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© 1999 JDM Enterprises
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by Jerry D. Mead

  A reader recently wrote, disappointed because she couldn't find her favorite winery. The address on the bottle said Napa Valley, but when she wanted to visit it was nowhere to be found.

    That's because the winery she was looking for isn't a winery at all, it's simply a brand owned by an international conglomerate that also sells vodka and Tequila, and happens to own a real winery with a bottling line in Napa Valley.

    Deceptive marketing? Only if you don't understand how wine has been labeled and marketed for at least the last 65 years. I mean, you don't really think that if Hills Bros. Coffee has a San Francisco address on the can that the coffee beans were grown there.

    Private label and store brands of many products list the address of the supermarket or discount chain, not the actual food processor which actually made the goods.

    To help you understand California wine labels you should know the following:

    The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) regulates wine producers and must approve every wine label. ATF requires that the address line at the bottom of the label reflect the location where the wine is bottled. That's all it tells you. It does not tell you where the grapes come from or where the wine was fermented.

    Wine names (not the brand) can tell you something about what's in the bottle, and there are several ways to name a wine. Most important are varietal names, or wines named for the grape variety from which they are made. ATF says that a varietal wine must contain 75 percent of the named grape. Examples of varietal wines are: Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and so on.

    This 75 percent rule does not apply to the newly popular flavored beverages such as "Peach Chardonnay" or "Blackberry Merlot." These products often contain sugar, water, flavorings, and so little alcohol (under 6 percent) that they are regulated by FDA instead of ATF. And FDA has no varietal standards. These products are basically glorified wine coolers in large bottles.

    Another way to name wines is so-called "semi-generic" names, like California chablis, burgundy and chianti. These are all European place names that deserve to be spelled with capital letters at home, and that have stringent requirements as to how they can be made. Real Chablis from France must be 100 percent Chardonnay, for example. California chablis, on the other hand, can be made from any grapes...even the lowly Thompson Seedless table grape.

    Finally there are fancy proprietary or trademark names that can be very expensive. Joseph Phelps "Insignia" (a blend of fine red grapes, like Cabernet and Merlot) can cost up to $100, and an even more famous example would be the Mondavi-Rothshild joint venture called "Opus One." These ultra-premium wines will often tell you about the blend of grapes used on the back label.

    Wines can also be simply labeled "white table wine" or "red table wine," and are usually inexpensive blends that often provide good drinking and excellent value.

    Where did the grapes/wine come from? That's the toughest thing to tell. Usually just above the varietal or generic name, there is a place name or appellation. Most widely used is "California," which means just what it says...the grapes could come from anywhere in the state. Our reader's brand said Napa on the address line, but the appellation was "California," and the truth is most of the juice came from the hot Fresno area.

    I have been advocating for more than a decade, the addition of an appellation that would be "Coastal California" (running west of the Coast Range from Ukiah to San Diego), because winegrapes that are subject to marine influence tend to have higher natural acidity. Even if a wine were blended from grapes grown in Santa Barbara, Temecula and Sonoma, we would at least know that they didn't come from Bakersfield.

    Other geo-political designations may also be used, such as county names, Monterey County, Sonoma County, Lake County and so on, and ATF requires that 75 percent of the grapes come from the named county.

    And then there are AVAs, which stand for "American Viticultural Areas." Growers have to petition for ATF approval of an AVA, which may then appear on a label. Napa Valley (different than Napa County), Stags Leap, Russian River Valley and Knights Valley are just a few examples. To use an AVA on a label at least 85 percent of the grapes must come from the named area.

    Finally, there are vineyard designations, like Chateau St. Jean's "Robert Young Vineyard," or Heitz "Martha's Vineyard." ATF says these must be 95 percent from the source. And a wine can have all three, vineyard, AVA and state, as in Hart Winery 1998 "Collins Ranch," Cucamonga Valley, California, Grenache Rose...and then have Temecula on the address line, because that's where the winery is.

    Some words that don't have any meaning:     "Reserve," "Private Reserve," "Special Selection" and "Proprietor's Cuvee" are all meaningless. Private Reserve is equally available for use on special wines like BV's Cabernet Sauvignon or on everyday wines like Glen Ellen.

    "Coastal" is being used by many brands as part of their name, but it has no legal definition. If the appellation is California the grapes can still come from anywhere.

    But what about our friend who can't find the Blossom Hill Winery? Does it really matter if there are Blossom Hill bricks and mortar if the brand provides wine she enjoys drinking at a price she's willing to pay? Never forget this about's just fermented grape juice folks. It's a beverage.


    Beringer 1997 "Founder's Estate" Cabernet Sauvignon ($11) Speaking of terms that don't mean anything, "Founder's Estate" is a classic example. But the wine is good, so let the marketing people have their fun. The best wine in a new line of modestly priced wines from Beringer, it will do very nicely for summer entertaining. Mostly berry fruit but with a little pleasant green olive complexity. Medium bodied; well balanced. Rating: 87/90


    La Montecchia 1995 "Colli Eugane" Rosso ($16) This wine could have fooled me had I tasted it blind. I'd have never guess it was predominately Merlot (60 % Merlot; 40% a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc), for one thing. Very Italian in flavor and structure, with a base of black currant fruit, but with hints of anise and green olive along with smoky complexity. Real spine and backbone and that kind of friendly astringency that cuts through tomato sauce, garlic and heavy spice. Rating: 89/90

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