Over the past 20 plus years I guesstimate that I have submitted around a thousand label approval applications to the TTB. (COLAs) Not surprisingly, to anyone familiar with these applications, I’ve had a wide range of experiences, and some of those have been concerning on my end. I’ve been concerned because on several occasions either the TTB staff have approved labels that they should not have or I have had to school them on a commonly used label item.
 
That common item in both situations is an appellation of origin, and more specifically the AVA (american viticultural area) type of appellation.
 
First I need to clarify that only due to the request of clients, I have submitted labels that I knew were not in compliance specific to the AVA they listed. Those labels either listed: (1) AVA names that were incorrect or (2) listed an AVA along with a percentage that was below the required minimum amount of 85%. See image here of what I’m talking about. What was I concerned about in both of these situations? The TTB approved these labels that were not compliant! For the label that listed the AVA with a percentage lower than 85% I reached back out to the TTB and informed them that the label should not have been approved and they withdrew it. 
 
In other situations I have had to school the TTB staff on the details of an AVA listed on a label. In one instance the TTB staff who was reviewing a label I had submitted informed me that a “geographical reference” would have to be removed from the label because it wasn’t an approved appellation. In that instance the “geographical reference” was the AVA Cole Ranch, which is located in Mendocino County and was approved by the TTB in 1983. I responded back to them pointing out that it was an approved AVA and they approved the label. 
 
The issue here is that in the process of reviewing labels for approval the TTB staff are primarily looking for: (1) a set of required items and (2) “prohibited” items not to be there.
 
In contrast to this they are not always paying close attention to the correctness of commonly used items such as AVAs. And in the experience I referenced earlier where I submitted a label that I knew was in violation by listing a percentage below 85% for the AVA, it wasn’t the AVA name that was incorrect but rather the wine blend itself! That wine did not qualify to list the AVA at all, percentage included or not! Regardless, with the label actually listing a percentage next to the AVA (Napa Valley in this instance), the TTB staff should have caught that. Side note, it is very rare that you’ll see a label that lists an AVA and also includes a percentage amount next to it. 
 
For several years now I’ve begun to think that some percentage fields should be added to the TTB label approval application. All label approval applications are submitted electronically via the site COLAs Online. These percentage amounts would be required when the applicant enters anything into the varietal or appellation fields on their application.  See image of where those appear in the application. They would then fill in the percentage amount for the varietal or appellation that they entered in those fields, which match what is listed on their wine’s brand label. To clarify here, it is a wine’s actual blend statistics that drives whether the label can list for example any of the following: varietal, vintage, appellations, vineyard names and “produced and bottled by”. It makes complete sense that their blend statistics be verified by the winery alongside their labels when submitting them for approval. A major plus of this is that it would also serve to help winery staff and compliance consultants by providing them instant training, that once they became familiar with they’d know for later. 
 
Despite my concerns here I do want to give the TTB high marks for all they do provide and accomplish. They review a lot of labels for approval each year, for wine as well as beer and spirits. According to their labeling site to date in 2023 they have received over 94,000 labels submitted for approval and we’re not even half way through the year!
 
Have a concerning, frustrating or amusing label approval story to share?  Please leave your story in the comments below.

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