Thousands of wine bottles collect dust while labels await federal approval

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Jim Waters with the label-less wine bottles.

Vintners spends months, if not years, perfecting the wines they bottle and sell, and somewhere near the end of that process, they attach a label to let the public know what’s so special about what’s inside.

Though that piece of paper might seem a small thing, several North Fork winemakers find themselves caught up in the federal budget crunch this spring, when staffing reductions at the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau left the agency with just a few employees to approve new wine labels.

As a result, winemaker Jim Waters of Waters Crest Winery in Cutchogue has 100 cases of 2010 rosé that lack labels and so can’t be sold.

“It used to be a 48-hour turnaround online, and I’ve been waiting for about six months,” Mr. Waters said during an informal discussion between Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) and members of the Long island Wine Council at Macari Vineyards last Friday afternoon.

Mr. Waters said that winemakers do not need approval from the TTB if they simply change the year on the label or the alcohol content. But any other design changes need approval from federal regulators.

In his case, the new labels he’s requesting are for a bottle that is shaped differently from those he’s used in the past. He also planned to add the word “dry” to the wine description.

Mr. Waters isn’t the only North Fork winemaker regulators have over a barrel.

Long Island Wine Council president Ron Goerler, who owns Jamesport Vineyards, just this week received labels for two 2007 reserve wines — Jubilant, a cabernet franc blend, and a Syrah — after applying for them in February.

“You’re looking at a four-month backlog,” he said. “It used to be if you submitted them, they’d look at the graphics and wording and send you back an email within a couple of days. The whole process normally would take a couple of weeks.”

Mr. Goerler said that after the labels are approved, the TTB assigns each wine a number used to identify each when pricing information is sent to the State Liquor Authority, further complicating the headache of the federal approval backlog.

Mr. Bishop, unaware of the problem until it was brought up by the winemakers, said that he hopes to involve his Washington staff in interceding with the TTB on a case-by-case basis on behalf of local winemakers.

Jon Schneider, the congressman’s district director, said Wednesday that the office is working with the wine council to develop a list of labels wine council members are waiting for.

“We are going to set up a meeting in Washington with TTB to address those issues within the next few weeks,” he said, adding that Mr. Bishop plans to appoint a member of his Washington staff to work on expediting wine label approvals.

Mr. Goerler said that he’d like to go to Washington to help make the wine council’s case, but for now he’s just relieved to have received his labels.

“I have 400 to 500 cases waiting, and you want to be able to get wine into the market,” he said. “Now that the summer’s here, we’re good to go.”

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