Monday, September 8, 2008

Labeling Quirks and a Blog of Note

As I expect most food and wine bloggers do, I spend a decent amount of my non-blogging on-line time reading other food and wine blogs. The ones that keep me coming back tend to be those that both entertain and educate. One such that I’ve really been digging of late is Amy Lillard’s, La Gramière. It’s named after the property she and her husband purchased in the Côtes du Rhône a couple of years back and the winery they subsequently established on the estate. On her blog, Amy is chronicling the happenings throughout each vintage at La Gramière. It’s one of the most enjoyable winery blogs I’ve come across, neither tiresomely technical nor grossly marketing driven. Instead, it’s honest. Amy’s not afraid to talk about the difficulties faced at the estate. Reading her work gives me a sense of their place, their struggles and their joys, and it often teaches me something along the way. As one might expect given Ms. Lillard’s responsibilities in the vineyards, it’s not updated every day but she always keeps it fresh enough to keep me coming back.

Her recent post on some of the inherent hassles of wine labeling for a diversified distribution chain didn’t just teach me something, it also got me thinking. In it, she details running afoul of US regulatory authorities as the result of a labeling snafu and the subsequent conscription of labor and impromptu assembly line required to get her latest release into the US market. The offending item: a tiny icon of a pregnant woman overlaid with the classic “no” symbolism of the circle and slash. Many a French winery began placing the symbol on their labels as early as a year or two ago in anticipation of it (or a textual version) being required on all bottles of wine in France as of 2008. It’s very much the equivalent of the Surgeon General’s warning that has appeared on all wine in the US for years.

Even though she doesn’t much like the image, Amy chose the symbol over the prolix version of the warning for its less space-intensive traits, only to find out that the US has now banned any appearance of the symbol on bottles of wine entering the US market. While I’d seen the icon popping up on French bottles over the last year or so and was aware of the new French warning requirements, this was the first I’d heard of the American ban on the appearance of the symbol. Her solution was to scrape the back labels off a sizeable portion of her bottles – an ugly job from the sounds of it – only to reapply new ones that would meet with the demands of US regulatory authorities.

This first got me thinking of how all the other wineries throughout France would deal with the situation. La Gramière had placed the symbol on their rear label. The majority of French wines, when sold on their home market, don’t even have a back label. (The marketing novellas so common on the back of New World wines are still relatively uncommon on the European front.) A winery that sells to multiple nations will almost always have a different rear label for each country, even one each for multiple distributors in larger markets such as the US. But front labels? In my experience, they’re the same for most if not all markets. Put the pieces together and you’ll realize that most French producers who opted for the iconic warning option had to place the symbol right on their front labels.

Here’s how at least one producer handled the situation. The first shipment of Henri’s 2005 came through with the symbol intact. The second time around, it had simply been colored in with what I suppose is the French equivalent of a Sharpie®.

After talking about the issue with a few of my coworkers, what really got me thinking – actually, what really irked me – was why the powers that be in the US had to make an issue of this in the first place. From a bureaucratic perspective, it’s just nitpicking to the nth degree, at the expense of time, money and frustration for the people affected. From a sociopolitical perspective – whether or not you like the imagery of the symbol – it amounts to cultural whitewashing – censorship if you prefer. If it’s accepted as meaningful in France, why can’t it be accepted here as well? The Surgeon General’s warnings are going to appear on the back label either way. Are the American people that much in need of being protected from potential offense? I don’t have the answer to that, but my sympathies go out to Amy and all the other wine growers like her who’ve had to jump through hoops to prevent the question from ever being faced.


Anonymous said...

Hey thanks for the nod David! These regulations are what makes life interesting for us little guys! I never thought about using a sharpie! They even come in green. Please don't tell my poor parents, who spent hours on this project!!

Edward said...

What a nightmare!

Firstly to even have to place a warning on the bottle and then second, to have such trivial and picky labeling requirements. . .

Director, Lab Outreach said...

Good reading, David.
Could be worse. Hans Herzog ran into trademark issues in the US, and so had to re-label all their wines destined for US export as "Hans Family Estate'. Poof! went their brand. Really annoying on CellarTracker as well.

David McDuff said...

You're most welcome. The nod's well deserved. It's great to see you make the time to blog given the time you must already spend working to grow your wines. It's also great to see you keep a positive attitude in the midst of such bureaucratic BS. I'm glad to have shared an idea/shortcut with you... and I promise not to tell your folks about it.

Agreed, Edward. The labeling requirements do, especially after a while, seem tediously self-evident at best.

PLS, aka JDH,
Very good point, although really you raise an entirely different spin on labeling difficulties -- that of the US obsession with proprietary, trademarked branding. I can think of at least a few other such instances right off the top of my head. Perhaps fodder for another post, although I'd hate to find myself caught up in the middle of a lawsuit....

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