What’s behind a label?

First, I want to thank one of my facebook / twitter friends for making me aware of this case / story – I may have totally missed it. Thanks Al!

So, here’s the deal. There’s a big class action lawsuit against Constellation Brands for selling “fake Pinot” Here’s the story. This totally shocked me. I guess it shouldn’t. I’ve been in sales (and the industry) long enough to know that anything is possible.  In a nutshell, Constellation bought juice (wine) from suppliers in France and labeled it Pinot Noir. The only problem is that it wasn’t Pinot Noir. Some of the bottles didn’t contain the required percentage to label the wine Pinot Noir. And it sounds like other bottles weren’t Pinot Noir at all. What a shame.

So, that leads me to a questions we get often working the front lines of a winery. Does the information on the label actually mean something?

If we’re following all the “rules” and “regulations”, then the answer is yes.

Let’s break down a label….

There are several important things to look at on a wine label.

The producer: Arrowood

The vintage: 2003

The growing region: Sonoma Valley

The varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon

The vineyard: Monte Rosso

This one also lets you know that the wine is unfined and unfiltered.

Alcohol: 14.5%

Ok great, now what does all of that mean? Let’s tackle them one at a time.

For marketing reasons (and others, of course) it’s important to know the producer.

The vintage: This is the year the grapes were picked, not the year the wine was bottled. It’s a common misconception. In order for a winery to put a year on the label there must be at least 95% of that year in the bottle. That means, they could blend up to 5% of another vintage and still call it 2003. Most producers do not blend multiple vintages, but in tough grape growing years, it could be vital. Sparkling wines are usually the exception here. Many of them are Non-Vintage (NV). This is so they can provide to their consumers a very similar product year after year.

The growing region: For there to be a growing region on the label at least 85% of the grapes need to come from that region. In this case, Sonoma Valley. Sonoma Valley is an American Viticulture Area (AVA). Some bottles may say California or Sonoma County or Napa Valley. Again, to put those names on the label at least 85% of the grapes need to come from there. In many cases, 100% of the fruit comes from the area listed on the label, but often the only way to know that is to ask.

The varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon in this example is what’s in the bottle. However, there could be up to 25% of other varietals blended in and you would never know. That’s because the regulations state that there needs to be 75% of one grape in a bottling to put a grape name on the label. Let me tell you, 25% of other grapes blended in can (and will) make a big difference in the finished product. Why blend? Much like the vintage reference above, blending is to ensure that the finished product not only tastes good, but is the best that can be made. Sometimes, a little of this and a little of that can really change the wine in a good way. In this bottle, there is 100% Cabernet, but again I only know that because I asked.

The vineyard: Most wines don’t list a vineyard on the label. In my experience, some of the most sought after wine (in Sonoma County anyway) are bottles with vineyard names on them because they offer true expression of one place. This is often referred to as Terrior (Tare-woir)- French for the wine speaks where it’s from. But even sourcing from one vineyard, there’s a little room for something else in the bottle. There only needs to be 95% of that vineyard’s fruit in the wine to label it with a vineyard designate.

Unfined and Unfiltered: I have not commonly seen this on wine labels, but the meaning here is that there are no fining or filtering agents. Most consumers understand the filtering aspect of wine. It’s done (right before bottling) to remove any unwanted sediment leftover from fermentation or barrel aging or both. Fining is a wine-making process where there is an agent (like egg-whites) dropped into the barrel or tank to collect any sediment together. Don’t worry, there aren’t egg-whites in your wine. They are separated from the wine prior to bottling. Fining a wine is a much faster process, but it can strip the wine of desirable characteristics.

Alcohol: Simply put, this is the alcohol percent by volume. In still wines, it can range from about 8% up to about 17%, although most fall in the 13-15% range.

With all these regulations, I think you can understand the class action lawsuit against Constellation Brands. When we buy a bottle of Pinot Noir, we expect there to be Pinot Noir inside. However, with the wine in question here, that was not the case. Disappointing to say the least.

We have a hard enough time getting new consumers to try wine as a beverage in general. And if there are some producers out there that choose to label their wine incorrectly, it will only lead to the public not trusting us. Just bad, all around. Let’s not do anything (else) to shoot ourselves in the foot, okay?

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1 Comment

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One response to “What’s behind a label?

  1. Sara

    This is a really interesting post- thanks for including the story. I love reading your blog!

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