Wine vs. 'Wine'

New to the job, and the governor's got you confronting a wine industry heavyweight. What's a Liquor Board president to do?

What a way to start a new job. No sooner than he was promoted to the post of supervising producers and wholesalers for the state Liquor Control Board, Jay Field got stuck last Wednesday with calling up one of the country's biggest and most powerful winemakers to ask if said winemaker was mislabeling its products. So what kind of answer did he get from the Wine Group, manufacturers of the Franzia line of inexpensive boxed "table wine with natural flavors"? No surprise there; according to the liquor board's new PR person, Susan Reams, "We can't say anything about that because now we've talked to them, it's a regulatory matter under consideration, and we can't comment on regulatory matters under consideration." Right. Still, the very fact that the state agency charged with protecting the consumer has actually initiated an investigation of misleading or deceptive marketing is, to use Reams' own word, "unique." Concerned consumers and wine-industry insiders alike have long complained that the Wine Group's Franzia products are not "wine" under the statutes and regulations of the state of Washington. Reams says that the liquor board's investigation was set in motion by "a citizen complaint." It's questionable how much impact this complaint would have had if the board hadn't heard simultaneously from the director of the Washington Wine Institute, the staff counsel of Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles' powerful Labor, Commerce, Research & Development Committee, and the office of Gov. Christine Gregoire. Why should it be so difficult to persuade a state agency to enforce its own rules about what can be called wine and what can't? One reason may be that "table wine with natural flavors" is a cash cow for the state's monopoly liquor stores: Four out of five of their top-selling wine-related products are sold under the Franzia label. If the board sticks to its guns on this issue, it will make regulatory history, because until now, nobody, not even the fearsome federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, has ever had the guts to take on the makers of beverages compounded of tap water, flavorings, grain alcohol, and, oh yes, some fermented grape juice, and threaten to deprive them of their God-given right to call the resulting mouthwash "wine." A fair number of Washington winemakers are applauding (though not yet on the record) the accelerating campaign to restrict use of the plain word "wine" to beverages made from "the fermented juice of grapes"—period. Synthetic "wine" isn't a significant percentage of Washington production—yet. If the WSLCB does its job, it may never have to be.

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