Obscure Federal Database of Wine Labels Used to Solve Mysterious Disappearance of Award-Winning Wine

A recent investigation by The Arizona Republic utilized a little-known federal database of wine, beer and spirit labels to help solve the mysterious disappearance of an award-winning wine. 

Nearly a year after a wine named "Death" from John McLoughlin's Bitter Creek Cellars won the top honors of the 2013 Arizona Republic Wine Competition, the wine had still not been released to the public, prompting The Republic to ask McLoughlin why. According to McLoughlin, instead of releasing the award-winning wine as planned, he instead sold it on the bulk market to raise quick cash to repair a well on his vineyard.  However, when McLoughlin refused to identify the buyer of the wine, The Republic used a little-known source of public records to track it down and check McLoughin's claim. According to The Republic:

McLoughlin initially said he would not disclose the name of the winery because the owners didn't want it known that they don't make their own wine.

The Republic found the winery that bought the medal-winner by combing through a registry of labels approved by the federal Department of the Treasury. McLoughlin confirmed the purchase in a subsequent interview.

The wine was dubbed Heather's Bell Rock Red in December and has been sold at the Made in Arizona gift store and wine shop along the main highway through the tourist magnet of Sedona. And the co-owner of the shop had a version of the events that differed from McLoughlin's account.

The Republic found the missing wine with a search of the U.S. Department of the Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) Public COLA Registry (Certificates of Label Approval). The registry allows the public to search for wine, beer and spirit labels applied for by alcoholic beverage manufacturers and approved by the TTB. The TTB checks to make sure that labels adhere to federal regulations, such as making sure they contain health warning statements and use the proper legal descriptions of different alcoholic beverage types, such as "bourbon" or "Scotch". For each label, the registry contains the applications, details of their approval, and images of the label designs.  

For example, the application for McLoughlin's "Heather's Bell Rock Red" is available here (click the Printable Version link for the detailed view), and even includes an image of the label design:

After tracking down the wine at the Sedona gift shop, The Republic had a laboratory analysis conducted on the wine and found it was different from a bottle of the award-winning wine left over from the competition, raising more questions about McLoughlin's account. Read more in The Republic's story here.