When Your Brand Is Banned

U.S. producers of 'port-style' and fortified wines seek descriptive and legal identity

by Jon Tourney
Passport Wines
Passport to success? Ficklin hopes to induce a younger generation to try its flavored fortified wines, dubbed "Passport."
PHOTO: Jon Tourney
Livermore, Calif.--Strengthening European protections of place names and wine terminology are forcing U.S. producers to find a new identity for products traditionally labeled "port" or similar, Old World-based names. A group of California wine producers agreed to move forward with its search for an alternative term for American port-style and fortified wines during a workshop prior to the second annual "Savor the Flavor" tasting event of the Sweet and Fortified Wine Association (SFWA) held in Livermore March 21.

The issue of what to call American port has long been debated among producers but has gained renewed interest. In 2006, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) ceased approval of new domestic "port" products and labels. In addition, international trade agreements between the United States and other wine producing countries are reducing export opportunities for American port-labeled products. True Ports are from the Porto region of the Douro River Valley in Portugal, made from specific Portuguese varieties and shipped from the town of Oporto.

American producers who received TTB label approval for "port" prior to 2006 are grandfathered to continue using the term and to sell their products domestically. But new producers and brands must use different label terms, which has resulted in a variety of proprietary names, or the use of general terms such as "dessert wine," which contribute to consumer confusion by failing to be specific.

A discussion among SFWA members indicated a preference to use the term "fortified" on the label, as it would encompass products other than port (such as sherry and Madeira, which are also subject to naming restrictions) and would include fortified wines made from varieties other than traditional Portuguese grapes. SFWA executive director Ken Young has been researching the issue and has obtained advice from the Wine Institute.

TTB has not allowed the term "fortified" on wine labels, based on long-time agency policy and interpretation, although Young said it is not clear why this policy exists, and there does not seem to be regulatory language that specifically prohibits the term "fortified." One suspected rationale is that "fortified" is sometimes used with food products in connection with nutritional supplements, and consumers may be more familiar with this context, making regulators reluctant to allow its use with an alcoholic beverage. SFWA plans to seek a formal response from TTB with a request to use the term "fortified," weigh the potential to change or challenge the policy depending on the response, and then look at alternative terms if required.

Some alternative label names and terms suggested at the meeting included: Fort, Forté, and "WSA," which refers to "wine spirits additions," a term used on TTB regulatory forms where winemakers describe alcohol fortification amounts and products. The group did not want to come up with a completely new, unrelated name and try to market it, as with the "Meritage" concept.

Russ Livingston and Peter Ficklen
Ficklin Vineyards' Russ Livingston and Peter Ficklin.
PHOTO: Jon Tourney
Many SFWA members produce small quantities that they sell direct or as a specialty product in the tasting room, or they have limited domestic distribution, and export is not an issue for them. However, they agree that a common term would help with consumer education and marketing. Peter Prager, winemaker at Prager Winery & Port Works in St. Helena, and president of SFWA, said, "There are those of us who have been in the industry a while and already have approved port labels, but I think we do need to standardize something. It's hard to make changes and to educate people, but I think it has to be done."

The discussion took place during a workshop on marketing sweet and fortified wines. Russ Livingston, VP of sales for Ficklin Vineyards of Madera, Calif., listed three challenges to marketing American port:
  1. How do we describe our product?
  2. It's "an old person's beverage."
  3. It's either too cheap or too expensive.
Livingston discussed the need to market to a younger audience, and he and others noted that younger consumers are much more willing to try new and different wines. Livingston suggested understanding and using the new social media, Internet sites such as Facebook, to help market wines to the 21 to 40-year-old age group.

Ficklin is one of California's oldest port makers, producing its flagship non-vintage "Tinta Port" since the 1950s. As a way to diversify and to appeal to a younger market, Ficklin has introduced a new line of flavored ports called "Passport," made from a Ruby port base with 18% alcohol. Its first two releases, Chocolate Passport and Raspberry Passport, (in 500ml bottles priced at $10-$12) are now found at BevMo! and annual production is around 1,000 cases. Winemaker Peter Ficklin said two new Passport flavors are planned with hazel nut and black cherry. "We're trying to expand the port category and market, which will help get people to try more traditional ports later," Ficklin said.

Producers agreed that more education about fortified wines is needed for consumers, as well as retailers and distributors. Overcoming resistance by some consumers to "sweet" wines is an issue, and fighting the misconception that port or fortified wines can be stored or aged forever is also an issue. Education about the fortification process, barrel aging times, and blending is also needed to explain why premium ports are priced higher.

Tasting highlights diversity of dessert wines

SFWA was formally founded in 2007, and its second "Savor the Flavor" consumer and trade tasting featured a wide variety of sweet and dessert wines from 18 different producers. Wines included Black Muscat, Orange Muscat; Late Harvest wines from Viognier, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc; and herbal infused wines such as Quady's Vya Vermouth, and Deviation made with a base of Orange Muscat and infused with Damiana and scented geranium.

Single varietal ports from Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, and Barbera were poured by several producers. St. Barthelemy Cellars of Napa produces seven single varietal ports including a Pinot Noir port. SFWA members also produce white ports from Verdelho and Chardonnay.

Dessert wine specialist Quady Vineyards in Madera produces about 3,000 cases annually of Port-style wines, of its 55,000 cases/year dessert wine production. According to winemaker Michael Blaylock, its fastest growing products are Electra and Red Electra, made from Muscat grapes but with low alcohols of 4%-5%. "They are selling well across all age groups, to the younger crowd who don't have preconceived notions about wine, and older people like it because it's low alcohol," Blaylock said. Quady distributes nationally and exports, but has avoided the "port" name issue by calling its product "Starboard," labeled as a "California dessert wine."

SFWA president Prager says, "One of our goals is to educate the wine drinking public on the versatility of sweet and fortified wines, and make them part of everyday consumption rather than just for special occasions." Tasting attendees were given a recipe book for pairing SFWA member wines with dishes ranging from appetizers and salads to main courses and desserts.

In addition to Prager, SFWA board members include Stephen Pessagno of Pessagno Winery in Monterey County, Blaylock from Quady Winery, Julie Pedroncelli of J. Pedroncelli Winery in Sonoma County, and Richard Lenny of Prager Winery. The group's membership is gradually growing, dominated by California producers, and with one winery member from Illinois. Executive director Young has identified 362 California producers of sweet and fortified wines. In addition to education and marketing, the group and its website can bring together grape and wine sellers and buyers. Young noted that some producers have bulk port wine available for sale to wineries that may want to add a new product to their line-up. For information on SFWA, go to: sweetandfortifiedwine.org, or phone Young at (916) 258-7115.
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