Wine, Pure and Simple

Why are state liquor stores selling adulturated wine—without telling customers?

When you buy a candy bar, what do you see? A brand name and plethora of small print minutely cataloging every tasty, unhealthy ingredient, from sucrose down to 2,3-mega-butyl-fantasto-fanzine. Buy a bottle of wine, and what do you get? Beyond some info about which grapes were grown where and the alcohol content, not much. It's assumed that when you buy a bottle labeled "wine," you're buying "the product of the normal alcoholic fermentation of the juice of sound, ripe grapes . . . without any other addition or abstraction whatsoever except such as may occur in normal cellar treatment" (WAC 314-24-003(2)(a), Standards of Identity: Wine). So the law says. But over the last 20 years or so, the Washington State Liquor Control Board has gotten pretty casual about enforcing the letter of the law. These days the biggest selling "wine" in Washington state is the 5-liter boxed product bearing the Franzia label. Retailing for about $8 a box, it bears the description "table wine with natural flavors." Discard the "table" and "natural," which have no legal meaning at all, and you're left with "wine with flavors." Look back up at the definition and you'll see that under Washington state law, Franzia boxes aren't "wine." And if they're not wine pure and simple, the law goes on to require that the label must bear "a truthful and adequate statement of composition." And even then, such products can be called only "specialty wine," if not "artificial wine" or "imitation wine." Understandably, Franzia isn't eager to put such a notice on its products. Nor is the liquor board eager to make them do so, because four of the top five sellers in state liquor stores are Franzia boxes. Each box is almost pathetically cheap, but sell a few hundred thousand or millions of them and it tots up to a nice piece of change. Washington state winemakers haven't paid much attention to the implicit collusion between the liquor board and one of its biggest suppliers, primarily because all the wine produced in the state qualifies as premium and superpremium. But growing grape production (China will soon be a world-scale player) is putting heavy downward pressure on wine prices. If somebody manufacturing an alcoholic beverage made according to a secret formula of X parts wine, Y parts water, and Z parts flavorings (natural or artificial) dissolved in grain spirits can call the result "wine," how are people making real wine to defend their territory? Last week, a first cautious step was taken toward protecting the ancient and honorable word "wine" from adulteration when the state's official winery lobbying organization, the Washington Wine Institute, unanimously endorsed the idea of demanding that the liquor board at long last begin to enforce its own rules about what constitutes "wine." This is not such a routine move as it might seem; the institute represents the big commercial wineries (owned by out-of-state conglomerates) as well as small independent producers, and multinationals are notorious for liking to have their marketing options kept open. But the tide at last seems to have turned toward truth in packaging. Will it crest or will it ebb? We soon shall see. The institute board meets again Aug. 23 to settle on the wording of the letter to the liquor board—or to temporize yet again. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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