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Wine labels are like books these days

By By Stan Torgerson / wine columnist
July 30, 2003
Granted the Harry Potter books are some of the most creative writing you'll ever read, but the people who write the back labels on many of today's wine bottles can, and do, give the author a run for her money.
Harry Potter author's job is to sell books. The people who write the descriptive labels are trying to sell wine well, perhaps, oversell wine.
I've tasted my share of wine and my experience is most wines have one, maybe two, upfront and prominent flavors. With chardonnay, it can be peaches or butter or butterscotch.
Sauvignon blancs generally show citrus flavors. There are bottles of Italian barolo in my cellar that fill the room with the aroma of cherries and taste the same way. Other reds show berries, raspberries, a touch of pepper but at least one flavor dominates.
A little over the top
Label writers go far beyond that simplicity. Take the wine on the tasting list for Thursday night. The Guenoc sauvignon blanc, for example. The back label reads, "Subtle aromas of apricots and cantaloupe complements flavors of peach and mango finishing on the palette with a bright medley of lime and pears."
I defy any taster, professional or amateur, to differentiate apricot, cantaloupe, peach, mango, lime and pears, six different fruit flavors, in a sip or two of that wine.
The same author apparently crafted the label on Guenoc's chardonnay: "Peaches, pears and honey characterize the aromas, bright flavors and full fruit finish of this lovely chardonnay,"
All I can say is that's a lot of pizzazz for a $14 bottle of wine.
Guenoc does not have an exclusive on gushy descriptive phrases. I have great respect for Stag's Leap Cellars. It is certainly one of the best producers in California, and its sauvignon blanc at $21 will likely be wonderful.
But, in truth, I doubt if any of our tasters will be able to endorse this terminology "The Napa Valley sauvignon blanc exhibits a balance of the classic varietal fruit characters of grapefruit, melon and passion fruit, accented with herb and mineral notes. Some hints of oak adds a layer of complexity."
And, oh yes, there is a lingering citrus aftertaste, according to whomever wrote the label.
There is no doubt in my mind that the wine is delicious and our tasters will love it, but the above sounds like a case of beating the drum a bit loudly.
Strangely enough, they don't do the same with their chardonnay. That wine carries this simple message: "At Stag's Leap Cellars, we use the same exacting standards in the vineyard as we do for our red varietals. We selectively harvest the grapes to optimize ripeness and apply classic winemaking techniques in the cellar."
I have no trouble with that. It sounds reasonable and honest. But "grapefruit, melon, passion fruit accented with herbal and mineral notes" along with "hints of French oak" is a little rich for my blood.
Comparing fact and fiction
The Chalk Hill wines, by far the most expensive of the evening at $48 for the chardonnay and about $32 for the sauvignon blanc, carry the most conservative message. "Each varietal is matched to specific sites and microclimates and traditional winemaking techniques are utilized to capture the diverse characteristics of each vineyard block, resulting in wines of distinction and elegance."
That, I will buy.
Even the door wine for under $10, Bella Sera's pinot grigio, carries a "try me, you'll like me" message. After translating Bella Sera into its English equivalent, "beautiful evening," you'll find this phraseology:
I am well aware these labels are designed to appeal to browsers in a wine store who pick up various bottles, read the labels front and back, and make their decision to buy based on what they see. The producer's theory is sell them once, and if they like the wine, they will buy it again and again but the first sale is crucial. Therefore be romantic. Brag a little.
Tomorrow night we will compare fact with fiction and see for ourselves. There is still space available for this tasting. The cost is $25 to sample these seven wines.
Call 482-0930 and make a reservation, so that we know how much wine to have on hand. The tasting begins at 6:30 p.m. The place is Northwood Country Club and the public is indeed invited.