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09.27.2005

Truth in Labeling Wine

Some wine lovers I know piss and moan a bit about the complicated French labelling system for their wines. I've even been known to gripe a bit about the most extreme cases of bizarre and undigestible labeling of wines that seem to have everything on them except the information you really want to know. The unspoken complaint that underlies most of this whining, mine included, is generally "why can't they be more like the United States?" We've got everything pretty much spelled out on our labels, right?

Wrong.

If French wine labels are unpronounceable and require a knowledge of geography, geology, and geopolitical changes in the 19th and 20th century, California wine labels are vague, misleading or even lying, and obfuscating. Perhaps you've heard that a Merlot only needs to contain 75% Merlot to be labeled as such? Perhaps you've also heard that the restrictions on vintage labeling may be relaxed so that not only does a wine not need to contain 100% of the varietal, it doesn't even need to contain 100% of the grapes harvested in that year!

While most winemakers who make less than 10,000 cases per year wouldn't be caught dead blending 20% Syrah into their Pinot Noir, the fact that the huge winemaking companies can do this without putting anything about it on their label seems a bit shocking when you think about it. Not because it's some huge scandal -- hell if it makes their wine taste better, then why not -- but because wine lovers like to know what they are drinking, and be able to place their experience of a wine in a context of a lifelong education about the stuff. We want to know, for instance, what Pinot Noir reall tastes like, and be able to recognize that taste. Getting a bunch of Syrah mixed up in there can really throw off our expectations.

Eric Asimov had a nice piece in last weeks New York Times about this subject. I encourage you to read it, if only to become a more informed consumer. I learned a bunch of things from it. Chiefly that there is a pretty big difference between labeling laws in Oregon and California. Check it out.

Comments (11)

09.27.05 at 10:48 AM

Being some what libertarian, I say there should be no labeling laws outside alcohol. If the market wants to know that there is 20% Sarah in their Pinot Noir, then it is in the best interest of the wine maker to put that on the label, or provide it on their web site. It could be verified by a 3rd party. Just as investment returns are verified by AIMR (and that's an industry that dwarfs wine).

Personally I want as much information about the wine as possible and find myself drawn to the wine makers that provide it. That's good marketing on their part.

At this point I don't think there is a good way to justify the French wine laws. It only preserves the heritage of old Chateau. This Bourgeois attitude is becoming increasingly bad for French business.

What I don't understand is why there isn't a movement to abandon the laws, like Super Tuscans in Italy. If a Bordeaux wine maker throws Sarah in with his cab, is he going to be fined? Super Bordeaux anyone? (the crowd gasps)

Lenn wrote:
09.27.05 at 10:59 AM

I reviewed three red wines from the same winery this weekend. Every single wine had the same back label. It read (I'm paraphrasing becuase I don't have have it in front of me):

"...this wine spent 24 months in new French Oak and offers cherry, plum, smoky oak and cassis accented by coffee flavors"

(or something like that)

I'm hoping it was just a labeling mistake...because if it's not, it just goes to show how useless label descriptions can be. One wine was a 99 merlot, one was a 00 meritage blend and the other was an 01 cabernet sauvignon.

They did not taste a like...so they certainly shouldn't have the same "tasting notes from the winemaker", right?

HugeJ wrote:
09.27.05 at 12:22 PM

First, I think that the varietal designation on the label is there to help 'categorize' a wine (otherwise most would be blended red or blended white). Whether a Merlot has 10% or 5% Malbec is not of much importance to me, as its still fundamentally a Merlot and that helps me with my buying decision. Same with the vintage requirement, IMO.

Second, I don't think back labels can generally provide enough room for any real info. If you want the scoop on French vs. American oak use or the harvest dates or brix, etc then you should look at the wineries website for current sell sheets. They will tell you almost all you need to know. Granted, that doesn't help an impulse buying decision in Safeway....

/huge

US labeling laws aren't perfect, but wineries always have the option of providing more (or less) detail if it helps consumers' decisions. To imply that we're not much better than France is pretty unfair.

Steve-o wrote:
09.27.05 at 12:38 PM

5%-10% Malbec in your Merlot, fine. What about 25%? Is that ok? Where do you draw the line?

Moreover, who does it really hurt if you require a winery to indicate that their wine has several varietals in it?

Anonymous wrote:
09.27.05 at 1:45 PM

For anyone that's interested, here's a link to a government brochure for wine producers describing exactly what has to be on a wine label in the USA for it to be legal.

http://www.ttb.gov/publications/alctob_pub/p51901.pdf

Alder wrote:
09.27.05 at 2:22 PM

I tend to agree about back labels. Occasionally I find interesting tidbits there, but mostly if I want to know about a wine I look it up online. The tasting notes on most wines, as has been pointed out, are completely useless.

Alder wrote:
09.27.05 at 2:30 PM

Christopher,

I don't necessarily agree with your comments about labeling, mostly because free market dynamics are dependent upon information, and much of the wine buying populace is not educated, but your last question is a good one. I do know some producers in the Rhone who have given up the Chateauneuf-du-Pape designation rather than change what they felt was the appropriate blend of their wines, but you would expect there to be more of this, especially in Bordeaux. I wonder if this has anything to do with the negociant/distribution system. Would these winemakers just be unable to find distribution for their wines if they didn't have AOC designations? Anyone know?

Doug wrote:
09.27.05 at 3:58 PM

What you seem to be saying is: Wine drinkers should consider the information and story behind the wine as important as the brand. In other words, frequent the wineries willing to be transparent about where the grapes came from, when they were harvested, actual percentages in the final blend, the barrel mix, and for those interested: the juice analysis, processing steps, tasting notes, and other information that can be compared vintage-to-vintage. Making this info accessible on the Web (using the label to point to the Web site) encourages an informed wine purchase decision.

Alder wrote:
09.27.05 at 4:05 PM

Nicely put Doug. Yes, that is precisely how I feel.

Alder

09.27.05 at 6:10 PM

I didn't know that about producers in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. How do they label their wine? Cote du Rhone Villages?

You recently posted that the general wine buying public is going for labels with furry animals on them. I will probably get some flak for this, because us California consumers have been taught to care what the varietal is, but in a lot of ways most consumers shouldn't care. Its red and dry. Does the blend really matter at that level?

Personally I wish we would see more blends in California. I rarely want 100% Cabernet Franc even if Boeger keeps pawning it off to their wine club.

09.27.05 at 6:17 PM

I just want to make one other quick point.

I agree with Doug, but the current laws don't prohibit this, they just don't require it. It might be an advantage for a winery if they provide this information.

People like Alder are in a position to start lobbying for this type of labeling. Start with the wineries, not the legislature.

cheers,

christopher

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