Don’t get me started on “naked wines,” so named because winemakers take a minimalist approach to their manufacture, not because of their state of unclothedness. (But as long as I’m on the subject of nakedness, I do think the Duchess of Cambridge should have kept her clothes on.)
When it comes to wine labels, rather than looking for quirkiness, look for straightforward labels that convey information required by the Department of Treasury’s Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade.
One of the first TTB requirements is producer name. This sounds pretty straightforward, but producers of cutesy wines are often hidden in small lettering on the back label.
Vintage date is not a requirement, but if shown, math enters the picture. By law, if a generic appellation like “California” or “Napa” is indicated, then 85 percent of the wine must come from the vintage cited. If a specific sub-appellation is shown, such as “Stag’s Leap” or “Howell Mountain,” then 95 percent of the wine must come from the vintage indicated.
Appellation of origin, the site where the fruit is grown, also plays into these percentages. If a generic appellation like “California” or a county name like “Napa” is indicated on the label, 75 percent of the wine must come from the region indicated. If a more specific sub-appellation is indicated, such as “Howell Mountain,” then at least 85 percent of the wine must come from grapes grown in the named area. If a single vineyard within an appellation or sub-appellation is indicated, such as Cakebread’s Dancing Bear Ranch located on Howell Mountain, then 95 percent of the fruit used in the wine must come from Dancing Bear Ranch.
If a wine carries a varietal name – i.e., cabernet, merlot, sauvignon blanc – it must carry an appellation of origin and must be made from at least 75 percent of the varietal indicated.
If a wine carries no vintage year and no varietal designation and a generic appellation like “California,” the wine may be sourced from anywhere in California and made with juice from multiple vintages and from various varietals, none of which have to make up 75 percent of the blend.
Many expensive wines carry vintage years but no varietal designation. These proprietary blends carry names like Insignia from Joseph Phelps, described on the label as a “Napa Valley Estate Grown Red Wine,” or Opus One, whose label simply states, “A Napa Valley Red Wine.” Proprietary names are used to allow winemakers complete freedom in blending their wines without regard to percentages of varietals used.
Often “Estate Bottled” will appear on labels. Once again, math enters into this. For a wine to carry this designation, 100 percent of the wine must come from grapes grown on land owned or controlled by the winery, and the winery must be located in the viticultural area indicted.
The use of the terms “reserve” or “vintner’s reserve” is unregulated. These terms should imply something special like the best grapes were reserved for the blend, but in actuality, how special is a reserve blend if a gazillion cases were made from it?
Relevant but unregulated information regarding how the wine was aged, time spent in new and neutral oak barrels, whether aged sur lie, on spent yeast particles that add flavor to wine and whether the wine went through a secondary or malolactic fermentation is often found on the back label and can be helpful to the consumer.
Lastly, the feds require alcohol by volume be shown and net content in milliliters. All bottles must carry a health warning for pregnant women and a caution about driving while under the influence.
As a rule of thumb, cute labels may catch the eye, but they do not always deliver the best bang for your buck. Read the labels both front and back.