Wine Articles --> Understanding American Wine Labels
"Proprietor's Unfiltered Special Barrel Select Grand Private Reserve"
A brief guide to understanding American wine labels
One of the foundations of American marketing is that, on the shelf, the package is more important than the product. And, when the products are all pretty similar, it's probably true. However, wine isn't Tide. It's a completely subjective product; yet winery marketing departments trip over one another coming up with more and more grandiose names for their wine. The over-the-top award goes to Gallo for their Marcelina Cabernet and Chardonnay. These $30 plus wines, marketed to restaurants, come complete with the story of "the forbidden romance between Marcelina, the Patron's daughter, and a vineyard worker who finally wins her hand." It seems they have 15 children, and plant a grapevine that lives for 150 years... which I assume Gallo used to grow the grapes for the wine. I understand that they even supply onions so the restaurant server can tell the story with a tear in their eye!
Barrel Select, Grand Reserve, Vintner's Selection - the important thing to remember is that none of these words really represents anything more than the winery's opinion. Buyer beware. The word Reserve may not mean the same thing at Sutter Home that it means at Beringer. There are only a few words on American wine labels that are regulated by law. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have regulatory jurisdiction over all U.S. Wineries and these are the rules for wine labeling:
Appellation of Origin: Where it was grown i.e., Napa Valley
The following appellations of origin are allowed:
1. The United States
2. A State, or two or more contiguous States. i.e., California
3. A County, or two or more contiguous Counties i.e., Sonoma County
4. A viticulture area recognized by the BATF i.e., Sonoma Valley
If a State or County appellation is used on the label, 75% of the grapes used in the wine must be grown there. If more than one county or state is named, 100% of the grapes must be grown in those areas.
If a viticultural area is named on the label, 85% of the grapes must be grown in that area. There are 115 approved areas, and 63 of them are in California.
Wine Varieties: i.e., Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.
Varietals are the names of the primary grapes used in the wine. To use a varietal designation, there must be an appellation of origin and 75% of the grapes used must be of that variety. So, if a Sonoma Valley (a viticultural area) Cabernet Sauvignon is being made, 85% of the grapes must be grown in Sonoma County and at least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes must be used.
Note: This rule may not mean much if you're drinking Silver Oak, but considering Cab grapes sell for almost twice as much as anything else, I would like to know the percentage of Cabernet grapes in Turning Leaf - I'll guess 75.001%.
Vintage Date - the year it was grown
To have a vintage date on the label, 95% of the grapes must have been grown in that year.
To be called "estate bottled," a wine must be produced in a winery located in a viticultural area from vineyards that it owns or controls in the same area.
Proprietor or Vintner Grown
If a winery in one viticultural area makes wine from grapes grown in vineyards they own or control in another viticultural area, they can call it "Proprietor Grown" or "Vintner Grown."
Every label must contain the alcohol content of the wine. Under 15%, the content may vary up to 1/2 a percent. Over 15%, the content must be exact (the tax goes up at 15%).
Aside from the warning labels, that's it... all the government regulates. Compared to France, Italy and Germany, the United States is the "wild west" of wine labeling. We'll tackle France and Italy in subsequent newsletters. Germany will have to wait until I find someone who really understands (or can even read) German wine labels.