Sonoma County's wineries may seek passage of a state law requiring wines from its sub-appellations like Russian River Valley and Chalk Hill to also print "Sonoma County" on their wine labels to better promote the winemaking region.
The board of the Sonoma County Vintners voted this month to explore a "conjunctive labeling" law like the one adopted for Napa County wineries in 1987.
"We see significant potential benefit to Sonoma County wineries, grape growers and tourism," said Honore Comfort, executive director of the trade group, which represents about 160 of the county's wineries.
Appellations are federally recognized grape-growing regions that help consumers know where the grapes that went into wines were grown. Within the Sonoma County appellation, there are 12 sub-appellations designating various distinct growing regions, from the hardscrabble Rockpile northwest of Lake Sonoma to the wind-blown Carneros straddling the Sonoma-Napa border southeast of Sonoma.
Federal labeling regulations currently don't require a producer of Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley or Knights Valley wines to mention anything about Sonoma County on the labels. Some do, but most do not.
The idea of pursing a conjunctive labeling law like Napa's has been around for years, but it has gathered momentum recently as the Sonoma County Vintners, Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, and Sonoma County Tourism Bureau have worked more closely together.
Many in the grape-growing community support the concept, believing that the more the word "Sonoma" appears on labels, the greater the demand will be for their grapes.
"If we had Sonoma County on every label, we'd probably have 100 million faces on retail shelves and wine lists," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. "That presence would build our brand equity, much as Napa Valley has built their brand equity for the past 20 years."
In 1989, in an effort to better market their already esteemed wine region, Napa Valley wineries supported passage of a state law requiring "Napa Valley" to be printed on wine labels from the valley's sub-appellations.
As a result, today a Robert Mondavi cabernet sauvignon from the Oakville American Viticultural Area, located between Rutherford and St. Helena, can print Oakville on the front label, but it must also be followed by Napa Valley.
On such a label, the words "Napa Valley" must be no more than 1 millimeter smaller than "Oakville." The law is often cited as a significant step in Napa's evolution into the nation's most well-known wine region because it demonstrated Napa wineries' willingness to work together to promote themselves.
While Sonoma County has long been the second-best-known wine region in the nation behind Napa, it never sought to follow its rival's lead, preferring instead to emphasize the county's laid-back attitude, independent spirit and diverse growing regions.
But some believe the rise of separate grape-growing regions within the county runs the risk of diluting Sonoma's identity.
"Our market research suggests that when you get outside Sonoma County — you don't have to go very far — and people don't really understand AVAs and their proliferation," Frey said.
A new study further bolsters the idea that conjuctive labeling would have significant benefits for the county, Comfort said.
"From what we have seen so far, it looks like it is the right thing to do," Comfort said