(Reflections on the Lettie Teague WSJ wine article February 16, 2019)
Stand before any grocery store wine set and let the imagery work its magic. There really ought to be awards given out for some of these labels. The Most Beautiful. The Most Evocative. The Most Outrageous. Your eyes can glaze over as you succumb to the stunning array on these shelves.
Me? I always preferred plain white labels with minimal information. I always thought plain white labels were classy... as long as classy print was part of the production, of course. Put your money into what's inside the bottle, I always thought. Secretly though, I kind of liked some of the gaudy labels, which couldn't help but demystify this stuff. Besides, who wants to look at shelves full of white labels!
So what about the actual information on a wine label? The Bureau of Alcohol and Tax declares "Labels may contain information other than the mandatory information (place of origin, grape type, etc.) but it must be truthful, accurate and specific. Any additional information should not be misleading." And therein lies the rub. Just as the visuals on the wine labels draw you in, some of that additional wording does the same.
"Reserve." Clearly means quality, right? Actually there is no legal definition for "Reserve" when placed on a wine label. It can mean anything. But you can bet the customer will impute his own meaning of the word to the product.
"Hand Selected Lots." Obviously, this means the winemaker went through the vineyards and chose the best berries for this effort. Sorry. Once again this phrase is meaningless, legally-speaking.
Here are a few others: "Barrel Select", "Old Vine", "Old Clone", "Proprietor's Blend". It's not just the domestic wine industry that embellishes either. Argentina has the highest altitude vineyards in the world, a great selling point for a wine's quality, but in Argentine wine law, "High Altitude" on a label has no legal meaning.
Back in my grocery store days the best selling wine we had was Glen Ellen Reserve Chardonnay. I never tasted it but eagerly sold it because I was graded on sales. One day a good customer was buying several cases for a party and suggested we buy one and taste it in the parking lot. I declined but he insisted, saying I really needed to know what I was selling. I relented and he was right. The stuff was awful. It didn't even taste like Chardonnay, much less reserve Chardonnay.
Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay? Never tasted it. Sounds good though, like that winemaker really did his due diligence both in the vineyard and the winery to make it just right. Uh, okay.
Maybe we should back off criticizing meaningless labeling. It's just a few words, after all. They could be writing paragraphs!
Please join us this Thursday at 5pm when Dominique Chambon leads us in a tasting from his fine French/Italian portfolio.