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.