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Berger on wine: Appellations on wine labels can mean a little or a lot

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Appellations on labels can tell consumers much about what’s under the cork or cap – or they may be of no use.

With some wines it’s obvious: Napa Valley on a bottle of Cabernet or Merlot indicates the wine may be excellent; to Pinot Noir lovers, Russian River Valley also implies quality.

Quality relates to many other vital parameters, of course, not just where the grapes grew. But the “where-ness” of a grape variety often tells consumers its style and potential.

Wine lovers often are ahead of the curve in this regard. They know of the high quality they can expect with Barbera grapes grown in the Sierra Foothills, Zinfandel from Napa, Paso Robles or Lodi, Chardonnay from Carneros, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, or Santa Barbara County, and Syrah and Riesling from cool climates.

Such wines are usually better than, say, Pinot Gris from Bakersfield.

And sub-appellations, which are smaller, can be even more meaningful. Most wine lovers know that Anderson Valley, Mendocino Ridge, and Potter Valley are small Mendocino County sub-AVAs, each with a unique set of soils and weather patterns that contribute to the final product.

Anderson Valley, for instance, is now widely known for aromatic white wines and Pinot Noirs of elegance and depth. Most would say that a label with an appellation “Anderson Valley” needs no further identification.

So what do you conjure up when they see the appellations River Junction, Lake Chelan, or Lehigh Valley? All are relatively obscure. River Junction is in the central San Joaquin Valley; gorgeous Lake Chelan is in Washington; Lehigh Valley is in Pennsylvania.

The 11 AVAs inside Mendocino were approved to indicate unique wine-growing conditions. Decades ago, when 80% of the county’s fruit was being sold to wineries in other regions, sub-AVAs didn’t mean much. Today that’s changing.

With more than 40% of the county’s fruit now being made in-county, Mendo’s sub-AVAs have become more meaningful.

As a result, local industry leaders have quietly begun discussing whether it’s a good idea to require conjunctive labeling on county wines – as did Napa Valley and Sonoma County years ago. Conjunctive labeling requires that if a sub-AVA is used on a label, the larger AVA also must be used.

For example, if a winery wants to use Spring Mountain as its appellation, it would have to add the larger AVA, Napa Valley.

Members of the Mendocino Winegrowers are beginning to investigate what issues they face if conjunctive labeling were adopted for Mendocino.

In some already well-known Mendo AVAs, the idea may not be popular. Such as in widely respected Anderson Valley. But lesser-known wineries might like it known that it is in a county already known for quality, such as tiny Covelo (one acre of vines). By itself, “Covelo” is largely unknown.

Since the Mendocino Winegrowers has just begun discussing this idea, no single topic has yet raised anyone’s hackles. But one issue that may arise is tied to marketing.

Wine labels often are designed by finicky designers. Many do not like text cluttering labels. Imagine what one such label could look like.

Fort Ross Winery once had a simple, elegant label design that simply stated:

2013 Fort Ross Pinot Noir

Sonoma Coast

Then the federal government approved a new sub-appellation for the area, replacing Sonoma Coast with “Fort Ross Seaview.” Conjunctive labeling now would make the new label read like this:

2015 Fort Ross Pinot Noir

“FRV”

Fort Ross Vineyard

Fort Ross Seaview, Sonoma Coast

Sonoma County

I know label designers who’d shriek if front labels were required to have such label clutter. The appellation change and conjunctive labeling combine to challenge many similar designs.

The only “solution” I know of would be to simply call the bottle’s “front” label the back, and the “back” label the front.

This tactic has been employed for years and is popular especially with silk-screened bottles featuring a design so recognizable that it faces the consumer on retail shelves.

Technically, the “front” label carries the legal information, such as the appellation and alcohol. What typically faces the consumer is the “back” label with the logo, letter, or symbol ands no other information.

One of the state’s finest producers is Jeff Runquist, whose famous silk-screened “front” label features a stylish gold “R.”

Runquist earned four “triple-gold” medals for his wines at the recent Dan Berger’s International Wine Competition. His R “front” label is one he calls “the fanciful label.” The legally required information is on the other side.

“The R is the side people usually see first,” Runquist told me.

I see no major issues with conjunctive labeling, other than the slightly busier look of the fanciful labels.

Wine of the Week: 2017 Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc, Casblanca Valley, Chile ($11): Chilean Sauvignon Blanc has quietly developed a good reputation among bargain lovers. They’re usually fresh and lively with mild herbal/citrus aromas, and often priced reasonably. This brand, once more widely distributed, has returned to shelves recently at prices allowing discounters to offer it at about $9. Soft in the entry, less “grassy” notes than many southern hemisphere Sauvignon Blancs, and a delightful patio-sipper.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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