March 8-9 2023  |  Jacob K Javits Convention Center, New York

US Label Approval

Overview

Often, the essence of a brand’s identity is expressed in the wine’s label. A great deal of thought usually goes into creating a visually memorable label. However, there are several key label approval requirements for wines destined for the US market. Understanding these requirements makes the job of getting your labels approved easier and quicker. Perhaps even more importantly it will demonstrate to potential importer and distributor partners that you under- stand the US compliance environment and that you are ready and committed to do business in  this complex yet potentially rewarding market.

Table of Contents

The Fundamentals of US labels

One very important requirement for a wine to be imported into the United States is that it must have a label that has been approved by the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) of the Department of the Treasury. Like most government processes, if the rules and procedures are followed precisely, the label approval process is straight for ward and can even be fairly quick. If not, the process will involve multiple extra steps and the label may never get approved. This fact sheet explains the primary things to do and not to do when seeking a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) from the TTB for importation.

Key Points to Remember

  • If the wine bottle has only one label, all of the required information must appear on that label, called the brand label.
  • If there are two or more labels, it is possible to divide the required information among them—some on the eye-catching front label, some on the back label full of text, and possibly elsewhere on the bottle.
  • The information on the labels must be accurate (within stated tolerance limits, for some items)
  • No forbidden information or images can appear on the labels or bottle
  • The information must all be in English, except for names (businesses, places, grape varieties, etc.).

Temporary Labels for Sending Samples

For a winery seeking importation into the U.S., it is usually nec- essary to send samples to potential importers or to reviewers, competitions, and trade shows that will give your wine exposure. Without a label, however, this would be illegal—and you can’t get a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) until after you have an im- porter. The TTB’s solution is the COLA waiver, which grants per- mission to ship wines to specific people or companies before a commercial label has been approved.

Once the COLA waiver is received, the samples can be shipped. Each bottle must be labeled with the phrase “For Sample Purposes Only—Not For Sale,” along with the Government Warning and the sulfite declaration, and the appropriate taxes must be paid. More
details are available here at the TTB website.

Shipping to the Show

Exhibitors at Vinexpo America who take advantage of the services provided by W&S Logistics will have the COLA waiver completed as part of their service. It is strongly advised that exhibitors use W&S Logistics to ship wines destined for Vinexpo America as they are extremely proficient in all aspects of getting your wines to the event.

Label Information for Wines Imported to the U.S.

Mandatory Information

In general, the placement of the information is not important, but all the mandatory information must be present somewhere.

  • Brand This may be the winery name or a proprietary name for marketing purposes.
  • Class and type (must appear on the same label as the brand name). For almost all imported wines, the basic choices would be “Table Wine” (for alcohol be- tween 7% and 14%), “Dessert Wine” (for alcohol above 14%), “White Wine,” “Rosé Wine,” “Pink Wine,” “Red Wine,” or “Sparkling Wine.” Technically, grape variety names and some well-known appellations or denominations of origin are acceptable as class and type by themselves, but it’s best to include one of the earlier phrases on the label to be safe.
  • Country of origin. A label must name the country where the wine was made, with wording such as “Product of Greece” or “Produced in Portugal.”
  • Alcohol The percentage of alcohol must be stated, such as “13.5% alc. by vol.” The stated content must be accurate within ± 1.5% for wines up to 14% and within ± 1% for higher-alcohol wines, and in any case must be on the cor- rect side of the 14% abv level where the tax levy changes.
  • A label must include “Imported by” followed by the name of the im- porter or agent and the city and state where they are located. Additional infor- mation must be provided if the wine is blended or bottled after export from the country of origin.
  • Net contents. The liquid volume of wine must be stated on a label. This can be omitted if it is embossed on or stamped into the bottle
  • Sulfite A wine with 10 ppm or more of sulfur dioxide must generally state “Contains Sulfites” on a label.
  • Health warning. The exact wording of the Government Warning about the hazards of alcohol is mandatory on a label. Illustration of labeling for an imported wine.
 
 
Illustration of labeling for an imported wine.
 
Note that there are details about how the mandatory information must appear on the label. In general, the type size used must be at least 2 millimeters high. Bottles of 187 ml or less can use smaller type (1 mm high), and larger letters may be required for large-for- mat bottles. The various pieces of information must stand alone and must be easily readable. These rules are described in the TTB’s Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM).
 
 
 

Tip

For your first time working with the TTB, it might be a good idea to put all the mandatory information on a back label. You can still duplicate some of
it on the front label, too, but this way, nothing will be missing. The back label— containing the brand name, class, and type—will be the one designated as the brand label in the COLA application.

Organic Labeling

USDA organic requirements are specific and strict when it comes to wine labels using the term “organic” or especially “organic wine” in the United States. Imported wines that are certified organic in their home countries should work with their certifying body to get the documentation they will need to submit to the TTB as proof of their organic status. The exact terms used on a wine label vary de- pending on the extent of organic compliance, such as:

  • 100% Organic Wine” contains only organic grapes and pro- cessing aids with no added sulfites.
  • Organic Wine” contains at least 95% organic ingredients with no added sulfites.
  • Made with Organic Grapes” contains at least 70% organic grapes and may contain up to 100 ppm of sulfites.
  • Made with % Organic and % Non-Organic Grapes” contains less than 70% organic grapes and up to 100 ppm of sulfites.

What’s Not Allowed on a Wine Label

Inaccurate information and optional terms that the wine does not qualify for are not allowed on labels. In addition, U.S. labeling laws and TTB policies forbid, or at least frown on, certain other items on wine labels, including the following:

  • Misleading brand A brand name will be rejected if it is considered misleading to the public. For example, the brand name cannot give the impression that the wine is from somewhere different than its actual origin or was barrel aged when it was not.
  • Scandalous images or  statements. The TTB protects the U.S. public from wine labels that some people might find disturbing. What does that mean exactly? Although this is a gray area, avoid anything questionable on your label. Images featuring nudity are a good example, and even if widely considered works of art, these will likely be rejected.
  • Health Don’t make any statements that undermine the Government Warning by saying alcohol consumption might be good for people.

For More In-Depth Learning

Episode 1: U.S. Wine Market Structure: Vinexpo video tutorial on label compliance, beginning after minute 27.

TTB Wine Labeling Resource Documents: Webpage with list of useful links.

TTB What You Should Know About Grape Wine Labels: 2-page brochure with annotated example of wine label.

TTB Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM): The Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM) is a 60-page publication from the TTB (U.S. Tax & Trade Bureau) that summarizes the labeling requirements for wine sold in the United States, with examples of different label formats.
“Sample Wine Labels” (from the BAM), complete with images.

TTB Organic Wine Labeling Guide: 7-page document with examples of accept- able and unacceptable labels.

TTB Information Sheet on Organic Labeling Policies: 1-page webpage summa- rizing the labeling and the allowable percentage statements for wines contain- ing organic and non-organic ingredients.

List of Allowable Changes to Approved Labels: As the name implies, a list of allowable changes that can be made to already approved labels.

For anyone wanting to read more in-depth books on success strategies for en- tering the US market or see a list of current wine & spirits industry newsletters where you can access US market data, please consult the Resources Directory found here.

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