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Dan Berger, On Wine: Tax and Trade Bureau's new ruling on bottle sizes

Dan Berger, On Wine: Tax and Trade Bureau's new ruling on bottle sizes

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Jan. 15, 2021 series
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A “bottle of wine” contains 750 milliliters of liquid, about 25 ounces. And if you picked up a wine bottle in a store and the label said it had only 700ml inside, you might think you were getting ripped off.

But consumers need not fret. The 700ml bottle isn’t a legally permitted size. And that may not change for quite a while. But some new sizes may soon begin appearing on store shelves. The federal government has just announced that it is permitting wine in cans to be sold in sizes that previously weren’t permitted.

That was the intent of the Treasury Dept.’s Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) when it made its ruling. It came about because wine in cans has is now a serious category. To respond to this development, new legal sizes seemed appropriate.

However, since the law doesn’t require that the new sizes apply only to canned wine, it now is also permissible for the new sizes to apply to wine in bottles.

For now, the 750ml bottle remains unaffected by this ruling, but by allowing several new (smaller) sizes, the government has opened the door to ideas regarding bottle sizes that may someday affect all consumers more greatly.

The government’s new authorized sizes include 355ml, 250ml and 200ml. There are several additional changes that relate to distilled spirits. See below.

Previously permitted sizes for wine include 500ml (the so-called “café” bottle), 375ml bottles (the so-called “half bottle”), and the 187ml (the so-called “split” or “pony”). Other legal sizes (which are almost never seen) are 100ml and 50ml – not to mention “large format” bottles.

The newly approved 355ml size is interesting since it’s only 20 ml different from the traditional half bottle. I have never seen a 355ml bottle, but I imagine it looks so similar to the traditional half bottle that most consumers would think that’s what it is. But it contains about 2.7% less.

By its own regulations, TTB never permits wineries to do anything that creates marketplace confusion – yet what is the practical relationship between and 375 and the 355 if not utterly confusing?! Don’t expect TTB to resolve this any time soon.

I honestly can’t say that this ruling represents a big deal to anyone, but if the 355ml size eventually replaces the 375, wineries would earn 2.7% more revenue and consumers would pay 2.7% more for their wine.

Within the wine industry, there are those who have long sought to eliminate all “standards of fill” bottle sizes completely, thus allowing wineries to bottle in any size bottles they desire. Anarchy could ensue.

To me and probably many other consumers, eliminating all rules about bottle sizes would create horrific confusion, starting with wholesalers and retailers, who would be inundated by buyers’ queries: “how much wine is that per ounce?”

History of Size Regs

The United States first established “standards of fill” regs for alcoholic beverages roughly eight years after the end of Prohibition, in October 1941. Those regulations permitted (among other sizes) one gallon, a half-gallon, the quart, four-fifths of a quart, four-fifths of a pint, and two-fifths of a pint (6.4 ounces).

One bottle size that didn’t conform to those regs was the aforementioned 700ml (23.67 fluid ounces). Soon after the end of World War II, there was a period (through the early 1970s, if I recall correctly) when German wine producers sold wines here, mostly Riesling, in 700ml bottles.

Some of the 700s that were sold here may have avoided detection since the U.S. government then notoriously disregarded some technical violations. U.S. government alcoholic beverage label approval has never been very sophisticated.

By the 1970s, the 750ml had become the worldwide standard size for all wine bottles. Interestingly, the commonly accepted “bottle size” for distilled spirits in Europe is 700ml. More about this below.

The Canned Wine Revolution

Wine in cans is creating quite a stir in the industry, leading to TTB’s latest ruling. Popular “everyday” wines now are appearing in cans from many large wine companies, with the 250ml size being the most popular.

Under the old “standards of fill” regs, 250ml cans were not permitted to be sold singly. The 250ml was an illegal size for individual sale. Until the new ruling, all such cans had to be sold as four-packs, thus constituting the sale of the legal 1-liter size.

Breaking up four-packs prior to sale was illegal. The TTB ruling allows 250mls to be sold singly.

Wine in cans has been around for decades. French Beaujolais was sold here in cans in the 1950s. One of the first recent wineries to tap this market was vintner/film-maker Francis Ford Coppola, who first put his premium sparkling wine Sofia in a can in 2002.

It was popular, notably at outdoor events – beach parties, concerts, etc. The first version of Sofia was a bit sweet; later cannings have been better balanced.

Since then the category has exploded. They are popular because they’re easy to chill, don’t break, are lightweight, and may be easily recycled.

However, most of the brands we’ve seen are proprietary and little-known. Few premium wineries want to put their own names on cans. Among the brands I have seen are Bridge Lane and Underwood.

There are now two sub-categories of canned wine: organic (such as Bonterra, with a good Sauvignon Blanc) and premium canned wines. The latter got its first major entrant late last year when prestigious Sonoma County Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sparkling producer Iron Horse Vineyards released a Chardonnay in cans.

The brand that Iron Horse uses is Tin Pony, its official “second label.” Iron Horse co-owner Joy Sterling said the Tin Pony Chardonnay is identical to the winery’s regular Chardonnay. It carries an appellation of Green Valley of Russian River Valley, and is a lovely example of cool-climate Chardonnay, with no oak to interfere with its apple-y crispness.

Distilled Rules

The TTB ruling also added sizes for some distilled spirits, adding 900ml, 720ml, and 700ml. I suspect this relates more to imported distilled products such as Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, cask-strength Single-Malt Scotch, and other upscale/exalted distillates that are produced in Europe, but only in sizes that prevented them from being legally imported into this country. Such as the 700ml.

Some of these esoteric specialty spirits are in high demand by spirits collectors. I’ve heard of people who specifically go to Europe so they can purchase such items and hand-carry them home. The new ruling opens up the esoteric spirits market to some of these once Europe-only items.

Finally, dessert wine lovers may well get a bonus from this bottle-size ruling. The superb Canadian wine industry, on both east (Ontario) and west coasts (British Columbia), has a tradition of making sensational ice wines.

These very sweet wines are costly to make and usually quite expensive. Most are served after meals in tiny amounts (two ounces per person often is sufficient).

As a result, most are sold in small bottles. Many Canadian wineries offer ice wines in 200ml bottles, which were not available for sale in the United States. The new TTB sizes allows them to be imported.

Wine of the Week

20129 Forefathers Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough “Wax Eye” ($17) – A disturbing trend seems to have developed among many Sauvignon Blanc producers in New Zealand: the wine is crisp, but to make them more palatable to newcomers, they have left them slightly sweet, allowing them to be called succulent.

Nick Goldschmidt, a Kiwi by birth and training, is one of the world’s most energetic winemakers, with projects all over the place, including his own wines from Napa and Sonoma County. This family project has led for the last several years with a strikingly interesting Sauvignon Blanc that carries more grapefruit than gooseberry and whose balance and structure are far more classic, with much less tinkering to keep the wine “succulent.”

This gorgeous wine is crisp and food friendly. It compares very favorably with wines at twice the price.

WATCH NOW: HOW DRINKING RED WINE CAN BENEFIT YOUR HEALTH

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Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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