But Is It Wine?

The latest beverage issued by Seattle's ever-prolific Precept Brands is titled "Huck." The label, displaying a bear in silhouette apparently trying to sink a long shot with a giant purple berry, states that Huck is "premium grape wine with natural huckleberry flavoring." Severely chilled, it's an agreeable summer quaff; the price, $8 or less, is also agreeable; and the low alcohol content (9 percent) means you don't have to worry about an encounter with the Smokies on the way home should you indulge in a second glass at the barbecue. The only question with Huck is: Is it wine? Much of America's cheap-wine market is coming to be dominated by "proprietary" labels like Huck: No grape variety is mentioned, no source, often some "natural flavors," and a cute name. Twenty years ago, such stuff would probably have been sold as "wine cooler," but to be able to call your beverage simply "wine" is worth at least an extra buck retail. Considering that a bottle of wine can't be sold in the U.S. without getting the approval of the federal Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB, formerly the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms), you'd think it shouldn't be too hard to find out what's in a bottle you buy. But decades of lobbying on the part of beverage manufacturers have led to more than two score variations on the simple theme "wine." Recently, regulators and wine lobbyists on the West Coast have become concerned that if something isn't done soon to clarify and stiffen the TTB's code, "wine" will soon be whatever the person selling it wants it to be: fortified with additional nongrape alcohol; diluted with water; laced with flavorings of all kinds, some mentioned, others tacit. And thanks to rules about proprietary information, the TTB knows what's in there, but the public is forbidden to. Prodded by advocates for truth in wine packaging, both the Washington State Liquor Control Board and the Washington Wine Institute (lobbying arm of the Washington Wine Commission) have agreed to take up the subject. The director of Oregon's liquor commission is doing the same. There's even some evidence that small winemakers in California are risking the wrath of the manufacturing giants of their state to see to it that the difference between "wine" pure and simple and "wine with etc." is clearly marked on every container. Well, what about Huck? According to Precept's marketing department, Huck is just plain wine, blended from the same grapes Precept uses for its varietal white wines, mixed with nothing more than a dash of huckleberry extract, suspended, like vanilla or almond flavoring, in an alcohol elixir. They say the remarkably low alcoholic content is merely the result of incomplete fermentation of the grapes, which leaves a high percentage of unfermented sugar to sweeten the blend. That's reassuring, but we shouldn't need to make inquiries to reassure ourselves about what we're drinking. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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