Thurmond thwarts ‘healthy’ wine labels

Tuesday, March 24, 1998

A battle over wine labels and free speech is brewing as California vintners insist they have the right to inform the American public about the healthy effects of moderate wine consumption.

However, they face a formidable obstacle–longtime alcohol foe Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.

Thurmond was successful recently in blocking requests by San Francisco's Wine Institute and Santa Rosa's Laurel Glen Vineyards. The senator threatened legislation that would strip the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms of its authority to review alcohol labels after learning the agency was about to approve the requests last week.

An ATF spokesman said no final decision has been made on the health labels.

Thurmond also has responded with legislation not yet finalized that would require current alcohol warning labels to be more prominently displayed. The senator's press secretary, John DeCrosta, said that “the legislation would make the warning labels more prominent and the language more explicit.”

The wine industry insists the labels are protected speech. Patrick Campbell, the owner of Laurel Glen Vineyards, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that he would probably sue if his label request was denied. “It is a matter of free speech, because it has been determined the label is truthful and it is not misleading. Therefore, the agency doesn't have any authority to deny it,” he told the paper.

Wendell Lee, legal counsel for the Wine Institute, explained his group's position: “The label proposed by the Wine Institute is straightforward. It merely directs consumers to the federal government's dietary guidelines. The message on the label is the purest form of free speech imaginable and does not have any marketing effect.

“This label does not affect drinking patterns. It has been approved by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention after extensive surveying,” Lee said.

However, DeCrosta disagrees and discounts the vintners' free-speech claims. He said: “The courts have never held that commercial speech is entitled to the same level of protection as political speech. Furthermore, while the wine industry has an interest in the labels that go on products, what goes on those bottles is subject to government approval. The government has a duty to make sure that the language on the wine bottles is responsible.”

DeCrosta said Thurmond's office is “currently reviewing the wine label legislation to decide whether or not to introduce it, but there is no specific timetable on when a decision will be made.”