Wine-store signs often deceptive, group says

A Connecticut-based consumer group said Monday it has alerted the state Department of Consumer Protection about what it called the widespread deceptive marketing tactics of liquor stores that post signs rating wines that they do not actually sell.

TruthInAdvertising.org, also known as TINA, urged liquor stores to remove deceptive signs from their premises immediately.

"The deceptive signage found in the sampling of stores may be indicative of a widespread issue," said Bonnie Patten, executive director of TINA, in a statement. "Liquor stores need to review their in-store marketing practices to make sure that shoppers are getting accurate information about the actual wine bottles on their shelves."

TINA said that in its investigation of 30 stores in Connecticut, 26 were found to have deceptive signs. This means nearly 90 percent of stores had signage promoting wine ratings for bottles containing vintages not actually for sale. In some cases, the vintage had not yet been rated so an older rating had been displayed.

"TINA.org found numerous instances where wines were rated lower than what the sign posted near it indicated and many that were not rated at all," the consumer group said.

TINA sent warning letters to each of the 26 stores found to have misrepresented which vintages were for sale, with most of them clustered in the Branford-New Haven area. None from southeastern Connecticut was included.

“The Department of Consumer Protection has received the complaint from TINA.org regarding wine ratings displayed next to bottles on store shelves. We are in the process of reviewing the information sent to us in accordance with our complaint process. We always encourage consumers to read information, ratings, and labels carefully while shopping. If consumers have questions about ratings or labels, we encourage having a conversation with store staff before making a purchase.”

A spokeswoman for the Consumer Protection department said staff there is reviewing TINA's complaint.

"We always encourage consumers to read information, ratings, and labels carefully while shopping," said spokeswoman Lora Rae Anderson in an email response to The Day seeking comment. "If consumers have questions about ratings or labels, we encourage having a conversation with store staff before making a purchase.”

A spokesperson for the Connecticut Package Stores Association could not immediately be reached for comment.

Cheryl Stanley, a wine afficionado who teaches at Cornell University, was quoted by TINA as saying wine ratings shift from year to year even for the same wineries based on climatic conditions and changing growing tactics.

"Vintages on labels mean something,” she said in a story written by TINA.

TINA cited a pinot noire whose rating went from a 92 (outstanding) to an 88 (very good) in just one season. Yet the high rating in 2013 was used to promote a 2014 vintage at a store in Fairfield, the organization said.

But TINA said some wine stores, suche as The Cork Shop in Branford, seem to get it. Co-owner Sapan Patel, who bought the store late last year, told the organization that he initially found about a quarter of the former owners' signs were for bottles not on the shelves, TINA said, so he removed virtually all signs to start afresh.

“We don’t want the customer confused,” Patel told TINA.

But TINA found sometimes the signs were causing more than confusion; they did not reflect tasting notes actually written by experts published by Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits and Beverage Dynamics, among other sites cited in stores.

Even larger wine sellers such as Costco and BJ's were not immune from problems, according to TINA, which cited the two for having signs rating recent vintages rather than wines actually for sale.

TINA suggested that consumers always check the vintages listed on store signs to ensure they are buying the wine they expected.

In a letter to Consumer Protection Commissioner Jonathan A. Harris, Laura Smith, TINA's law director, and Patten, the organization's executive director, urged action to protect buyers from being misled.

"This deceptive marketing tactic is widespread and must be addressed on a state-wide basis," the letter said.

l.howard@theday.com

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