Annals of labeling: Winemakers should put the correct appellation on the label
With the new Fort Ross-Seaview American Viticultural Area’s first anniversary coming up in January, I was chatting with a winemaker who sources his fruit from a couple vineyards up there. I asked if he’ll use the new AVA on his labels starting with the 2012 vintage, and his reply was, quote, “Unfortunately, no.”
“Because we have a hard enough time explaining to people what the Sonoma Coast is,” he explained, adding a line I’ve heard often: “Lots of people even think Sonoma is in Napa Valley!”
We had a long chat about whose responsibility it is to educate the public about these newer, smaller appellations. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation you often hear, not just in Sonoma County but in places like Santa Maria Valley (where some producers prefer Santa Barbara County) or even some of the smaller appellations in Napa Valley. A winemaker will say he doesn’t want to put the smaller appellation on the label because no one’s ever heard of it. I reply that the reason no one’s ever heard of it is because locals refuse to put it on the label! Doh!
Look, I understand that it’s the marketing, sales and distribution people who hate confusing consumers with appellations they never heard of. It’s a bloodbath out there trying to sell wine, and sales people need every break they can get, and have to avoid every pitfall, if they want to succeed. If I was in sales, I’d probably feel the same way.
But I’m not a salesman, I’m an educator. Part of my job (and my pleasure) is teaching consumers some of the finer points of wine, including where it’s from—and in my opinion, a label should bear the smallest appellation to which it’s legally entitled.
A winemaker, on the other hand, has to straddle both worlds: sales and education. Their heart and soul is in teaching people about the intricacies of barrels, yeasts, clones and the like, since these things constitute the DNA of the world they inhabit and love. Yet winemakers also have to sell their wine, and oftentimes they feel that they have to listen to their sales, marketing and distribution people, who know more about the business side than they do.
It is a conundrum, and I’m not giving advice to anyone, except to say that there are fabulous stories that can be told about smaller appellations—stories marketers can use. After all, P.R. people are always saying it’s all about the story, right? Fort Ross-Seaview isn’t just about Sonoma Coast, it’s about Far Sonoma Coast, about mountains and dirt roads and fog and sunshine and wild remoteness. Santa Maria Valley isn’t just about Santa Barbara County, it’s about a cool, foggy, windswept mesa of great uniqueness. I think these are important things to convey to the public. It can be done on a back label, in a newsletter, on the restaurant floor by staff, by merchants in the store, at winemaker dinners, through winery websites and tweets and YouTubes. Of course, mass selling wines, which usually don’t come from small appellations, don’t have to worry about this, but the smaller family wineries, who frequently make the most interesting wines in California, really should be proud of their fruit sourcing, and let the world know about it.
Okay, I know I said I wasn’t giving advice, but I guess I am. Wineries: Promote these interesting, small regions that went through such hassle to get the TTB to approve them. If you love those vineyards enough to purchase [often expensive] fruit from them, you owe it to the growers, to your purchasers and, ultimately, to yourself to let people know were those grapes come from!