Labels


The term “small batch” originated in Kentucky’s bourbon industry as a way of indicating that a particular item was limited in production and generally received some sort of special treatment in the way of types of barrels, length of aging and selection of ingredients. Perhaps the classic or best-known roster of small batch bourbons consists of the quartet of Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s and Knob Creek (my favorite), from Beam Global Spirits and Wines Inc.; equally well-regarded are Blanton’s from Eagle Trace Distillery and Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve, but mentioning these products doesn’t begin to indicate the number of small batch and single-barrel bourbons and other limited edition whiskeys available, a number that increases every year. The success of these products — for which no real or official definition exists — seems to be fueled by clever marketing toward male and female Millennial consumers and their abiding interest in all things handmade, artisan-like and privileged or for older spirits devotees for whom single-malt Scotch has become too expensive. Not that small batch bourbon is cheap.

So popular is the notion of “small batch” and its implications of craft and care and specialness that the term has spread into or been hijacked by products in many other areas. As My Readers can see in the accompanying images, “small batch” now applies to soy sauce, tonic and fish sauce, and these are only the items that we happen to have on hand. The problem with the nomenclature of exclusivity, including “small batch,” “artisan,” “craft,” “green” and others, is that they are defined in the most nebulous manner or not at all and that their use has become so widespread as to render them meaningless. Such labels have become mere counters or status indicators in our vast marketplace’s tyranny of choice.

The situation is similar in the American wine industry, in which labeling lingo like “reserve,” “old vines,” “limited production” and a variety of other terms proliferate and are entirely unregulated; I mean, what does “Vintner’s Reserve” mean? No producers in California, of course, want more federal interference with labeling or vineyard and winery practices, yet wouldn’t consumers benefit if they knew that for a particular Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon meant 1,000 cases as opposed to a “regular” bottling of 20,000 cases or that “Old Vines” actually meant that a wine was produced from a vineyard where the vines were planted in 1919? Without some sort of indication, terms like “reserve” and “old vines” are as meaningless as “green” or “artisan” on a box of “gourmet” crackers.

Not that, as in Europe, such notions as “reserve” such be regulated precisely, but neither is it sufficient that labels offer such vague reassurance as “Our Reserve Cabernet is strictly limited in production” or “Our Old Vine Zinfandel was made from our historic and heritage vineyards in Sonoma Valley.” Posh! Just tell us how limited that production was or how old those vines are. It’s that simple. I don’t think we need state or federal rulings that a reserve wine must be limited to a certain number of cases and aged according to a determined regimen or that “old vine” must mean older than 50 years, as long as producers tell us what the details are. And that goes for “small batch” bourbon, soy sauce and tonic too. Any term that’s imprecise or used as esthetic, ethical or moral coding is just a marketing tool intended to impress, coerce or confuse the consumer.
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So, how “small batch” is a small batch bourbon? Beam’s Knob Creek is produced in about 200,000 cases annually, compared to Jim Beam, which totals about 6 million cases. Some 160,000 cases of Woodford Reserve were made in 2010; Jack Daniels comes in at nearly 10 million cases. It took a considerable amount of time on Google to find these figures. Small batch whiskeys made by smaller distilleries may be much more limited.

You’ll notice that the soy sauce pictured above, made in Louisville by the Bluegrass Soy Sauce Co., is not only “small batch” but “microbrewed” and “single barrel.” The wraparound label indicates that the bottle sitting on the desk next to me is No. 89 from batch 340-10. In terms of soy sauce, this attention to minutiae is either inspiring or precious, but we still don’t know how small this “small batch” is.
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The mantra seems to be: “Wines of the Mosel are delicate and nuanced; wines of Rheinhessen and Rheingau are more earthbound.” As is the case with much accepted wisdom, there’s more than a little truth to this assumption, and yet here we have the Weingut Max Fred. Richter Mülheimer Sonnenlay Riesling Kabinett-feinherb 2011, from Germany’s Mosel region, that practically revels in the earthy, gravelly grounding that bolsters its more typical ethereal effects. There’s a fairly new term on the label. We used to see halbtrocken, meaning “half-dry,” indicating a wine that’s slightly sweet, primarily on entry, though usually segueing to a dry finish because of the crisp acidity and limestone-like minerality. We will increasingly see the word feinherb as a replacement for halbtrocken; though feinherb literally means “delicately bitter” — go figure — in the context of German wine labels it denotes a half-dry wine, which somehow is predicated as drier than “semi-sweet.”

What else is on this label? (Attention! Education Alert!)

At the top, the name of the producer, Weingut Max Ferd. Richter and just below that the name of the village where the estate is located, Mülheim. Since we’re reading top to bottom, next is a picture of the old building and below that the indication that the estate has been owned by the same family since 1680. Now we get to the heart of the information. The vintage is 2011, prominently displayed, but even more typographical emphasis is placed upon the village, the vineyard, the grape variety and the style of wine. Mulheimer Sonnenlay means that the grapes were grown in the Sonnenlay vineyard that stands in the village of Mulheim, or, rather, it occupies an area of a hillside just to the southeast of the town. This is not one of the vineyards that photographs so beautifully because its steep terraces hover over the river; that picturesque aspect was precluded some 250,000 years ago when the Mosel changed course slightly and left the hill high and dry. The name of the vineyard means something like “sunshine/slate,” and if there are two more important factors in the nurture of the riesling grape, that is to say sun and soil, I don’t know what they are.

Kabinett is an indication that this wine falls into the category of the theoretically driest of the German wines of superior lineage; see the term Deutscher Prädikatswein just below. Remember that the categories of these wines — Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese and so on — don’t refer to the sweetness or dryness of the wine in the bottle but to the level of ripeness at which the grapes were harvested, the factor being that the longer the grapes hang on the vine, the more concentrated and filled with sugar they will be. “A.P.Nr 2 593 049 03 12″ is the official approval number of this wine and gives the testing boards a code to track the wine in case issues of authenticity arise. Finally, in large letters, “MOSEL,” the name of the region.

And that’s your lesson today in reading a German wine label. Did I cover all the intricate points? Oh, no, that would require a complete post, and this is, after all, the Wine of the Week.

So, to get on with it, the Max Fred. Richter Mülheimer Sonnenlay Riesling Kabinett-feinherb 2011 offers a very pale gold color that almost shimmers with radiance. Aromas of lightly spiced peaches and pears with an overlay of lychee and petrol/rubber eraser are wrapped in a sheen of jasmine and an element of clean earthy/flint-like minerality. That earthiness, a seeming combination of light loam and limestone, provides the bass notes for the wine as it laves the palate with the certainly present but delicately modulated ripeness of those peaches and pears, a ripeness that the tongue perceives as initial sweetness that flows into a sense of increasing dryness as the bright and keen acidity and the vibrant limestone and slate mineral qualities dominate from mid-palate back through the airy, ethereal finish. 11 percent alcohol. A lovely riesling, charming and engaging, with a touch of seriousness, for drinking through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $21, representing Great Value.

Imported by Langdon Shiverich, Los Angeles. A sample for review.

My answer to the question posed in the title of this post would be “No,” but who am I to contradict the research, development and marketing arms of such companies as W.J. Deutsch & Sons and Treasury Wine Estates? (Treasury Wine Estates is the former wine division of the Fosters Group, which underwent a “demerger” of wine from the brewing business in 2011.)

One of Treasury’s numerous brands, labels and wineries is the venerable Beringer, which is launching a brand called Be. — the period is part of the name — aiming at “sophisticated women who seek a more chic, stylish yet casual approach to wine,” according to Stephen Brauer, managing director of Beringer, quoted in Shanken News Daily. Be., which rolls out in April, will feature a Chardonnay and Riesling and, inevitably, a Pink Moscato and Pinot Grigio; the price will be about $13. Does Be. capture the essence of “woman” and all for which she stands? Perhaps someone at Beringer or Treasury has been reading Robert Graves, one of whose later poetry collections was titled Man Does, Woman Is. Another Treasury brand, by the way, is Emma Pearl — how many hours and meetings went into that name? — whose target audience is women 30 and over. The price of the Emma Pearl Chardonnay and Merlot is $16, indicating that women who buy Emma Pearl are better off financially that the target audience for Be., i.e, they’re older and have jobs.

Coincidentally, W. J. Deutsch, the importer based in Harrison, N.Y., is introducing a label called Flirt, aimed at “female consumers” — age and demographic not specified — that will cost about $11. First to be released is a blend of syrah, zinfandel and tempranillo from 2010.

We have seen this phenomenon before, in products such as Brown-Forman’s Little Black Dress label and the Folonari Pink Pinot Grigio, imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons. I don’t know what the sales figures are on these wines; perhaps women flock to them like passenger pigeons darkening the skies of 19th Century America. One imagines the meeting rooms of adult beverage conglomerates filled with junior-grade executives pondering Freud’s infamous question: “What does a woman want?”

The women I know who love wine would gag rather than drink something patronizingly called Flirt or Little Black Dress, because what they want from a bottle of wine is a well-made, authentic product whose price reflects its quality. And isn’t that what we all want from a bottle of wine? I realize that we live in a contemporary cosmos of niche marketing; even so-called Millennials are, for marketing purposes, now divided into two groups, those ages 18 to 25 and those 25 to 32. We also live in an age governed by the Tyranny of Choice, so we can go into a grocery store and stand bewildered before a dozen varieties of Cheez-It Baked Snack Crackers (a trademark of Kellog) or Pringles (a trademark of Procter & Gamble). Indeed, the range of wines foreign and domestic in large stores is daunting, and consumers need help in choosing the right bottle for their purposes.

Still, do women really want wines that are “cute” or “fun” or “stylish” or “chic”? Are those truly the criteria women would use in selecting a bottle of wine? Or do they not mind being condescended to by the cynical machinations of corporate marketing divisions and their PR agencies and advertising minions? Where will this trend stop? Surely coming soon will be wines labeled “Dumb Blond,” “Barefoot and Pregnant” and “Can’t Live with ‘Em, Can’t Live without ‘Em.”

Images from babelwine.com; dexknows.com; wedind.com.

It may be the Yuletide season, Readers, but I am not inclined to extend generosity to those who mangle the Mother-Tongue and allow way too much wiggle-room in the definition of words. The worst offenders, other than politicians, bureaucrats and sociologists, are advertising copywriters and public relations/marketing interns. Here’s the example that lit a fire under my ire:

The back label of the JCB No 81 Chardonnay 2009, Sonoma Coast, tells us that the wine is “Alluring. Ephemeral. Insatiable.” “JCB” stands for Jean-Charles Boisset, president of Boisset Wine Estates, owner of, among other properties and brands, Buena Vista Winery, DeLoach Vineyard, Lockwood Vineyard, Lyeth Estate, Fog Mountain and Raymond Vineyards in California and Bouchard Aîné & Fils, Domaine de la Vougeraie, J. Moreau & Fils and French Rabbit in France. The JCB line represents the company’s extension into producing fairly limited edition wines from vineyards primarily in Sonoma County. (Image from harrods.com)

Let’s look at these adjectives.

Alluring. I occasionally use “alluring” in reviews to mean that a wine draws the taster in seductively and irresistibly, with a sense of style and glamor; it’s a rather abstract and subjective concept, but one that I think can be employed legitimately and that readers readily grasp. So, O.K. on that.

Ephemeral. I think that the word is incorrect for the wine. According to The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged (1987), ephemeral means “lasting a very short time; short-lived; transitory.” One might apply the word, especially in the realm of “transitory,” to certain wines, say the driest and more delicate rosés or fresh and quaffable white wines such as Vinho Verde or South African chenin blancs. Applied, however, to a Sonoma Coast chardonnay that’s rich and full-bodied and solidly oaked (though nothing out of the ordinary), “ephemeral” would be a negative term; the context is completely wrong.

Insatiable. Here’s a vivid model of incorrect word choice. The RHDEL2 tells us that “insatiable” means “incapable of being satisfied or appeased.” A glutton may be insatiable in his hunger; a sadist may be insatiable in his blood-lust; a dictator may be insatiable in his quest for power. The application of the word to a bottle of wine is nonsensical or, if you prefer, ignorant.

In fact, the marketing device for the JCB wines rests on the three-word trope. For the JCB No 1, a cabernet sauvignon, the figure is “Voluptuous. Opulent. Incorrigible.” For No 22, a pinot noir, the scheme is “Intimate. Tumultuous. Intense.” And, bizarrely, No 8, a pinot noir dry rosé, receives the flamboyant encomium of “Rebellious. Capricious. Seductive.”

While voluptuousness and opulence are virtues in cabernet sauvignon wines in some circles — not usually mine — (and they seem redundant anyway), “incorrigible” is another example of a copywriter simply not knowing what words mean. If a chardonnay truly were “bad beyond correction or reform; impervious to restraints or punishment; willful; unruly; uncontrollable,” I think that I would leave it on the shelf and try something else. “Tumultuous” for a pinot noir? (“full of tumult or riotousness; marked by disturbance and uproar; … disorderly or noisy; … highly agitated”) The last thing I want is a disorderly and highly agitated pinot noir. And how would you feel about a rosé that was insubordinate and erratic?

Friends, this is the Silliness of Vocabulary Overkill, the result of poorly prepared writers trying too hard to sound impressive, a common symptom in the world of public relations and marketing. I say that it’s time to retire the concept of the back-label hard sell and storytelling that dominates in New World wines, especially California and Australia, and let the product speak for itself. Tell me about the wine, if that’s necessary, but keep the copy brief and to the point. And please, keep a dictionary on the desk.

In most European wine regions, place matters. That’s why in Burgundy, for example, and in the Rhone Valley, in Germany, in much of Italy, the term most prominently displayed on a label will be the name of a village or commune, often accompanied by the name of a vineyard. The name of the estate, producer or winery will be in smaller print at the bottom of the label or off to the side or up on a neck label. The implication is that the most crucial factor in producing a great wine is not the human hand and mind, as helpful as they might be, but great terroir, that is, all the geographical, geological and climatic elements, whether as large as the weather patterns or minute as a worm or deep as the soil and bedrock, that influence the vineyard, the vines and the grapes.

When the 19th Century wine pioneers in California were growing grapes and making wine, they often labeled their products in such a way that American consumers would relate them to European counterparts, though these resemblances were often based more on romance than reality. Thus the Claret and Hock, the Burgundy (made from anything except pinot noir) and Sauterne (without the final “s”), the Chianti and French Colombard and Chablis — remember Gallo’s Chablis Blanc, in case you couldn’t tell it was white? — that graced the tables of American for many decades of the 20th Century. After Prohibition, however, and especially after World War II, producers in California began to evince independence from Europe and pride in their own achievements by highlighting the names of their wineries and the principal grape in the wine on bottles, thus giving birth to the varietal labeling that dominates the New World wine industries today and has even crossed back over the Atlantic to show up in Europe. “Hock” image from weimax.com.

So, I’m fascinated by the label for this wine, because it’s an attempt to market an American wine based not on the name of the winery or producer and not on the name of the grape but — on the model of much of Europe — on the name of a federally-recognized vineyard region or American Viticultural Area, as the official term expresses it. Notice, in fact, how much the label resembles a label of a Premier Cru vineyard Burgundy (as in the Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses above).

The most prominent feature on this label is Red Mountain, granted AVA status by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in 2001. Red Mountain, not so much a mountain as a steep, long southwest-facing slope of deep gravelly soil, lies within the Yakima Valley AVA, which is part of the sprawling Columbia Valley AVA; with only about 600 acres under cultivation, Red Mountain, known for its distinctively tannic and minerally cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, wines of grain and substance, is the smallest of Washington state’s grape-growing regions. It’s close to Benton City — “A Tuscany Sort of Place” — pop. 2,800. The application for AVA recognition was initiated by Hedges Family Estate and supported by Kiona Vineyards, Blackwood Canyon Vintners, Sandhill Winery, Seth Ryan Winery and Terra Blanca Winery.

The proprietors of Hedges Family Estate are Tom and Anne-Marie Hedges, who married in 1976 — she is from France’s Champagne region, he is from eastern Washington — and in 1986 launched American Wine Trade Inc. to export wine to Europe. The first wine from Hedges Cellars came in 1987, after which the couple segued toward vineyard acquisition and the founding of a real facility. Winemaker for Hedges is Tom Hedges’ brother Pete.

So, the label of the wine in question is from the Hedges stable. While Hedges produces other wines from the Red Mountain appellation, the name of the winery and the grapes take precedence on the labels, as is typical with American wines. This one, however, modeled, as I said, on certain French examples, is produced by Descendants Liegeois Dumont — seen at the bottom of the label — a combination of the two names of Anne-Marie Hedges’ family in Champagne. Under “Red Mountain” is the name of the vineyard — Les Gosses — and under that the special name for this production “Cuvée Marcel Dupont,” Anne-Marie Hedges’ grandfather, and, finally and modestly, Descendants Liegeois Dumont.

A major difference between the Red Mountain “Les Gosses” designation on this wine and, for example, Chambolle-Musigny “Les Amoureuses” is the sense of history and reputation. All lovers of fine wine know that Chambolle-Musigny is one of the stellar wine villages of the Cote de Nuit section of Burgundy and that Les Amoureuses is a Premier Cru vineyard (deserving elevation to Grand Cru status) whose renown stretches back to the 19th Century. Forgive my bluntness, but who the hell knows anything about Red Mountain?

Marketing California wines or American wines generally, I think, would be difficult, though more successful, theoretically, if the AVA indicated is very well-known for the quality of the wines in produces, focused on particular grape varieties, or small and fairly unique. Nobody is going to buy a wine based on the words Central Coast or North Coast displayed prominently on the label; the scope is too vast, the identifying characteristics too vague, the quality too variable. (The same argument is true, of course, for huge, tractless regions like the Loire Valley or just Toscana.) I mean, I would be interested in a pinot noir that boldly announced its terroir as Santa Lucia Highlands or Santa Rita Hills or cabernet sauvignon whose label was emblazoned with Mount Veeder or Howell Mountain. And if some brash producer featured the seldom-seen Fair Play AVA (in the Sierra Foothills) as the paramount element in its label design, I would probably take a chance on it, if only because it’s very small — only 350 acres of vines — and because it’s the highest elevation AVA in California. (Yeah, I had to look it up.)

I may be taking the label of the Red Mountain “Les Gosses” Cuvée Marcel Dupont 2009, Descendants Liegeois Dupont, way too seriously; there’s a good chance that this homage to French practices on the part of the Hedges family is purely whimsical. Still, and despite earlier caveats, I applaud this tiny effort at place-based nomenclature.

The wine, by the way, is superb. One hundred percent syrah — a grape that takes to the Red Mountain terrain the way fondant icing snuggles up to a petit four — it aged 14 months in a combination of American (65%), French (30%) and Hungarian (5%) oak, half new barrels, half neutral. Heady aromas of mint and eucalyptus, black currants and blueberries are woven with briers and brambles, earth and slate; a few minutes in the glass bring up traces of cloves and sandalwood, smoke and ash and moss, rose petals, potpourri and bitter chocolate. Right, try to stop sniffing that. In the mouth, the wine is dense and chewy, an impermeable sifting of finely-milled tannins, burnished wood and polished granitic elements that gradually unveil deep spicy and floral roots that support ripe and macerated black and blue fruit flavors in a package that’s quite fresh and vibrant and ultimately beautifully balanced and integrated. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. 986 cases. Excellent. Suggested retail price is $25; I paid $30 in Memphis.

So it’s harmless, right, to label a wine Bitch. Or Sexy Bitch or Sweet Bitch or Royal Bitch or Crazy Bitch or any other of the 48 “bitch” names for which producers or marketers have applied to the TTB (common shorthand for the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) that oversees and approves labels for alcoholic beverages in the U.S.

I mean this is all just a joke, right, and if I am increasingly bothered by the proliferation of such “humorous” bitch labels then I must be a prude or completely lacking in sense of humor or just plain old, because the bitch labels, the critter labels, the goofy labels, the surreal labels, the double ententre labels — Pinot Evil, Herding Cats, Plungerhead, Screw Kappa Napa, Rude Boy and Rude Girl, Hair of the Dingo, Full Montepulciano, Smoking Parrot, Arrogant Frog and on and on — are intended, we are told, to draw the attention of young people who (quoting a press release) “are intrigued by fun wines freed of the burden of snobbery and geeky Old School connoisseurship.”

Actually, I’m not a prude, and I have a pretty active and slightly bent sense of humor — I won’t comment on the age issue — but words have meanings and consequences, and I think that the “bitch” label phenomenon — apparently launched by the R Winery in Australia, a collaboration between winemaker Chris Ringland and American importer Dan Philips that ran into serious financial trouble last year — offers a serious critique on attitudes toward women in America.

What is a bitch? A female dog, to be sure. Also a complaining woman; a competitive woman; a woman with a superior attitude; a demanding or assertive woman; a woman who denies a man sex; in short — women, because to many segments of American culture, all women are competitive, demanding, assertive, balls-breaking bitches. Unless, of course, they manifest the other side of femininity, promulgated in mainstream Hollywood movies and television sit-coms, as the sweet, non-threatening girls you would be proud to take home to meet Mom and Dad. (Maybe not Dad.) Hiphop, one of the dominant if not the dominant form of pop music in America (and an incredible influence on world culture), is defined by its deeply misogynist stance on women. Who hasn’t stopped at a red light next to a thunderously booming sound system that you feel in the marrow of your defenseless bones that churns out the refrains of “Slap the bitch,” “Fuck the bitch” and “Kill the bitch”?

Whatever advances were attained by women and their male supporters in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, popular culture has succeeded in dumbing down or, at least in the collective imagination, turning into a charade, a caricature of progress. Look at the two women involved in the latest public displays of unhinged male prowess, the still-unnamed chambermaid assaulted in a New York hotel — excuse me, allegedly assaulted — by IMF director Dominque Strass-Kahn, and Mildred Patricia Baena, the housekeeper who worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver for 20 years and who after an affair with Schwarzenegger gave birth to his child in 1997. Both women are being demonized on websites and blogs all over the world, the maid for daring to accuse a man far her superior in wealth, status and importance, and Baena for not being hot enough. Like, who do these gold-digging bitches think they are?

There’s nothing wrong with humor and irreverence in the naming of wines and the design of their labels; if irreverence and creativity bring more people into the wine-drinking fold, I’m all for it. Do we, however, have to continue to demean women in such automatic, casual, degrading manner? Let’s have a moratorium on “bitch”‘ labels. Let’s be better than that.

Bitch Grenache image, slightly altered, from aglassafterwork.com

Take a look at this label. Look at the name, Adolfo Hurtado. That’s the winemaker for Cono Sur, actually given credit for his work on the front label of a wine he made. We expect books to carry their authors’ names prominently; we assume that movies will list their writers and directors. Would you download a song that didn’t indicate who wrote the piece and performed it? Would you attend a concert of classical music advertised as “Music Played by Some Guys in Tuxedos” without the names of the composers and musicians?

Yet it’s surprising how often winemakers are not named on the labels of the wines they devoted their lives to, often in an accumulation of knowledge and experience that goes beyond the ordinary. Labels often carry the names of the winery’s founders, owners or proprietors or even the name of the artist who designed the label; far more seldom is the winemaker named, yet he or she was responsible for the wine that’s in the bottle.

I’m speaking primarily of “New World” wines: the United States, Chile, Argentina, Australia and so forth. Matters are regarded differently in Europe. No one expects a winemaker’s name to be displayed on a label from Bordeaux because all elements are subsumed under the rubric of the chateau and its estate; winemakers come and go, is the implication, but Chateau Lafite Rothschild remains. In Burgundy what matters is the vineyard, the village and the producer, and the same is true in Germany.

California, however, gave birth to the chatty back-label, to descriptions, paeans, poems, diatribes, marketing, self-aggrandizement, and many, if not most, New World producers follow suit. Rarely, though, in the verbiage, is the winemaker given credit. How rarely? I made an informal survey of 65 bottles in my reviewing rack and refrigerator, looking mainly at California wines but also some from Oregon, Washington, Argentina, Chile and Australia. The division was 48 with no winemaker indicated and 17 that named the winemaker; that’s 74 percent of the labels without the winemaker’s name.

I think that’s a shame, and I promise that from now on, whenever possible, I will include — for good or ill — the name of a winemaker with my reviews.

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So, here’s this little bottle of framboise raspberry liqueur, called Chateau Monet. (This is a liqueur, not a traditional eau-de-vie.) There is, indeed, a depiction of a chateau on the label. The squat, bulbous bottle is satisfyingly old-fashioned looking, as if the producer went to some trouble to acquire bottles that resembled those used, say, in the 18th Century. “How quaint, how authentic, how French,” we think. Then we look at the back label and read: “Prepared and bottled in the USA by La Maison Coulombe, Lewiston, Me & Londonderry, NH.”

Yes, once again we have been victimized by what marketing people call “foreign branding.” Foreign branding grows from the idea, apparently inherent in American life and culture, that anything with a foreign name just has to be better than something made in America. Do you want to get a massage or a Swedish massage? Do you want some onion soup or some French onion soup? A pizza with a lot of cheese or a Tuscan Quattro Fromaggi Pizza?
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The best-known example of foreign branding is Häagen-Dazs ice cream, which millions of Americans, including myself for many years, thought came from Sweden or Denmark: “Wow, no wonder it’s so good!” The company has been owned by General Mills since 1983, but Häagen-Dazs was founded in The Bronx in 1959 by Polish immigrants Reuben and Rose Mattus. The name, deliberately concocted to sound Scandinavian, is Duncan Hines spelled or spoken sort of inside-out and reinforced by some consonants and an umlaut. The first store opened in Brooklyn in 1975, and the rest is foreign branding history.

Another example, dear to the hearts of American folk and media culture, is the Ginsu Knife, heavily advertised on late-night television starting in 1978 in those unforgettable commercials that began, “In Japan, the hand can be used as a knife” and ending with a line that became embedded in common speech: “But wait, there’s more!” Far from being made in Japan, the knives, called Eversharp, were originally manufactured in Freemont, Ohio, where they were discovered by a pair of wily entrepreneurs who turned the brand into a raging success: “As Seen on TV!”

It’s no wonder that the 19th Century wine industry in American relied completely on European models and names to sell their stclair.jpg wares to consumers more used to terms like “Burgundy,” “Chianti,” “Sauternes” and “Madeira” than a product called, simply, “California Red Wine.” Varietal labeling didn’t really develop in California until after the end of Prohibition, though of course many wines continued (and continue) to exploit the foreign branding concept. This idea applies not only to wineries called Chateau This and Clos du That but to brands like Hearty Burgundy and Chablis Blanc and the old (and actually tasty) Green Hungarian, made by Paul Masson; we drank gallons of these wines, back in the day.

The EU frowns on the use of European place names on American wine labels, and a series of trade agreements have been instituted to prevent producers in America from plastering the terms Sherry, Port and Champagne on labels while Europeans will not pretend that their wines were made in the Napa Valley. (I mean, did they ever? Was there a “Napa Valley Riesling” from Germany?) The trick is that some veteran manufacturers of sparkling wine in California — Korbel and Gallo –were permitted to retain the use of “champagne” on their sparkling wine labels, you know, for old-times’ sake. That loophole seems pretty egregious to me, and also to French trade groups, which have mounted advertising campaigns against it.

“St. Clair Burgundy” label (it says in tiny type that it was printed in St. Louis) is from labeltrader.com, a fascinating site for collectors of all sort of antique paper labels.

As many people know, Randall Grahm, the canny proprietor of Bonny Doon Vineyard, is committed to listing the ingredients of all of his wines on the back labels, starting with the vintage of 2007. One would assume that this would be a simple proposition; the ingredient of wine is grapes. In fact, the wines from Heller Estate say exactly this on the back labels, as in: “Ingredients: 100% organic malbec grapes.” There you go.

But matters are never so easy for Grahm. Here, for example, is the ingredients list for the recently released Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2007 “Pink Wine of the Earth” (How’s that for an appellation?): “47% grenache, 27% cinsault, 14% syrah, 7% grenache blanc, 5% roussanne grapes, tartaric acid, sulfur dioxide, pectinase.” 4211.jpg

In the interest of complete transparency, Grahm goes farther, deeper: “In the winemaking process the following were utilized: Yeast hulls, bentonite, yeast nutrients, French oak barrels, untoasted oak chips, organic skim milk, copper sulfite.”

By this time, Mr. & Mrs. John Q. Wine-Drinker, standing in the retail shop trying to decided what wine to take home and drink with a ham sandwich, puts this bottle back on the shelf, muttering, “I’ll take my rosé without the skim milk, organic or not, thank you very much.”

It seems to me, in other words, that this is an instance in which complete transparency could backfire. How much do people actually need to know about how wine is made, when they just, you know, want a glass of wine with lunch?

Now it’s true that these constituents are traditional and harmless in winemaking, though some people are allergic to sulfur. Most of them are used to clarify the wine and “fine” it, as the term is for drawing particles to the bottom of the tank or cask to get rid of them. That’s the case with bentonite and skim milk, which is used in the form of casein. None of these elements is left in the wine when it is bottled. Pectinase is used to settle grape solids in the must, before the wine is sent to tanks or casks. Who, I ask, really needs this technical knowledge? Whose pleasure is increased thus?

On the other hand, the Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2007 is a delightful rosé. Sporting an entrancing ruddy watermelon color, the wine offers beguiling notes of melon, strawberry and plump. ripe peach with a hint of tart cranberry. Flavors are consistent with the bouquet, adding, though, strains of darker and slightly spicy raspberry. The wine is crisp and lively, just off-dry, with a dry, bracing finish that brings in a bit of dried herbs, a layer of chalk-like minerals. We drank this at home with salmon tacos. Thoroughly charming and delicious. Very good+ and Good Value at about $15, though I have seen it on the Internet for $12.

Closed with a screw-cap, as all wines from Bonny Doon are. Production is 7,800 cases.

Visit BonnyDoonVineyard.com.

Randall Grahm, founder, owner and winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyard, likes to stay ahead of the curve. He was one of the first winemakers in California to take up seriously the principles of biodynamic farming, in 2003. He now finishes all of his products, not just the inexpensive ones, with screw-caps. He actually sold part of his brands and vineyards in June 2006 so he could focus on the biodynamic Ca’ del Solo vineyard, reducing his production from 425,000 cases to 35,000.

The latest innovation from this dedicated, outspoken and sometimes eccentric producer can be found on the back labels on two recently released white wines from vintage 2007: a list of ingredients. That’s right, beginning with the whites from 2007 and the reds from 2006, all wines from Bonny Doon will indicate the ingredients therein. The wines so marked presently are the Bonny bonnydoon_01.jpg Doon Ca’ del Solo Vineyard Albarino 2007 (about $20) and the Ca’ del Solo Muscat 2007 (about $17), both from Monterey County, and both lovely, artfully-made wines, floral- and mineral-laced, swooning with soft, macerated citrus and stone-fruit flavors. The Muscat offers a touch of sweetness.

The principal ingredient in wine — at the risk of creating a “Big Duh” moment — is grapes. Well, one might think, there it is.

Grahm, however, in the interests of disclosure and consumer awareness and as a move toward “internal discipline,” includes on the ingredients list sulfur dioxide, indigenous yeast and organic yeast hulls, bentonite and cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate).

Now we already now that wine producers use tiny amounts of sulfur dioxide in white wines to prevent oxidation and bacterial growth. The federal government requires on every bottle of wine sold in the United States the words “Contains Sulfites,” because a small (or minuscule) portion of the population is allergic to sulfur. Yeast, well that’s a given, but is yeast actually an ingredient? Isn’t that rather like listing “heat” as an ingredient on loaves of bread? I mean, the point of fermentation is that yeast turns the grape sugars into alcohol (and carbon dioxide) and in the process largely disappears. The amount of alcohol in a wine is also mandated by federal law to be enumerated on labels (of all alcoholic beverages). Any yeast cells left in the wine would be removed by a light filtering.

Even more curious is the inclusion of bentonite, a clay, used to stabilize white and rose wines and remove proteins, and cream of tartar, used to remove tartrate crystals from wine. Racking wines and subtly filtering them remove the bentonite and the cream of tartar and the crystals from the finished wine, so none of these materials are left. So, they’re not ingredients, are bonnydoon_02.jpg they? The word “ingredient” derives from the present participle of the Latin ingredi, “to enter,” but after the bentonite and cream of tartare enter the wine, they, well, you know, they exit.

I don’t mean to make merry at the expense of Bonny Doon and Randall Grahm — well, I do a little — but what the labels on these wines really indicate aren’t ingredients but techniques, and not innovative techniques but long-established traditions in wine-making; historically, winemakers have used all sorts of natural substances, including egg whites and isinglass, to clarify wines. Grahm says in a Bonny Doon press release: “We hope other winemakers will be encouraged to also adopt less interventionist practices and rely less upon an alphabet soup of additives to ‘improve’ their wines.”

Bentonite and cream of tartar, however, aren’t “additives” and they’re not “interventionist”; they are purely natural elements that do their simple work and disappear from or are eliminated from the finished wine. Read the ingredients list on a package of Twinkies; there are some additives, and they’re all right there in the Twinkie. There are plenty of contemporary interventionist methods in winemaking to get hot and bothered about — micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, oak powder and so on — but dropping a handful of cream of tartar into a tank of white wine is not one of them.

No, of course, Grahm knows that bentonite is not an additive and what he’s really after is for winemakers to join in employing the most basic and natural methods in winemaking, but I think on these issues consumers need either a bit more or even a tad less information.

On the other hand — and there’s always an other hand — Grahm, while typically a fanatic (if not a fun-loving fantasist), is working today at an extraordinarily high level of purity and intensity in his wines. I am and will remain a complete skeptic about the efficacy or the necessity of the extreme forms of biodynamic farming methods, but I’ll put those caveats out of my mind while sipping Bonny Doon’s Albarino 2007, a supremely seductive (yet spare and slightly austere) wine that I rate Excellent and my favorite of this pair.

The strange objects on these labels, which look like condoms wearing little fur coats, depict the “sensitive crysallization” of the individual wines. The press materials don’t reveal how these “sensitive crystallizations” occur, but when Grahm writes, of the Muscat 2007, “well-defined vacuoles reflect the powerful aromatic potential” and “finely textured crystals reach out to the end of the periphery reflecting the vine’s connection to the soil,” I cannot help thinking that “sensitive crystallization” is a synonym for “smoke and mirrors.”

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