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Hello, Mr. Kettle, it's The Pot calling...

Posted by guest, May 14, 2008.

You may remember recent press attention given to the scandal in Brunello di Montalcino. Well the TTB (formerly the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, home of the best governmental holiday party going) has threatened to ban the import of all Brunello unless the wine is accompanied by a lab test, a certificate of authenticity from the Franklin mint and 20 plus My Space or Facebook friends attesting to its inherent coolness. A well known wag in the Italian wine trade gave a quote that was essentially a rolling of the eyes at the TTB’s naiveté, essentially saying that it would be necessary to apply this standard to all wines imported into the country (and probably a few domestics). His point being that the problem in Montalcino is known but not isolated. The issue also re-raised the two decade old Austrian wine scandal which involved anti-freeze doctoring of some of their wines (for the best video commentary on anti-freeze doctoring please see this Simpson’s episode from 1990).

I will tell you that I think the US government is responding more to the perceived slight from the Brunello Consorzio who (allegedly) ignored the TTB’s requests for paperwork then they are responding to overwhelming consumer outrage - of which there has been none.

Now, I am no knee-jerk anti government guy but this seems to be a bit of overstepping on the ideal role of government on the production side of wine. The deal between the US and the EU is straightforward - the label on the product is a guarantee from the source country which if violated should cause harm to the wine's reputation in specific and then the region and/or the country of origin in general. It took years for the Austrians to recover from their scandal and to be fair the Austrian case was a danger to consumers' health whereas unless there are cases of individuals going into shock on consuming wines of less than 100% Sangiovese, this scandal is not a health crisis.

I am also on record as stating that if the allegations in Brunello prove true then it is an out and out shame especially considering the producers have the option to blend Sangiovese with other grapes and sell the result as Sant'Antimo D.O.C. which commands a fairly high price as well.

This should not be the US Government’s fight because the scandal is known to the market, the Italian government is involved, and unknowingly drinking blended Sangiovese is not a threat to public safety - unless you consider deflated egos a public health hazard. The Italian bureaucracy, for their part, tastes and tests all DOC and DOCG wines and somehow actually uncovered the irregularities on their own. The US Government on the other hand, sets vague regulation and walks away thereafter to let the market take its course. Over time we have had our share of varietally labeled wine that falls below the already low minimums (how many wine drinkers do you know are aware that a varietally labeled wine may contain as little as 75% of the stated variety?) and/or the method of acting of some grapes playing Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay without so much as a J' accuse from the TTB. Ship a bottle of wine across State borders, however, and you could find yourself the subject of a government probe. I think the TTB needs to stop rattling their sabers and maybe take a look at their own house.

Robert Scibelli is a lecturer and administrator at New York’s premier wine school, International Wine Center .


Reply by Philip James, May 14, 2008.

Robert - I posted about the 85% requirement to label a wine by its varietal here:

And, as silly as this sounds, when I first came to the US, i thought it was "Alcohol, Tobacco and Fireworks"!

Also, in terms of state shipping laws, Tom Wark of Fermentation threw down the gauntlet today with his post: He goes to some pretty explicit lengths to call the WSWA out.

Reply by Mark Angelillo, May 14, 2008.

Great post on an interesting topic.

"Since Brunello must by law be 100% Sangiovese, adding other grapes would be a violation of a strict labelling convention between the US and the EU that stipulates that what is on the label must guarantee what is in the bottle."

Does this mean a Brunello producer with less than 100% Sangiovese in the bottle might merely be able to say as much on the bottle and still get cleared for import? Would they even try such a thing? Though I don't have an example, I've heard that some producers use different labels depending on where they are sold.

Reply by Philip James, May 15, 2008.

Robert - I didnt realize how serious the TTB was about this, until i read this (in a british paper surprisingly):

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