The First Rule of Wine Labeling: Do No Harm

You’d think that labeling a wine isn’t too difficult a thing. Sure, there is the nice graphic design and all, then you throw on the vintage, varietal, appellation, the legal stuff and you are done.

A conversation I had while at a Super Bowl party this weekend reminded me that there are some dilemmas and complexities that need to be taken into account when labeling a wine.

A young, brilliant winemaker and his partner were at this party and they brought a wine which was new bottling for them. Pinot Noir. All the grapes from Anderson Valley. The appellation on the label was "Anderson Valley " Mendocino County". There are about 350 cases of the wine and it will sell for $45. Probably half the wine at least will be sold direct to a well cultivated mailing list. The rest will be sold through distributors to retail and restaurant establishments.

So, the question is this: Do you put "Mendocino County" on the label along with Anderson Valley. Keep in mind, there is no regulatory need for "Mendocino County" to be there. It could be there all alone, as could "Anderson Valley". And because all the grapes that went into the wine came from Anderson Valley, this smaller designation could stand alone.

So I ask myself, what value is there in putting "Mendocino County" on the label? Frankly Mendocino County is an appellation that has developed no reputation to speak of. Certainly it has no reputation for Pinot Noir, at least not like Anderson Valley does. In fact, Mendocino County has developed no reputation for any particular varietal. From this perspective, there is no equity in the name that would convince me to put the larger "Mendocino County" designation on the label.

Yet it is not always the case that the larger appellation that could go on a wine is the lesser choice. Consider the "Atlas Peak" appellation. While it has a growing reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak-grown grapes could carry the "Napa Valley" appellation with or without the "Atlas Peak" appellation alongside it on the label. This is a no brainer. You put Napa Valley on the label.

But the brilliant young winemaker who put "Mendocino County" along with "Anderson Valley" on his new Pinot Noir makes a good point: "What’s wrong with a little more information on the label? It allows those who have heard about or are more familiar with Mendocino than with Anderson Valley to relate to the wine."

It’s hard to argue with that. In fact, it’s such a good argument that you have to ask yourself, is there ANY damage that can be done that would convince you not to put "Mendocino County" on the label. I’ve been convinced by this young, brilliant winemaker that there is none.

So in the end, when it comes to labeling, perhaps the first rule is the same that doctors apply: "Do no harm".


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