Eminent Domain Used To Usurp Wine Label Real Estate

ED I was disappointed, though not surprised, to see that today a conjunctive labeling law dictating that "Sonoma County" be placed on every label on wines produced from grapes grown in Sonoma County was unanimously passed by the California Legislature . Pushed as an effort to promote "Sonoma County" wines and a consumer education effort, the new law instead forces vintners to needlessly sully their package and undermines their own marketing efforts. Yet, the law does nothing to educate consumers.

Passed unanimously out of the California Assembly and Senate, AB 1798 now awaits the Governor's signature, which it will surely obtain. According to Noreen Evans, an Assembly sponsor of the bill, this new conjunctive labeling law "requires that any wine labeled with an American Viticultural Area (AVA)
located entirely within Sonoma County – – like Russian River Valley or
Dry Creek Valley – must also include the word "Sonoma County" on the
label, starting in 2014. There are 13 AVAs in Sonoma County."

The problem, of course, is that by placing the words "Sonoma County" on a bottle of wine that is made with grapes grown in "Russian River Valley", "Dry Creek Valley", "Sonoma Valley" or any other AVA in SonomaSonoma County" have any single distinguishing feature derived from the fact that they were grown inside the borders of Sonoma County. County, consumers learn absolutely nothing about the wine in the bottle. There no evidence that grapes grown in "

Assemblywoman Evans concludes, "By improving consumer education on each bottle, conjunctive labeling
will unleash the full potential of our delicious wines to represent
Sonoma around the world."

She's correct. Beginning in 2014, "Sonoma County" will receive a tremendous boost in recognition due to the conjunctive labeling law that forces vintners to add more wording to their labels—whether they think the words "Sonoma County" help or hurt their marketing efforts.

Frankly, if I was making high end wine from the "Sonoma Valley", "Sonoma Mountain" or "Sonoma Coast" AVAs that depended in part on the quality recognition that comes wtih these AVAs, I'd be pissed that I'm forced now to put a place-name on my label that told my buyers nothing of real value about the wine behind my label and, in some cases, demonstrably lowered its perceived quality.

Honore Comfort, Executive Director of the Sonoma County Vintners Association and an outstanding representative for Sonoma County wines noted this: ". "This moment …marks the
beginning of a stronger Sonoma County brand for generations to come."

Proponents of the new Sonoma County Conjunctive labeling law like to point to a similar law that demands "Napa Valley" be placed on all wines that are made from grapes grown in that appellation, rather than simply using a sub appellation. They point to the prestige that the "Napa Valley" designation carries. But this prestige has nothing to due with the law that demands "Napa Valley", in addition to simply "Rutherford", be placed on these wines. It has to do entirely with the promotional effort that has gone into making "Napa Valley" a place associated with great wines.

Such an association will not be made with "Sonoma County" wines…ever. The vintners in Sonoma County simply can't make a case for "Sonoma County" having any meaning or for a region as vast as "Sonoma County" delivering any degree of quality to the grapes.

Why is it important for someone making "Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir" or "Sonoma Valley Zinfandel" to help promote "Sonoma County", a designation that has no ability to define the quality or character of the wines in my Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir or my Sonoma Valley Zinfandel?

This is an example of a County usurping the private label real estate, and it's very valuable real estate, for the sake of promoting something that is of little use to private commercial interests. Ask yourself…If putting the words "Sonoma County" on one's wines was such a great thing, why don't more vintners who make "Dry Creek Valley", "Russian River Valley", "Alexander Valley" or "Sonoma Valley" wines already put these words on their label? They legally could…if they wanted to.

The new Sonoma County conjunctive labeling law is the equivalent of the State of California and the County of Sonoma claiming imminent domain over the labels of hundreds of vintners.

15 Responses

  1. Nick Perdiew - August 30, 2010

    I love it Tom. You found a way to tie this in nicely. This is a case of over-reaching government regulation, costing business unnecessarily and burdening them with more regulations. It’s just unnecessary.
    It also is a ‘social promotion’ in the sense that great Sonoma wines that now are forced to use “Sonoma County” will be giving some of their credibility to their lesser neighbors. Shades of wealth redistribution as well. 🙂 Ew, ew, ew.

  2. James McCann - August 30, 2010

    How many hundreds or thousands of labels will have to be re-submitted to the TTB between now and 2014?

  3. John Kelly - August 30, 2010

    “…I’d be pissed that I’m forced now to put a place-name on my label that told my buyers nothing of real value about the wine behind my label and, in some cases, demonstrably lowered its perceived quality.”
    Exactly, Tom. And I am really pissed. And so is every other producer I have discussed this issue with. I still don’t know whose interests are being served by this useless piece of crap legislation. I completely agree with you when you state: “Such an association will not be made with ‘Sonoma County’ wines…ever.” Duh.
    I’ve got real skin in this game. We are going to have to totally redesign our front label to make room for “Sonoma County” – and so far every mock-up is cluttered and decreases the impact of our brand.
    Our best option looks like we will go to “North Coast” or “California” for our front label appellation, and discuss the grape source, vineyard name and meaningful AVA on the back label.
    Who is going to compensate me for this? I estimate the value to be in six figures, and we are a small winery. For a larger winery with a better-established brand the value is much higher.
    Eminent domain is exactly right – this is nothing less than governmental “taking.” The legislators who backed this should be ashamed. They should also expect to lose my vote for them next election.

  4. Hardy Wallace - August 30, 2010

    Thanks Tom– This law is such BS.

  5. JohnLopresti - August 30, 2010

    I put in 1+ decades in trade coursework, and several branches of the industry. I support the new labeling requirement.
    Sonoma county always was the sheep ranch joke in the era of Napa’s well-deserved, early, global fame. Sonoma county now is as good or better than those early Napa vintages. Together we have led the world into modern viticulture, with the help of UC Davis, and in some pretty good company from other regions.
    I suppose the new law is all Sacramento hype. But I think it will improve northcoast revenue and dignity. I admit I have voted for the bill’s authoress.
    When I was a kid in a county called Solano (not too famous for wines or AVAs) people sometimes would happen by our place asking where rte 37 was, where was Black Pt.; people always were confused how the somewhat neighboring counties had such similar names. Now after several decades in Sonoma county I have learned to appreciate its uniqueness, for its viticulture and other industries.
    The town of Sonoma is on a typical route people follow driving from Solano County to Sonoma County. The ambience in the town Sonoma is only an enclave; it is rightfully proud of its heritage as a village, and for its viticultural traditions. But Sonoma county encompasses much more territory, and other AVAs within the county are starkly different from the characteristics of Sonoma valley and the town of Sonoma.
    Aint many people still overseeing vineyard blends. Vive la nouveau Sonoma County.

  6. Nick Perdiew - August 30, 2010

    Good of you to comment and good to have dissent. What do you make of the fact that vintners *already* are free to put Sonoma County on any label they want? Govt. cannot mandate marketing effectiveness anymore than it can mandate perception of quality. If it were effective, wouldn’t you already see it virtually everywhere? I admit, I don’t see the reasoning of your argument here. The issue of the costs to vintners is non-trivial too as you can see above.

  7. Bill Cadman - August 31, 2010

    I wonder what the response would be in Napa and Sonoma if the vintners in Fresno convinced the state government to require “California” be put on all labels of wine made within California?

  8. JohnLopresti - August 31, 2010

    These past few years, ’eminent domain’ has become a libertarian property rights flashpoint, since the Kelo v New London, CT, case concerning urban renewal polemics. I can see Tom W’s concerns, too.
    There was a counterpoint in the label world after some court cases resulted in a company’s revising its grape sourcing to comply with tightened requirements for 75% in-county fruit in order to remain legal in designating the wine as from “Napa”. One rambling article’s author counted 16 occurrences of the word Napa on the newly designed label of a famous budget wine producer’s 2005 Napa cabernet sauvignon.

  9. fredric koeppel - August 31, 2010

    what business is it of State government what terminology goes on wine labels? those concerns belong to the federal govt and the TTB, which already mandates, in fairly exhaustive detail, what goes on front and back labels. and how can the state legislature single out two counties (first Napa, now Sonoma) for this treatment? are they going to go through the wine-producing counties one by one?

  10. JohnLopresti - September 1, 2010

    vive la OIVV
    re at Fredric K’s BTYH website there is a review discussing MacRostie pinot noir. I had thought of the kiltman with respect to a new AVA in Yorkville highlands, thinking the Scot might have interest in playing the bagpipes in the uplands. Then, at Steve’s site there is an interesting discussion of his current ongoing efforts with blends from Carneros and Sonoma Coast. It’s easy to get lost in nomenclatures, when one is striving for new concepts.
    In a way, all this tries to approach terroir from a slight distance; plus the historical distinctions between the two premium distinctive varietal regions, Napa county and Sonoma county. Winkler heat summation datapoints also clarified several decades ago some of the plant physiologic underpinnings of why Napa county and Sonoma county were the natural leaders in premium winegrape production. There are many reasons why the new labeling requirement makes sense from all these perspectives.

  11. JohnLopresti - September 1, 2010

    sorry, I keep forgetting the Fermentation site’s html protocol; here is the OIVV label guideline link again:

  12. El Jefe - September 1, 2010

    OK, so here’s the real requirement:
    “Any wine labeled with an American Viticultural Area
    established yada yada, that is located entirely
    within yada yada, shall bear the designation “Sonoma
    County” on the label in a type size not smaller than two millimeters
    on containers of more than 187 milliliters or smaller than one
    millimeter on containers of 187 milliliters or less.”
    If I recall correctly, this is almost exactly the same as the requirement for the government warning type size.
    So the answer seems pretty clear to me: just add “Sonoma County” to the government warning.

  13. Johnonwine - September 3, 2010

    “They [Honore Comfort and the Sonoma County Vintners] point to the prestige that the “Napa Valley” designation carries. But this prestige has nothing to due with the law that demands “Napa Valley”, in addition to simply “Rutherford”, be placed on these wines. It has to do entirely with the promotional effort that has gone into making “Napa Valley” a place associated with great wines.
    Such an association will not be made with “Sonoma County” wines…ever.
    Tom, I would suggest that all Napa wineries, good and bad, benefit from having Napa Valley on the label; it is indeed a great example of marketing – what you describe as promotional effort.
    Perhaps the proponents of the law are not doing the job they were hired to do, perhaps the SCV needs a more passionate communicator on their marketing team, putting together the quality promotion you suggest is impossible.
    Sonoma County, with roughly half of the wineries of Napa County, wins roughly twice as many gold medals in national and international wine competitions. That, the fact that their wines cost less on average, and the wineries are friendlier, less snooty is a compelling story to get out to the public.
    Heck, if folks knew all that, maybe folks would be seeking out bottles with “Sonoma County” on the label.
    You suggest that this is a bad law, that Sonoma County will never be associated with high quality wine in the way Napa County is. I disagree, but I am eternally hopeful, optimistic that the Sonoma County Vintners will inject a little passion and not more of the same old staid and boring in their marketing communications. I have confidence they will change, retool, improve, live up to their responsibilities.
    I worked selling and marketing Sonoma County wines, I won awards for my marketing efforts. The story is simple. People are receptive to it. Selling the magic of Sonoma County wines is easy.
    That’s my take anyway, I don’t aim to be contrarian, but I don’t mind being the sole supporter of the law – as a Sonoma County born and bred wine guy.

  14. Woe Is Sonoma Valley—For It Is Within the County - Fermentation - January 25, 2013

    […] course it’s a disadvantage. And yet, after a “conjunctive labeling” law was pushed through the state legislature at the behest of the Sonoma County Vintners Association in 2010, it is now law that every wine made […]

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