How To Read Wine Labels by Vinome Wine Experts

Reading Labels Part 1: Brands, AVAs, and Variety

By Lindsay Cairns

winemaker label reading vinome wine delivery

I like to think of myself as a bit of a rebel so I chose to work at Vinome because we show our customers how to purchase wine based upon their unique flavor profile and not wine critic scores (aka someone else’s unique palate) or some fancy Superbowl marketing campaign. I will not be duped by that sexy Australian accent or some adorable kangaroo again.

That being said, even if you have completed your Vinome flavor profile and have dialed in your palate, the world of wine can still be overwhelming. What happens when you find yourself at the local grocery store facing a wall of unfamiliar bottles?

We’re here to provide you with tools to steer you in the right direction. There is so much information on a label you can use to make a strong estimation of how to determine the quality you’ll find in the bottle – and it’s not the brand name.

With over 9,200 (!) wineries in the US1, a brand name is helpful if you are familiar with the brand. But if you’re not, and like some of us in our early days of choosing  the best looking wine labels only to be disappointed because the graphic designer is better at her job than the winemaker is at his, we can help. When in doubt, first look at where the wine was produced, then the varietal.

When  buying a house or starting a business, it’s all about location, location, location. Same holds true with wine for the winemakers. An American Viticulture Area (AVA) is a grape growing region with defined boundaries based upon distinguishing features such as climate and soil2. An AVA can be a very large region encompassing thousands of acres such as the North Coast, Sierra Foothills, or Lodi. An AVA can also be a very small region such as Mt. Veeder or Yountville. You may be familiar with some of the more famous AVAs like Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, and Paso Robles. An AVA can be thought of as the American interpretation of the French terroir or “sense of place.” AVAs have unique soils, climates, and terrains which  influence the winemaking practices and styles produced from that region. By law, 85% of the fruit used in that wine must come from that AVA. So, if you’ve had a Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands you absolutely loved and later find a Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands on a  restaurant list, you have a pretty good chance of ordering a wine you’ll l enjoy.

If it seems backward to look at location and then variety, you probably aren’t alone. In the US, we label wines by variety or grape type (different from varietal which is an adjective and refers to the wine being made from a single or dominant grape variety). If a wine is labeled as a grape variety, by law, at least 75% of the wine must be of that variety. Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir are all distinct types of grapes like Pugs, Labradors, and a Poodles are all distinct types of dogs. You can also cross grapes like you can cross pooches . Labrador + Poodle = Labradoodle; and Cabernet Franc + Sauvignon Blanc = Cabernet Sauvignon. Unlike dogs, grapes and the flavors they produce depend on the terroir (no, not terrier). Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the warm Napa Valley may have bigger bold dark fruit flavors; Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the cool Alexander Valley may have more vegetal characteristics because it did not have the warm temperatures to ripen as much as it’s Napa counterpart. That’s why you can  almost always rely on location, location, location rather than the label alone.

We’ll dive deeper into the back label in our next post to better understand what words like “Reserve” and “Winemaker’s Selection” mean. Breaking down the difference between ‘Produced by’ and ‘Bottled by’ gets even more interesting! Now go forth and drink wine (responsibly)!


Don’t wait to discover your wine flavor profile →



The Challenge of Distributor Consolidation, by Andrew Adams
Copyright © September 2017 Wines & Vines

TTB Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau; American Viticultural Area (AVA)

Related Posts