Certificate of Label Approval Available Online from TTB for Wineries and Winemakers

February 17, 2011

As part of my work in farm law, I have been closely involved in a new and developing area of agricultural law in Minnesota: vineyard and winery laws and regulations. While at the 7th Annual Minnesota Grapegrowers Association Cold Climate Conference, I attended a seminar hosted by the TTB about the new online Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) system.  It sounds like this system will make the process a bit easier during a very paper-intensive start-up process.

Federal law requires that all wine labels must be approved before being entered into commerce. Wine bottle labels are subject to many federal regulations, and compliance is checked by the TTB through its COLA process. For every single claim on a label, winemakers must be able to substantiate that claim with extensive records. As an example, the TTB representatives said that if there is a vintage date on a label, the winery must be able to track the wine from creation to bottle to prove that the vintage date is correct.

Previously, wine bottlers had only one choice to obtain label approval: a paper form.  While the paper COLA form is still available, the new online system has many advantages:

  • No mailing delays
  • Applications can be tracked at all times
  • Fewer rejected applications
  • The system is almost always accessible
  • Applicants will be allowed a grace period to correct label errors before an application is rejected
  • Corrected e-applications will be given priority consideration when resubmitted

The laws surrounding wine bottle labels are extensive and detailed. They are detailed in Part 4 of Title 27 in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Based upon the experience of the vintners at the seminar, you shouldn’t be surprised if your applications are judged rather inconsistently.  The TTB receives well over 100,000 applications for COLAs each year, and there appears to be a large element of human error in reviewing those applications.  In fact, the TTB employees at the seminar openly admitted that people couldn’t possibly review each label submitted and so applications are sampled for compliance.  Once samples are selected, reviewers may each have different interpretations of compliance with the law.  Some reported 10 or 15 labels being approved and one, nearly identical, being returned for errors multiple times.  The compliance checker in attendance at the conference warned attendees that if one label is rejected for errors, those same errors should be fixed in other labels as well.

It’s a complicated part of the wine selling process.  Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance from the TTB, your grapegrowers association, or your attorney about compliance.

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