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Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau – the fun government agency

Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau leaves out the ‘A’ for alcohol in its initials, (TTB) but as its name suggests, it is a government agency that regulates industries that produce alcohol – wine, distilled spirits, beer and ‘other alcohol’. I have always found their website to be a fairly well organized wealth of information. It has improved even more after a recent overhaul, so it’s no surprise that they offer extensive information on label compliance.

In addition to domestic labels, all labels (or rather a jpeg equivalent) on bottles exported to this country must be submitted to TTB, by the importer, for review and approval, prior to import. The certificate of label approval is known by its acronym COLA. Although the antiquated option remains to submit this application by mail, there is absolutely no reason to do so. For several years it has been possible to register for COLAs Online at www.ttbonline.gov which streamlines the submission process and decreases the waiting time for responses.

All mandatory requirements are available on TTB’s site at www.ttb.gov, and in detail in my book on wine importing. Although there appears to be a little discretion among reviewing agents for layout and design, or perhaps they just overlook things occasionally, they require adherence to the mandatory regulations with the fervor of an Army General.

The mandatory information is clearly spelled out, item by item, font size by font size and there can be no deviation. As if wineries would like to test the rigidity of this principle, I am often presented with labels where, e.g., the Government Warning has all the right words, but it is set out in the way that the printer feels will be the most aesthetically pleasing for the label. I will usually have to go back and forth with the example a few times to show that only the heading can be in bold, the text must ‘wrap around’ (i.e. (2) does not start on another line) and font size minimum is 2mm. Here it is done correctly:

GOVERNMENT WARNING: (1) ACCORDING TO THE SURGEON GENERAL, WOMEN SHOULD NOT DRINK ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES DURING PREGNANCY BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF BIRTH DEFECTS. (2) CONSUMPTION OF ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES IMPAIRS YOUR ABILITY TO DRIVE A CAR OR OPERATE MACHINERY, AND MAY CAUSE HEALTH PROBLEMS.

Conversely, no reference to any health benefits from wine can be made, no matter how well substantiated or carefully worded.

As another example, even though a label clearly states the appellation is Western Australia and it additionally says it is produced and bottled by a winery with an address in Western Australia, the label must still include the words “Wine of Australia” or “Product of Australia.” Let there be no doubt!

The word “Sulphites” is a spelling accepted and used routinely throughout the world, but TTB consider this a misspelling and insist on the word “Sulfites.” The European spelling must be deleted. Simply adding the TTB required spelling will not suffice. This applies to other statements made by foreign countries that TTB has stipulated as conflicting with their views, such as a recommended number of drinks per bottle.  

When it comes to the mandatory information, there is no wiggle room. Anticipating potential problems and doing it accurately the first time will save the brand owner, and the importer, headaches and wasted time.

However, nothing can prepare you – including TTB’s own website – for those quirks and idiosyncrasies that will inevitably crop up during the course of any importer’s career. Oh, if you dig deep enough you might find something buried in their periodic rulings and regulations, but often you have to know what you’re looking for or anticipate that a certain turn of phrase or word will be a problem. In the normal course of operations, they’re neither easy to find nor anticipate. Here are just a few of the obscure ones I’ve encountered:

  • The use of “powerful” to describe a table wine in the winemaker’s description. This may be the biggest, baddest Cabernet or Shiraz on the planet, but you may not use this word to describe it, lest it be construed as a fortified wine.
  • Any mention of fortified in the winemaker’s notes, even if it is meant to be helpful and merely to inform the consumer that this particular grape is normally a component of fortified wines in its native country, Portugal. However, in this instance it is used to make a soft, fresh, fruity style of table wine. TTB is convinced that despite the wine’s clear, light color, stainless steel fermentation and its 12% alcohol, the consumer might be misled into thinking that this was, in fact, a fortified wine.
  • Describing a wine as “lively.” This is limited to sparkling wines and, although a wine may be positively dancing off the tongue, if it is not in any way effervescent, with the appropriate characterization and designation, then you cannot use this word.
  • “In Vino Veritas” which was part of a family crest was forbidden, because to declare “In Wine There is Truth” would be to encourage drinking.

This is by no means a complete list of the various issues I’ve encountered, but it’s meant to illustrate the need to take TTB’s regulations seriously, because they certainly will. If you feel strongly that your label has been misunderstood, misconstrued or misinterpreted, there is always the option to upload a letter of explanation with the application as an attachment. This has worked for me in some situations.

Quirks, foibles and idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, TTB is one government agency that does appear to try to make their information easily accessible through constant website redesign, updated sections and requests for feedback. It just takes a little patience, experience and a willingness to suspend disbelief when faced with yet another obscure, but mandatory label regulation or prohibition.

And never, ever let the winery print and attach labels until the COLA is obtained. You just never know when one little word will make all the difference.

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