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That new conjunctive labeling law in Sonoma


Back in December, 2009, I blogged on “the Sonoma County label war,” a proposal by the Sonoma County Vintners by which every bottle of wine produced in the county would have to bear the words “Sonoma County” on the label. That meant, if the wine came from Russian River Valley, it would have to say “Russian River Valley – Sonoma County.” Ditto for all of Sonoma’s other 12 AVAs.

I expressed some doubt at the time whether this was really the best thing the county could do to promote itself. It seemed like a too little, too late approach to make up for the diluted Sonoma County reputation the county caused by creating so many appellations in the 1980s.

Over the weekend, the California Legislature unanimously approved a bill that essentially enacts the Sonoma County Vintners concept, dubbed “conjunctive labeling,” into law. Since there’s no reason to think Gov. Schwarzenegger won’t sign it, the new law will likely go into effect, although not for another three years.

Three other California wine regions have conjunctive labeling laws: Napa Valley, Lodi and Paso Robles.

I asked my Facebook friends, many of whom are California winemakers, what they think of this law, and the response was pretty negative. I can’t explain that; I simply report. A few examples:

“Capture winery is totally opposed.” — Tara Sharp

“My label is Dane Cellars and I oppose it also.” — Bart Hansen

“Horrible law.” — David Grega

“Dumb, dumb and dumber. I have withdrawn from the Vintners in protest and won’t participate in any of their marketing efforts.” — John M. Kelly

“…we are also considering withdrawing.  Most upsetting: we’ve voiced our concerns to the Sonoma County Vintners in a detailed, thoughtful way and they’ve completely ignored our points.” — Tara Sharp

“F’n ridiculous, moronic, and other words not fit to type.” — Hardy Wallace

“It’s a bad idea, and it sets a bad precedent for other large geographical AVAs to ram the same sort of requirement through their state legislatures.” — Randy Hall

“it’s silly” — Mark Clarin

Although to be fair, there were a few defenders:

“I think its great personally, strength via solidarity, and seems plenty of industry concurred; just b/c SVVGA didn’t follow your concerns doesn’t mean they weren’t listening.” — William Allen

“Is the Napa law ridiculous too? What about Paso Robles? How about Lodi? The one thing Sonoma County (wineries) ALWAYS gets criticized for is that they can’t come together for a common good… and a lot of the comments above illustrate that point exactly.” — Kelly Keagy

  1. Bill, gee, I would give up my weekend for that opportunity!

  2. This makes me wish I was in Sonoma County, so that I could have fun with this!

    I went and looked at the actual requirement of the new law. It says the type must be 2mm tall for a 750ml bottle. I believe that means you could bury it in the Government Warning text…!

  3. Interesting Jefe. I just looked at the text of the bill again and nowhere does it specify that “Sonoma County” be on the FRONT label. Funny how supporters of this legislation have failed to point that out. If I can bury “Sonoma County” on the back label, on a neck label or anywhere but the front it would make it much easier to comply. But not any more palatable.

  4. I think most Napa Valley sub-appellations would have been against putting Napa County in conjuctions with their appellation. But it was a different story with Napa Valley. The name was long recognized and a positive thing so it was relatively unopposed. Napa County included some very dissimilar growing areas to the Valley proper. Sonoma county probably does as well.

    The reason, however, that the NVVA supported conjuctive labeling was to insure the preservation of Napa Valley as an appellation. During the discussion at one meeting addressing the issue, the late, great Chuck Carpy stood up and summed up how he felt the many proposed sub-appellations could affect Napa Valley. He held up a piece of paper with lots of holes cut out of it and said, “This is what you’ll get if you aren’t careful….swiss cheese! Conjunctive labeling won the day and has been a win-win in the Napa Valley. While Stags Leap, Carneros, Oakville, Rutherford and other appellations are strong, so too the Napa Valley, which is required to be present on the label in conjunction with the smaller appellation, remains at the top of the heap.

  5. Morton, good point: Napa Valley had the pre-existing reputation for quality. Sonoma County did not. One other thing I’d point out is that people understand that a “county” is a pretty big, pedestrian thing. A “valley” sounds cuter and more compact.

  6. Bill Green says:

    Funny, all this time I thought people were proud to be in Sonoma County and would tout it. Guess I was wrong.

  7. How many of us “mature” individuals remember the wine commercials of Carlo Rossi his own self talking about how he loves the grapes from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties as the sources of his wines?

    If Sonoma had been promoting itself as a region as long as Napa has, perhaps more people would have that name as firmly in the front of their minds as does Napa today — Steve, you can get another column out of “What happened to Mendocino,” right? 😉

  8. Sherman, I can probably do that!

  9. Bill I’m proud to live where I live, and proud of the work we have put in on our vineyard, wines and brand. I believe our interests are not served by AB1798.

    Oldest trick in the book to say “if you don’t support this law you are unpatriotic” – and almost desperate. That’s bumper-sticker thinking, sort of like “a rising tide raises all boats.” That’s true for… boats. In reality a rising tide drowns people and businesses in low-lying areas.

  10. John–

    Have people in Sonoma gotten to that extreme? I may not agree with the severity of the conjunctive labelling issue–although it is not without problems, mostly to do with the multiple Sonomas, but no one ought to be called names for diasagreeing.

    By the way, what appellation(s) do you currently use for your wines?

    Ask people in hurricane country if rising tides is good for their boats.

    I think Sonoma deserves far more credit than it gets, and that includes all kinds of Sonomas. I wonder if a useful ploy might be to try to restrict the requirement to labels that do not have a mention of Sonoma in its chosen AVA. So Alex Vly et al with use SoCo, but Son Mtn, Vly or Coast would not need to.

  11. John, please don’t put words in my mouth. I’ll leave the vitriol to you.

    I’ve just always thought most people who live and work in Sonoma County were proud of it. From the discussion here I’m rethinking it.

  12. Bill I apologize if you or anyone feels I have resorted to name-calling. Not my intention, nor do I feel any vitriol – though I can see where my posts might be construed that way.

    I simply oppose AB1798 in its current form. I think Charlie’s idea is a good one. Or, it would be less onerous if the typeface requirement were eliminated. It would be easier to live with (even for AVAs that already have “Sonoma” in them) if it were explicated that “Sonoma County” does not have to appear in juxtaposition with the actual AVA.

  13. Replying to Christian Miller, on my mention of Leninism, you might want to study history a tad. Are you saying that the proposed label law can be reduced to an issue of facts? The question at hand is whether govt. should issue more rules or not. It is a political, not a factual, issue. No amount of market research can make the label law a science, instead of an opinion.

  14. Charmion: I agreed with you (perhaps I wasn’t clear enough) in that I said that this is also a philosophical and legal issue, and that the market research had no bearing on objections based in these areas.

    The reason I weighed in was to establish some facts, based on research using established scientific and statistical methods. I think these facts ARE relevant to people who are do not agree with your political/philosophical objections, or are weighing them against any marketing advantages provided by conjunctive labeling. The research showed that in the case of Sonoma County, AVA+County does not hurt AVAs in the circumstances most favorable to AVAs and helps in others. And that Sonoma County per se has a very favorable and well-recognized image among high frequency and high end wine buyers.

    BTW, I minored in History and have remained an enthusiastic amateur historian. Although I’m not a Lenin expert, I’m pretty sure he had no opinion on conjunctive labeling, and would not have regarded conjunctive labeling laws as in the vanguard, or even the caboose, of communism. (Marx, oddly enough, did have some prescient and positive things to say about appellations!)

  15. C. Miller, now I am very curious, what did Marx say about appellations, or is my leg bein pulled? In what writing? It has been a long time since I waded thru his writings, but, I too, did wade thru Karl, Engels, Lenin, and even remember Hertze, Folke, and Bakunin, if my memory serves.

    And another point, somewhat tongue-in-cheek: I thought that the Sonoma-ites prided themselves on being different from Napa, and now, here, with the conjus. law, they want to be LIKE Napa.

  16. Vineyards pop up at various points in Das Kapital. Here’s one, although it’s not the one I was thinking of (which I can’t find right now): “A vineyard producing wine of very extraordinary quality which can be produced only in relatively small quantities yields a monopoly price. The wine-grower would realise a considerable surplus-profit from this monopoly price, whose excess over the value of the product would be wholly determined by the means and fondness of the discriminating wine-drinker. This surplus-profit, which accrues from a monopoly price, is converted into rent and in this form falls into the lap of the landlord, thanks to his title to this piece of the globe endowed with singular properties…”
    “…This rent is distinguished, in the first place, by the preponderant influence exerted here by location upon differential rent (very significant, e.g., in vineyards and building sites in large cities)”
    Capital Vol. III Part VI Ch. 46

    Marx being Marx, he zeroes in on the appropriation of the surplus into the despised “rent”. I wonder if this was because, as a resident of England while researching and writing Capital, he would be quite familiar with Bordeaux (mostly absentee landlords) and unfamiliar with Burgundy (family owned and farmed).

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