Wine Label Approvals Streamlined

Compliance pro analyzes TTB's revamped COLA requirements

by Jane Firstenfeld
liz holtzclaw wine labels cola ttb
Compliance expert Liz Holtzclaw says new policies from the TTB will simplify the COLA application and approval processes.
Washington, D.C.—The harrowing, time-consuming and absolutely essential task of winning label approval from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) may become simpler starting today, when the bureau’s new form—with new regulations—takes effect.

After a lengthy process of industry consultation (including the Wine Institute’s Public Policy Committee), a public comment period and two months of required review by the Office of Management and Budget, the revised form for COLAs (certificate of label approvals) was scheduled to go live July 1.

Compliance pro Liz Holtzclaw provided Wines & Vines with her exclusive summary and analysis of the new regulations’ most impactful sections. She advised readers to consult with their own compliance people regarding specific applications.

With more than 20 years of compliance experience at major California wineries—most recently 4.5-million-case Delicato Vineyards—Holtzclaw just launched a private consulting practice in Hughson, Calif., near Modesto. The new TTB form, she believes, will radically streamline COLA processing for wineries and the bureau, an agency of the U.S. Treasury that has endured staffing cuts while facing surging demand for label approvals. Currently, TTB estimates an average of 29 days is required to process applications.

What changes mean for wineries
Holtzclaw ranked what she considers the most significant changes and compared them with the previous rules. According to her reading, you can now:

1. Add, delete or change awards and medals. “Most wineries would love to put this information on labels, or on stickers attached to the bottles,” but haven’t done so because a new COLA was required for each change, she observed. Since each new COLA incurred expense and delay, many wineries failed to utilize this marketing tool.

2. Reposition any label information, including text, illustrations, graphics, etc. Previously, changes in proportional size and shape were allowed, but in practice, if the shape of the label caused text to wrap differently, or mandatory information was affected, a new COLA was required.

“Now we can move things around to refresh or improve a label, as long as the legal mandatory information is still on the correct label.” If alterations change your legal front label to a back label, or vice versa, you’ll still need a new COLA. “Remember the requirements for the Brand (front) label: Brand, class and type (variety), appellation (if any) and alcohol percentage.

3. Minor corrections to spelling and punctuation that do not change the meaning. The proofreader’s nightmare: “How many times have you had to file a new COLA when you discovered that the period there should have been a comma or that ‘it’s’ (the contraction) was missing an apostrophe, making it a possessive? Did you print without a new COLA and risk having lots of very expensive scratch paper? Or worse, did you go ahead and use a label with a known error, hoping the consumer didn’t notice?” Holtzclaw asked. Now, you can make these corrections “as long as it doesn’t change the meaning.”

4. Add, delete or change trademark or copyright symbols, kosher symbols, company logos and/or social media icons. “Many times a winery’s label redesign involves changing or updating a logo and placement, while the text remains unchanged,” Holtzclaw said. “Similarly, the ability to add social media icons allows minor refreshes in short timeframes.”

This item also eliminates the need for the TTB to qualify every QR code on wine packaging. Previously, the bureau vetted each code to verify it delivered consumers to a TTB-approved site. “The rule is now embedded into the form,” Holtzclaw explained. “If I’m putting a QR on my label, I assert it goes to a legally mandated website.”

5. Add, change or delete a vintage date. Useful for cases that didn’t originally have a vintage on the label, it will also help when, for instance, a COLA was granted for the 2010 vintage, and it turns out you’ve got some 2009 you’d like to bottle with the same label but an earlier vintage date.

6. Add, delete or change stated bottling date, production date (day, month and/or year) or freshness information including bottling, production or expiration dates or codes. While wines don’t normally come with an expiration date, some winemakers like to include such statistics about high-end bottlings. When marketing to consumers in the millennial generation, Holtzclaw added, “The ‘born on’ date becomes a selling point for aromatic whites. These consumers equate freshness with quality.” Many wineries—especially those using non-traditional, non-glass packaging—have been doing this using laser coding: “Technically, this was a violation.”

7. Add, delete or change holiday and/or seasonally themed graphics, artwork and or salutations. “At first glance this looks as if you can only add ‘happy holidays’ or similar phrases,” Holtzclaw said. “It is actually much more.” This means wineries can legally offer customized bottles to private or corporate clients for weddings, birthdays or promotional events.

Since few, if any, of these personalized bottles ever saw a retail shelf, Holtzclaw surmised that as many as 75% were technically illicit. “You could fill in a name only, but you couldn’t change the salutation,” she explained.

Small things, but significant
“This is truly a sea change for people in labeling, packaging and wineries,” Holtzclaw said. “It’s going to free the TTB to actually look at, inspect and improve truly new labels, and focus on its mandate to protect consumers from fraudulent advertising.”

Recently, Holtzclaw ran some numbers about why labels were submitted for COLAs. About 40%, it turned out, were to correct minor errors; 20% for other changes. “Only a few were for a whole new brand,” she said.

The new policy represents an enormous change. The TTB, she said, is one of the areas in Washington, D.C., that “actually functions with capable administrators who are not into turf protection.”

Consult with your compliance professionals, or download the new form at ttb.gov.

Posted on 07.05.2012 - 08:42:06 PST
How does this new process affect requests for TTB exemption: i.e. Certificate of Exemption From Label Approval "For sale in ___ only" as if one year a wine can be made per state appellation requirements but in another year it can't due to insufficient in-state grapes?