This Matter of California Wine Labels

Wine labels are an interesting phenomenon. There are two forces governing them. First, there’s the marketing arm of the winery which, hopefully, is in tune with what the consumer wants and gives it to them. Secondly, there is the government, better known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF). These two are frequently at odds with each other and sometimes for good rea­son.

Because of the competition in the California wine industry, many wineries are constantly battling to keep up. They will try to stand out in the crowd by coming up with different names or unusual graph­ics to grab the attention of the con­sumer.

Just what is the law governing wine labels? It seems that not even the BATF knows for sure. For a beginning explanation let’s start at the top.

THE VINTAGE: If a vintage date appears on the label, 95% of the grapes used for that wine must of come from that year’s harvest. The 5% leeway allows the wine-maker to blend together vintages and tailor a wine to his desires. A winery must keep scrupulous records and surrender them to a BATF agent for inspection. And, it doesn’t pay to try and pull a fast one because unless there is a deva­statingly bad vintage you won’t get much mileage out of falsification of a vintage.

THE APPELLATION: An ap­pellation of origin must appear on the label telling where the grapes came from. It can be as general as California or American; or it can be as specific as Edna Valley, Carne­ros or Paso Robles. Whatever it says, 95% of the grapes must have come from the area men­tioned. And, furthermore, the size of the type used for the appellation cannot be more than half the size of the type used for the name of the wine. What is really typical, when there is a discrepancy, is that the BATF tells you the size you need in millimeters. But print­ers type is sized by points; no one has worked out a conversion!

THE WINE: With all this picky, picky, picky on the above two regulations you’d think they would really clamp down on the most important part, right? Not so! If the name of the wine appears as a varietal grape, i.e. Chardonnay, only 75% of the grapes have to be of that varietal. The rest can be anything you wanted to put in there. Any grape, that is.

If the wine is a blend of several grapes, you can make up a name, like Meatball Red. You are not re­quired to disclose the grapes used in the blend (WOMC members have access to that information through the newsletter), though you are still bound by the vintage and appellation rules.

This was the first in a two part series on California labeling. Look to a future newsletter for the dis­cussion on alcohol content and naming your winery.

P.K. Jr.


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