This is a long and detailed post but worth every word.
Pace yourself. It is a 16-minute read.
The information required and permitted on wine bottle labels varies from country to country, making it a challenge for the casual wine drinker to know what exactly is in the bottle they are drinking. Shops that sell wine help by organizing by region and/or variety. Sure, you could ask for help, but wine is intimidating if you are like most shoppers. Thus you are too embarrassed to ask. So let me pause a second and tell you to ASK! That is why the employees are there… to assist you.
Having a basic understanding of the information on the label will go far in making choices. This post shines a light on the information on wine bottle labels from US wineries.
Labels on wine bottles in the USA can be confusing enough but fortunately not as confusing as France, Italy, or other Old World countries. We will deal with those countries in another post. For now, we are honing in on US wines to give you the information you need to know what you are buying and drinking. My examples are primarily wines from California and Oregon.
Side Note: Wine Education Classes
I am launching a series of in-person wine classes (virtual is in development). Some classes will be for those who wish to up their knowledge to make better choices when selecting and buying wine. Other classes will be for anyone that wishes to broaden their palate and have fun exploring the art and science of wine. Some examples that I plan to include are 1) Vertical Tastings, 2) Blind Tasting Price, 3) Lesser-known Wines, 4) Pinot Noir from around the World, etc. At the bottom of this post lists what I have coming up. All of my events are private and invitation-only, so you need to reach out to get invitations if you want to attend. You can sign up here and be sure to select – Educational Tastings.
Wine Bottle Labels for American Wine
Inform and Entice
The label on a bottle of American wine should inform and entice. This enticement is much more critical when the wine is sold through distribution versus directly from the winery because the bottle must get and keep your attention enough to say, “Choose me!” While enticement gets your attention, the information on the label tells you more about what you are drinking and can better help you understand what is actually in the bottle.
As I said, every country has rules about what needs to be on a wine bottle label. But, if it is there in large enough print, it means something that you should know. So much so that every American wine bottle label you see has to be approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau within the US Department of Treasury. Furthermore, individual states may also have laws and rules about what they require on a label.
The bottom line is that the more information you have, the better you can choose which bottle to purchase.
Wine Bottle Labeling – Some Terms
What and When
Vintage – This is the year of the harvested grapes. To include a vintage date, 95% of the wine in the bottle must come from that harvest year. Why 95%? When wines are barrel-aged, some of the wine in each barrel evaporates and needs to be replaced or “topped off.” Therefore, some wineries will use wine from the previous vintage year. However, one can also select a barrel from the currently aging wine to perform the “top-offs.” Thus 100% of the wine is from that vintage year.
Grape Variety (on the label) – This is the name of the primary grape used for this wine. It starts to get wonky here because many wines are not 100% of the named variety. Depending on the provenance of the grapes used in the wine, the percent of the named variety must be a minimum of 75% in regional wines (i.e., Sonoma County or California); 85% in more specified AVAs (i.e., Russian River Valley)
Appellation – A geopolitical boundary encompassing all of the vineyards used in a wine. Appellations are required on wine bottles when grapes are harvested and used from multiple AVAs in a wine. For example, in the top row from the image above, the USA is an appellation, the state of California is an appellation, and Sonoma County is an appellation. Some folks use this term interchangeably with AVA. My guess is because appellation is a term used all over the World.
American Viticultural Area (AVA) – An American Viticultural Area is a federally designated wine grape producing region. Think of it as a geographical, environmental, and climatic pedigree. These areas must meet strict federal guidelines that clearly demonstrate the specificity of the designated area with its borders. The above image on the second row shows the designated AVAs within Sonoma County. Note that Napa County is also an appellation. Napa Valley is an AVA that is within Napa County. This is important to understand when looking for a Napa Valley wine.
Nested AVA or Sub-AVA – Nested AVA or Sub-AVA is not a legally protected term, nor is it commonly used much by persons outside of the industry. But it does come up, so I wanted to be thorough. The only difference is that a nested AVA is entirely surrounded by one or more other federally designated AVAs. So in the grand scheme of things is just an AVA.
Fine Tuning the Where¹
Estate – The word estate is not a legally regulated term for wine. However, the intended meaning is the same as “estate bottled.”
Estate Bottled – This term is legally protected in the US. It means that wine must be produced and bottled at the producer’s winery. AND the grapes must come from vineyards owned or controlled by the producer and is within the same AVA as the winery. So, for example, to call a wine “estate-bottled” from the Russian River Valley AVA, the winery and the vineyards must be located within the Russian River Valley AVA.
Single Vineyard – The fruit used in a wine comes from a specific, single vineyard within the estate where the fruit is sourced. This can be fruit from the winery’s vineyards or purchased from another winery.
Single Vineyard & Estate-Bottled – The fruit comes from a single vineyard within the winery’s estate, both within the same AVA.
Oy, My head hurts just writing this, so let me show you some examples.
A Label Tells You All You Need To Know
2018 – The date is the vintage year which is the year the grapes were harvested to make this wine. Sutro breaks down a barrel from the current vintage to perform “top-offs.” Thus 100% of the wine in her wine in this example from the 2018 vintage year.
Sutro – The brand name of the winery.
Cabernet Sauvignon – The variety of grapes used in this wine. Because 94% of the wine is from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape variety, it met the threshold of the 85% rule. FYI: The balance is 3% Cabernet Franc, 1% Merlot, 1% Petite Verdot, 1% Malbec
Alexander Valley is the AVA where the winery and vineyards are located.
Sonoma County – This is the appellation. Not needed on the label but assists if one does not know where Alexander Valley is.
Warnecke Ranch – This is the name of the vineyard’s site. (Not a single vineyard but all vineyards on the ranch.
This wine sells for $65.00 at the winery or from their website.
A Label that says Very Little
Since the front label tells us so little, I also included the back label in case it provided additional information: the front label (left) and the back label (right).
As you can see on the front label, this is a red wine from Columbia Valley from the 2020 vintage from L’Ecole No. 41. One assumes it is a red blend, but that is not stated anywhere on the label.
It is named Frenchtown.
You learn that Columbia Valley is in Washington state on the back label.
What variety or varieties are included in this wine? Unfortunately, the label does not provide this information. You might assume that because the bottle is shaped in the Bordeaux style, it includes Bordeaux varieties, but that is merely a guess. And if you guessed so, you’d be 80% correct.
I would not expect a consumer to do this. Still, I went a step further and located the technical datasheet for this wine on the winery website to learn that the composition of this wine is 41% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 9% Syrah, 7% Grenache, 5% Petit Verdot, 4% Malbec, and 4% Mourvèdre.
This label is not very helpful, making this wine one that must be sold by recommendation.
This wine sells for $23.99 to $27.99 and is in wide distribution throughout the US.
A Label for a Low-Cost Wine.
It tells you what you need to know.
Combine the information on the label with the price (+/- $11.99 price), and one understands that this is a bottle of entry-level table wine.
A Label with an Extra AVA listing
I chose this label because of its AVA designation because it reflects the example that I used in the Terms section.
Notice that they list two AVAs. This is unnecessary, but it adds clarity for those who do not know where Fort Ross-Seaview is located.
Produced and Bottled tells me that the fruit used in this wine is purchased from a grower in Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. The wine, however, is made and bottled by Ramey Wine Cellars.
This widely distributed wine retails for $45.00 a bottle +/-.
Says it all
Estate Bottled Label
Estate Bottled – This fruit for this wine is farmed within the Smith-Madrone Estate in the Spring Mountain AVA. The wine is then produced and bottled on-site at the Smith-Madron winery.
While S-M does not list the exact varietal components of this wine, you can rest assured that it is at least 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 100% of the fruit is sourced from the vineyards of Smith-Marone.
This wine is sold directly from the winery, their website, and in limited distribution around the US. It sells for $62.00 */-.
Single Vineyard Wine Label
The back label speaks to what makes Gap’s Crown Vineyard so unique.
This wine is not estate-bottled because Walt does not own the vineyard, farm the vineyard, and have their winery located in the Sonoma Coast AVA. If it were, the price would undoubtedly be higher.
About Single Vineyard and Estate Bottled Wine Labels
I searched and searched and could not find any examples of Estate Bottled & Single-Vineyard wine labels that clearly say so on the label. My theory is that these wines typically cost $100+ and generally are only available at the winery or their website. Some are exclusively sold only by allocation to a small group of collectors on their mailing list. Thus detailing this fact on the label is not necessary.
Non-Vintage Wine Label
A label without a vintage date is a non-vintage wine. This means that the winery blended wine from multiple harvest years into the same bottling.
These are typically not “rockstar” wines that carry a higher price. This one, when first introduced, sold for $17.00 a bottle. In this case, it is a pleasing, fruit-forward, easy-to-drink wine.
I highlighted in green the varieties and the percentage used in this wine, which signals that just because this is non-vintage does not make it an inferior product—the winemaker what’s you to know what is in the bottle.
American Wine Label
I am showing you this wine label for one reason only. Based on the label, one must assume that the fruit used to make this wine comes from more than one state. One might assume that most of the fruit comes from California, but finding the answer would take some effort.
Additional information on the label that must be included is Alcohol by Volume or AVB and Contains Sulfites. Anything else is to entice.
I know this is a ton of information. I may convert this to a reference page since it is chock full of good info.
Rick & Gary
Footnotes and Additional Info:
¹ Wine Enthusiasts website: The Differences Between Estate, Estate Bottled, and Single Vineyard Wines by EMILY SALADINO, published on January 28, 2022
² Napa Valley Nested AVAs frequently use the term “District” instead of AVA. My theory is that Napa Valley AVA has more robust name recognition than the nested AVAs. However, to avoid confusion, they refer to the nested AVA as the “district,” which signifies a designated place within the widely-known Napa Valley AVA.