Saturday, October 20, 2007

What's in a name?

A lot more than people think, actually. A number of friends recently have asked about various aspects of branding associated with wine, not realizing just how strictly regulated wine labeling has come to be.

Wine naming and labeling guidelines are set in at least two arenas. Federally, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) regulates all US wine (grape wine with 7% or greater alcohol content). Adding to federal regulation, each state has it's own set of laws regarding wine. Oregon's are among the strictest in the nation, a result of the work of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC).

So, for your edutainment, here is a primer on some of the things you might find on a wine label, and what they mean:


This area is fairly straightforward...well, not really. A brand name must be unique, registered, and trademarked to maintain protections within the industry. Beyond that, brands are not to be misleading. Early in the Oregon winemaking days, a number of wineries were named after the geographical area in which they were located. This concept makes sense from a marketing perspective, however, as the industry developed and the TTB started designating American Viticulture Areas and winegrowing regions in those areas, those brands became more and more restrictive due to the issue addressed next.

Appellation of Origin and Viticultural Area

AVA's are essentially a defined grape-growing area that has unique qualities in terms of soil, climate, etc. Appellations are more broad, and indicate the country, state, county, or region of origin. This tells you where the wine is from and what characteristics you might find. Federally, to put an appellation (like Willamette Valley) on a label, 75% of the grapes in the wine must be from that area. To list an AVA on a label, 85% of the grapes must be from that area. Oregon, on the other hand, requires 95% of the grapes to be from the area listed on the label. This can cause problems. For example, an application was put in with the TTB to create the Eola Hills AVA in Oregon a while back. Eola Hills Winery had existed previous to that time. Had Eola Hills AVA been approved as is, all of a sudden Eola Hills Winery would be restricted to using grapes only from the Eola Hills AVA -- as long as they wanted to sell under the Eola Hills Winery label. Additionally, the winery would have been given an unfair advantage in the marketplace. In that case, the issue was resolved when the TTB named it the Eola-Amity AVA. Willamette Valley Vineyards has overcome similar challenges by labeling Rogue Valley reds under the Griffin Creek label.


What type of wine are you drinking? Federally, 75% of the grapes in a wine must be from a specific varietal to label the wine as that type (such as merlot). That entire 75% must be from the geographical area if there is one listed. The majority of popular Oregon wines hold 90% minimum content from the listed varietal, although 18 specific varietals can be blended with up to 25% of the non-primary grape. OLCC just approved the use of the Pinot Grigio varietal as well--which is really the same thing as Pinot Gris.


TTB says that 85% of the grapes in a vintage-designated wine must be from that year, unless it has a geographic designation as well, then 95% must be from that vintage.

Estate Designated Wine

To be listed as an estate wine, TTB requires that 100% of the grapes in that wine were grown, crushed, fermented, aged, finished, and bottled on land owned or controlled by the winery, all within the same viticulture area.

Who would of thought there was that much to naming and labeling wine? This is simply an overview of some of the key requirements, there is certainly much much more codified in the federal and state law books. Hopefully, though, the next time you look at a wine label you will appreciate a little more what goes into ensuring what you see is what you get.


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