Forcing the Issue on Wine Labels
It is the primary and most important marketing tool any and every winery uses to market its wines. The label tells prospective purchasers the wineries name, the kind of wine that is in the bottle, where the grapes were grown that went into the production of the wine the prospective purchaser is considering, the year during which those grapes were grown, and it can convey by its design numerous other messages about the character, desires, intent, philosophy and importance of the producers of the wine wine.
So, when government entities impose rules on what can appear on a label, that's very serious business to a producer of wine.
Sonoma County Vintners, an association of wineries located in Sonoma County, wants to further impose rules on how producers, whether members or not of their association, must label the wines they produce that are made from grapes inside Sonoma County.
I'm not opposed to government imposing rules on how a wine is labeled. For example, I think its a good government that passes laws and imposes regulations that protect consumers from fraud. For example, the rules concerning the placement of a vintage year on the label actually having to actually describe in a fairly accurate way when the grapes for the wine is good. It forces wineries to think twice before fraudulently passing off a wine as being from a specific year, when it is not.
And those laws that require wineries to accurately indicate where most of the grapes were grown that went into making the wine, utilizing the American Viticultural Area designations, is also a good idea. It encourages wineries with grapes grown in Death Valley not to fraudulently claim on their label that the grapes came from Napa Valley.
But what the Sonoma County Vintners are suggesting become the law of the land where labeling is concerned is of a different sort altogether. Their proposed law does not address consumer protection. Nor does it address a further need for accuracy. The law the Sonoma County vintners propose to see passed would simply help promote a large region and associate the producer with that region—whether the producer wants to be associate with that region.
This is a different kind of labeling law.
The Sonoma County Vintners' proposed law would force any winery producing a wine from grapes grown in Sonoma County to put "Sonoma County" on their label—whether they want to or not.
According to the story in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the point of the proposed law derives from research that shows "consumers often have a better impression of a wine's quality if it
includes both the American Viticultural Area and "Sonoma County" on the
According to Christian Miller of WineOpinions.com, the respected research firm that did the study, "In most cases, the addition of Sonoma County to an AVA wine increased consumers' impressions of its quality and price."
What I'm concerned here with, among other things is this: "In most cases…"
I think I know what they are talking about when they say most cases. I think that the research found that when a wine labeled "Sonoma VALLEY" also has the "Sonoma COUNTY" appellation on the bottle, there is confusion among consumers. Furthermore, I'd be willing to bet that the term "Sonoma VALLEY" gives consumers an impression of higher quality than a bottle with just "Sonoma COUNTY" on it or with "Sonoma COUNTY" also on the bottle.
As an aside, what's interesting about this, if I'm right, is the reason why "Sonoma VALLEY" makes consumers think the wine is of higher quality than a wine labeled only with or alongside "Sonoma COUNTY": People see "VALLEY" on the label and they automatically assign it to being closer on par with wines from another "valley" that they believe represent the highest in wine quality—Napa VALLEY. It is an association with higher quality by virtue of the use of a word (valley) that is associated closely with "Napa"—the place most Americans believe the best wine in America is produced. "Sonoma COUNTY" sounds nothing like what a great wine producing region should sound like. "Sonoma VALLEY" Does. The average consumer who has a passing familiarity with the name "Sonoma" and knows wine is made there automatically believes that wine from "Sonoma "VALLEY" is the REALLY good wine made from Sonoma.
Convoluted, I know, but I'm absolutely sure this literary dynamic is in play.
So, here's my question: Why should a winery that legally can put JUST "Sonoma VALLEY" on their wine and benefit from the positive "VALLEY" connection that people have in their minds be forced to diminish the quality perception of their wine by being forced by law to put "Sonoma County" on their label?
Personally, I'm still on the fence regarding this proposed new labeling law that would have to be passed through the California legislature before it becomes law. I'm willing to be convinced it's a good idea. But I have questions and concerns.
First, I'm struck by the assumptions at play by those who are proposing this legislation. One assumption is that winemakers that use Sonoma County-grown grapes ought to have enough loyalty to the COUNTY they live in to forgo a marketing advantage they possess by virtue of not having to put "Sonoma County" on their labels. It's entirely reasonable to believe that some vintners simply don't have this kind of loyalty to a county and that they may not have any particular reason to have this kind of loyalty. They may have loyalty to their the particular AVA (like "Sonoma Valley") where they grow or get grapes or to a Sub-AVA (like Green Valley) where they get or grow grapes. That strikes me as every bit as legitimate a loyalty to possess as one devoted to a county.
Second, I wonder why a legislator from a county or region outside of Sonoma County, say, San Luis Obispo, who has his own vintners to represent, would be willing to vote for a law that is supposed to give vintners in a region outside of his and who compete with his constituents a marketing advantage.
Thirdly, why doesn't Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, both key supporters of the proposed law, simply undertake a promotional and marketing initiative to convince producers of Sonoma County wines to voluntarily put "Sonoma County" on their label. My understanding is that a vintner may already legally put both the AVA (like "Sonoma County" or "Russian River Valley") and the term "Sonoma County" on their label. This would certainly result in more wines carrying the "Sonoma County" appellation while not forcing those who do not think it will benefit their brand from having to do so.
Fourth, there is the issue of label clutter. Again, the label is the primary form of marketing. Having to put another two words on the label really does have an effect on its appearance. This is not an inconsequential issue.
It should be noted that both Napa Valley and Paso Robles saw passed similar laws regarding wines produced within their regions. So for example, a wine produced from grapes grown in the Oakville American Viticultural Area and labeled such must also carry "Napa Valley" on the label. Napa Valley Vintners certainly thought the idea of getting the larger region's name on a label was a good idea.
So, I am on the fence about this issue and I want to be pushed in one direction or the other. I'll be looking for addition research on the idea and writing about it if I get it. However, If I were a vintner that produced wine made from grapes grown in Sonoma County, I'd be thinking long and hard about the legislation being proposed.
To me, legal label requirements ought to be for the purposes of information alone, and not for the purposes of marketing. That should be the test.
If labels are to be for information purposes and most of the 130 AVAs in California and the rest elsewhere are a bit too detailed for the average punter, then there is an argument that a tiered requirement for appellations would be useful.
“Chalk Hill/Sonoma County” is more informative than “Chalk Hill” by itself would be how that argument goes. Adding “California” might seem superfluous, but think about a wine labeled “McMinnville”. Would adding “Yamhill County” be sufficient or would having Oregon on the label be the right level of information?
Finger Lakes may be well enough known to stand on its own, but I guarantee you that McMinnville is not, and neither are River Junction, Jahant, Fair Play and lots of other AVAs.
So, we can probably agree that there are situations that can be helped by some form of tiered locational reference system. The next question then is: so what? Will it make a difference? My answer to that is two-fold. First of all, it will to some people. Secondly, the entire AVA system reeks of marketing and is not, never has been, about information for the sake of information.
I can’t see how adding Sonoma County to Sonoma Valley diminishes Sonoma Valley. I can see how it helps big wineries who need to label their wines as Sonoma County. I don’t see how adding Sonoma County to labels hurts the consumer. So count me in as one who sees no harm in putting county names on all wines, and thus has no giant problem with the proposal. It is all about marketing on both sides of the argument. If it makes a difference to a few consumers, I am for it.
Would there be a fee imposed on producers for using “Sonoma County” like the “Meritage” fee?
It’s a legitimate position to suggest that adding “Sonoma County” to a smaller AVA doesn’t diminish the perception of a bottle of wine. However, it’s equally legitimate to say that it would. Happily, at the moment a winery can decide to add the “Sonoma County” words to a label…or not.
The proposed law would make it a requirement. That requirements takes a marketing tool out of the hands of one who doesn’t take your view.
Finally, I’d bet my bottom dollar that if you polled the occasional wine drinker, they’d have a better impression of “Sonoma Vally” than they do “sonoma county”.
No, there would be no fee imposed. But it would be required that one use the term “Sonoma County”.
Let me get your position clear: do you view the legal requirements on labels as marketing or as information?
For once, I agree with Charlie almost completely: AVA is mostly a marketing tool and hardly serves any informational purpose other than that it says grapes grow in this location–because they can.
My point is that government requirements should not be about marketing, they should be about useful information. If the consumer recognizes the words “Sonoma County” more than the words “Sonoma Valley,” that’s a marketing issue, not a labeling information issue.
I view labeling regulations primarily as consumer protection regulations. I view them secondarily as consumer information regulations.
I view appellations (AVAs) as primarily marketing vehicles, though some appellations I think will give savvy wine drinkers some idea of the character of the wine in the bottle.
The idea of a state-mandate that “Sonoma County” be included on all bottles of wine that use grapes grown in the county is most certainly a marketing initiative.
I’m leaning against this proposed law because it takes a marketing tool OUT of the hands of wineries and further compromises the label as a marketing tool.
Adding “Sonoma County” to our Russian River Valley Pinot Noir would certainly not elevate the wine’s value in the eyes of our distributors, retailers, or consumers. At best, it would be perceived as neutral info. At worst (and most likely), it would perceived as info that detracts from the wine’s specialness. Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay buyers understand for the most part that RRV is in Sonoma County, but aren’t buying SC. They are buying the incredible and unique qualities intrinsiv to RRV Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. At least one previous study has shown that RRV is much more widely recognized than Sonoma County and is second only to Napa. Since SC doesn’t aid the consumer at all in buying my wines and may well perceptually diminish their specialness, we will definitely not be adding this information. If I worked at a large wine company and marketed $12 SC Chardonnay, I would absolutely add SC appellation but definitely not for premium-priced and very special RRV wines. No thanks, Sonoma County. Nice try but you will not win this one.
I agree that RRV means more to those who know what RRV means–except, of course, that RRV is almost meaningless to me because it encompasses everything from Freestone to Chalk Hill.
No doubt that the very great wines under the RRV notation have brought a great deal of fame and fortune to the name and to the wines under the name. Sadly, the term RRV has been expanded so widely that it is a pure marketing ploy in too many instances.
I agree with Tom W and Tom P. Labelling requirements should mean something. In this case, Soco may not help you, but county designations will help more consumers than it hurts, and labelling ought to be about them, not about you.
It’s hard for me to get worked up about this, because unless the association is able to dictate the font size and location on the label, producers of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir can just slide a tiny “Sonoma County” on the back.
But I don’t agree with the proposed legislation mainly for its motives. Charles is correct that Chalk Hill/Sonoma County is more helpful to consumers. I don’t think buyers of Russian River Valley wines need to be reminded of the county. It doesn’t hurt the consumer to tell them, but it becomes more label clutter, and only for the purpose of marketing Sonoma County, not helping either wineries or consumers.
It’s interesting to note that Napa passed a “conjunctive labeling” law in 1987. That CA Law says that “Napa Valley” must be included on the label when a sub appellation (like “Oakville” is on the label.
But more to your point, that law says that the type that spells out “Napa Valley” may be no more than 1 millimeter smaller than “Oakville”. I presume that is must also by law by placed on the front label.
Good for you for looking out for the people, Charlie! Then we should also add California, USA to every label. That will be most helpful for the multitudes of consumers tested by Foster’s and other large wine companies who could not successfully distinguish most aussie wine labels from California and SA wine labels under the current labeling requirements. So let’s clear it all up and make sure people know exactly what continent they’re drinking from in our global marketplace.
Before anyone gets too worked up on this, allow me to lay out some facts our regarding consumer perception of conjunctive labeling. This is based on a controlled test and survey carried out on the Wine Opinions consumer panel, a national sample of wine consumers that is representative of the higher frequency, higher involvement people who buy the majority of wine over $10 in the U.S. Sample size was 889.
–when tested on Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Chardonnay, changing the geographical designation from Sonoma County to Sonoma County+AVA to AVA alone only shifts the price and quality perception of the wine for about 5-20% of consumers, the number depending on the particular AVA-varietal combination.
–In combinations featuring a well-known AVA and varietal combo (in the research we used Russian River Pinot Noir and Alexander Valley Cab) the wines featuring Sonoma County+AVA and just the AVA were statistically tied for quality and price perceptions. The wines featuring County alone were ranked slightly but significantly below. For example, 21% rated the Pinot Noir with County+AVA “excellent”, 17% rated the AVA alone “excellent” and 16% rated the County alone “excellent”. 17% rated the County alone just “fair” while 10-11% rated the AVA and AVA+County labels “fair”.
–A combination featuring a relatively unknown AVA and a variety it was not particularly known for (in the research we used Bennett Valley and Chardonnay), the wines featuring Sonoma County + AVA and just Sonoma County were statistically tied for quality and price perceptions. The wine featuring the AVA alone was ranked slightly but significantly below the other two.
>>Tom Said: “I think that the research found that when a wine labeled “Sonoma VALLEY” also has the “Sonoma COUNTY” appellation on the bottle, there is confusion among consumers. Furthermore, I’d be willing to bet that the term “Sonoma VALLEY” gives consumers an impression of higher quality than a bottle with just “Sonoma COUNTY” on it or with “Sonoma COUNTY” also on the bottle…People see “VALLEY” on the label and they automatically assign it to being closer on par with wines from another “valley” that they believe represent the highest in wine quality—Napa VALLEY”
— 21% of consumers agreed that they were “confused as to the origin…” when Sonoma Valley and Sonoma County were on the same label but 48% agreed that it indicated that “Sonoma Valley was a growing region within Sonoma County”. Sonoma Valley was not one of the AVAs in the controlled variable test for conjunctive labeling. However, the Sonoma Valley/Coast/Mountain cases were addressed in some other questions, and the results indicate that Sonoma Valley would probably behave similarly to Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley in such a test. I haven’t seen anything to suggest that the presence of the word “Valley” is positively correlated with quality perceptions or that there is association of Sonoma Valley in particular with Napa Valley quality. Nevertheless, these are interesting ideas and I’ll take another look at the data with them in mind.
>>Carol Said: “Adding “Sonoma County” to our Russian River Valley Pinot Noir would certainly not elevate the wine’s value in the eyes of our distributors, retailers, or consumers. At best, it would be perceived as neutral info. At worst (and most likely), it would perceived as info that detracts from the wine’s specialness”.
–the research directly contradicts this. We controlled for all the other variables (wine drinking habits, age, gender, AVA awareness, etc.) and the Pinot Noir labeled Russian River Valley, Sonoma County was perceived as high in quality and price as the one labeled just Russian River Valley. In fact, the conjunctively labeled version was actually slightly higher in average rating, but not statistically significant. In addition, we did do a trade survey, which came back overwhelmingly in favor of conjunctive labeling.
>>Tom said: “Finally, I’d bet my bottom dollar that if you polled the occasional wine drinker, they’d have a better impression of “Sonoma Vally” than they do “sonoma county”.”
–We did not have the respondents rate each AVA for overall quality. That said, the ratings of Sonoma County for quality do not significantly differ between high frequency and less frequent wine drinkers. Awareness, trial and familiarity for Sonoma Valley is significantly higher among high frequency wine drinkers than less frequent. (High frequency in this case = those who drink wine more often than once a week).
I hope this clears some things up.
Christian Miller, Wine Opinions
AWESOME!!! Thank you for weighing in!
Your information seems to be about perception, confirming that this is about marketing.
Am I right?
Thomas – if you mean that we tested people’s perceptions of quality and price based on labels or geographic designations, that is correct. We did not do any sensory tests or capture sales data from stores. The Sonoma County Vintners and Winegrowers requested us to do the research because they wanted to know what the effect of conjunctive labeling was vs. just county or just AVA.
You old rocket scientist, you! Marketing? Selling wine? A trade organization that has marketing on its mind?
But, does it matter what the reasoning is? Since the information seems to be appreciated by the wine consumer and conjunctive labeling does no harm to the wine biz side of the equation, it sure sounds like a win-win to me.
I see no reason for anyone to be against it except on libertarian grounds. And if we are going down that road, we need to expand the conversation to all kinds of existing labeling rules–pro and con including the way in which many wineries intentionally hide and understate alcohol levels.
Carol, care to say which winery you are part of?
You make an interesting point. How much information is needed on labels so that consumers know what they are drinking? You may have made that comment facetiously, and I always appreciate a good joke.
But the obvious question arises: Are you ready to go down the path of examining all labeling issues? That is quite a reach from the topic at hand.
Funny: At a recent holiday gathering of both people in the wine trade and people from other walks of life, a (fife) playing image on a label of a RRV red led me to consider whether a goodly portion of the fruit actually might have originated from the Sonoma Coast AVA. I think there is an amorphousness about Freestone’s viticultural effect vs. the new SoCoast AVA. Some organoleptic characteristics can be pretty subtle at that end of RRV AVA; same could be said for Chalk Hill. At this time in Sonoma County ag and enological history reminding the customer of the County could be adding a deficiency in the perception of the purchaser. However, I also have a personal adverse impression when some Sonoma Valley products advertise that locale in a way that the non cognoscenti might confuse that small AVA with the amazing variety available from the other AVAs nestled as close as on the other side of the Mayacamas hils. Somehow the French seem to do all this with class and with minimal upset to grower, vinifier, or consumers worldwide. I say, let Sonoma Valley be an exception; they can call their AVA full and sufficient divulgation of the origin of their fruit within the lax limits of current law. Labels have a way of informing, but also of misleading, albeit legally artful misdirection. I agree with the comment that seemed to see in the proposed Sonoma County label requirement disproportional benefit to the megacompanies who buy renowned labels then convert content to a pale shadow of its former quality; in that instance it could be a reversal of the quality paradigm, to add more sleight of hand to labeling for the slightly informed who might look principally for purchases at a +/- $12. pricepoint. Personally, I think the multiplicity of new AVAs represents a great dawning; the public will learn in time that the AVA is their best guide on the label. We could talk about label requirements stating residual sugar; or making a statement of the crusher brix of the predominant fruit. But the latter are a little tangential, best left to the connoiseur. Then again, I am one who has held the belief wine judges should be required to ingest and be prohibited from limiting analysis only to the mouth. Perhaps AVA becomes a stronger branding tool precisely because realworld purchasers actually drink the wines.
No one likes to be told what to do. Regulation sucks most of the time, although one could arge what happened to the past 8 years of GWB we need regulation. It’s in our human nature to fight change, however I think in this case, all we wineies need to do is spend a bit on a graphic designer, pay $100 per label to change the label mold, spend another $100 per label to have TTB ok it. I make 9 wines, so I’m into it over $2,000 to have ‘Sonoma County” below RRV.
I’m ok with that because many many clients who walk in my tr doors STILL think we’re in “NAPA”! They consider this whole area NAPA. I’d pay a little more to educate the masses.
I cringe at additional labeling regulations – we are already so constrained. AVA designations are informational and a key marketing tool. They are aggressively advocated and protected. Aside from specific vineyard designations, they are about as close to a terrior designation as it gets in the USA. That said, I’d prefer government stay away from getting involved in marketing and stay with an information focus.
At least this proposal doesn’t leave any unentitleds with no viable label options e.g. the TTB EU deal on no post-2006 Ports except from Portugal. Fortified wines and Dessert wines evoke visions of MD20/20 and what’s a Dessert Wine?
Aside from the Port reg and a few others, I’m not so sure the current labeling regulations are broken and would just leave well enough alone. Marketers may disagree.
Why can’t they just ensure that “Sonoma” (rather than “Sonoma County”) is on the label conjunctively with the smaller AVA? They could waive the second appearance of Sonoma if the word “Sonoma” is included in the AVA, as in the case of “Sonoma Valley”?
I don’t see why the govenmental boundary should make that much difference for sales.
Also, if the governmental county boundary is printed on the label, does that supercede the 5% in-vintage restriction of AVAs? In other words, would 15% out-of-vintage wine therefore be allowed?
My next wine will be labeled as follows:
“Gap’s Crown Vineyard”
Product of USA
This should help consumers understand how meaningful Sonoma County is, right? Then, when the TTB requires wineries to put the new caloric/dietary guidelines on labels, wineries won’t have any room for that tiny (somewhat important) piece of information called PRODUCER’S NAME.
I agree that wine labels should provide clear information, but this initiative, based on Wine Opinions meager study (a whopping 889 people out of 300 millions Americans), is a joke. If Sonoma County wants to build its (good) image, let it happen through market economics (like letting their terrific producers do what they do best), or by innovative marketing efforts, not by enforcing more legislation based on insufficient research data.
If adding Sonoma County was going to increase the perceived value of my vineyard designate Russian River Valley Pinot, then I would consider using it but considering my target market and price point, I think a clean label is more important. There is absolutely no reason to legislate this. Napa Valley’s high standing in peoples perception did not come about due to a labeling law.
“based on Wine Opinions meager study (a whopping 889 people out of 300 millions Americans), is a joke”
J, your opinions on label crowding and legislation may be well-founded, but you need to brush up on your statistics. The accuracy of a survey is based on the sampling method and the total number in the sample, not the proportion of the sample to the total population.
This sounds like something out of Joseph Heller: Winemakers who can only use “Sonoma County” want to force all Sonoma producers to use “County” so they can piggyback on the “Sonoma Valley” name, because people associate the word “Valley” on a California wine with “Napa.”
My name is Milo Minderbinder, I’m 27 years old…
The proposed law has nothing to do with effective marketing or consumer education, it has everything to do with widening the crack to evermore legislature and control. I can see some other groups making the argument that if the label is so important to the consumers’ education that it shouldn’t stop just at where the grapes were picked but led to surgeon general like warnings on the evils of alcohol.
Christian – OK, so I goofed on the stats, but a total sample of 889? Can’t we do better than that?
“J said…OK, so I goofed on the stats, but a total sample of 889? Can’t we do better than that?”
We could, but a larger sample doesn’t add that much in statistical certainty. The margin of error at 889 is 1.7%-2.8%. If you go up to 2000 respondents, the margin of error only drops to 1.1%-1.8%. If your sample is 500 the margin becomes 2.2-3.7% and at 200 it’s 3.5%-5.9%. So in our sample, differences between X% choosing label A and Y% choosing label B only have to be 3.5-5.6% to be significant. With a sample of 200, you could have an 11% difference and not be sure if it’s real or just normal statistical fluctuation.
There is a reason why so many national political polls of some 100 million people only measure in the range of 1000+, and that is because a sample size of 1000 yields a range that is pretty tight.
A more interesting question for me, at least, is how your sample was put together. Presidential polls usually only have two choices, and those choices are pretty well recognized and understood by the people being polled.
Wine labeling is a lot more complex, convoluted, even misleading at times. I wonder how you dealt with that in the first place, and whether the situation with your polling was not so complex that a larger sample or a differently constructed sample might not have yielded either different results or results that bridged what I would call the counter-intuitive gap that may occur in labeling issues as opposing to Presidential preference polls.
Once again some busybody types want to FORCE some dumb rule on their neighbors. If a winery wants to put Sonoma County in big letters, let them. Quit forcing. Quit dictating. Go read the writings of the founding fathers of our nation. Give me liberty or . . . Can you fill in the blank? It is all about LIBERTY, not GOVT. RULE.
Charlie said “A more interesting question for me, at least, is how your sample was put together. Presidential polls usually only have two choices, and those choices are pretty well recognized and understood by the people being polled.”
The issues of sample collection and survey design are of course critical, and it’s easy to get biased or misleading results if you don’t do it right.
The consumers in question were from the Wine Opinions Consumer Panel, some 4500 consumers who answer online surveys for us on a regular basis. This panel represents the high frequency, high involvement consumers, roughly 18 million consumers who drink wine more often than once a week and don’t drink mostly just one type of wine. They are mostly recruited on the web from a variety of sites using a variety of methods to avoid source bias. We regularly benchmark the panel profile against other data sources to make sure they are representative. Based on our panel results and the benchmarking, this type of consumer is responsible for the majority of spending on wine in the country and a very high proportion of all the wine purchased above $10/bottle.
The surveys are designed in professional manner to eliminate leading or biased questions. The conjunctive labeling test section in particular was tightly controlled for neutrality. Respondents were divided into three groups that were statistically identical in terms of demographics and wine consumption, then exposed to labels that were identical in terms of design, brand, variety, alcohol level, etc, and asked identical questions. The only difference was the geographic designation. Since all other stimuli were controlled, differences between the groups’ responses are traced to differences in the geographic designation.