Wine Labels (Part 5)
named for the majority grape variety from
which they are made are known as varietal wines. Varietal
labeling began as a way for quality California producers
to get away from generic
still give credence to their efforts to create wines that
would compete in quality with the finest in the
A TASTE OF AMERICAN
WINE MARKETING HISTORY
Leading up to and for more than three decades following the period of American
most of the wine made in the United States was dessert
wine, fortified by the addition of distilled alcohol to
increase its strength.1 During the time of Prohibition, the majority of wine grape
vineyards had been replanted to grape types that ship
well (to supply the still-legal "home winemaking" demand)
and the best vinifera types were scarce. The demand for
fine table wine could be readily supplied by European
imports. American table wine, made from the best wine
grapes, was a rare find in the 1930s and 40s.
American soldiers returning from World War II were
introduced to their first experience with fine wine while in Europe. Demand began to
increase. Table wines from serious American producers
attempting to enter the market had no track record to
speak of and there was little basis or support for
geographic appellations. The labeling choices were to
either emulate the Europeans (generic) or work to
establish their own identities, through either proprietary
varietal labeling. Louis M. Martini and Inglenook were the earliest to adopt varietal labels in the modern era.2 The public was slow to embrace these unfamiliar names and new packaging.
Frank Schoonmaker, a
prominent and influential wine writer who later became an
importer and merchant, despised and condemned generic
labeling in the 1950s and 60s that tried to capitalize their products by riding on the coattails of the established European standards without respecting them.
As an alternative,
inspired by thw wines of France's Alsace region, he actively promoted and campaigned for the idea of
varietal labeling. Almaden Winery hired Schoonmaker as a
marketing consultant. In this capacity he was responsible for
introducing and promoting Grenache Rosé to the American broad market. It became one of Almaden's first, most popular,
and longest-lived product successes.
idea of varietal labels began to catch on with the public
in the "wine boom" of the 1970s. During the 1980s,
low-priced Chardonnay, White Zinfandel, and Cabernet
Sauvignon became known as "The Fighting Varietals" (sic3) which waged their
marketing battle with generic wines. Consumers embraced the
varietal nomenclature, as much simpler and easier to
remember and identify: a dozen or two grape types versus
thousands of geographic appellations and vineyards. By
the mid-1990s, grape names like Merlot and Chardonnay replaced European place names like Burgundy and Chablis, as the respective
consumer buzzwords for everyday red wine and white wine. Generic
labels have virtually disappeared from the wine
Varietal labeling is
also the predominant method of identifying wine types in
Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Argentina,
and most all other wine-producing countries of the New
World. It is much easier for the public to learn a dozen or so grape names than it is to learn hundreds of appellations as well as what grape varieties grow in each location.
THE FRENCH TAKE
Controleé system of wine identification is the bread-and-butter of
French wine. The whole premise of AC is that terroir, the site selection and ecology of the
vineyard, has as much or more influence on the flavor and character of
the wine than does whichever grape variety is used. The
regulatory agency INAO has always strongly discouraged
any label references to grape variety and publicly stated
in the 1990s that they planned to eventually eliminate
any varietal labeling of AC wines, even those of Alsace,
where varietal labeling was practically
of vines exist in many vineyards throughout France. The historical
tendency to use aliases and local names for types adds to
the confusion. Repeated anecdotal episodes that indicate
the superiority of certain vineyards, relative to
neighboring ones, makes wine lovers question, "Why?" The
growers offer a self-serving and simplistic logic. Where
both vineyard treatments and wine making methods are
similar, climate identical, grapes not distinguishably
different, it must, by default, be the vineyard and
therefore, the soil. The concept of terroir seems
to justify commercial variations without explaining or
even allowing inquiry into scientific ones.
Advances in ampelography, using techniques such as DNA
"fingerprinting", have greatly improved the ability to
distinguish between and identify grapevine species and
clones, leading to improvements in both
selection and verification of varieties throughout the
wine growing world.
The community of
growers and regional marketers have overly-emphasized the contribution of soil
composition as a factor to wine flavor, often presenting it as paramount when it is merely contributory. There
are even attempts to equate flavors with soil types: chalky
taste from chalky soil, flinty flavor from flinty soil,
etc. This traditional view began centuries before Pasteur explained the science of fermentation and the awareness of, let alone the ability to recognize and differentiate grape variety was in its infancy.
Soil composition impacts the smell and taste of wine far less than grape variety and probably less than many processes and decisions of wine making, such as the manner of fruit processing and selection of yeast. It
is not the mineral content of soil that influences wine
flavor so much as a particular soil's capacity for water
retention and drainage and, moreover, how the grower uses
that knowledge to manage the quantity and timing of
getting water to the vines.
Ongoing research in
Australia, California, and Europe points to varietal
(and clonal) selection as the prime flavor factors in grapes and wine.
According to the Federal labeling laws set by the Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, a wine must be made
from a minimum of 75% of a particular grape variety to
use that grape name on the wine. The wine must also
qualify for and use an approved appellation of origin,
whether foreign or one of the American
The minimum content
of the named variety was increased from 51% to 75%,
in 1973. This change has been a mixed blessing
for both consumers and producers. Are wines that have
more varietal authenticity also better tasting? On one
hand, the change dictates increased purity in wines made
from delicate-flavored grape varieties like Chardonnay.
On the other, this somewhat ties the hands of wine makers
who excel at blending as a method to render more complex
wines. This restriction has led to the creation of Proprietary branding, such as used by the Meritage Associates cooperative and on the individual labels of
the "Rhône Rangers."
de la Loire
||*Legalities change: for example, the change to Riesling was originally supposed to be implemented on 1/1/1999 ...lobbyists have managed to get extensions and California wines labeled "Johannisberg Riesling 2010" were to be found on market shelves as late as 2014, although only by brands with several vintages of historical usage.
A very large
list of American Grape Variety Names is administered by the BATF
for approved use on wine labels. Although many of these are out-dated in the marketplace, some have yet to attain
commercial significance. Some semi-varietal or seemingly varietal names have had their
credentials pulled and will no longer be seen on wines
produced in America.
Beaujolais" confused the public for a many years. While this nom de plume is easy for non-French-speaking
Americans to pronounce and seems both poetic and
romantic, there is no wine grape variety by this name.
The variety required by the French AC to be grown in the
Beaujolais region is called Gamay Noir.
Ampelographers determined that the variety which grows in California and previously thought to be Gamay Noir is actually Valdiguié. Adding to the confusing mire, clones of
Pinot Noir that produced light-flavored fruit were
formerly allowed to be labeled "Gamay
Beaujolais". No California wine labels bearing the name
"Gamay Beaujolais" were permitted to be bottled after April 9, 2007. Advances in identification techniques, using DNA analysis, should help to prevent future varietal confusion.
THE FUTURE OF WINE
Worldwide trends in wine labeling are taking two
directions simultaneously. One is toward more "branding"
of appellations, wine producing estates, and vineyard
names. This geography-based method protects the exclusivity of the
producers, favors pricing limited only by demand, and
requires more knowledge and awareness on the part of the
The other direction
points toward increased use of varietal labeling. This
makes for more competition among brands, popular pricing,
and greater appeal to a generally less knowledgeable
consumer. Both methods will probably continue to grow in
usage and, in time, may eventually meld so that all wine
labels will then reveal both the vineyard locations and
the grape varieties used.
1. Production of dry table wine in the United States did not surpass sweet fortified wine volume until 1967. RETURN
2. American wines do have a history of varietal labeling that goes back to the late 1800s, but the public did not know what to make of names such as Riesling, Grenache, or Zinfandel and were more familiar with "generic" labels featuring famous names like Burgundy, Chablis, Chianti, Claret, and Rhine. RETURN
3. Preferred use of the word "varietal" is as an adjective (examples throughout this article); although popular usage of the word as a noun began circa 1983-85, this usage should only refer to qualified wine, never to grapes. The noun "variety" should always be used to reference grapes; e.g., In the market place, varietals often compete with proprietary blends, made from mixed varieties. RETURN
Dean Walters' Early California Wine Trade Archive site is really well-designed and should serve as harbinger of a wine-museum-yet-to-come. Several slide shows display photos, labels, bottles, postcards, etc., dating back to the mid-19th Century. Encourage Dean's mission by visiting and contributing if you can.