In a startling decision that has sparked the ire of alcoho industry critics, the federal government is allowing a California vintner to tell consumers about potential health benefits of drinking wine.
Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley said it would soon begin production of 100,000 tags to be placed on the necks of its wine bottles, with a six-paragraph excerpt from a "60 Minutes" program that includes the claim that moderate drinking of red wine "reduces the risk of heart disease."
The approval for the tags came last week from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the agency in the Treasury Department that regulates alcohol producers, and seems to end a contentious yearlong squabble between the bureau and winemakers over use of the "60 Minutes" material.
"We see this more as a positive event for the industry, rather than just for us. We might get a short-term blip in sales, but there's nothing about this that's proprietary," said Walter Klenz, president of Beringer.
Mr. Klenz said Beringer was willingly sharing its information with other wineries, who are now gearing up to follow Beringer into what almost certainly will be a new era in alcohol advertising.
"This isn't just for [Beringer] but for all wineries," said John DeLuca, president of the Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based trade group. "This is the foundation for how we can disseminate information to the public and to policy-makers -- not only from the '60 Minutes' broadcast but on scientific material we're sure is still to come."
Consumer advocate groups responded with anger to the bureau's decision and were considering ways to oppose the ruling.
"I look at this sadly and a bit angrily and with a lot of questions," said Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a Los Angeles physician and director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "Who looked at this research? Who followed it and reviewed it?"
After the television program aired almost a year ago, supermarket sales of red wine jumped more than 40 percent; wineries saw the same phenomenon after the show was rerun this summer.
Several wineries attempted to include excerpts from the show and other studies on alcohol and health in their advertisements and promotions, only to run up against what had seemed to be a brick wall at the Treasury agency.
In one instance, the alcohol bureau ordered tiny Leeward Winery Ventura, Calif., to recall a newsletter in which its winemaker discussed the TV program.
Some vintners say the alcohol bureau was "softening and backing down" from its longtime policy of prohibiting alcohol producers' use of "therapeutic or curative" claims for their products.
That policy regards all claims of therapeutic benefits of alcohol as "inherently misleading and particularly deceptive in view of the possible social effect of encouraging the consumption of alcoholic beverages" by people at risk of addiction or other physical harm.
But Tom Hill, a spokesman for the bureau, said Beringer's tag was approved because it "meets the bureau's guidelines, that ++ the information has to be truthful, can't be misleading. . . . They didn't just take the parts that were glowing about red wine-drinking and leave out parts that drinking may be harmful."
Mr. Hill said the agency thought the bottle tag "gives the consumer enough information to make an intelligent choice." He said the agency would not give blanket approval to other wineries seeking to use the excerpts, or similar claims, but would continue to evaluate each case singly.