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Federal labels backlog costing LI vintners

The labels at Jamesport Vineyards in Jamesport that

The labels at Jamesport Vineyards in Jamesport that took seven months to get approved. (June 1, 2011) Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

Long Island winemakers are having to wait months instead of days for federal approval for new labels on wines.

"I had accounts presold," said Ron Goerler Jr., president of the Long Island Wine Council and owner of Jamesport Vineyards, who waited almost four months to label about 800 cases of two new blends. "If I had had them [the labels] two months ago, I would have had the product already out the door."

The approval process for new wine labels once took 48 hours to a little over a week when submitted online to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, but some frustrated vintners say that the turnaround time has increased over the last year, taking between six weeks to about four months in Goerler's case, which was resolved last week. This year, about 10 wineries have had to wait longer than usual for approval of their labels, he said.

At the root of the backlog is a significant increase in applications for label approval of alcoholic beverages, which almost doubled from 69,000 in 1999 to 132,595 in 2010, according to the agency. At the same time, the agency, which has seen its staffing levels decrease over the years, has had to balance that duty with its other major responsibility: collecting some $24 billion in federal excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco.

In February, the agency noted the increase of approval requests and recommended on its website allowing for a 90-day review process.

"Ensuring that industry members are properly permitted and paying their taxes is every bit as important as ensuring that labels are both accurate and issued quickly," said Alcohol and Tobacco spokesman Tom Hogue. "Both of these things are necessary to ensuring industry members can compete to the best of their abilities on a level playing field."

Agency employees evaluate each application to make sure the labels are accurate and contain the required information and warning labels.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said he has dedicated a staff person in his Washington, D.C., office to work with Long Island wineries and the agency to help quickly resolve delays. He attributed the backlog partly to a significant growth in wineries and microbreweries.

In 2007 and 2008, the agency was authorized to have up to 544 full-time positions. From 2009 through 2011, 535 full-time positions were authorized. The number drops to 502 in 2012.

"I don't blame the department's people working there because they are doing the best job they can," said Jim Waters, owner of Waters Crest in Cutchogue. "But the people upstairs need to look at this and understand the ramifications."

Last year, Waters submitted an application to label his Sauvignon Blanc and the process, which included making changes required by the agency, took 12 days. This year, he applied for label approval for a rosé at the end of March and he is still waiting, he said, keeping 115 cases out of the marketplace and disappointing 240 members of his wine club. He estimates the delay put a 10 percent to 15 percent dent in his sales last month.

The agency spokesman said the bureau does get it.

"This, in the end, is about jobs and we want to make sure we help these people as much as we can," Hogue said.

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