Labels


The French used to jeer at Americans for the health warnings required on the back labels of American wines and wines imported from other countries. “Zut alors,” they would sneer, “we are adults. We know how to drink wine. It is part of our French culture and heritage. You sissy American worry-warts!”

But ha-ha to you, Pierre, now the French, who are undergoing a national turmoil of political correctness — packages of snack Warning Labelfoods in France carry directives to eat more fruit and vegetables — are seeing mandatory warning labels on the back labels of their wines.

Worse, though, far worse — and thanks to the vigilant Tom Wark at Fermentation for pointing this out last Thursday and providing links — is that a county court in Paris recently ruled that a story in the newspaper Le Parisien about Champagne, an editorial piece (not a paid advertisement) that offered recommendations, prices and details about the champagne houses, amounted to a form of advertising. The court said — I’m quoting a story by Oliver Styles on decanter.com for Jan. 10 — that the article “was intended to promote sales of alcoholic beverages in exercising a psychological effect on the reader that incited him or her to buy alcohol.”

A spokesman for the French National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Addiction added, “Any communication in favour of an alcoholic drink, such as a series of articles in favour of Champagne, constitutes advertising and is therefore subject to the public health code.”

The implications of this move on freedom of the press are horrendous. Will newspaper articles about the drug industry and specific medicines have to carry long sidebars about proper dosage and possible side-effects? Will newspaper stories about the automobile industry be required to state: “Buckle Up for Safety: It’s the Law”? Must a piece about the merger of fast-food chains include a box with a black border that describes the dangers of trans-fats and childhood obesity?

And think about this. When you’re served a bottle of wine in a restaurant, the waiter shows you the front of the bottle but not the back. Are we entering a situation in which waiters will be required to display the front label — “Sir, Chateau Le Chien Perdu 2004″ — and then the back label — “And, the obligatory health warning, as authorized by Ordinance 2451.” Or the waiter dribbles a splash in your glass for you to evaluate, leans down and whispers confidentially, “Sir, be sure when you leave the restaurant not to operate any heavy machinery. Fork lifts, drill-presses, you know.” Or perhaps wine lists themselves will have to carry health warnings at the bottom of every page.

And then there are wine blogs. Oh, yes, do you think we will be exempt?

In order to forestall that eventuality — because all things are possible in this world — I will go ahead and provide the warning now:

The BiggerThanYourHead Warning Label

Warning:
1. This blog may incite you to purchase and drink wine, and that wine may taste to good you, leading you to purchase another bottle.
2. The wine that this blog incites you to purchase may match the food in your lunch or dinner so perfectly that you will be transported to a state of complete satisfaction.
3. This blog may inspire you to seek out many different styles and types of wines, leading you to expand your awareness, knowledge and pleasure.
4. Since you’re an adult and already know that drinking too much wine or other alcoholic beverages may result in temporary impairment or, in the case of desperately prolonged consumption, permanent health problems, this blog expects you to drink moderately, to behave yourself and not act like a freakin’ maniac and bring harm to yourself and others.

Two weeks ago I posted a piece to BTYH about the lack of official regulation of such terms as “reserve,” “private reserve,” “special selection” and so on, label distinctions that imply that a wine is better than its “regular” stablemate from the same winery but are seldom specific as to the details. Consumers need more information than merely the word “reserve” (or whatever variation) on a label to help in choosing a wine at a retail store or restaurant, especially since high-minded phrases like these frequently show up on cheap wines.

So today, I launch a series of posts that will compare regular bottlings of California wines with their “reserve” counterparts, classic_merlot_big.jpg starting with a pretty basic and well-known pair of wines, the Clos du Bois Merlot and Reserve Merlot, both from the excellent 2004 vintage. Winemaker for these wines was Erik Olsen.

The Clos du Bois Merlot for 2004 carries a North Coast designation. The sketchy information on the bottle’s back label doesn’t explain where the grapes come from, but the winery’s website tells us that 71 percent of the fruit derives from Sonoma County, with the rest coming from Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties. The blend of grapes on this wine is 90 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent “other,” which could imply cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot or, you know, anything else. Clos du Bois produced 345,000 cases of this wine, or 4,140,000 bottles, which is why the wine is ubiquitous on wine lists in the country’s mid-level steak houses and bistro style restaurants, especially in wine-by-the-glass programs. (Yes, the label pictured here, taken from the winery’s website, indicates a Sonoma County designation, but it’s really North Coast.)

What’s it like? Solid, firm, well-knit, offering cherry-berry scents with touches of smoke and spice. (The wine ages 13 months in French, Eastern European and American oak, 20 percent new.) In the mouth, flavors of black currant and black cherry are permeated by polished oak and grainy tannins that bring in elements of briers, brambles and underbrush to dominate the finish. In other words: A nice wine, and I’ll rate it Very Good. On the other hand, I think a suggested retail price of $18 is a bit beyond the pale, and indeed you find the wine discounted to $14 or $15 all over the place. Drink now through 2008 or ’09.

The Clos du Bois Reserve Merlot 2004, Alexander Valley, announces its special nature first by its more artsy label, by (of course) res_merlot_big.jpg the term “reserve,” used twice, and by the definite appellation, Alexander Valley, which lies within Sonoma County. The make-up of the wine is 91 percent merlot, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon and 4 percent malbec. It aged in wood longer than its North Coast cousin, 21 months opposed to 13 months, and in all French oak (half new), the most expensive barrels in the winemaking realm. Clos du Bois produced 13,500 cases of this reserve wine. These details don’t appear on the back label, which merely delivers a rather ecstatic description of the wine’s character.

And what is that character? The immediate impression is of a cool minerally bouquet that gradually unfolds ripe black currant and black cherry scents suffused by dried spice and potpourri. The wine’s texture is like dusty velvet infused with minerals; flavors of currants, cherries and plums offer hints of lead pencil, lavender, bitter chocolate and mocha, all of this enveloped in spicy oak and chewy, grainy tannins. Obviously, this “reserve” wine displays more dimension and detail than its stablemate, and in this sense, I think, justifies its heightened status. On the other hand, simply as a wine fashioned to exist at the reserve level, I see little justification for it, rating it Very Good+ and wishing I could bump it up to Excellent, but the real depth of character is not there. I can see ordering a glass of this wine in a restaurant to accompany a hanger steak and frites or pork loin or similar hearty fare, but it’s not a wine I would stock up on, even at the suggested price, which is $23. Best for consumption from now through 2010 or ’11.

Winemakers and producers in American, though they usually don’t want to admit this, have a much easier time as far as governmental regulations are concerned than their counterparts in Europe. Or maybe they do admit it, but sort of gruffly, in an bvpr_01.jpg American sort of way. In America, the rules set down by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), formerly the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms — and thank god they finally got the guns out of there! now the vice president can handle those directly! — primarily effect what terms can be printed on wine labels and what the terms mean.

In Europe, the story is far different. The regulations laid down by the official wine bureaus of various countries stipulate what kinds of grapes can be grown in what regions and what grapes go into different sorts of wines, often including the minimum percentages of grapes in blended wines. Some rules are so stringent that they dictate what the yields must be in the vineyards, what sort of trellising system must be used and when harvest must begin.

Whew, I’m glad we don’t have to worry about all that stuff in America! Our guiding power is the can-do spirit of frontier individualism which says, essentially, plant any grapes anywhere you want to and make the wine any way you can. The main kjblanc.jpg point, as far as the TTB is concerned, is that fraud not be perpetuated by misleading label terms. So, if a label says that the wine is from Sonoma County, it “must be derived from not less than 75% of grapes, citrus or other fruit or other agricultural commodity grown in the named county AND must be fully finished (except for cellar treatment and blending which does not result in an alteration of class and type) in the state in which the named county is located.” I’m quoting here from the official Department of Treasury The Beverage Alcohol Manual: Basic Mandatory Labeling Information for Wine, a fascinating document written 75% in real English and available here.

If the label states that the wine is a product of an approved American Viticultural Area (AVA), such as Russian River Valley or Stags Leap District, then the amount of grapes in the wine from that AVA must be 85 percent. If the label states that the wine was “Estate Bottled,” then 100 percent of the grapes must derive from land owned or controlled by the winery, which much be located within the same AVA as the vineyard and “must crush, ferment the grapes, finish, age, process and bottle the wine on their premises.”

There are other various picayune label matters that producers must attend to, like the size of the type that the government warming is printed in, but it’s good that generally the federal government wants to prevent, as much as possible, the hoodwinking of innocent wine consumers.

Which brings me to the word “reserve,” a term that we see on wine labels all the time over which the TTB has no control at all and has never attempted to control and the whole reason for today’s post.

The word “reserve” on a label implies that the wine is special in some way, that it was, perhaps, produced from a better part of a vineyard, that the wine was selected from barrels whose contents demonstrated higher quality, that more care was taken with its making and that it is limited in production, therefore commanding a high price. There is also the implication that a winery produces a reserve bottling to augment its “regular” wine in the same genre.

Variations on the term “reserve” include Private Reserve, Proprietor’s Reserve, Vineyard Reserve and Vintner’s Reserve, Special solaris-cabernet.jpg Reserve and such terms as Special Selection, Special Release and Our Finest Selection. None of these terms is regulated, so that Glen Ellen, during “the fighting varietals” promotions in the 1980s, was free to label its wines as “Proprietors Reserve,” even though they were produced in the millions of cases and sold for $5 or $6. Then there’s Kendall-Jackson, whose well-known “Vintner’s Reserve” series, costing from about $12 to $16 a bottle, is ubiquitous in the country’s restaurants. Surely the situation is confusing for consumers when they can buy a bottle of Glen Ellen Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon for $5 while the Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon costs $116 and the Caymus Special Selection costs $136.

I think there need to be some rules, not necessarily the way it is in Tuscany, for example, where the differences between Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva and between Rosso di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino are enforced by government regulations. No, I think it is enough that a producer be required to prove that a wine labeled in some manner to indicate its superiority to a cousin wine from the same winery was indeed derived from a special vineyard or portion of a vineyard, that the grapes received particular treatment in the winery and that the wine was bottled in a limited quantity. These factors should be enumerated on the back label in straightforward language that consumers can understand. Wineries that did not follow these procedures or that could not justify using the terms would not be allowed to produce so-called “reserve” wines.

Next week: A similar rant on an equally nebulous and often misused term, “Old Vines.”

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