Skip to content

Wine Label Libel

November 21, 2010

You can’t judge a book by its cover.  That’s fair.  But when you are buying books, you can take a peek inside and read the first few pages.  Heck, in many stores you can find a nice comfy chair and read the first few chapters.

When buying good cheese it is customary, and in some places even mandatory, for the customer to taste a sliver of the stuff before committing to the purchase.

But for the most part you have to buy wine blind.

Sure, you may live in a place where there are retail wine bars on every corner, that allow you to try a half-glass or tasting pour of a wine that you are considering bringing home.  However, these places are the exception rather than the rule.  Sometimes a wine store will be having a sampling event, but even then there are only a handful of bottles to taste.

Most of the time, the only thing you have to base your decision on is the wine label.

I mention this now because many people are going to be heading to the wine stores over the next few days to pick up bottles of wine for Thanksgiving.  Not all of them will have retail clerks who know their stuff, or you may just not yet be comfortable talking with a stranger about wine.

Here are the top four things to beware. 

Animals don’t know jack about wine. They sure are appealing to consumers though.  Yes, there will be exceptions, but marketers know that people like animals and babies.  Baby animals are even more likable.  And a few big players in the wine business will take advantage of your innate sensibilities to get you to buy their wine.

Celebrities and other pop icons generally aren’t winemakers.  Francis Ford Coppola would be a notable exception.  Now, you may be a Soprano’s fan, but those licensing rights did not come cheap.  I would prefer to buy a wine where more money was spent on the juice in the bottle than the marketing. 

Oak is a joke.  Not all oak is created equal.  Winemakers have learned that many consumers think that oak is wine gold.  “Oak aged” isn’t as good as “oak barrel aged” which isn’t as good as “aged in new oak barrels.”  Try to avoid the knee-jerk reaction that if it mentions oak on the label that it’s got to be good.

Ask yourself, reserved for whom?  “Reserve,” “Private Reserve,” “Winemaker’s Reserve” and the like are largely meaningless words.  Sometimes they indicate a better bottling from a winery, but not always.

But there are words that can have some meaning on a wine label.

Unfiltered.  This has to do with the winemaking process.  It’s a lot more difficult to make wine this way, and if someone is doing it, and it was good enough to make it into the wine store, it’s a fair bet it will be well made and tasty.

Estate Bottled. It means that all the grapes in the wine came from the winery’s own vineyard, and that the wine was made and bottled on site.  There are pros and cons to this, as well as a little bit of wiggle room, but it assures your wine wasn’t made from surplus juice or in unimaginable quantities.

And then there are the usual things to look for in choosing a wine:

1)    It was made in a small geographic area.  Mendoza is better than Argentina.  Napa is better than California. Romanée-Conti is better than Burgundy.

2)    Appropriate varietals for a region.  Everyone wants to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Cabernet Sauvignon grows well in Northern California, Bordeaux and Chile.  If you buy one from the Finger Lakes in frigid central New York, you get what you deserve.

3)    Lesser-known varietals, regardless of region.  These are never big sellers so they are often labors of love for the winemakers themselves.

Really though, and I cannot emphasize this enough, try to find a good wine merchant.  This has nothing to do with the size of the store or the quality of the wines they carry.  It only has to do with how well they listen, and whether they can help you select bottles of wine that meet your needs and desires.

Here’s an example of something you might ask, “I was hoping you could help me pick out a bottle to bring to my friend’s dinner party.  I don’t know what we are eating, but there will be a variety of foods. I was thinking about a lighter-bodied, food-friendly red.  Preferably something French for under $20.” 

When they give you their suggestion, you can ask them to tell you about it, and then see if there is anything else that comes to mind.  Then with two bottles to choose from, now knowing a bit about each, you can make some kind of informed decision.

I know it’s harder to actually do than it sounds.  It may take time to find a merchant that makes you feel comfortable talking about wine, and you may need to be a little brave.  But I’m here to help.  Just let me know how.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2010 12:49 pm

    Great post. Well said!

  2. November 21, 2010 4:21 pm

    Thanks for the post. We have two places within a few miles where we’re willing to talk to them about wine (and learned our lesson about buying wine at Meijer). Our locally owned organic grocery has a wine expert who loves to help. Just yesterday we went in and said, “We’re having a friend over, mostly Mediterranean finger foods and we like earthy reds… what do you suggest?” She made a great choice. We also have a great wine shop across the street and whenever we’re making dinner for friends, and sometimes just for ourselves, we will bring the menu over. I’m glad there are people out there who know about wine… I’m clueless. Do like to drink it, though. Your #2 tip made me chuckle – I have learned this one the hard way.

  3. November 21, 2010 6:17 pm

    Ahh, helpful post. I am useless when it comes to picking out wines since, as with books, I am easily drawn in by clever, graphic doodads that I would also like to wear on a tote bag or as a wall print. My favorites tend to be the ones that are simple, like little line drawings, or interesting fonts.

    Generally though, I find saying, I don’t know what I am doing, help! ends up being a worthwhile lesson and helpful, once I work up the guts to say something in the first place :)

  4. November 22, 2010 9:56 am

    Thank you for touching on the regional varietals. In fairness, though, while I can’t say I’ve ever had a fantastic Cab Sauvignon from the Finger Lakes, I have had some decent Cab Francs (which, actually, I prefer anyway. Even still, if you’re going to go with a “traditional” red, stick with the Syrah. There aren’t a ton of FLX vineyards that do a good Syrah, but the ones that do really are fantastic (namely, Hazlitt and Damiani, both on Seneca Lake … Damiani’s Lemberger is also phenomenal).

    Cab Francs and Merlots from Long Island, however, are among the best I’ve ever had.

    The example I wish you had used was Pinot Noir. After Sideways was released, every winery in America decided to try tackling the challenge of the finicky redhead, and most have failed miserably. Unless it’s from the Russian River Valley or the Willamette Valley, odds are it is not even drinkable, let alone any good. Napa does some decent ones, though generally if it doesn’t say “Russian River” or “Willamette” on the label, I save my coins and buy something else (for example, a Long Island Merlot).

  5. November 27, 2010 10:36 am

    Indeed, great post. Now we need to get people to do this with spirits too… So much of the market is dominated by a few guys with flashy labels that make sub par products. Spirits can set the mood for a gathering or a night just like wine, and it is important to pick the right stuff… at least that’s my opinion on the matter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: