Fred Franzia – the guy behind the super-cheap “Two-Buck Chuck” wines – is in the news again. He owns a number of other brands, and a few of them – Napa Ridge and Rutherford Vintners, to name two – have raised the hackles of his industry peers. A California law states that if “Napa” appears on the label, in the name or elsewhere, 75% of the grapes that go into the wine must be Napa-grown. An older federal law is very similar, except for a “grandfather clause:” brands containing the Napa name already in existence could continue to do so, regardless of where their grapes came from. Franzia bought several old, unused brand names that fit that description, apparently intending to trade on the cachet of the Napa name without having to buy the more expensive (and, one must suppose, better) Napa grapes.
The legal battle between Franzia and the Napa Valley Vintners Association recently peaked – and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, leaving the California Court’s ruling standing. So while Franzia still has a few more tricks up his sleeve, it does seem like a losing battle: if it says Napa, it must come (mostly) from Napa Valley.
So what does a California wine label tell you? Or what questions might a guest have about a bottle when you present a wine? Here’s some things that come up:
The Winery: Should be obvious - both the name and address of the producer must appear somewhere on the label. Simple, right? Well, what about J Wine Company – are they related to Jordan? (Yes; Jordan is probably the best known Sonoma wine with a “J” in its name, so people sometimes ask – J was started by Judy Jordan, whose father founded Jordan Winery). Pine Ridge is from Napa, so are they the same as Napa Ridge? (An unequivocal NO). Many casual winedrinkers either don’t pay careful attention or are overwhelmed by the number of names out there, so these questions deserve respectful answers.
Occasionally the small print address doesn’t seem to jive with the appellation. For example, the Dashe Cellars new winery is in Oakland – the address on the bottle – but the front of the bottle says Dry Creek, which is in the north of Sonoma. Unless a wine says “Estate Bottled,” the appellation only tells you where the grapes are grown, not where they were made into wine.
Appellation: But if it does say “Estate Bottled,” then you know that the winery and 100% of the grape sources are both within the given appellation. There are about 83 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in California. For non-estate bottled wines labeled with county appellations such as Sonoma or Napa, 75% of the grapes must have been grown in that area; as the appellation size gets smaller, the number gets higher. For sub-appellations like “Russian River Valley” it rises to 85% and in Vineyard-Designated wines 95% of the grapes must come from the named vineyard. The question that guests ask most in this regard is: “Where’s that?” so it’s good to know your geography. Knowing what county sub-appellations are part of can help sell a wine; if you hadn’t heard of the Green Valley AVA, you might be reassured to learn it’s in Sonoma, for example.
More and more people are buying into the idea that more specific is better, and single-vineyard status now commands higher prices than vaguer terms like “Reserve.” The latter lacks any defined meaning under U.S. law – so don’t go out of the way to avoid it, but don’t let it be a deciding factor in buying a wine.
Vintage: 95% of the grapes must come from the stated vintage. Wine can evaporate from the barrels and sometimes needs to be topped-up to prevent oxygen from entering; that extra 5% gives winemakers wiggle-room to do so with wine from other vintages if necessary. For most other countries the number is 85%, and some wineries in California want to drop the U.S. number to the same point. Traditionally the thought is that Old World vintages are less reliable and need to be able to blend in other vintages to balance their wines in different years. Most would say that California’s climate is more consistent and doesn’t need this tool, but some winemakers are interested in the flexibility it would give them. Others like the organization Napa Valley Vintners, feel the change would damage their reputation, and many winegrowers oppose it; they feel prices could suffer if buyers were able to use wine from bountiful years to offset more meager vintages.
Grape Variety: 75% of the grapes must be of the stated variety – enough to dominate the wine’s character. Varietal names do not seem to be a big factor in the price a winedrinker is willing to pay. In a UC Davis Agricultural Issues Center survey, only Pinot Noir carried a significantly higher price (9.9% higher than Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay). However, varietal remains the main category choice a winedrinker makes – in our own StarChefs sommelier survey, it came in behind only value and price as a leading factor guiding guests’ wine choices. If you’re hoping for winedrinkers to become more adventurous, it’s a depressing combination: apparently it’s easier to get a Cab drinker to buy a more expensive Cab than to try something else at the same price. But if you’re just trying to pump up your check average, you should know where to go from here.
While France frets over its own regulations in hopes of getting varietal names onto their bottles, California winemakers are becoming more and more interested in blends. Some list them as two-varietal wines – Cabernet-Merlot, for example – and some producers just list the breakdown of varietals on the back label. The so-called Rhone Rangers, who blend Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and other grapes together in accordance with Rhone Valley tradition, have been pushing for an official “Rhone Varietal Blend” designation. Meanwhile some of those who look toward Bordeaux have formed the Meritage Association. Members must blend some combination of traditional Bordeaux varietals – for reds, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. The association has trademarked the name, allowing them to promote their wines jointly in much the way regional, appellation-based organizations do.
Alcoholic Strength: For wines of less than 14% alcohol a 1.5% margin of error is allowed; that margin shrinks to 1% for stronger wines, which are also taxed at a higher rate. California wines have grown stronger and stronger in the past 20 years. Some blame global warming; according to experts, California has seen a 1-2F increase in average temperatures in the past 50 years and more heat means more sugar in the grapes, which then becomes converted into alcohol. Some winemakers are going for extended hang-time: leaving the grapes on the vines longer to achieve riper flavors and, again, higher sugar levels. One report puts these two factors hand-in-hand as the warmer temperatures extend the potential, frost-free growing season by about 65 days.
Many wine writers complain that the higher-alcohol wines are overwhelming and don’t pair well with food. At the same time, these wines often receive high scores from critics and do especially well in competitions, effectively out-muscling lower-alcohol wines. It seems the wine press would like to have it both ways.
Health and “Contains Sulfites” Warnings: Required by law. Wine naturally contains sulfites, even if none are added during the winemaking process. For most people the level of sulfites in a modern wine is not significant. There is talk of adding more nutritional information to wine bottles, but no one is pushing very hard for the appropriate legislation. A few wines are trying to jump on the Atkins/South Beach bandwagon and promoting themselves as “low-carb;” most dry wines are low-carb whether they advertise it or not, so this shouldn’t be a factor when choosing a bottle.
Volume: The amount of wine in the bottle must be stated. Wine may be one of the few American products to truly embrace metric measurements; the most common sizes are 750 ml (a standard bottle), 1500 ml (the magnum), and 375 ml (the half-bottle. If you’re buying older wines, keep in mind that larger bottles age more slowly. Half-bottles are becoming more and more popular; they’re a great way for a pair of diners to pair a different wine with each course of a meal. There are two difficulties. Many wines are not available in the half-bottle, and prices can be somewhat out-of-line – half the quantity of a full bottle, but two-thirds the price.
That covers most of the usual items on a Californian label – and American labeling laws are generally less stringent than those elsewhere! People shouldn’t feel intimidated, though; often all those details aren’t necessary to pick out or recommend a good, appropriate wine. Just know that they’re there for you when you need them, and they can usually tell you a lot more than the poetry on the back label can.