Wine Labels 101: Navigating TTB’s COLA Process

The label approval process is unique to the alcohol beverage industry; most traditional foods (such as cookies, pasta, and sugar) are not subject to government pre-approval before being sold at market. Indeed, well before a wine reaches a store’s shelves or the hands of a consumer, the federal—and possibly even the state—government played a significant role in what must, what can, and what cannot appear on a wine label.

The other unique aspect about wine labels—in comparison to distilled spirit or malt beverage labels—is that while most wine labels are subject to the labeling jurisdiction of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), wines under 7% alcohol by volume fall in the labeling jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Of course, wines in FDA’s jurisdiction encounter different types of requirements. (For more information, see my prior article in Beverage Master from December 2014 titled “When FDA Takes Control: What Alcohol Beverage Companies Need to Know About the FDA.”) This article focuses on the key elements that must be present on a wine label that falls under TTB’s labeling jurisdiction.

What Does the COLA Process Entail?

An approved label is called a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA). A COLA is required for a product to be sold in interstate commerce (i.e., across state lines or when a product is imported into the U.S.); if a product is being sold only in one state, it may qualify for a COLA Exemption.

Label applications can be submitted to TTB either through paper or through TTB’s electronic system (COLAs Online). Nowadays, most labels are submitted online as opposed to paper applications, which can entail a significant amount of back-and-forth (such as providing explanations to Needs Correction requests, etc.). However, the processing time can vary significantly depending on the time of year, amount of applications TTB receives, and even by labels. A more challenging label may encounter longer processing time, as the specialist assigned to the label application may need to conduct research or look into particular concerns.

When submitting a wine label application to TTB online, one can upload images of the labels. It is usually best to use JPEG format with high resolution (300 dots per inch or more). The applicant must upload images of all the labels that area affixed to the container when the bottle is sold at market. Once submitted, a label application may be approved, rejected, or come back with the “Needs Correction” status. The latter indicates that TTB either needs more information and clarifications or that the label will need editing.

When labels are approved, they appear on a public database that is viewable by anyone. Unlike formulas (or recipes) submitted to TTB, an approved label can be viewed on TTB’s Public COLA Registry. Currently, we can view labels submitted 15 years ago or more (with some limitations).

What Must Appear on a Wine Label?

Wine labels must contain, at minimum, certain statements and information. These typically include the following:

1. A brand name;
2. Class or type statement;
3. Government Warning Statement;
4. Name of the bottler along with the bottler’s address as it appears on the bottler’s TTB permit (in the case of domestic wines) or name of the importer and importer’s address as it appears on the importer’s TTB permit (in the case of imported wines);
5. Alcohol by volume statement;
6. Net contents statement;
7. Sulfites declaration; and
8. Country of Origin (for imported wines).

The brand label of a wine label is required to contain a brand name along with the class, type, or other designation of the wine. The brand name is usually the name under which the wine will be marketed, such as “ABC Winery” or similar. The class/type statement will vary depending on what the wine is, but includes statements similar to, “RED WINE,” “WHITE WINE,” “ROSE WINE,” “RED TABLE WINE,” “WHITE TABLE WINE,” “RED DESSERT WINE,” and similar.

For a domestic wine, the name and address of the bottler must be included on the label. Per 27 CFFR 4.35(a), the language “Bottled by” or “Packed by” is generally included before the name and address of the bottler. Additional, optional language such as, “Blended by” or “Distributed by” may be included in addition to the bottler statement provided that the information is truthful and not misleading.

Imported wines require that the label include the name and the address of the importer on the label. 27 CFR 4.35(b) requires that the language “Imported by” must precede the importer’s name and address. Additional language may be required or permitted depending on the wine’s exact process.

27 CFR 4.36(a) mandates that an alcohol by volume statement appear on the label of wines containing more than 14% alcohol by volume. For wines at or below 14% alcohol by volume, the alcohol by volume statement may be optional provided that the type designation “table” wine (or “light” wine) appears on the brand label. On most wine labels, it is common to see the alcohol content statement regardless of whether or not the wine is at or below 14% alcohol by volume. The statement generally appears as, “Alcohol __ % by volume” or “__% Alcohol by Volume” or “__% Alc./Vol.” or similar.
The remaining mandatory statements can generally appear anywhere on the label with some exceptions. The Government Warning Statement is mandated by 27 CFR 16.21 and is required on both domestic and imported wine labels. On your standard 750 mL wine bottle, the statement must appear in a minimum of 2 millimeter font and be no more than 25 character per inch. It must also be separate and apart from all other information.

The net contents statement is mandatory label information unless it appears “blown, etched, sand-blasted, marked by underglaze coloring, or otherwise permanently marked” into the glass bottle (in which case you must note such on the application). 27 CFR 4.37(c). Wine bottles can come in various sizes, but the container must conform with standards of fill designated in 27 CFR 4.72(a)-(b).
A declaration of “Contains Sulfites” is required to appear on a wine label if the wine contains 10 parts per million or more of sulfites. The maximum amount of sulfites that can be present in wine is 350 parts per million. 27 CFR 4.22(b)(1). Different standards apply if the wine is organic or 100% organic.

For imported wines, 19 CFR 134.11 requires the labels be marked in a conspicuous place with the country of origin of the article at the time of importation in to the United States.

What is Some Optional Information that Can be Included on a Label?

Optional information on a wine label included vintage years. Vintage years are optional, but if they are used, the wine label must indicate an appellation of origin (a country, state, city, viticultural area, or foreign equivalents). The appellation must be shown in direct conjunction with the class or type designation.

Winemakers may also wish to include a grape variety or multiple grape varieties on a label. Naming a grape variety will trigger the wine label to require an appellation of origin. If naming one grape variety, TTB requires that the wine must be made from at least 75% of the grapes named. If naming two or more grape varieties, the percentage of each grape name must be listed and the total percentages must add up to 100%. There may be other requirements depending on where the wine is produced, so always check local laws to make sure.

Another option is to list an appellation of origin on the label (without a vintage year or grape variety) or an American Viticultural Area (AVA). If using an appellation of origin like a country or state, 75% of the wine must come from the labeled appellation of origin. If using an AVA, at least 85% of the grapes used to produce the wine must come from within the boundaries of the named area. Of course, there may be more specific requirements depending on the wine’s origin. For example, some states, like California, may have stricter requirements when using a particular appellation or AVA.

Of course, there are many other claims or information that can be included on a label, such as organic, gluten free, or even background information about the winery. There are certain regulations or requirements that must be complied with or met for a winery to state such information or claims. For more information, talk to your alcohol beverage attorney on what may or may not be said on a wine label.

Lindsey A. Zahn, Esq. is an alcohol beverage and food attorney at Lehrman Beverage Law, PLLC. Ms. Zahn has previously counseled wine, beer, and spirits companies on licensing and compliance, federal and state labeling, customs regulations, supplier agreements, and advertising and promotions. She has also filed new grape variety petitions with TTB on behalf of her clients. She is an award-winning author on wine law, publishes a leading wine law blog called On Reserve: A Wine Law Blog, and has traveled to over a dozen wine regions in the U.S. and Europe. Additionally, she has given talks and instructed classes on wine law throughout the country and in France. In 2014 and 2015, her blog was nominated as one of the Top 100 Legal Blogs by the ABA Journal.