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.