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The Sonoma County label war heats up


Oh man, this is gonna be a good fight. Some of Sonoma County’s most powerful organizations want to force the county’s sub-appellations to include “Sonoma County” on the label of every bottle of wine made there.

The Sonoma County Vintners is pushing the idea. Its executive director, Honore Comfort, was quoted in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat as saying that adding Sonoma County to all the county’s appellations [e.g., Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, etc.] will bring “significant potential benefit to Sonoma County wineries, grape growers and tourism.”

The Press-Democrat, however, cited a couple vintners, among them Tom Hinde, president of Flowers, as being more skeptical. Hinde predicted “vibrant debate” around the issue. Greg Bjornstad, of Bjornstad Cellars, told me, “I’d be concerned about an extra layer of compliance that wineries would need to adhere to, much less any extra expense for redesigning labels to include new verbiage,” although he added, “On the up side, I suppose it could help bring some more recognition to Sonoma.” Other winemakers are all in favor. Bob Cabral, at Williams Selyem, told me, “I think it is a wonderful idea…If we ever want the consumers to understand appellations, like RRV or Dry Creek Valley, we need to start broad geographically with the county.” Having a broader “Sonoma County” identity on each bottle, he believes, “reinforces the message to the consumers that Sonoma County is NOT Napa!”

Sonoma’s always had a Rodney Dangerfield attitude with respect to their neighbor “over the hill,” Napa Valley. This proposed new move is an effort to promote Sonoma to the consumer as vigorously as does Napa (which pushed through its own so-called “conjunctive labeling” law in 1987). I’ve written many times, both here and in my books, about how Sonoma was in such a hurry to sub-appellate, in the 1980s, that they carved up their county like a holiday turkey before anyone really understood its terroir. Napa Valley, on the other hand, took more of a wait-and-see approach, and today, their sub-AVAs — mainly mountains and the towns along Highway 29 — make much more sense than do Sonoma’s, which resemble a cracked up Humpty Dumpty.

There is a sense of too little, too late to Sonoma’s conjunctive labeling proposal. True, if “Sonoma County” appeared on every bottle of wine coming from there, there probably would be “100 million faces [of Sonoma] on retail shelves and wine lists,” in the words of Nick Frey, the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission’s president, who’s in favor of the idea. But “Made in China” appears on hundreds of millions of products and nobody rushes out to buy them because of where they were made. It’s also not clear to me that there wouldn’t be a corresponding dilution of Sonoma’s sub-appellations. Russian River Valley, for example, has tried so hard, and with so much success, to advance its reputation. How would appending “Sonoma County” to it help? It might not hurt, but if I were a Russian River Valley winery, the fact that “it might not hurt” my business is hardly an encouraging reason to support it.

There’s also the problem that what worked for Napa Valley will not necessarily work for anyplace else. To mimic a competitor’s business model is seldom a formula for success. In business and elsewhere, we see that in order to achieve something lasting, you have to come up with something original. Besides, I don’t think that origin is as important as it used to be. The consumer now has access to wines from everywhere in the world, and is guided by factors far more important (to him) than appellation. Price, good reviews, peer recommendations, wine type, shelf talkers and even label design play more into buying decisions, I suspect, than where the grapes were grown.

Sonoma County, like all wine regions, suffers from an inherent tension: each winery wishes to promote itself above all the others, and sometimes that involves competing against its neighbors. A winery that promotes its greater appellation runs the risk of hurting itself by make its competitors more illustrious. This is why there has always been an historic push-pull within regional winery associations. If you’re a winery, belonging to a regional association is a double-edged sword, because a rising tide lifts all boats, not just your own. I’ve said before that the best way for Sonoma County wineries to promote themselves is to make the very best wine they can. We’ve seen throughout history that that’s how great wineries survive and thrive, not by tinkering with what they say on their labels.

  1. Tourism? Really? This change will bring more tourism?

    Maybe I’m downplaying the power of a wine label but that kind of logic just seems… dumb.

  2. My selfish concern is that we currently make both a Sonoma Coast and a Sonoma County Pinot Noir (as does Williams Selyen I belive) and we already have issues with distributors and customers getting them confused. I can only imagine the additional confusion if we put Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County on the label!

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  3. Adam it would be even worse if you were Sonoma-Cutrer!

  4. As un-romantic and vague as the word “county” might seem in wine terms (e.g. versus “valley”), if this law ever passes there might be a distinctive conceptual hook that the collective Sonoma team could develop to set itself apart in its marketing. The long history of its divergent and competing sub-regions, however, suggests getting to that point is a longshot.

  5. Paso Robles also has conjunctive labeling laws on the books and Mendocino is working on their own version (its not just a Napa thing). It will bring attention and focus to the county as a whole and help people understand the diversity and geography (by putting these regions in context with a county boundary). I know everybody thinks Russian River and Dry Creek Valley are common household words, but in my experience (once you leave California) they’re not.

    The argument about cost seems petty to me. How much could it possibly cost to add one line of text to a label? Additionally, wineries are given three years to comply – which should be plenty of time to integrate it in seamlessly.

    The one thing that Napa has always been better at than Sonoma is coming together for a common purpose. In this case the “issues” are easily worked out and this could be a win/win for the whole county.

  6. I bottle a Russian River and a Sonoma Coast Pinot under vineyard designations and I think this could work. Of course there will be a bit of confusion for consumers (in the wine category? Really?), but I do think that it would enhance Sonoma’s reputation to get credit for Russian River, Dry Creek and Alexander Valley wines.

    Russian River is is considered by many the most prestigious region for Pinot Noir in California. That halo of quality could imbue the Sonoma brand with a certain cache that it currently lacks.

    It doesn’t help or hurt me as a winery, but I see the benefits for the county’s image.

  7. It strikes me that it is easier to get Napa together for one giant reason. It is a singular place from top to bottom, by and large. Sonoma is much bigger, has very different issues from place to place, is not half an hour from stem to stern, etc.

    That said, and fully recognizing the difficulties that terminology like Sonoma Coast may make for some wineries when aligned on a label with Sonoma County, I do fall on the side of including the County on the label.

    Sonoma’s problem is its diversity. Yet, its greatest asset is also its diversity. The diversity will not get lost by adding Sonoma County to Dry Creek Valley or Bennett Valley or even Sonoma Valley. Rather, the greater understanding of geography will benefit consumers first and thus benefit the wineries.

    I agree with Joe Dude that tourism is the least of the issues. Ever try to drive around Sonoma Town Plaza or Healdsburg Plaza on a Saturday. But, having folks begin to understand intuitively that the Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River Valley and even the new AVAs that we will be seeing soon all share the same county is going to be good for everyone.

    And I think you can predict that similar rules will, at some point, come into being in places like Santa Barbara and Lodi with its array of sub-appellations.

  8. What worries me is how many people are going to think this will create a dynamic and noticeable change in the recognition of Sonoma Country and it’s sub appellations within a short period of time. On the macro scale I think this will be to the benefit of the whole country but realistically it will be at least a decade before a strong noticeable change in the market will take place.

    I think the reference to “made in China” is also right on point. Definition is not quality. I think many single vineyard offerings represent that.

    In addition I think Sonoma really needs to take a longer harder look at the AVA structure as it is. Part of the Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley Sonoma coast mega AVA is what creates this issue with crossing boundaries and grey area definitions. It is just too hard to pinpoint a sense of place to these vast AVA’s that contain dramatic geographic and climate differences within them.

  9. I totally agree with Kelly K. on this. Those of us that live and work in the wine industry have tunnel vision. We ASSUME consumers know the difference between Napa and Sonoma. I can tell you that unless you live in SF or NYC, consumers do not know the difference. I’ve sold wine in probably 75% of the states in this country and the number of times I’ve been asked – where is Sonoma – is that near Napa? is astonishing. I’ve even over heard cell phone conversations outside of our tasting room where they guy is talking about how he and his friends are “in Napa somehwere” tasting. From my standpoint, Sonoma County has a lot of work to do and conjunctive lableing is just one of many marketing intiatives we should be exploring.

  10. Admit it, the label issue if passed could give false advertising. Not all wineries are self-sufficient. The winery may be in Sonoma County, however, they could be purchasing grapes from another AVA other than Sonoma. The terrior that gave that varietal it’s nuances may not even be located in the county.

    Many people assume that a wine is made utilizing grapes from the same location listed on the label, when in actuality the wine is made in that region and not all the grapes are harvested there. Yes, there are wineries who are “pure” to Sonoma County and can claim their immaculateness.

    What’s next people? Labels requiring the location of the winery, and every vineyard the grapes were harvested at?

  11. Think this issue, again, demonstrates the wackiness that comes out of insular thinking or group think. Just like the many initiatives that have come out of Berkeley, San Francisco, and lately the St. Helena wine retailer issue, this is, effectively the same. A group of people who, as Bill says, have tunnel vision. They all think alike and someone raises a wacky issue and they all say “yeah, great idea.”

    Having said that, this really seems to be a tempest in a teapot (a wrangle in a wine bottle? a guffaw in a grape skin?) – as a very small producer, I can emphatically state that this won’t cost me a cent more to add “Sonoma County” to my Dry Creek Valley Zin – it just seems that the idea is laughable – as Bill said, most consumers really don’t know – and this labeling won’t help! I also make a Napa Cab and have been asked “Is Dry Creek Valley in Napa?” So, perhaps this would serve to alert consumers that it is from Sonoma – then again – I have been asked if Sonoma is in Napa…

    This seems to be a model of George W. Bush thinking ala injected with a dose of Gavin Newson unreality – perhaps the Sonoma County Vintners should think about how to have Sonoma wineries make a comeback after, what appears to have been, the worst year in wine sales history. Or perhaps this is the way to do it – a band aid on a gaping wound…

  12. We’re already buried by laws and regulations that dictate what we must do. Those who want to include “Sonoma County” on the label are already at liberty to do so. Please don’t force the rest of us to comply. There are numerous issues that differ from label to label and forcing everyone to march in lockstep helps some and hurts others, depending on the label and the situation. One size does not fit all and I certainly don’t relish the thought of another bureaucratic detail forced down my throat.

  13. “The winery may be in Sonoma County, however, they could be purchasing grapes from another AVA other than Sonoma.”

    Actually, wines carrying a Sonoma AVA *and* the Sonoma County distinction on the label would be required to have a higher percentage of Sonoma County-grown grapes than those that simply carry the Sonoma County appellation of origin. TTB requires that to carry an AVA as the appellation of origin, 85% of the grapes used in the wine must be from that AVA. Since the conjunctive labeling proposal would apply to wines carrying an AVA from within Sonoma County on the label, at least 85% of the grapes would have to come from within the county. Meanwhile, wines carrying ONLY the Sonoma County label (that is, wines for which this proposal would not apply), can, under TTB regulations, get by with as little as 75% of the volume of the wine derived from grapes grown in the county.

  14. Pete, super points, but the devil’s in the details isn’t he. I’m personally in favor of raising the percents for AVAs but I recognize the business side. These wineries have to make some money, especially in these tough times.

  15. I am not very familiar with the AVA’s but is Carneros the only one that Napa and Sonoma Counties share? Certainly would cause some issues and potential cofusion there?

  16. Peter, I think Carneros is the only Napa-Sonoma AVA.

  17. So how would they deal with labelling that appellation then? Sounds like there will be some challenging areas of confusion from this to Sonoma Coast / Sonoma County bottlings… I do see the benefit of adding Sonoma County to the label, primarily for purposes of export and out of state. For example, out of state a lot of times people don’t know exactly where Santa Maria is, but they do know where Santa Barbara is. So it is a way to define a broader area and then get more specific. Just as sub appellations are important to let consumers know where there wine is coming from, from a broader perspective the Sonoma County inclusion would appeal to a wider variety of consumers in terms of being able to identify where a wine is from. From the perspective of somebody in the wine industry in California, Sonoma County on the label wouldn’t be needed, but from a wine marketing perspective, if you are trying to identify with an audience outside of us ‘wine geeks’ it is beneficial to include broader terms as well.

  18. Sure I’ll go on record as saying “gee, great idea – yeah we should do that!” knowing it’s never going to happen. Nobody in Sonoma County has the authority to mandate that everyone put “Sonoma County” on the label. That’s TTB’s job and they don’t care if Sonoma County wants a publicity boost.

    The closest thing we have to a trade organization is the County Vintners and Growers Alliance, and let’s say they could get a majority (hell, even a quorum) to vote on such a mandate, I predict that they might lose half their membership.

    But before it ever got to that, I’d like to see a discussion of the metrics on whether adding “Real California Cheese” to the label has helped California cheesemakers sell their product, or increased cheese tourism into California.

  19. Jim Caudill says:

    Uh, Johh, that would be a resounding yes to the work of the Cal Milk Board. See

    Actually taught in business schools and here’s why:

    “The growth of the California cheese industry over the past 20-plus years is nothing short of a tremendous success story,” said the case study’s author, Michelle Greenwald, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. “California cheese production grew from 281 million pounds in 1983 to the more than two billion pounds projected for 2005. It illustrates successful integrated marketing communications across a wide variety of marketing elements and channels, and illustrates the importance of consistency in marketing communications over time.”

    Conjunctive labeling works, and wine tourism is an increasingly important part of any direct to consumer marketing effort. Get ’em here, they will buy…and buy…and buy.


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