "We see the new government message as an educational tool that more evenly treats the complex matter of use and abuse."

De Luca says that if the new label is approved, consumers could have access to wine and health dietary guideline information via a toll-free phone number and websites on the Internet. He adds that the Wine Institute's proposal was prompted by a series of scientific studies conducted by such universities as the Harvard School of Public Health and the Boston University School of Medicine about exploring wine's possible role in preventing heart disease and other ailments.

In 1991, CBS-TV's 60 Minutes focused on the health claims made for moderate wine consumption. A segment on The French Paradox, a book by Sonoma author Lew Perdue, focused on his claims that the French have a lower rate of heart disease then Americans, despite consuming richer, fattier foods, because they drink red wine with their meals.

In the wake of the show, domestic red wine sales reportedly soared more than 40 percent. The same thing occurred after the program was rebroadcast the following year.

Perdue now heads up SmartWired Inc., a Sonoma-based print and online publishing group devoted to wine and to combating what he calls neo-prohibitionism. His firm publishes Wine Business Insider, Wine Business Monthly, Smart Wine On-line Magazine, and To Your Health! (formerly Healthy Drinking).

According to a recent editorial by Perdue, "Mainstream newsstands and periodical distributors have been reluctant to sell [Healthy Drinking] because of the name." He goes on to say that "despite all of the conclusive research regarding the healthful benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, juxtaposing 'healthy' and 'drinking' creates a psychological conflict. What a testament to the influence of the anti-alcohol industry!"

At a recent American Society of Enology and Viticulture convention in Reno, George Hacker of the Center for Science in the Public Interest slammed what he calls the wine industry's "health campaign" as "an effort to get abstainers to begin and light drinkers to drink more."

He added, "There's a tremendous market for a flagging wine industry."

The BATF says it will continue to examine the Wine Institute's proposed label, and decisions are also pending on other labels submitted by the Competitive Edge Institute and by Sonoma County's Laurel Glen Vineyard, which mention the health benefits of wine. According to De Luca, a bottleneck hanger extolling the reputed virtues of the "French Paradox," proposed by Beringer Vineyards of St. Helena in 1992, was approved by the BATF, but rejected by other federal agencies.

BATF's compliance chief William Earle fears that approving one label may lead to an avalanche of requests for wineries that "think they have a stroke of genius" in just how health claims should be stated. He says that referring consumers to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines "may be leaving people with a misleading impression," adding that there may be a better mechanism to distribute the guidelines.

"They could leave a stack [of the guidelines] in the store or in winery tasting rooms," he says. "That may be a more objective way of getting them to the consumer."

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From the August 15-21, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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