Judging a Wine by its Label

By G.M. “Pooch” Pucilowski

Wine labels contain a great deal of information. Here’s a look at what you can learn from a label.

Which way to the front? The federal government requires that certain information be printed on the front of a wine bottle—things such as alcohol content, appellation and the bottler’s address—but it doesn’t say which part of the bottle is the front. So marketers put all that mandatory information on a small label, slap it on the bottle and call it the front. The big label with the pretty picture that entices you to buy the wine is actually on the back of the bottle, but guess which side faces you on the store shelves?

Name that wine.  Most wines are named according to grape variety: Zinfandel, for example, or Chardonnay. By federal law, a wine must contain at least 75 percent of a grape variety to use its name on the label.

Wineries use proprietary names such as Joe’s Special White or Great Red when the wine is not produced from a single grape variety.

Geography is destiny. Some producers state the growing region, or appellation, on the label. To do so, 85 percent of the wine’s grapes must come from that area. Some wineries list just the state or county where the grapes were grown. The most general appellation is “American,” which means the grapes can come from anywhere in the United States.

Vineyard vs. estate. If a label includes the name of a vineyard, at least 95 percent of the grapes came from that vineyard. When a label says a wine is “estate bottled,” that means the winery grew 100 percent of the grapes at its vineyard and made the wine on the premises.

Whose wine is it anyway? Wondering if the winery grew its own grapes or bought the grapes from other growers? If a label reads “Produced and bottled by,” “Grown, produced and bottled by” or “Made by,” the winery actually fermented at least 75 percent of the wine. If the label reads “Cellared by,” “Blended by” or “Vinted by,” the winery purchased the juice, then aged and/or blended the wine. Generally, such wines sell for less than $10 a bottle.

Wines of the Month

McManis Family Vineyards 2002 River Junction Pinot Grigio ($9). A new release with light, gentle flavors, this dry, medium-bodied white is a good value. (209-599-1186)

Van der Vijver 2001 Cooper Vineyard Reserve Barbera ($16). Cooper Vineyard in Amador County grows some of the best Barbera around, and many wineries in the Foothills area take advantage of its fruit. This is an excellent example from a small vintner. The wine has ripe, plummy juice that balances nicely with the tannins. (530-620-3210)

Wente Vineyards 2001 Arroyo Seco Riva Ranch Reserve Chardonnay ($17). This is a medium-bodied dry white with a beautiful balance of pineapple fruit and buttery toastiness. If you haven’t tried Wente’s wines lately, give them another look. (925-456-2305)

Genesis 2000 Columbia Valley Merlot ($17). This wine, under a new label from Hogue Cellars, has lots of blackberries and cassis with medium tannins. It needs to be open for a few hours to soften. (509-786-4557)