What’s in a name: Deciphering wine labels

It’s frustrating, but people often buy according to the label, not the wine. The right image can establish a brand, like Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, one of the worst wines from Italy. But the company spent a gazillion dollars on shoving it in people’s faces, so now consumers proudly guzzle it. Most wineries, however, lacking deep marketing pockets, are relegated to investing in labeling. It works. A colorful label and delicious verbiage assuredly lure people into a purchase, but the message is not always as straightforward as it reads. Here’s your primer for not getting caught in the marketing maze.

“Reserve” Wines

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) regulates the “truth in advertising” for all alcoholic beverages, including wine. It monitors and approves American Viticulture Areas, mandates content on a label and handles countless other issues involved in labeling. ATF Bulletin CFR 27 is essentially the definitive tome of wine labeling, but among its numerous subparagraphs and legalese-laden pages, there is no definition of a “reserve” wine. So it’s unfortunately left to the winery — and their marketing department — to define.

Most people assume a “Reserve” wine is better juice, among the best a winery has to offer. As Pat Dudley from Oregon’s Bethel Heights Winery put it: In the industry “there’s a sense that [reserve wines] should be the top of your line. … picking your best barrels or reserving a portion of your best juice.” But not everyone plays by those rules. Take Kendall Jackson. Its “Vintner’s Reserve” is the wildly successful proprietary name for the company’s large-production wines — not a “reserve” in the accepted sense of the word. So if you’re buying “Reserves,” stick with the boutique-y wineries and those that you trust.

“Old Vine”

Like “Reserve,” ATF doesn’t define “Old Vine” either. But you’ll see it everywhere since the word is out that old is better — and it sounds more romantic. From the time a grapevine is placed in the ground, it takes three to four years to produce fruit. So if an estate winery (a winery that grows its fruit rather than buys it) establishes a vineyard, it has to wait a while to make wine. During the first years of a vine’s life, the fruit, like a child, is often a bit harsher and more acidic. These characteristics normally mellow once the vine matures.

Once a vine reaches 30 (what many in the industry call “old”), its grape production wanes, with fewer grapes growing each year. But the grapes that hang around have concentrated flavor and produce intense, bold wines. Storybook Mountain Vineyards, one of my favorite zinfandel producers in California, has also been growing Bordeaux varietals (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec) on its estate for 14 years, but had been selling the fruit to other winemakers since planting it. In 2003, when the winery decided the fruit was good enough to put the Storybook name on it, it released an amazing zinfandel/Bordeaux blend called Anteus. But not everyone is ethical when throwing “Old Vine” around. When shopping, view “Old Vine” with a drop of suspicion.

“Contains Sulfites”

Don’t worry about them unless you’re one of few people severely allergic. I’m convinced sulfite labeling is a government conspiracy to freak people out. Did you know there are more sulfites in processed meats than in wine? Sulphur is used — sparingly in wineries that care — to preserve wine to live beyond six months. It’s a necessary additive that is getting a bad rap.


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