Bottle Battle


"To learn the health effects of moderate wine consumption," says a label proposed by the Wine Institute, "send for the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans." The label suggested by California's Laurel Glen Winery has a slightly homier tone: "The proud people who made this wine encourage you to consult with your family doctor about the health effects of moderate wine enjoyment."

The labels are bland and uninformative by design. They had to be circumspect enough to pass muster with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which has long barred "all therapeutic claims, regardless of their truthfulness," from wine labels, deeming them "inherently misleading." This policy has made it hard for wineries to inform consumers about the evidence that moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. (See "Alcohol Blindness," Citings, October 1997.)

The Competitive Enterprise Institute has challenged the BATF's censorship in federal court on First Amendment and statutory grounds, while the Wine Institute and Laurel Glen have taken a more submissive approach. That strategy seemed to pay off in early March, when Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin sent a letter to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) saying the BATF "has made a final determination that the labels do not mislead consumers" and "plans to approve [their] use."

But after Thurmond threatened to introduce a bill that would transfer the authority to review beer, wine, and liquor labels from the BATF to the Food and Drug Administration, the bureau suddenly decided that "no final determinations have been made." Thurmond's press secretary said the senator, who in 1988 sponsored legislation requiring the now-familiar surgeon general's warnings on alcoholic beverages, was "absolutely furious that somebody would put language on wine labels that would detract from the message concerning the possible negative health effects of alcohol consumption."

Despite Thurmond's opposition, vintners said they hoped the BATF would ultimately approve the labels. In the meantime, you don't need the senator's permission to consult your doctor, and you can find the Dietary Guidelines for Americans at www.usda.gov/fcs/cnpp.htm.