Will it really help sell wines from Russian River Valley or Alexander Valley if labels for wines from those appellations are required by law to state “Sonoma County” as well as the region?

The trade group Sonoma County Vintners is proposing such a law for so-called “conjunctive labeling” to the state legislature, on the model of a similar law passed in the 1980s for Napa Valley. The idea is to raise recognition for the county as a winemaking region; in other words, this law would be all about marketing. As Tom Wark eloquently points out in his post on this subject on his blog Fermentation, wineries in any of the county’s 13 distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) may append the words “Sonoma County” to their regional designation if they want do, but they may also choose not to; most of them, it seems, do not. After all, labeling practices are in the hands of the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB), which sets the regulations for wine labeling and geographical matters. Why should local authorities try to trump the feds and add even more rules to a complicated business?

And why would a producer in Russian River Valley or Dry Creek Valley not want to have the term “Sonoma County” added to a wine’s front label?

Sonoma County encompasses 13 growing regions (AVAs) that total about 60,300 acres of vines. Theoretically, the different official areas — “official” because they are determined and recognized by the federal government — display distinct enough characteristics to justify their existence, for example, Russian River Valley with its low-lying riverine topography and propensity to morning fog; the warmer Alexander Valley; gently rolling Chalk Hill, with its soil of volcanic ash. The implication (or hope) is that each distinct AVA contributes unique elements of geography and climate to the formation of a wine’s style and character.

“Sonoma County,” on the other hand, is such a broad category that its most legitimate function is as a generic geographic indicator, a way of saying, “This wine was made in a certain county in Northern California.” Such a condition is not necessarily pejorative, especially for inexpensive or moderately-priced wines whose grapes may be blended from several smaller AVAs, of which there are many examples. The point is that there is not an identifiable “Sonoma County” character that can be ascribed to a wine.

If, however, a producer is making prestige-level wines from smaller AVAs with the intention of reflecting the specific influence of that soil and micro-climate in the wine, then adding the term “Sonoma County” to the front label is not merely redundant but distracting. That front label is the billboard, the “Hollywood” sign of a wine bottle; it’s the field where producers state what they think is most important and immediately recognizable about their wines.

Being curious about how many wineries or producers in Sonoma County actually use the “Sonoma County” terms on the front label as well as a smaller AVA, I looked through the review sample rack and refrigerator for examples, and here’s what I came up:

Those That Do Not Mention Sonoma County on the Front Label
<>Frei Brothers Reserve Syrah 2007, Russian River Valley, Northern Sonoma. (The largely useless Northern Sonoma AVA encompasses all of Sonoma County except for the Sonoma Valley and Carneros appellations. It was created in 1985 — and amended in 1986 and 1990 — after a campaign by E & J Gallo. Frei Brothers is a Gallo brand.)

<>Terlato Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Sausal Private Reserve Zinfandel 2007, Alexander Valley.

<>Benovia Bella Una Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Dry Creek Vineyard The Mariner Meritage 2006, Dry Creek Valley. (Sonoma County stated on back label.)

<>Benziger Signaterra Three Block 2006, Sonoma Valley.

<>La Crema Pinot Noir 2008, Sonoma Coast.

<>Davis Bynum Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Louis M. Martini Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Alexander Valley. (Yeah, I know, why do I still have this wine?)

<>Respite Reichel Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley.

<>Gundlach Bundschu Rhinefarm Vineyard Merlot 2005, Sonoma Valley.

<>EnRoute Les Pommiers Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley.

<>Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Alexander Valley. (Not a review sample, of course; I bought this at an auction. Perhaps I should drink it with tonight’s pizza.)

<>Thumbprint Cellars Westside Vineyard Chardonnay 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Hook & Ladder “Third Alarm” Reserve Chardonnay 2003, Russian River Valley. (Why do I still have this wine, too?)

Those That Mention Sonoma County on the Front Label as Well as a Distinct Appellation
<>Murphy-Goode Merlot 2007, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County.

<>Matanzas Creek Merlot 2006, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County.

<>Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County.

Admittedly this is an anecdotal survey with a plus/minus factor of probably 10,000 percent, but it also speaks pretty clearly; 14 wineries use the specific appellation name without adding Sonoma County, while three do. Yet according to an article by Kevin McCallum in The [Santa Rosa] Press Democrat, “Eight of the county’s nine wine and grape trade groups say they would support a law that would require wines made from local grapes to feature Sonoma County on the label.” The ninth trade group, that of Russian River Valley, is also considered a shoo-in.

What the hell, readers? I mean, I won’t even speculate on the motivations behind these bewildering votes, because I can’t fathom it.

And as I look at other wine labels of bottles clustered about me in phalanxes of rectitude, I can’t help noting that most of them to do not include a broader county designation in addition to a specific appellation. Right at hand are two bottles of wine from Heller Estate that say, “Carmel Valley, California,” but don’t mention Monterey County. Similarly, bottles of vineyard designated pinot noir from Lucienne say “Santa Lucia Highlands,” without mentioning Monterey County. Here’s an Easton Zinfandel 2006 from Fiddletown that doesn’t mention Amador County. And so on.

The exception to these examples, as I mentioned earlier, is Napa Valley, but notice that the legal requirement doesn’t insist on including the term Napa County. Yes, Napa County is also a designated AVA — it’s slightly larger than Napa Valley — and wineries could use the term if they wanted to. I’m sure you have noticed that almost no one does. I mean, who wants to be known as a producer of Napa County wines?

Map of Sonoma County AVAs from sonomainspring.com.