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The Underground Wineletter has always stood for the consumer and more wine transparency (click [4]to read about our history and mission with links to many other articles). Wine should not be a mystery. But somehow in the U.S. it has become very complicated and that is even before the bottle is opened. Consider how many critics (mostly American critics) describe wines in ridiculous ways (click [5] to read about these descriptions). These descriptions have nothing to do with how the wine actually looks, smells, and tastes. Also, consider the subject of wine writing on which many consumers make buying decisions. This is a subject that is filled with controversy (to read my article on wine writing click here [6]). And then there are the questions of what are the ingredients in wine and wine ingredient labeling which, again, pertains mostly to American/California wines (to read about what ingredients might be in your wine click here [7] and click here [8] to read about wine ingredient labeling).   

And, now in a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled How to Decode a Wordy Wine Label, Lettie Teague in her On Wine column talks about how many U.S. wineries describe their wines. Again, it is the same general theme which resolves around the lack of transparency. Consider the following comments from the article:

“Vintners Reserve”
“Old Vines”
“Old Clones”
“Private Harvest”

“Barrel Select”
“Bottle Aged”
“Proprietor’s Blend”

Since there is no real meaning to these terms, the conclusion is that these are ways that wineries establish notions of scarcity and selection to sell wines. But there are also other ways to do the same thing.  Equally meaningless, misleading, or downright annoying are some of the ‘descriptive’ paragraphs wineries employ on a bottles label to sell the wine within. The wordy label of Meiomi Rosé notes ‘chilly fog’ and ‘a soft hand in the cellar’ as key factors determining the character and quality of the wine. On the label of the Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages no fewer than 17 words are used to say very little: ‘Classically crafted to show layers of complexity, the wine blends rich texture with the elegance of Sonoma. What in the world is a ‘soft hand in the cellar’, and  what does the purported ‘elegance of Sonoma’ say, really, about how or where the wine was made or what it tastes like? If winemakers and marketers would just stick to words with established and specific meanings, wouldn’t wine consumers be that much better off? And to that I respond with a resounding YES!

However, in the U.S. we are still on a wine learning curve. You see when Lettie asked a group of consumers about the impact terminology can have on buying wines based solely on their labels, they responded that “Reserve” clearly invoked a notion of quality. And, one respondent went so far as to say “I’d definitely buy a wine with a name like Proprietor’s  Reserve or Vintner’s Reserve because the wine sounds better, more serious. And in an earlier article by Lettie Teague, the subject of big numbers for wines priced under $50 was examined with very interesting results (to read my review of that article click here [9]).  [9]

So for me, the message is clear. There are very few U.S. wineries that are totally transparent in terms of describing their wines and saying what is in the bottle. But two prime examples of wineries that are totally transparent are Ridge Vineyards [10] and Bonny Doon Vineyard [11]. Both Ridge and Bonny Doon Vineyards I have known and followed since their inception. Both make consistently really delicious wines in a traditional style and list all ingredients on the label. Other than that, there only a handful of U.S. wineries who more recently have adopted ingredient labeling. And, I would suspect that some of the wineries using terms to describe their wines that have no real meaning would not want to disclose the ingredients in their wines either.

And as a result of the lack of transparency, many U.S. consumers that are discovering wine are stuck on marketing gimmicks and wine descriptions and numbers that often have very little to do with what is in the bottle. But, all is not lost. For U.S. wine consumers (especially those who are just learning about wine), there is a whole new world ahead when they begin to recognize that U.S. wine is a food and needs to have ingredients listed on the labels just like packaged foods. Along with knowing what is in the bottle, U.S. wine consumers also need to concentrate more on their own taste and less on hype. So be adventuresome. Try new things. Then at the end of the day follow The Underground motto: Drink What You Like And Like What You Drink! [12]


In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson