Truth in Labeling, Sometimes and Always

You cannot be around wine very long without someone commenting on the labels. Luckily for me, I am around wine a lot. Unluckily for me, I hear the label discussion all the time.

It goes like this: Who can read this damn thing and make any sense of it at all? Long words, abbreviations, references to places no one ever heard of, and not a mention at all as to what grapes are in the bottle. 

Who would you choose as the country with some of the worst wine labels in the world when it comes to communicating information about what is in the bottle?  It’s not Germany, Italy, France or Spain, which are probably labels that drive you crazy, maybe to the point of avoidance. And it’s not Australia, Argentina or Chile, nor is it one of those countries from Eastern Europe, like Romania or Hungary.

The world’s worst wine labels, when it comes to disclosing information, are from … the United States. Sorry if that dings your national pride. But it is true. Our labels tell us practically nothing. Conversely, when you know what to look for on some other country’s wine labels, you will learn just about everything you need to know about the wine except what it smells and tastes like, which are subjective anyway.

For those pieces of information about any wine, you must pop the cork or unscrew the cap.

America’s wine labels do provide some information. We know the name of the winery, and if you know the producer, you can make some informed purchasing decisions. Our wineries’ labels provide the year the grapes were picked, known as the vintage. If you know anything about the weather history in other parts of the country, then you’ve got that going for you. But the odds of you knowing the average diurnal swing in temperature in San Luis Obispo County, California in August 2008 are a bit remote.

Our wineries tell you the primary grape varietal, or the blend of the main grapes used in the mix. Mostly. In the good ol’ U.S. of A., when the name of a grape is the main notation on the label, the winemaker has to use at least 75 percent of that grape in the mix. That means you may be a great lover of pinot noir, and when you pick up a bottle of a wine marked with that grape varietal, it has to be ¾ that grape by content. But that leaves a lot of wiggle room for the winemaker. He is able to add just about any other grape, or grapes, he wishes, up to 25 percent of the total by volume.

This can be disconcerting if you like and understand pinot noir. You may be getting quite a bit of something else, or several somethings else. And you won’t know unless the winemaker wishes to disclose his blend on the back label. By the way, the back label has no legal significance. A back label cannot lie about the contents, but it does not have to communicate anything of substance. That’s why most of the back labels on wine bottles are written by marketing folks, not the winemaker.

Let’s move on to the location where the grapes were grown and harvested. The bigger the geography noted on the label, say, California, the more latitude the winemaker has. In smaller areas, then the winemakers are pinned down a bit more. If the winemaker says the wine is from the Oak Knoll District in Napa then 85 percent of the grapes have to have been grown in that district. And then ¾ of the grapes have to be the varietal shown on the label. That leaves the possibility of 25 percent of the grapes in the bottle are not the grape you wanted, and maybe 15 percent of the grapes are not from where you were told they are from. 

If the wine label says the appellation is Sonoma Coast, that designation runs from Mendocino, California all the way down to Carneros. The area included in the Sonoma Coast appellation is more than 500,000 acres. Do you think the climate and soil type at one end of this vast area have anything in common with the same features in the other end? I mean, outside of the fact that they are all in California.

Since I brought up Carneros, how convenient, the Carneros region is a more tightly defined area, but it covers two counties. The wines that emanate from Carneros Napa are of a different style than the Sonoma County Carneros wines. But they are all Carneros on the label.

Another piece of information that is important on the label is the alcohol content by volume. However, even that number may be off. Actually it may be a lot off. The Federal Government allows for a 1 percent variance of alcohol from the stated number printed on the label. That’s quite a bit of latitude.

Also factor in that if the wine reaches an alcohol-by-volume level approaching more than 15 percent, then it is taxed at a higher level. It is considered a fortified wine, which has a higher tax. So winemakers who make still wines with alcohols near the limit tend to mark the alcohol down.

In fairness to winemakers, the alcohol levels are determined before the wines are bottled, and from that time until the bottling, a certain amount of alcohol evaporation takes place or is expected to take place. Maybe the rate of evaporation is not what the winemaker predicts. This can account for many wines having actual higher levels of alcohol in the wine than is stated on the label.

The looseness of the information proffered on American labels is in some contrast to what goes on in Europe, but my guess is that because the European labels are in a different language from a faraway, unfamiliar place, we tend to get confused by the information.

German wines provide important information on the way the grapes were picked, individually or in bunches, and they also offer solid knowledge of the levels of dryness or sweetness that the wine exhibits.

French wines will tell you precisely where the grapes came from and with that knowledge you will know what grapes are in the wine.

Spanish wines tell you the specific place where the harvest took place, and, like the French, then you know what grapes are in the wine.   

Importantly, and the American wine industry is never going to go with this, throughout the European wine industry, there are independent review boards that taste all the wines from specific areas, determining that the wines reflect the historic nature of the place, and that the grapes are in accordance with the laws of the area. Yes, dear Americans, there are laws in Europe telling the vineyard owner and the winery what can be grown, where it can be grown, and how it is to be treated in the vinification process. Many such review boards, like the one in the Champagne region of France, will even tell the winery when harvest can begin (and not a moment before), when the harvest must end (and not a moment after), and whether the bottle of wine can carry a vintage designation or not.

That particular system of government control and oversight will never work in America. We are still too fond of all or our freedoms, and rightly so.

Yet, today’s consumers are demanding more information from the products they use. If the wineries don’t, or won’t, provide it, then the government will have no choice but to inflict labeling standards. And we all know how that turns out.

Wine is not alone in this issue out there. Spirits and beers also face a demanding consumer base that wants to know what’s in it, where did it come from, and what processes did it experience on the way to the shelf.

Some consumer-packaging activist groups are even demanding nutritional information labels. Most wines share the same cholesterol levels (0), same carbohydrates (1.3 grams – 2.9 grams/single serving), same fat (0), and pretty much the same sodium levels (8.5 milligrams/single serving), so a new label may be created that would be the same for just about every wine on the shelf. A true waste of regulation and precious space on the bottle.  

I hope the American wine industry sees fit to disclose all the grape contents and all the places of origin of the raw material. Not certain what the holdup is. We already like the product. And most folks would not read the fine print anyway. But there are those of us who just want to know what we are drinking and where it is from.   

Don’t want to change how it is made. Only in how its pedigree is presented to us.

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