On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the TTB’s recent announcement that it will be issuing guidelines for ingredient labeling for beverage alcohol in the near future. The three dive into how this might affect the industry: What types of products will be most affected? Which producers will be hurt or helped? Will this meaningfully change consumer behavior? Tune in for more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.”
J: Adam, you feeling okay? You got a little cough drop going on there.
A: I got a cough drop. My throat’s dry. It’s like it’s cold out there and I’m not sick. I want everyone to know, I’m not sick. And I also did test for Covid this morning just in case, because I was like, “I cannot be in a studio with Keith and Joanna and give them Covid.”
J: Appreciate that. Right before Thanksgiving.
Z: Can I ask you guys a question?
A: Yeah. You’re welcome to ask.
Z: Do you think we’ll be testing ourselves for Covid for the rest of our lives?
A: At least for the next three to five years?
Z: It’s just hard for me to see how it ends. I don’t know, maybe it ends, because they stop making tests and people are just like, “Whatever.” But you said that you tested yourself for Covid and it makes sense to me on the one hand. On the other hand, it’s like every time I have a tickle in my throat, am I going to take a Covid test for the rest of my life? This is not meant to be a criticism of testing yourself. I think it’s fine. I’m just not sure about that. Not sure.
A: I think until as long as it’s still considered to be the virus you don’t want to get. And also that we have a test for it. So the other virus is sort of floating around right now is the flu, which I don’t have because I went and got tested for the flu and I was on the flu shot and the flu shot’s pretty good this year. Or what is it? RG…
A: RSV and that we’ve never been able to test for and really only affects little kids, even though I could get it, but you don’t go to the hospital.
J: I think as long as I can go to a little testing tent on the street and they’re still around and they still exist, I will. But yeah, I don’t know.
A: Joanna’s keeping those tents in business.
J: They’re still everywhere.
A: Oh they are.
J: And I’ve run out of my free tests.
A: I’m just going to buy some at CVS.
J: They’re so expensive.
A: I know.
J: Why? Anyway.
A: That’s stupid. But anyways, so little cough drop from the — it’s really cold here and then-
J: I had a cold snap this week.
A: My throat gets all dry and I don’t like it.
Z: Buy a humidifier, Adam?
A: I know, I can’t. I can’t.
A: My wife has curly hair and she told me that we cannot have the humidifier in the bedroom, because it’ll mess up her hair. So I suffer in silence.
Z: In silence and to our podcast-
J: On air.
A: I also had this realization. I had this realization yesterday — well, not yesterday, after we recorded last week’s podcast for Thanksgiving when I had some comments about the in-laws. Anyways, I realized Naomi doesn’t listen to the podcast. I can say whatever I want. This is like a safe space. I can share with all of you and she doesn’t know.
Z: Maybe for the holidays you need to buy Adam a leather couch that he can lay down on while we record this podcast.
A: Yeah, she doesn’t know.
J: We have many here.
Z: Oh, okay, good.
J: Somebody can excerpt the transcript and send it to her.
A: She doesn’t know, no, because it makes her nervous. Doesn’t like to know what I say or whatever. So I’m like it’s all good. So yeah, so that’s why we don’t have a humidifier. Sorry.
Z: To be fair, my wife does not listen, either. Hi dear.
J: Hi dear.
A: So what have you been drinking Zach?
Z: I think the highlights of the last week for me have been, well it’s a couple things. Had a nice bottle of Barbaresco the other night, made some lamb and decided to pop that open, a 2015 from a producer, Ovello, that I like quite a bit. Oh sorry, Ovello is the vineyard rather. Cantina del Pino is the producer and just a beautiful bottle of wine. Nice thing to have with the aforementioned wife and just savor over the course of an evening. Because for us, one of the things that’s definitely true with our wine drinking these days is there’s the part of the bottle of wine you drink with dinner and then there’s the rest of the bottle of wine that you drink when the kids are asleep, because the truth is that dinner at our house these days is a brief affair with limited time to consume wine before the children, one way or another, need some attention, so that was really lovely. Yeah, it’s the highlight. I’m — I think like everyone — preparing for some nice wine on Thanksgiving. We’re having a small gathering so it won’t be like a ton of wine, but probably we’ll check back in next week with what we had for the holiday and yeah, I don’t know. How about you Joanna?
J: Yeah, so similar to you, not too much this week in terms of exceptional alcohol, but I did go to a 40th birthday dinner at Saga on Saturday night for my sister-in-law and they had a number of their specialty cocktails.
A: So you went to Saga for a 40th birthday dinner that your parents took her to?
J: No, my brother.
J: Yes, through an intimate dinner party at Saga. It was an exceptional experience. They know what they’re doing there. But obviously the drinks program at Saga is very good. It’s run by Harrison Ginsburg who was one of our Next Wave award recipients this year. And I had their Easy Money cocktail, which is a vodka-based cocktail with coconut, yuzu, lime leaf, and soda, which is very refreshing. But they also had their Radical cocktail, which is tequila-based with raspberry rhubarb, habanero, cherry, tomato, and lime.
J: So, that was just overall the standout experience from this past week.
A: Very cool.
J: Yeah. What about you Adam?
A: So we are recording this before Thanksgiving. I was going to pretend that we had already recorded it after Thanksgiving because we were that committed and tell you what I planned on drinking on Thanksgiving, but whatever. So prior to this recording, I actually only drank one night this entire week and it was for Tim McKirdy’s birthday last weekend. Well, I probably drank enough for the entire week, so that’s why. We went to The Rockwell Place, which is a really great bar in Brooklyn, owned by Toby Cecchini. And I had all the drinks, but the standouts for me were, I always love the Japonaise, which is this sort of Mai Tai riff they do, which is really delicious with Cognac and then also the Stage Door Johnny, which is their version of a Boulevardier and they serve it up and that was really delicious Then, there were Aquavit shots, because-
J: Far too many Aquavit shots.
A: There were multiple Aquavit shots with beers and it was a Tim thing.
J: With beers, without beers.
A: It was fun, it was fun. Good little crew. So speaking of all the drinks, some news broke on the 21st of November that basically the TTB has agreed, after 20-plus years of lobbying by consumer advocacy groups, that they are going to issue rulings on how they would like to see alcohol, calories, and ingredients displayed on wine, beer and spirits.
A: Labels, which is crazy. So they’re basically saying this is going to happen. We’re now going to issue a ruling as to how it’s going to happen. But I think especially for fine wine and fine spirits, this really upends everything, because if all of a sudden on a bottle of that Barbaresco that you had last weekend, Zach, you see, I don’t know, a thousand calories; that is just going to be insane. Now what they also say they’re going to do as part of the ruling is they’re going to issue how many servings are in the bottle. So we always say, “Oh, a bottle’s like four to five glasses.” Also, how people’s heads will spin if all of a sudden like, the TTB saying, “No, no, no, it’s eight.” That’s insane. They’re going to do the same thing for spirits, how many servings inside and then the calories going to be based on the serving size. And so for spirits, spirits might be fine, because I have an anticipation they’re going to say an ounce to an ounce and a half of spirit is a serving size.
J: People know that pretty generally.
A: And so those calories could be quite low, actually. But for wine, I can’t imagine they’re going to say anything less than three ounces and probably more four or five, in which case the calories could be quite high for people. And I wonder what that’s going to do to the market in general. It’s kind of nuts. Yeah. What are your thoughts? This is pretty crazy.
Z: Well I want to add a note here, which is I think one of the things that’ll be really interesting about this is regard calorie counts and wine is that I think more than the specific calorie count on an individual bottle of wine, it’s going to be the pretty big discrepancy, or range that you might see, in what we typically think of as a standard category. Because if you look at something, like if you just Google like, “How many calories are in red wine?” You get a very generic response. But we know that across the many kinds of red wine that are made, including let’s say some very popular red blends that might have some residual sugar in them, that number is not going to add up to what the default Google search returns. Some might be lower, some will probably be a fair bit higher. And that’s where I think it’s one avenue that I’m really fascinated to see. Does that prompt consumer choice? Does someone look at two bottles and all of a sudden it’s like, well this bottle of well-known national red blend is 175 calories a glass for five ounces, this other one is 125. I’m going to change what I buy based on those 50 calories of serving. And I suspect that might drive a lot of business. And I would imagine that producers are looking at this really thinking about how they can, if they need to, reformulate, in those kinds of wines, how they will, because price is a big driver obviously in that category, but I have to imagine that as soon as calorie counts are widely available, that’s going to drive a ton of business. More than in high-end wine, where I think if you’re buying a $50 to $75 bottle of wine, are you really going to look at the calorie count as much as the wine, or the price, or whatever. I’m dubious that it will drive consumer behavior as much there.
J: I think that the calorie count and the nutrition labels are what’s most notable about this. I think for the other items, the allergens and ingredients, I don’t know, I think that’s useful, especially for people with allergies. And I believe in transparency with those things. I think there was just a lot of language around keeping consumers in the dark, in these petitions, and that this new ruling will help consumers make more informed decisions. But what I worry about, especially with the calories and nutrition labels like you said, is we’ve already seen diet wine and light wine, and diet spirits, and I just feel like this will continue to expand that market in a way that’s not great.
A: I think it’s going to be really interesting. I think you’re both bringing up really good points. One, are we going to see this run to diet wine, which is going to be gross? Two, will the regular wine consumer not care? The more I think about it, I started this conversation saying I’m so curious to see what happens to fine wine here, but actually I’m going to take that back.
J: I don’t think fine wine will be affected as much.
A: I don’t think people will care. I think if you’re drinking a Barolo, or a Bordeaux, or whatever, you’re drinking it, you don’t care. It’s going to f*ck up commercial wine. It’s going to f*ck it up. And so much of that wine has Mega Purple in it and residual sugar.
J: If they have to disclose the ingredients.
A: Oh, it’s going to be real bad and that is going to be crazy. And that is where I think both of you are spot on. If one mass-market commercial red blend versus another and this wine making team figures out how to get it 50 calories lower, or figures out how to make it just as decadent but without Mega Purple or whatever, it’s going to be an arms race. Especially if this is what’s happening. Again, I think spirits are going to be the best off here, because I don’t think a general consumer who buys spirits is going to think the calories look that high, and then even if they look at the rum, or the whiskey, and it says caramel color, I don’t think they’re going to really care that much. But Mega Purple sounds really bad.
J: Well I think it’s because we’ve already seen this in the spirits and beer space. Hard seltzer, things that are lower calorie, light beer, that’s been happening for a really long time and I feel like people probably have a better sense of the calorie counts on a beer, or I just feel like it’s more widely known and that’s why we’ve seen it already. But I feel like with wine that’s going to be the most affected like this.
A: What happens to these Moscatos that are just filled with sugar, and people start to see — and look, again, that hasn’t stopped consumers from drinking Coke, but I do think there will be some sort of reaction.
J: Or eating McDonald’s.
A: Exactly. It doesn’t stop you. We put calorie counts on Big Macs and people are still like, “Oh, whatever.”
Z: But I think there are a couple of differences, a couple things I want to point out here. One is, there’s a fundamental difference I think between the McDonald’s scenario that you’ve described where you’re already at McDonald’s and you’re like, “Well, here I am, I’m going to buy the thing I want and eat it.” Versus as we were talking about shopping in a grocery store, or online, or wherever, and making a purchase decision in part based on that nutritional information. I’m sure you both are, remember there was a lot of that turn-the-box-around advertising campaigns and stuff when we were kids targeting our parents to get them to buy different products based on the nutritional information that was displayed on there. And I imagine there would be some of the same behavior with wine consumers, especially, as Adam pointed out, in that commercial grocery store sector. I have to say, I talked to a couple of people I know who are winemakers about this, both when it was pending and now since I just exchanged a couple messages with a friend who’s a winemaker today, and they all raised a couple of concerns about this. They’re more on the fine wine side. They’re not necessarily concerned that their consumers are going to abandon ship over the nutritional information or the calorie counts on their labels. But they are very concerned about what the TTB is going to require in terms of testing, because again, this kind of ingredient testing, or ingredient labeling may not be hard if you keep good records of what you put in, which these people do. But calorie counts, are you going to have to each individual SKU, are you going to have to do testing to get the exact calorie count? Are you going to be able to use a range? Think about this. The TTB currently requires you to put on your label the ABV of a product, but you have a lot of leeway, you have about a point and a half either direction from the true number. And also, truthfully, the TTB never tests. So producers don’t have to actually really put a lot of effort into testing their wine for the alcohol percentage. I mean they need to know, and they do know they can do the math simply from when they harvest. There’s a simple conversion from Brix or available sugar in the grape to what the finished alcohol will be. But they don’t test it generally for the precise number, because they don’t need to and whatever. But if you have to test every single batch you are bottling, are you going to have to do that to satisfy the TTB? Are they going to be checking this? What about if you’re a distillery and you produce a bunch of individual single-barrel bourbons or something, do you have to test each individual one? I don’t think anyone is clear, because again, the TTB has agreed that they’re going to put rules in place; they have not released those rules, so we will of course follow up when we have more information. But I do think that there are a lot of smaller producers that look at this as a very potentially costly and onerous thing. They’re not against the idea of providing this information to consumers. They are perhaps against the idea of having to spend a lot of money to provide this information that, frankly, a lot of consumers won’t even pay attention to, at least in their cases.
A: I think this is going to be a b*tch. I do.
Z: I have a question for you guys about this that I was thinking about when this came out too. What happens to all of these famous spirits, the liqueurs and stuff that have proprietary recipes? I think of Chartreuse, famously. Two people alive at any given time know what the recipe is for Chartreuse. But if they have to list every ingredient on the label, are they going to have? Are they going to be able to say natural herbs and whatever. I don’t know. I don’t think you’re going to see, given that Chartreuse famously has 140 ingredients, I can’t imagine that you could fit them all on the label in the first place. But there are these kinds of things where I don’t know that there’s a lot of other examples where the ingredients are trade secrets as much as perhaps things that people would want to conceal as the aforementioned Mega Purple. But I am fascinated to see also just how much specificity is required to meet whatever these guidelines end up being.
J: Right, like a mash bill or something.
A: Yeah. I have a feeling that maybe it’s going to be, for example, for wine. It’ll be something like organic grapes, but you don’t have to say organic Chardonnay grapes, organic grapes. And then like with cereals whatever. If you put Yellow 5 in it, or Red 10, that has to be listed and then the sugar content will have to be listed. But the sugar content will probably be broken out as added sugar, naturally occurring sugar, like you see on juice, where it’s like orange juice says this is naturally occurring sugar, 28 grams, whatever, added sugar, 10 grams. I think that will be what they have to do. That’s just my gut, because I agree with you, Zach. I don’t think there’s any way that in a lot of these they’ll be able to — and amaro, or any of that just lists out every single, they’re going to say, absolutely not. And then we’re not going to come to the U.S. if we have to do that. The U.S. I don’t think it’s going to require — it’s going to be a mess. It’s going to be a mess.
J: Do you think that the labels will be different for the brands that exist outside of the U.S. and then they’ll have their U.S. label?
A: Or like your importer is going to be responsible for slapping something on the bottle, something at the bottom. You see imported by, whatever, maybe they have to slap on the bottom the nutrition label. But it’s just so weird. It’s so weird.
J: I mean what do you think of the consumer transparency part of all of this?
A: Well, that’s what I was curious about. The groups that were lobbying for this are saying this is to help people make more informed choices and help you consider the amount of alcohol you’re buying. I just don’t think it’s going to work. It doesn’t work with anything else?
J: Informed drinking decisions, yeah.
A: I don’t know.
Z: Well, I think there is a small point in favor of this kind of move, which is that I do think that there is some percentage of people who really don’t think about even just the raw calorie count of things they drink. And that can be alcoholic or non. I think it’s very easy, though, when a bottle of wine, a can of beer, a bottle of spirit, whatever, it has none of that information on it to sort trick yourself into believing that the calories and such don’t exist. Now, I agree that putting that information on there might not change a ton of consumer behavior. And I hate being like, “Well, anecdotally, but I,” but I will give an example for my own life. When I used to go shopping at Costco from time to time I was partial to a Costco hotdog. And then they put up the nutritional information and every single time I go there, I look and I’m like, “Man, I used to love a Costco hotdog, but that’s like 800 calories. I’m not eating that.” And I do think that there are some people for whom having that information will perhaps allow them to make informed decisions. I don’t think it’s going to be a huge segment of the alcohol drinking public. And I do think that it’s very hard to balance the potentially real consumer benefit, or need for protection, versus the burden on the industry and just what-are-we-doing-here vibe of this whole kind of ruling. But I think the three of us may have a hard time looking at this and seeing it from the perspective of maybe some of the people who are being advocated for by these groups. I don’t find myself identifying with them very much, but I recognize that I’m not probably the people, the constituencies that they’re serving.
J: What do you think of, I don’t know, this is maybe a lesser consideration, but aesthetically how this changes things too.
A: It’s going to look ugly. I just keep thinking about how it looks on the back of a Coke bottle or things like that. It’s just, it’s ugly. And I wonder if the way that every can of beer has to have, or will just have to be on the outside of the box. It’s really interesting to see how this is going to go. And on wine, it’s just going to — and will there be a threshold? For example, in New York State, they ultimately ruled — oh no, New York City, sorry — they ruled that you only have to show calorie counts if you’re considered a chain, that’s why Houston’s famously changed their name, because that, therefore in New York, they couldn’t be viewed as a chain. That’s why they changed their name to-
J: I didn’t know that.
A: Yeah, that’s why they changed names.
J: That’s fascinating.
A: And so will there be something if you are from X wine regions and you’re priced at Y price or whatever, you don’t have to.
J: Or production.
A: Right. If you’re small production, whatever, is there going to be some sort of, “You have to file it with us, we still want to know, but you don’t have to label it.”
Z: Yeah. That’s interesting. Will there be exemptions for smaller producers? That’s a good question that I don’t know the answer to. On the flip side to this, I do think there is a point to be made that the alcohol industry’s argument for not doing this is basically, we haven’t had to do it before, but basically anything else you can consume in this country has to have ingredient labeling if it’s produced at a certain scale. And it has always been weird that alcohol just has skated by on the fact that it is alcohol. I do think that there is an argument that if this is a thing we are requiring of all other consumable goods in this country, we probably should also require it of alcohol. I don’t know. I’m somewhat sympathetic to that notion. I also will say to the question of aesthetics, people who are listening to this who are collectors of things, maybe now is the time to stock up. I’m sure those pre-ingredient-labeling bottles will have extra value down the road, just a guess. But I think it’s a pretty safe one.
A: So interesting. Well, let us know your thoughts. Will you look at the ingredient labeling? Will you look at the calorie count? Do you think it’s going to give you pause at all? Do you think that we are overreacting to wine as we think the one that’s going to face the most, not blowback, but repercussions, versus something like spirits? Do you think that it will matter just as much in spirits or beer? Let us know what you think, [email protected]. Love to hear what you all think. Love reading your emails and getting them. And Zach and Joanna, I’ll talk to you on Friday.
J: Have a nice week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.