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Label terminology: when seeing isn’t believing

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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.

  1. Perfect. But shouting into a large, dark tunnel, as I’ve learned after talking about this labeling issue for about a decade.

    There are many people running around who haven’t a clue what Cellared, Vinted, and the other “by” references really mean, and that in some cases, they could be paying a different price for the same bulk wine but under separate labels because of the obscurity of such terms–not to mention the many ways to say oak without ever mentioning a barrel but increasing the price anyway, and so on, right down to the new and improved AVA designations that often are akin to the present Bordeaux situation that you mention.

  2. Morton Leslie says:

    When Glen Ellen bastardized the words “Private Reserve” the wine media were noticeably silent. But since the words never really had any tangible meaning, I guess no one felt it worth the effort to complain. But there is a difference between pure meaningless marketing hype and government imposed labeling regulations. The latter always follow untrue or misleading marketing practices about real things that can influence quality. They try to solve a problem. We need these. What we don’t need are regulations that create misleading statements, are meaningless marketing hype, and solve nothing.

  3. A piece of advice that still holds true: say what you mean and mean what you say. From the sounds of your post “Bordeaux Premier Cru” doesn’t fall into the order of a white lie as much as a regular one. If there’s nothing different other than those words, it’s unfair to the buyer. I agree, writers/reviewers must hold wineries up to certain standards to ensure that a a Reserve bottle is called so for a reason.

  4. I am probably in a very weak position when it comes to speaking for the average punter on label confusion. In my business, small differences in location, in designation, have meaning. But those meanings to me, and I hope to my small band of loyal readers, are distinctions having nothing to do with quality–or value.

    Those latter attributes are related to what is in the bottle, not what is on the label. No one cares about the legal difference between produced and bottled by and vinted and bottled by. There are plenty of negotiant wines that are of higher quality and/or greater value relative to price than wines with the fancier “p and b by” qualifier.

    Government’s role in all this has been to make distinctions ages ago that were not easily understood then and are not easily understood now. But so what? Let’s not confuse the issues here.

    Short of having Morton Leslie or Ron Washam or Andy Blue (no, wait, belay that last statement) taste every bottle of CA wine before release and putting a quality tag on it, and having similar independent, organizations and individuals, there cannot exist any unifying system of quality. It does not exist regardless of “growths”, “crus”, AVAs, DOCagxyz, black roosters, “Reserves”, “Private Reserves”, Wine Enthusiasts or invocations of Bacchus. And heaven help us if there ever does exist one monolithic voice.

    The only truth about wine is what each person says about it. We could wish for fewer advertising words on labels, but TBC does not have many of those, yet everyday, I see King Freddy of Franzia laughting all the way to the bank.

    So, I don’t worry too much if the Bordelais want a meaningless name on their low-priced spreads. As Steve so rightly points out, Ch. Gloria is shining proof that wine talks louder than labels in the long run.

  5. I was tasting once with a less savvy friend of mine last summer. We were poured a wine that had “reserve” on the label. He asked “what does that mean?” I said “it means ‘get excited’” becuase it really is just a marketing tool that means nothing. Ahh, the backwards world of wine marketing! my favorite!

  6. “…wine talks louder than labels in the long run.”

    Only to the particularly initiated, Charlie, which is why Fred Franzia and his Yellow Tail adversary can run to the bank along with the producers of Santa Margherita PG.

    In the U.S., the useless terms, Cellared and Vinted, when combined with back label PR nonsense, plus the idea that one bulk wine can theoretically show up under various labels and at various prices, also directly contradicts your quote above.

  7. No radical response required, guys. All aspects of our industry can be abused. But this doesn’t call for book burnings. No need to destroy oak barrels because some folk misuse. No need to police fruit extraction because some guys are seeking Parker points. And, as for that, no need to crucify Parker because the mamoth retail venues utilize the point system as a free salesperson. I, personally, perform the tasting based on the entire experience of the wine. The expectation that the language on the label creates is part of the tasting. A good wine either meets all of my expectations or exceeds them. I have an expectation for JJ prum. I have an expectation for Graacher-Himmelreich. On and on. Put all you want on there, but deliver, or “suffer your father’s fate you will.”

  8. ” …. combined with back label PR nonsense, plus the idea that one bulk wine can theoretically show up under various labels and at various prices, also directly contradicts your quote above. ”

    You will have to explain that to me, Tom. Even TBC, the ultimate bulk wine, has folks who taste different batches of it and send some back. And there are ordinary punters. No matter how you slice it, at the most basic level, the ability to sell more than one bottle of a given wine has more to do with the wine than the label. It is not different from soap or canned green beans (does anyone eat them anymore?) or Campbell’s soup.

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