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Monday Manifestos
How To Judge A Wine By Its Label

By Charles Olken

In recent weeks, there have been a couple of vinous dustups, mostly played out in the wine blogosphere, over statements that appear on wine labels. Needless to say, all of the participants in these debates got everything wrong, and it is time to correct the record. My primer on how to read a wine label follows.

The Winery Name: Every label has to have the name of the producer. But nothing in the laws that govern wine actually require those wines to be produced and bottled by the named entity on the label. Half of them do not exist, in point of fact. Or to be more precise, of the half that do not have a real brick and mortar premise behind the label, half of them are nothing more than paper entities that buy wine and bottle it for sale in rented facilities. And even the wineries that do exist often resort to this gambit and thus sell wine that they had virtually no contact with before it arrived in a shiny wine tanker truck. Obviously, you cannot trust a winery name to mean anything these days. My advice: choose a good wine critic, possibly Connoisseurs’ Guide, and listen to us.

The Appellation: Wines are required to be labeled with a geographic designation indicating where the grapes were sourced. That appellation can be as big geographically as “American” or as tiny as a single vineyard AVA like Cole Valley up in Mendocino. The other day, we encountered a wine label that boldly proclaimed “Estate” and then used the appellation, “California”. Andy Rooney could probably say something funny about this juxtaposition of the specific and the general. Obviously, you cannot trust an appellation to mean anything these days. My advice: choose a good wine critic, possibly Connoisseurs’ Guide, and listen to us.

Vintage Date: Now here is a label requirement that really means something—sort of. Under current rules, the date on the label means that 95% of the wine in the bottle came from the year designated. But there is a move afoot to allow a vintage date on wines containing just 85% of the wine from the year designated. If vintage dates do not mean anything, then you cannot trust them. My advice: choose a good wine critic, possibly Connoisseurs’ Guide, and listen to us.

The Percentage of Alcohol in the Wine: So much has been written about this topic recently that you know you cannot trust the alcohol level statements on wine labels. The Government allows labels to vary all over the place because the wineries say it is too hard to change labels every year, or every bottling of wines with the same label even though the wine in the bottle may be entirely different from the last batch that winery issued under the same label. My advice: choose a good wine critic, possibly Connoisseurs’ Guide, and listen to us.

Special Designations: Frankly, the world would be better place if we outlawed most of these designations like Reserve, Winemaker’s Selection, Estate, Old Vine. Established wineries do have a bit of history on their sides in this regard—except that so many of them now have Private Reserve, Reserve, Signature Series and Vineyard Designations, all of which are intended to suggest to you, the consumer, that something wonderful and out of the ordinary is contained in the bottle. None of these terms is regulated, and few of them can or ever will be defined by regulation. My advice: choose a good wine critic, possibly Connoisseurs’ Guide, and listen to us.

And All Kidding Aside: This exercise in ribaldry and cynicism does have a purpose. There are people in this world who judge wines by the label. No, not whether the family dog in on the label or whether they like the label design, although lord knows that wineries often go to great lengths to produce labels that they think have a message. No, I am talking about people who think all Russian River Valley Pinots or all Napa Valley Cabs or all Washington State Rieslings or Merlots are wonderful because so many are. And I am talking about the obverse as well: people who refuse to buy Napa Valley Cabs of any kind because some critic somewhere says they all taste like a cola drink. And, yes, I am talking about people who make buying decisions, often of expensive wines, based on the stated alcohol level on the label.

You cannot judge a book by its cover, and you cannot judge a wine by its label. It is time to stop listening to those who try to instruct us in generalities and lump the good with the bad and the bad with good. And despite the advice that some have given CGCW, even in the comments on this blog, to simply ignore the broad-brush naysayers and false prophets, we are going to continue to call them out because their bad advice and pseudo knowledge leads to bad decisions.

Here is how to read a label. Don’t. Taste the wine instead. Trust your own palate. And yes, listen to us.


Label Inconsistency
by Michael
Posted on:3/28/2011 9:22:02 PM
Yes there are some tricks that us winemakers and wineries can use to make a wine (through the label) more appealing bit there is nothing wrong with that. If the label is clean and conservative, odds are that the wine is of higher quality than some flashy eye-catcher. The one problem that I have with this article is that you say that many terms on labels mean nothing. For instance "Estate" means that at least 75% of the fruit used in the wine is grown in a vineyard that is owned and operated by the winery. In the US Reserve means little to nothing but in Spain or Italy Resere or Riserva or Reserva tell the consumer that the wine has been in Oak barrels for 18 months and has been aged for 2 years. This varies between countries but it is still a regulated term. The average consumer may know little about the logistics of wine labeling but most of the time it is a good reference point and guide. Look at the price too, don't expect a top class wine at $20
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/28/2011 9:49:13 PM

Michael, there is intentional exaggeration in this piece in order to point out the ways that some people use labels to bring about judgments about wine. If you have followed the discussion of alcohol levels, you will have seen comments that essentially dismiss all label statements when they are over 14%. And then the same folks say that all wines over 14% are unacceptable.

At the same time, a recent article dismissed a legendary AVA as inadequate, and even if unintentionally, denigrated virtually every wiine whose label bears that AVA designation.

The point of the piece is that a wine cannot be judged by its label. It is the basic principle by which Connoisseurs' Guide operates. Every attempt to undo that principle undermines the idea that wines are to be judged by taste.

In response
by Michael
Posted on:3/28/2011 10:02:07 PM
I do agree that wines should be judged on taste and not by the label and packaging. I tend to look for low alcohol wines but I also know that one of my favorite 2007 Pinot Noirs from the Willamette Valley comes in at over 14% abv. If a consumer does not have the opportunity to taste the wine before purchase a wine writer's review may help the buying decision but the consumer really needs to be familiar with that writers palate. I don't mean to criticize your article at all and want to thank you for contributing to the continual conversation of wine. Cheers and I'll make sure to keep reading your posts
by Pamela Heiligenthal
Posted on:3/28/2011 10:04:02 PM

Michael, I agree that labels provide information to make an informed decision, but I think consumers sometimes rely too heavily on the data and make irrational decisions.  Things like the vintage (I’m not gunna buy that crappy ’07 because that was a horrible year for XYZ region), or ABV (heck, that label says 14.8%, I don’t like high alcohol wine), or region (everyone knows that wine sucks from XYZ appellation). Don’t say you like it/don’t like it until you try it. Taste the wine, trust your palate.

Labels vs. Palates
by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:3/28/2011 11:24:26 PM

Pam, I could not have said it better myself. Thanks for dropping by.

A Modest Proposal
by Ken Payton
Posted on:3/29/2011 6:05:24 AM

Excellent article. I am in complete agreement with its spirit. But where I walk a different path is with respect to the 'truth is in the tasting' concept. Here's why: When I worked on the winemaking side of things in a small Santa Cruz Mtns winery, the winemaker was very conscientious. Through a very simple procedure he would accurately determine the alc percentage down to the tenth of a degree. He visited and intimately knew each of the vineyards from which he sourced. Whether from Bryan Babcock or Bates Ranch, he was even able to secure specific blocks. No wine was ever less that 100% Estate fruit unless otherwise specified. In short, he was fastidious about labeling. And he always took pains to explain to customers in the tasting room and in his winemaker notes that he went above and beyond skeletal labeling requirements.

Of course, as a buyer of small lots he had zero control over vineyard management, harvest dates, or pesticide/herbicide applications.  But he added far more supplementary info, fleshed out the spirit of label as a consumer aid.  On one occasion, when a particularly bad 1/2 ton of organic grapes arrived, he was sadly forced to abandon the 'made from organic grapes' designation when disallowed corrective measures to stabilize the juice had to be taken.

So, in my view, there is something to be said for rewarding such an ethic by buying their wines.  A 100% Cabernet from a specific AVA must taste different from one cut with Syrah. Same with an unadulterated Pinot vis-a-vis its doctored cousin. But a critic's tasting notes will not necessarily have any insight into this specific matter. Therefore it often happens that by taste alone a consumer, no less than the critic, advances the fortunes of a winery which willfully dissimulates.

In the absence of the wine industry petitioning TTB action, perhaps it is in a winery's commercial interest to draw greater attention to their 'above and beyond' approach to labeling. Cheers.

Labels Ought To Be Accurate
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/29/2011 8:24:43 AM

Ken, you make many excellent points. Labels ought to be accurate, and clearly, some wineries go out of their ways to make them that way.

But even if you and I could wave a magic wand and cause wine labels to function exactly as we would want, there will still exist folks who try to tell us to use the information on the label to judge the wine. It is that latter notion that offends me both as a critic and as a consumer.

No Subject
by Jim
Posted on:3/29/2011 1:14:12 PM

"At the same time, a recent article dismissed a legendary AVA as inadequate, and even if unintentionally, denigrated virtually every wiine whose label bears that AVA designation."

Thanks for shooting from the hip...with accuracy and style, More than some labels and critics do.

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