Sunday, December 11, 2011

Let's Make The Whole Thing Up: Down the Rabbit Hole with Natural Foods Store's Wine Labeling Madness

Yesterday I explored a wine bar in Palo Alto and asked if they carried any organically grown wines.

They said they didn't have much but suggested I visit the natural food store across the street. So I traipsed across the street, eager to see if they had any new-to-me organically grown wines.

I was quite surprised to find a number of wines with shelf talkers created and posted by the store for wines that claimed to be organically grown that I had never heard of.

Upon closer inspection, I saw a lot of errors.

This was definitely a Down the Rabbit Hole experience where everything I know to be true about wine labeling was suddenly re-purposed with wild abandon.

There is a moral to this story (skip to the bottom for it).

In this wine department, things are not usually what they appear to be. (I wish they'd passed out the Kool Aid.)

Bear with me through a few examples and you will see what I mean.

1. "Made with Organic Grapes"

This is the language that can appear on bottles that the federal government and a certifier have certified as containing wine made only from certified organic grapes.

At this store, however, the wine manager uses this term to mean "practicing organic" - no certification involved - an interesting case of re-appropriating a commonly used legal term and turning it into quite another descriptor. However there's no explanation anywhere in the store that says that this phrase means "practicing organic."

2. "Made with Certified Organic Grapes"(invented term by this natural foods store)

This wine retailer has created this term to mean what the feds mean by the above term (Made with Organic Grapes). Confused yet? Wait - it gets better.

This is assigned to wines that are NOT made with certified grapes. (I don't think this was necessarily intentional on the part of the store, but it is certainly not accurate.)

See here: Leojami Wine...which has not one certified organic grape in it:

The grower claims to be practicing organic but nothing is certified organic in this bottle.
Just to confuse matters further, the Girasole Pinot Noir, which is actually certified organically grown (and HAS a CCOF label on the back) is listed with a shelf-talker that says it is in this wine retailers' practicing organic category since it does not say certified organic grapes.

So to recap: the ones that is not certified (Leojami) says it's certified and the one that IS certified (Girasole) says it's not certified. Are you with me so far?

This natural foods store uses the language the USDA applies to certified organic grapes - which is legally "Made with Organic Grapes" to mean "Made with Practicing Organic Grapes" yet falls down because this bottle is actually made with certified grapes (with the CCOF label on the back) - Go figure! 
3. "Made with Certified Biodynamic Grapes"

This term the wine retailer assigns to wine which is not biodynamic at all.

Labeled "Biodynamic" on bar code (it is CCOF certified grapes) but it is not biodynamic nor has its grower ever said it was biodynamic
This bottle is made with grapes that are not certified organic or biodynamic but this retailer labels it Made with Biodynamicallly Grown Grapes

The moral of the story?

1. Don't believe the shelf talkers.
2. Read the certification labels on the back of the bottle (CCOF, Demeter, etc.)
3. When you see a problem, tell the wine retailer.

To their credit, this wine retailer has agreed to correct these inaccuracies, once I spoke with them about the wines that were clearly labeled in error.

But we the consumer shouldn't have to play this role.

And retailers should face meaningful fines when they mislabel things so broadly.

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