Label terminology: when seeing isn’t believing
There’s an interesting debate happening right now in France over a proposed new appellation, and reading about it in Decanter reminded me of something I wrote in my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. In a chapter on Pinot Noir, I said:
I used to joke (and it’s truer than ever) that every extra word a vintner can squeeze onto the front label is worth an additional $5. Apply this formula to a hypothetical wine — Jones Winery 1999 Brown Vineyard South Block Bobby’s Corner Lily’s Row Clone 9 Old Vine Grandad’s Special Estate Grown Pinot Noir — and be prepared for sticker shock.
What I meant, of course, was that many consumers, not fully understanding what label terminology actually means, are apt to be fooled by wording, and whenever a consumer is fooled, you can bet he’s paying more money than he should. This is elemental marketing; it’s why advertisers know that the use of terms like “New!” and “Free!” have such dramatic impact on the psyche.
The brouhaha in Bordeaux concerns an effort to have the French government approve a new appellation: Bordeaux Premier Cru. As things now stand (I’m referring only to the Médoc), Bordeaux is divided into three tiers: AOC Bordeaux, regional AOCs (Médoc and Haut-Médoc), and AOC communes (Margaux, Pauillac, etc.). The latter category, of course, itself is divided into 5 tiers, or Growths, as defined by the 1855 Classification. There used to be an additional tier, AOC Cru Bourgeois (itself with three levels, from highest to lowest: Exceptionnel, Supérieur, and plain Cru Bourgeois), but my esteemed Wine Enthusiast colleague in France, Roger Voss, tells me these are “a voluntary association” and the sub-classes within Crus Bourgeois (exceptionnel and supérieur) “were banned by a court decision 3 years ago.” In essence, then, the “Bordeaux Premier Cru” would have replaced “Bordeaux Supérieur” as the appellation of choice just below Médoc/Haut-Médoc.
Well, of course you’re thoroughly confused by now. So am I and so, more importantly, are the Bordelais themselves, which is why this brouhaha has reached, well, Gallic proportions. Isn’t all this proof that Bordeaux’s system is hopelessly muddled in the first place?
Everybody wants to charge as much as they can for their wine. Vintners know that the public is influenced by what it says on the label, and that people have some hazy, half-formed impression that some words are more important — and thus worth more — than others. Read my quote again, above, about $5 per word labels; I suspect the same holds true for those who want to invent “Bordeaux Premier Cru,” as if that were a guarantee of anything. In Bordeaux, as elsewhere, the best châteaux understand that you don’t need a title in order to make great wine and convince the public to buy it. Chateau Gloria is a shining example of this. Unclassified, it’s considered as good as most anything else. (And to this day the wines of Pomerol aren’t classified at all.)
So I have to agree with one of the critics of the proposed new change, who said, “Adding Premier Cru, presumably so a euro or two can be added to the cost, with no change in the chais or vineyards, will only highlight the quality issue further and will send the discerning customer diving for a much cheaper and more rewarding bottle of Chilean Cabernet or Aussie Shiraz.”
Back here in California, it’s the same situation, beginning with the awful words “Private Reserve” which mean absolutely nothing, in most cases. We writers have to continue doing a better job educating consumers not to be misled by labels (and the TTB has been less than useful in helping us). The next time you see a bunch of words on the label that you suspect are trying to fool you into thinking the wine is more prestigious than it really is, trust your instincts.