Marketing of ‘clean’ wine attracts warnings from regulatory agency

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The controversy over “clean wine” is back. In early April, the federal agency that regulates wine and other alcoholic beverages issued a mild warning to producers — and a warning to consumers — about potentially misleading health claims in advertising. In his newsletter, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, focused on the word “clean”, which is not defined in the TTB’s regulations.

“We have received inquiries about the meaning of the word ‘clean’ when used in the labeling and advertising of alcoholic beverages,” the agency said, alluding to producer and consumer resentment over the use of the word.

“Consumers should not interpret the term to mean that the beverage is organic or meets other production standards set by TTB,” the agency said.

Cameron Diaz is selling ‘clean’ wine, but the term is pretty muddy

The TTB approves labels and is known to be strict on its regulatory standards. It does not endorse advertising, although it does review ads at a company’s request and can issue fines if ads violate standards, such as making “false or misleading health claims or statements related to health”. And you’re not supposed to denigrate a competitor’s product.

So the use of “clean” depends on whether it creates a misleading impression. For example, the flavor of a wine can be described as clean, as in “a clean, crisp wine”. This, the agency said, “is considered swelling.” (Hey! I look like that remark!)

But there is a problem when “clean” is used with other verbiage to imply that the alcoholic beverage has health benefits, “or that the health risks otherwise associated with alcohol consumption will be mitigated”, said the TTB. “For example, ‘malt drink X is clean and healthy’ or ‘vodka Y’s clean production methods don’t cause you any headaches’. ”

“We would consider these claims to be health-related misrepresentations,” the agency said.

Some in the wine world hailed the TTB’s message. Wine writer Alder Yarrow, in his popular Vinography blog, said the federal government “has given a big boost to wineries that market their products under the ‘Clean Wine’ banner.” Esther Mobley in the San Francisco Chronicle called it “a major victory for truth in wine advertising”. Winemaker Adam Lee, of Clarice Wines, had a company’s wine lab tested and found they were not actually “sugar free”, as the winery claimed.

So what does this mean for us consumers? We should always be alert to questionable health claims in wine advertising. It goes beyond the word “clean”.

Let’s look at the website for Avaline, the brand created by actress Cameron Diaz and entrepreneur Katherine Power that has been at the center of its own controversy. Clean appears prominently, but always with the word “delicious”, as in “clean and delicious wine”. Swelling. A transparent tab lists the ingredients – organic grapes, sulphites, cream of tartar, tartaric acid, yeast, yeast nutrients and organic cane sugar for sparkling wine. There is also a list of producers in Spain and California who make Avaline wines. The labels contain nutritional information.

So far, so good. More wineries should put this information online, if not on the label. We’d have fewer marketing problems like this: Diaz and Power describe Avaline as “clean, delicious wines full of natural goodness and free of unwanted, undisclosed extras.” Such broad claims that all other wines are unnatural or impure are unfair, even if greater transparency from the industry would show this. Yes, the TTB allows “over 70 additives,” but that doesn’t mean every wine is loaded with things other than grapes. Many of these additives are natural and harmless, such as the cream of tartar used in Avaline and many, many other wines. But the additives sound scary.

A company called FitVine lists nutritional information for its wines on its website to support claims that it offers “natural” wines that are low in sugar, low in calories and healthy. How healthy? The company logo is the silhouette of a buff runner holding a glass of wine in one hand and a bunch of grapes in the other. Winemakers I spoke to said most wines would have the same or similar nutritional information. So why aren’t more wineries offering it?

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A quick Google search for clean wine reveals various names that make similar health claims that TTB may have had in mind. If you have headaches and your eyes become puffy and your skin is mottled after drinking wine, it’s probably not your choice of wine but the amount you drink. These marks seem to say drink as much as you want because you won’t feel sick. This is not responsible marketing.

Most of these companies advertise primarily on social media. They target a younger, health-conscious, keto-crazed audience that doesn’t want to spend time researching how their wines are made. They market wines suitable for a healthy and socially active lifestyle, while critics shape their lifestyles and professions around wine. So for them it’s personal.

Caveat emptor, of course. But if wineries adopted similar transparency, they would show these health claims for what they are: mere antics.

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