U.S. Wine Is a Mess, Here's How to Fix It | Wine Enthusiast
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U.S. Wine Is a Mess, Here’s How to Fix It

There are many things amiss in the nation’s wine scene. If I were named, say, Wine Emperor of the United States, I am confident I could fix six of them. These are my proclamations.

All wines shall have ingredient labels

Almost all of the food you buy has ingredients listed on the label. Wine, regulated by the Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) instead of the Food and Drug Administration, is an exception.

In an ideal world, the ingredients might look like this: yeast, fermented grapes, sulfur. However, it might also include things like grape juice concentrate, powdered tannin, diammonium phosphate, gum arabic or any in a long list of approved additives.

Some are used to clarify the wine or, in many cases, to improve its quality. However, this means we really have little idea of what’s actually inside. Winemakers that try to do things the old fashioned way have to compete against the mad scientists.

There are arguments against ingredient lists on wine labels. We will ignore them all here.

Consumers have largely become desensitized to labels on things like Doritos (disodium guanylate, anyone?) and other items. They will now be able to choose whether to do so on their wine labels, too.

All wines will use certified taint free closures

Cork taint, most commonly caused by trichloroanisole (TCA), has long been a scourge on the wine industry. No more.

From now on, all wines will be required to use closures that are certified free from cork taint. Plenty of these options, like screwcaps and composite corks, have existed for years. Recently, some cork companies have introduced processes to remove TCA and other contaminants from natural cork closures. They are also able to individually test corks.

This comes not a moment too soon. From this day forward, all bottles will be required to use a stopper that has no chance to contaminate the wine. All other closures are hereby forbidden. I will leave the larger issue of reparations to consumers for decades of cork-tainted bottles purchased for a subsequent time.

Illustration of a wine bottle on a scale marked "heavy"

Murder weapon-weight bottles are outlawed

We’ve all seen them, wine bottles so heavy they could be used for self-defense or deadlifts at the gym.

Some winemakers seem to fret about global warming as they simultaneously package their wines in the biggest, thickest, heaviest glass bottles they can find. Perhaps they’re insecure about the quality of the wine? Maybe they just want to make the wine seem more substantial?

Wine weighs 750 grams in a standard bottle. The bottle itself can weigh anywhere from 450 to 1,200 grams. This means the glass accounts for up to 60% of a wine bottle’s total weight. Heavier bottles substantially add to a wine’s carbon footprint as they are shipped from producer to winery, distributor and its final destination.

Let’s agree that it’s not the size or weight of the bottle, but the wine in it. Plus, these bottles are often a pain to fit in a wine fridge. Heavyweight bottles are hereby banished.

Alcohol levels will be more accurate on wine labels

An alcohol by volume (abv) percentage is required to be displayed on every bottle of wine by the TTB, with a few exceptions. However, there’s no requirement that this number be correct.

The TTB allows anywhere from 1% to 1.5% leeway between labeled percentage and actual abv. This means your 15% abv wine could actually be 16%. Moreover, next to no alcohol levels are verified by any outside authority, which encourages some wineries to take an even more laissez faire approach to the listed percentage.

Why is the government O.K. with approving labels with false information? You can read more on the subject here, but suffice to say, it primarily has to do with taxes and processes for label approval.

If we’re going to require abv levels on labels, let’s make them accurate. Wines exported to the European Union are already required to be within a half-percent of its labeled abv. In my edict, all U.S. consumed bottles will be required to do the same.

Illustration of map with magnifying glass

Proposed appellations will have to make distinctive wines prior to approval

The TTB has certain requirements for appellations to be approved and put on wine labels. What isn’t part of those requirements? Anything to do with the wine itself.

In the current system, any appellation is approved if it meets the TTB’s requirements regarding naming, boundaries and other regional distinctions. These requirements might lead to differences in the wines produced. But most often, consumers need to decide for themselves whether the designation is meaningful.

There’s some argument for this. It’s hard to create recognition without first establishing a regional identity from which producers can draw association. However, this also creates a system that quickly becomes cluttered with American Viticultural Area (AVA) dreck, as we see today.

From now on, submitters will not only prove that the area in question is distinctive, but prove the wines are distinctive, too. Who decides this? Me, of course.

“Reserve” will be a meaningful term

“Reserve” is a word that wine lovers frequently see on labels. What does it mean? In some cases, absolutely nothing.

There’s no regulation in the U.S. around the use of “reserve.” A winery could label all its wines as such, if so inclined. I once saw a winery that made more of its reserve offering than they did of its lower-tier wine. Presumably it was a really good year.

Reserve should mean something. Perhaps it’s a selection of the best barrels. Or it’s one particular barrel unique enough to be bottled on its own. Maybe it’s one that will provide extended aging potential.

But too often, “reserve” seems to have more to do with marketing than what’s in the bottle. This means producers that make true reserve-style wines are competing against those who simply seek to make their wine sound classier. Going forward, the term will be reserved for wines that truly merit it.