Sonoma Vintners to Wineries: Promote Sonoma County or Become a Criminal!

Handcuffed If putting the words "Sonoma County" on a wine label would help their wine sell faster or for higher prices, don't you think wineries would have already done so?

I do. In fact, I know they would.

But clearly many wineries that produce wines from grapes grown in the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley, Sonoma Coast and elsewhere inside Sonoma County don't feel a need to place these fairly meaningless words on their labels. Yet they legally could if they wanted to. They could put "Sonoma County" right there on the label below "Dry Creek Valley" or Alexander Valley. But most don't.  And I'm sure they have their reasons.

Those reasons are about to matter not at all and wineries making wine from grapes grown in Sonoma County are about to lose control of their labels. More importantly, wineries that don't' use the term "Sonoma County" on their Russian River Valley Zinfandels and Sonoma Valley Cabernets are about to be labeled criminals.

Sonoma County Vintners Association is going to attempt to get a law passed that FORCES wineries to put these two fairly meaningless words (Sonoma County) on their label, whether they want to or not. According to a Santa Rosa Press Democrat article, the Association of county wineries has gotten approval from all but one of the Boards of Sonoma County appellation associations to pursue a "Conjunctive Labeling" law in Sacramento.

I described this type of law in an earlier post. But, to refresh your memory, it basically means that any wine made from grapes grown primarily in Sonoma County, must carry the words "Sonoma County" on the front label just underneath a more specific appellation (ex: Russian River Valley) if one is used.

But let's be clear about something: A WINERY MAY DO THIS NOW—IF THEY CHOOSE!

Under the Sonoma County Conjunctive Labeling Law, wineries would no longer have this choice. That's too bad. Because if I was making killer Pinot from the Real Sonoma Coast region and selling it for $45 a bottle, primarily to a mailing list and to a few restaurants, I wouldn't want the words "Sonoma County" anywhere near my label. And that's just one example I can thinking of when I imagine the many, many reasons I may not want to clutter up my front label with a meaningless appellation.

But let's be very clear about the message behind this potential legislation:

The state of California, by passing this law, is dictating to private companies that if they make wine from grapes grown in Sonoma County, they are required to promote Sonoma County on their labels, whether it benefits their brand or wine sales or bottom line. Someone tell me what business the state has telling a private company what they must be required to promote. For that matter, someone explain to me the kind of cajones that the Sonoma County Vintners Association must have to try to push through a law that makes it a crime for wine producers not to promote their meaningless "Sonoma County Brand".

14 Responses

  1. Alan Baker - May 5, 2010

    With other labeling requirements proceeding like listing all possible ingredients that might cause an allergic reaction, this is a stupid idea. Our labels are going to look like a technical list of warnings and redundant text.
    Just who does this serve other than the SCVA? I wouldn’t say it serves their members.
    I’d like to hear from a winery that feels this helps them.

  2. Jim Caudill - May 5, 2010

    A little too much French Press this morning? Now that you live in Napa (where this approach was adopted long ago and contributed mightily to the awareness of this most recognized wine region)are we going to lose your former Sonoma sensibilities?
    The government already controls many label variables. And in this case, the various vintner groups, representing their members, are making this request of the government, as opposed to the government jamming something down the collective gullet.
    They’re doing it not because it is meaningless, but because more than one study and the shining example of Napa demonstrates that it is effective, hurting nothing and no one, and quite possibly helping many.
    Pointing consumers to where their wine hails from, encouraging them to come visit this side of the Mayacamas, is hardly a conspiracy on the order you imply. A lot of careful thought, consultation and consideration happened long before this process moved forward. And as part of this process, if someone feels as strongly as you do, they’ll have the opportunity to express those sentiments to lawmakers before any law is passed.
    Sonoma County is anything but meaningless.
    If not one grape was grown in Sonoma County, it would remain legendary for its unique blend of food, family, culture and unforgettable physical beauty…
    …but winegrowing makes it all the more exquisite and renowned.
    For the more knowledgeable, the label will still say Green Valley, but for my less knowledgeable friends back in the Midwest who’ve never ventured this far West, Sonoma County will help narrow the focus just a bit. Either way, they’ll hopefully marvel at how good the wines can be.
    And then come visit.
    I appreciate your passion and your advocacy, but it’s misplaced on this issue. Come on back over the Grade so we can share a Bourbon and sprinkle some Sonoma back on ya….

  3. Howard - May 5, 2010

    Why not serve your wine on your own coasters?
    You can serve your personalized wine coasters to guests at dinner parties along with your home vinted wine, or give custom drink coasters as a hostess gift when you visit friends along with a bottle of your private-labeled wine.

  4. Tom Wark - May 5, 2010

    The fact remains, I, as a vintner, may determine that putting “Sonoma County” on my label is detrimental to my brand, despite what Wine Opinions say about placing “Sonoma County” on my label. However, with this law, that matters no more.
    The federal requirements for labeling are not necessarily requirements meant to promote a region. If I make a Green Valley wine, I can choose to put that appellation on the label. Or I can choose to put just “Sonoma County” on the label. Or I can choose to put just “Russian River Valley” on the label. Or I can choose to put just “California” on the label. Under this new law, I’d be required to put Sonoma County on the label, whether it works for my brand or not.
    This law makes a criminal of me if I don’t want to promote the idea of “Sonoma County” on my label.
    It should also be noted that vintners may already place “Sonoma County” on their label. Why doesn’t the Sonoma County Vintners Association undertake a promotional program to encourage wineries to do this, rather than work to pass a law to criminalize those who choose not to?
    Finally, I don’t think that the conjunctive labeling law in place in Napa is what made Napa Valley wines seem more prestigious.
    Now on the issue of “bourbon”….YES!!!! Let’s drink some bouron, Jim!!!!!
    Thanks for commenting. Love it when you do.

  5. John Kelly - May 5, 2010

    To Jim: As a producer of wines I make exclusively from grapes I grow in Sonoma Valley, I was one who registered my disapproval of this rather blunt proposal. So far as I know Federal law still has primacy over state and local laws. So far as I understand it, only TTB can require me to put anything specific on my label.
    Seems to me all this talk of pursuing a conjunctive labeling law is kind of pointless, because unless it makes it into the CFRs I’m pretty sure I’m legally OK in telling the Vintners Association and even the state (if it ever comes to that) to go pound sand.

  6. Mike Duffy - May 5, 2010

    I’d love to hear from SCVA as to why they are pursuing this law.

  7. Mark's Wine Club - May 5, 2010

    Sounds just as reasonable as HR 5034! Give me a break guys, time for a lot of people to get a hobby, or volunteer somewhere because they clearly have too much time on their hands.

  8. Benito - May 5, 2010

    I hate trying to explain wine label regulations to wine novices, because the laws exist in some sort of reality distortion field that eliminates logic and common sense.
    “So this wine is a Cab Sav, but it’s only 80% Cab Sav. Rest is Merlot and some other grapes. Well, it’s made near San Francisco but the grapes came from all over the state. Some of them came from Napa but not enough to put that on the label. They used to call this a Claret but that’s illegal now. That’s a protected word for French wines that the French don’t use.”
    And once they understand California labeling laws, there’s the 49 other state laws and dozens of foreign laws to understand. “This wine from East Ruritania has a rooster on it, as is required for all Ruritanian wines. Failure to do so used to be punishable by hanging in the Middle Ages.”

  9. Dan Wildermuth - May 6, 2010

    In response to Alan’s comments above, I can speak as a brand that has clearly benefitted from conjunctive labeling. The Rodney Strong brand began conjunctive labeling when the Chalk Hill AVA was established. Chalk Hill was an unknown AVA at that time and adding the words “Sonoma County” provided clarity to the origin of the wine. Based on the success of this wine we began to add the words Sonoma County to our other AVA designated wines which included, Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley and Northern Sonoma (selling between $14 and $75). We discovered first hand that when you try to sell your wines outside of Northern California that some trade and many consumers do not know where the AVA’s of Sonoma County are geographically located. They did have a sense of where Sonoma County was located and had a high quality perception of the Sonoma County appellation. For us, there was nothing to loose by putting the words “Sonoma County” on the label with consumers who had a high awareness of the AVA’s and everything to gain with consumers that didn’t. We feel this has been an important factor in our brand’s success and in it’s clarity of origin.

  10. Tom Wark - May 6, 2010

    I’ve advised clients to do the very same thing that Rodney Strong has done.
    However, I think you can understand how other wineries might conclude that adding “Sonoma County” to their label may not be in the best interests of their brand or a particular wine. And even if you disagreed with such a winery, wouldn’t you agree that it should be their right to market their wines and manage their brand as they see fit.
    This conjunctive labeling law would take that option out of their hands.

  11. Richard - May 6, 2010

    I don’t necessarily care if I have to put “Sonoma County” on my “Dry Creek Valley” Zinfandel; but I do care that the “Sonoma County People’s Republic Vintner’s Association” may be forcing me to do it. Unless they specifically have criteria for the labeling, I will put it in very tiny letters, nobody can see over on the side of the label – just because.
    I will say, however, that this seems to be a trend in California – people continually espouse a libertarian philosophy of hands off, but then vote for every social program on the agenda and every government form of control available and then vote to cut taxes – Berkeley and San Francisco are perfect examples of this “libertarian socialism” – now it’s spreading to Sonoma.
    Have to add here, that I really don’t think it makes a bit of difference though. My personal experience is that once I’m out of California (and especially on the East Coast), most people do not know Sonoma, Russian River (they think it’s in Russia), Dry Creek Valley, etc., the only place they know is Napa and the Napa Valley. I have been asked: “is Sonoma in Napa?” As a disclaimer, my first Zin actually had “Sonoma County” on it; subsequent Zins say “Dry Creek Valley.” I only put “Sonoma” on because about 99% of the grapes were from the Russian River and 1% from Dry Creek. And it simply doesn’t matter unless someone is a real Zinaddict and knows their wine.
    As a small winemaker, I just wonder when it will all stop? Eventually, my front label will have so much dictated by Sonoma, the TTB, Napa, that it will simply be the required criteria…

  12. Donn R. - May 8, 2010

    Coercion. Govt. coercion. More mandates. Less freedom. Calif. used to be the land of the free spirit. Now, the free spirit be dammed. Do as I tell you or the govt. will punish you. Maybe Sonoma should also mandate use of heavy bottles with big punts. To make sure everyone gets the message. Heavy govt. Too heavy.

  13. Pete - May 10, 2010

    A bit off topic but just for the record: Rich detects a trend in which “people vote for every social program on the agenda and every government form of control available and then vote to cut taxes” and points to Berkeley as a “perfect example” of where this is taking place. He’s wrong. Say what you will about Berkeley, but its voters put their money where their mouths are. In November 2008, by a 72-28 margin voters assessed themselves a special parcel tax to enable the city to keep fire stations open and improve medical response and disaster preparedness. That same election, voters also exceeded the difficult two-thirds threshold in passing a bond measures for libraries.

  14. Michael Foulkes - May 18, 2010

    People will always be confused over Sonoma County vs Sonoma Valley vs Sonoma City. Requiring “Sonoma County” to be added to the label will only increase confusion unless it’s presented in a recognizable and consistent format, such as State, County, Region, Appellation.
    But that doesn’t mean it needs to be on the front label. Let the producer say what they want on the front, and require the details on the back. People who can’t remember where the Russian River Valley is can flip to the back and find out. When comparing bottles side to side people might even make the connection that Russian River Valley is in the same county as Dry Creek Valley and, dare I say it, learn something? It’d be a whole lot better than hearing another story about how ‘special’ the terroir is.
    On second thought, I prefer Napa remain in the forefront of popular culture as the premier ‘wine country’ in the US. The less people discover what Sonoma County has to offer the more accessible and less crowded it will be. Anything you can do to spread misinformation and confusion is fine by me!

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