© 1996 JDM Enterprises
HORROR STORYby Jerry D. Mead
It has been way too long since we've told a horror story on the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), those friendly bureaucrats so closely associated with Waco and other positive images, and who regulate the wine, beer and spirits industries with an arbitrary hand that comes from the power possessed by an agency with the authority to yank a winery's very license to do business on little more than a whim.
Our friends at Dry Creek Vineyards, near Healdsburg, Sonoma County, are among the most recent victims of the often unreasonable wine cops.
It seems Dry Creek sent its 1993 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon out to an ATF certified wine analysis lab to have it tested for alcohol content, among other things, information necessary for the label and for determining the tax owed to the government.
The lab ran its fancy test to determine the alcohol and reported it to be 14.1. Now you have to understand that among the regs that ATF enforces is one that says any wine over 14 percent alcohol is taxed at $0.50 per gallon more than wine that is 14 percent or less...and that's a lot of money to the winery. Some wineries have been known to lie a little when it's that close, or even to add just a little water to get that alcohol down that eensy-teensy bit. But Dry Creek didn't lie and didn't cheat by diluting its wine and paid all that extra money and printed its labels to reflect the honest amount of alcohol.
Now it just so happens that an ATF inspector happened by and picked up samples of that same wine for one of their random tests. In their lab, the wine tested only 13.9 using the same testing technology, which means that Dry Creek had a big tax refund coming, right? Wrong.
ATF in all its wisdom declared the wine couldn't be sold unless all the labels were stripped off and the wine relabeled with the accurate alcohol, because otherwise consumers might be misled over 2-tenths of one percent of alcohol. Your morning orange juice contains more alcohol! Really!
To show you how ridiculous this really is, below 14 percent, wineries are permitted a full 1 1/2 percent of leeway, plus or minus, from the percentage stated on the label. So a wine that says 12 percent, could legally contain as little as 10.5 or as much as 13.5. The only reason it becomes absolute at 14 percent is as a tax collection device, and Dry Creek had paid the tax.
After a great deal of red tape and delay, ATF rescinded its order and agreed to allow the wine to be sold as originally labeled.
It was never determined which of the labs' results were accurate.
I'm campaigning once again for everyone at ATF connected to wine to be fired, and for the president to appoint me Wine Czar, after which there would never be stupid rulings like this. In fact there wouldn't be stupid laws on which to base such rulings.
As a result of our story, State Senator Mike Thompson got on the case, other publications picked up the story, and DHS has admitted it acted improperly, says it won't do it anymore and that it will reimburse the retailers for wine already taken.
There are some unfortunate side notes to the story. DHS was taking the wine supposedly to test it for too high lead content. After spending literally hundreds of thousands of dollars on this project, not one winery, American or foreign, has been the subject of any punitive action under the law that permits these tests. The few violators were so minor as to not violate the federal standards.
And secondly, while DHS will no longer confiscate wine without reimbursement from retailers, they will now take the stuff from wineries, wholesalers and importers...without reimbursement...and keep on spending those tax dollars to no good end.
And the shop owner who first reported DHS's unsavory actions? He still hasn't been paid for the wine taken from his shop many months ago.
Elkhorn Peak 1994 "Fagan Creek-Napa" Chardonnay ($15) This small southern Napa (where it is cooler and better for many grape varieties) grower/vintner specializes in Burgundian varieties at the moment, one of which is Chardonnay. Apple and citrus fruit on a lean frame, with crisp acidity and a subtle oak presence. Very food compatible. Rating: 88/85
Elkhorn Peak 1994 "Fagan Creek-Napa" Pinot Noir ($21) Really special wine of its type. Ripe cherry and plum fruit with complexities including, but not limited to, green tea and rose petal. Rating: 92/83
Elkhorn Peak Vineyards, Box 821, Napa, CA 94599 (707) 255-0480.
Christopher Creek 1992 "Russian River" Syrah ($13) This small winery specializes in a couple of Rhone varieties and consistently wins top medals for both of them. Really big ripe plum and black cherry fruit, with undertones of saddle leather and earthiness for complexity. Match with bold foods only. Rating: 87/85
BEST BUY WINE OF THE WEEK
Christopher Creek, 641 Limerick Lane, Healdsburg, CA 95488 (707) 433-2001.
Wines are scored using a unique 100 point system. First number rates quality; second number rates value. For a reprint explaining the scoring system in depth and a pocket scoring guide, send $1 to: Mead's 100 Points, P.O. Box 1598, Carson City, NV 89702-1598.