Berger on wine: Don’t judge a wine by its label

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on wine labels.

Ask a wine lover which is better: a chardonnay that’s only 75 percent varietal plus 25 percent French colombard or a wine that’s 100 percent chardonnay? Before you get an answer, you’ll likely get a question back: “Where was the fruit grown?”

That’s more relevant than the (absurd) original query. Compare a 100 percent chardonnay from hot Bakersfield with a 75/25 blend in which all the fruit is from the cool Russian River Valley. No savvy wine lover would choose the former wine.

As disparaged as it is by many consumers, colombard is a noble grape variety - when grown in a cool climate. It has excellent acidity, a fascinating aroma not unlike the melony-y chenin blanc and can add freshness and zip to chardonnay’s often-richer texture.

This is just one illustration of how confusing wine can be. Part of the confusion may be attributed to a few wineries that, by accident or design, use labels not meant with consumers in mind.

Indeed, some labels seem as if their main purpose is to deceive. And though it’s not the role of wine’s governmental regulator (the Tax and Trade Bureau or TTB) to police cleverly written misstatements, it ought to be someone’s job to point out the errors.

Some of the worst are back labels that say something like, “Our family estate winery has rich soils and perfect weather that allows us to make exceptional wines that work with a wide variety of foods.” Thanks for nothing. There may be no estate, no family, no vineyards

Recently, I’ve seen back labels saying the wine inside was “imported by” a company. The phrase “bottled by” is missing. It’s possible the wine came here in a giant bladder, in bulk, and was bottled here. Some such wines can be good. Others are subject to the quality of the bottler’s equipment.

When a wine’s appellation is “California,” buyers are guaranteed only that the fruit came from one or more of the state’s 58 counties. So forget regional characteristics; expect homogeneity and blandness.

This is one way wineries avoid telling the truth: It might have been made from grapes grown in a climate so hot that harvest comes in June, before flavors develop.

My aversion to hot-climate wines comes from a lifetime trying wines whose main attributes were wetness. When such wines sell for $25 a bottle or more, I’m tempted to name names.

Another marketing ploy is back-label copy that tries too hard - such as wine labels that imply greatness with bald-faced hyperbole. Look for back label terms that mean nothing: “rich,” “rewarding,” “exciting,” “powerful,” “complete,” “soft,” and other terms that some marketing people think entice novices to spend more than the wine is worth.

Years ago, a winery put shelf-talkers in stores saying its white zinfandel had won a gold medal at a major wine competition. Only problem: the wine that won that medal was from three vintages earlier, not the one that then was for sale.

Various U.S. wineries erect signs in their tasting room driveways that say things like “96 points!” (Or higher.) The signs never say whose score was being used, which wine it was it for, or if the wine is still in stock.

Perhaps the worst problem is the almost complete failure of wineries to say anything truthful or meaningfulabout the style of wine. Consumers (including me) frequently are told nothing about the wines we’re considering. Help would be welcome, but I’m not expecting assistance any time soon because marketers fear that most Americans will get the wrong message.

I prefer balanced red wines. Some 100-point moguls think this is a pejorative term. The word most often used is “rich.” Frequently, that’s nothing more than a substitute for “clumsy.” For pairing with food, wines need good acidity and distinctiveness, not merely oak-driven, smoke-infused, bacon-tasting flabbiness.

The word balanced, when properly used, would be a welcome step to describing these wines. You want rich? Maybe the brand you’re looking for is 10W30.

Wine Discovery: Discovery of the Week: 2015 Domaine Filliatreau Saumur Champigny Vieilles Vignes ($25) - France’s Loire Valley makes some of the world’s finest red, white, dessert, and sparkling wines – but it is one of the least recognized or understood wine regions. This superb wine is entirely made of cabernet franc, which in the Loire rarely is dense or aged in oak. This balanced version has loads of fruit (plum, dried cherry, traces of anise and tar), is completely dry (13 percent alcohol), and is slightly rustic in the finish, so it works with beef stews and other hearty fare.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at

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