Here’s your government in action: Fifty-one new grapes are set to join the exclusive group of grape varietals that winemakers can put on their bottle labels.

Move over, merlot and zinfandel. Here come Godello, Mustang, Jupiter, King of the North, Diana, Pinot Bianco and By George. At least two made-in-Minnesota, cold-weather-tolerant grapes made the cut: Petite Pearl and Chisago.

It turns out wine labels are another place where Washington decides what you can and can’t say. An agency I had never heard of before, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), must approve anything on the labels of American wines that describes the origin and varietal of the grapes that went into them.

“The idea behind it is basically to protect the consumer,” said Tom Hogue, a spokesman for the agency. “We don’t want someone to make something up, throw it on the label and confuse people.”

In 2012, an Associated Press writer called the TTB “one of the federal government’s least-known and most peculiar corners.” With 470 employees and a budget of $100 million, the TTB checks for weird substances in cigarettes and booze, collects taxes on both and simultaneously regulates manufacturers and promotes their industries.

Hogue explained to me some of the quirks with federal oversight of alcohol marketing. The Food and Drug Administration regulates wine with less than 7 percent alcohol.

“Distilled spirits are our area,” he said. “With beer, if it’s a malt beverage made with malted barley and hops, it’s ours. If it’s sorghum and hops, it’s FDA’s.”

The division of duties doesn’t really make any sense, but that’s often the case with regulation, especially of alcohol.

Hard cider and mead — wine made from honey — are also regulated by the TTB.

For the labels they slap on bottles, vintners get to choose the pictures of a leaping lizard or ivied castle or the like. Just about everything else comes under the scrutiny of the TTB. Wineries have to list basics: the alcohol content, presence of sulfites, health warning, address. They also can list a wine-growing region, but that has to be an approved “American viticultural area.” (Minnesota has two.)

They must send their labels to Washington for approval, after which they’re added to a public database where consumers can look them up. Kyle Peterson of WineHaven, which is behind the Chisago grape, and Tom Plocher, the grape breeder who invented Petite Pearl, said the process wasn’t overly arduous.

If all of the petitions to the grape club are accepted, the total approved American wine varietals will total 398. That’s likely to rise. WineHaven has another grape varietal, Nokomis, that’s been around since 2013 but hasn’t yet made the TTB list.

Just in case you think the TTB doesn’t take its wine labels seriously, witness the ordeal of a California man named Jeffry Hill.

Hill sold wine in bottles and bulk, along with grape juice, and allegedly claimed the grapes came from Napa Valley, even though they didn’t. He also sold cabernet sauvignon that really wasn’t, authorities said.

There’s no allegation that anyone was poisoned, or spit out the wine. Nevertheless, a grand jury indicted Hill on suspicion of selling $1.5 million of “fraudulently mislabeled wine, grape juice, or wine products,” according to a Justice Department news release.

On Nov. 2, federal agents arrested Hill in a suburb of Fresno and charged him with four counts of mail fraud and wire fraud. Each charge is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.