There is a lot of information on a wine label. However, not all of the information means what you might expect. This guide will help you understand what the words and numbers on a Napa bottle of wine mean. I am being specific about the source of the wine, because the meaning of those words and numbers change depending on the source of the wine. There are three overlapping set of regulations that apply to a bottle from Napa Valley: US Federal regulations, California State regulations, those of the AVA (American Viniculture Area) regulations, and finally Napa AVA specific regulations.
A wine label must list the wine type. The type can be a single grape variety such as Merlot, or a generic term like “Red Table Wine”. If the label lists a grape variety, at least 75% of volume must be that grape. This means that a “Cabernet Sauvignon” can be a blend that has 25% of other grapes. There is no requirement to mention this on the label. These are US federal requirements.
The label must list the origin of the wine. This origin can be a country, a US State, a County, or an appellation. Napa Valley is an appellation. Napa County is a County. US Federal Regulations state that at least 75% of the grapes must come from the State or County listed. If an AVA is listed 85% of the grapes must come from within that AVA. However, California regulations are stricter. If a wine’s origin states California or any area within the State, all the grapes must come from California.
A wine label may list a vintage. If present, the vintage refers to the year in which the grapes were harvested. Federal Regulations require that 85% of the grapes come from that year. Napa AVA requires that 95% come from the stated year.
If a label lists a specific vineyard, 95% of the grapes must be grown in that vineyard.
If a label states that the wine is “Estate Bottled” the winery must have grown all the grapes it owns or rents. The winery must also have crushed, fermented, aged, and bottled the wine on a single property.
Wines with an alcohol content above 14% by volume must specify that content, with a tolerance of plus or minus 1%. Wines below that level may state that they are “Table Wines”, or offer a percentage number with a tolerance of plus or minus 1.5%. No, I do not know why the margin of error changes, or why wines below the threshold can dispense with showing a percentage.
Labels can also include brand names. Regulations forbid the use of names that may mislead someone about the age, origin, or other characteristic of the wine. For instance using Bordeaux in the brand name of a wine from California would not be allowed. Although this is rule to which exceptions seem rife; whilst French terms no longer appear on American wine, several wineries create Port; a wine that must come from the region of Porto in Portugal.
The label must show the net contents. Oddly for a country that has refused to move towards metric measurements, wine bottles show their contents in milliliters. Moreover, only certain sizes are acceptable: 50ml, 100ml, 187ml, 375ml, 750ml, 1L, 1.5L, or 3L. Bottles above 3L must be in quantities of full liters. To show how much of an outlier in US culture is this use of metric measurements, wine by the glass is quoted in fluid ounces. Therefore, there is not a neat whole number of glasses that can be poured from a bottle. In the UK wine is in either 125ml or 150ml glasses, which translates to five or six pours from a bottle.
California Girl Comments: Aside from the important information on the wine label in recent years, vineyards have been using these labels to show prospective buyers their style and personality. Some have catchy names for the wines, and some have very colorful labels with amazing art work.
I have to admit to having been charmed into buying more than a few fun bottles of wine because they made me laugh, or because the artwork was so eye-catching I had to try the wine. Most of the time the wine isn’t nearly as good as the label looks; alas a gimmick. However, they are fun to buy and try. (Not to mention all the fun Pinterest projects that can be done with beautiful wine bottles… tell me I am not the only one here!)
A few I have tried are: Goats do Roam, Save Me San Francisco, Lunatic, Fat Bastard, Murder On My Mind, 7 Deadly Zins, Educated Guess, and Menage à Trois. I am sure if I thought about it, I could name more.
Out of this list, the only ones I would repurchase would be Lunatic, Educated Guess, and 7 Deadly Zins.
At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what is on the label. What matters is what is in the bottle!