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Understanding wine labels is like learning another language

Federal regulators are eyeing the maze of wine label information on bottles of wine. I have before me five bottles of wine: a French, Italian, Australian and two California wines, one in Monterey and one in Temecula Valley. They couldn’t be more different in their presentations of information presumably to help buyers in making their choices.

Jim Tobin of North County Wine Company pours a Siduri 2009 Pinot Noir ($29.97) into the glass of columnist Frank Mangio. Photo by Frank Mangio

As in any government intervention in an industry, we can be encouraged by its goal of consistency and honest definitions of vague terms like premium, estate, reserve and vineyard, but we are already burdened with “warning” information (I counted four different warnings on bottles) and now there is lobbying for serving facts like calories, fat and protein, major allergies and stricter definitions of marketing terms.

French wines are the most confusing, with Italians weighing in close behind. It would take a translator awhile to figure out what kind of wine is in the bottle. The French bottle label in front of me has the following information: “Mis en Bouteille au Chateau, Grand Vin De Chateau Latour, Premier Grand Cru Classe, Pauillac. Alc 12.5 percent, 75 cl.” Latour, of course, has built up such a reputation that all it needs is the name, but to the newcomer, it says nothing about what’s in the bottle.

French wine and other international brands cannot be regulated, but in the U.S. the word estate and other terms should be more defined.

OK, what’s clear and concise on a label? An example would be the Sattui Winery in Napa Valley, with its high contrast and large print (easy to read) information that shows the winery owner’s signature and year of harvest, when the winery was established, the name of the vineyard that produced the grape (estate grown), the varietal, appellation and closest city.

On the back label, a description of the vineyard, the aroma and taste and what food the wine would pair well with. Because this is a direct sale winery, the address, phone and website are easy to read. The letters are black and large. The background is a light cream color for maximum contrast and visibility.

The price of success is imitation, so on top of this copious market of wines comes a wild Chinese stampede for anything that tastes like red wine. Bootleggers are dousing the market with phony wine.

Hahn Winery in the Santa Lucia Highlands near Monterey grows and makes Merlot in a specified area and can rightly say it is “Estate Grown.” Photo by Frank Mangio

These knock-off artists are getting a significant percentage of wine consumption and sales that have doubled in the last few years. The problem is so big that buyers of premium wines are urged to smash the bottles after use, fearing that those empties will be re-filled with cheap wine and re-sold as originals.

Many consumers do not speak or understand wine language. It’s the responsibility of wineries to be clear about terms used in the sale of wine and be ready to back it up when asked.  Otherwise the government will do it for them.

The Brothers Tobin take it up a notch at NCWC

North County Wine Company, the wine bar and retailer in San Marcos, picked up new owners a year or so ago, and the first thing Jim and Bill Tobin did was to increase the wine selections from 200 to 700 wines with worldwide brands. “We became very aggressive in our pricing, as competitive or more than any other wine shop in North County,” Bill said. “Younger consumers are coming in with an open mind about what they want, they ask questions and they try something new.

The Tobins do tastings twice a week, on Wednesday and Friday nights. The thing that sets them apart is that they have the great names, usually seven selections plus appetizers, for just $10. On this night, guests were treated to Cloudy Bay, Frank Family, Siduri, Argiano, Pahlmeyer, Orin Swift and John Duval. On the question of what’s selling these days, Jim said, “we see a lot of interest in Sauvignon Blanc with the whites, and lots of interest in Italian Red wines.”

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Wine Bytes

— The Fifty Barrels Wine Group is offering an Evening of Wine Tasting Feb. 4 in Oceanside. Taste five award-winning wines with appetizers and entertainment  for $20 pre-sale, $25 at the door. There will be raffle drawings and a silent auction. Call (951) 906-7538 for details.

— North County Wine Company in San Marcos has a fundraiser from 5 to 8 p.m. Feb. 6. It’s a six-flight wine tasting with lots of gourmet food and desserts. There will be raffle drawings. The cost is $20. Call (760) 744-2119 for details.

—  Bistro West in Carlsbad is presenting a Wine Dinner featuring Napa Valley’s Rombauer Vineyards on Feb. 7. The cost is $65 per person. Call to RSVP at (760) 930-8008.

—An elegant wine and food event is planned for 1 to 4 p.m. Feb. 12 at Milagro Farm Vineyard and Winery in Ramona.

Get the full story on this fast-growing San Diego County wine country. Winemaker Jim Hart has chosen five special wines including Sparkling Apple. Live music by a concert violinist. The event benefits Ramona’s H.E.A.R.T. Mural Project. The cost is $45. RSVP at (760) 787-1102.

— PAON Restaurant and Specialty Wine Store in downtown Carlsbad is pouring Romantic Reds with Tasty Chocolates from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Feb. 9 thru Feb. 15. Call for wines and pricing at (760) 729-7377.

Frank Mangio is a renowned wine connoisseur certified by Wine Spectator. His library can be viewed at (Average Google certified 900 visits per day) He is one of the top five wine commentators on the Web. Reach him at [email protected]