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A Back Label That Fills in the Facts

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 12, 2007 12:35pm ET

Last night for dinner, I opened a bottle of 2003 Calera Pinot Noir Mills Vineyard (92 points, $45). As I poured a glass, a couple of thoughts crossed my mind.

Calera used to make one of the ripest styles of Pinot Noir in California, so much so that I once described them as ultraripe bordering on jammy. No more. There are far riper, darker, fuller-bodied Pinots made these days, but Calera's 03 is delightfully elegant and stylish. It's one of the best wines from Calera I’ve had in a while. (Owner Josh Jensen, a francophile who began planting this site in the 1970s, bottles four other single-vineyard Pinots from his San Benito property—Jensen, Selleck, Reed and Ryan.)

As I held the bottle, I noticed the back label, and Calera’s back labels are the most informative I can think of. Aside from the obvious (vintage, appellation, vineyard), there's a map of Calera’s Mount Harlan vineyard, with its size (14.4 acres). Then it gets into greater detail, with the predominate geology (limestone), average elevation (2,200 feet) and exact location from San Francisco (90 miles).

It lists the total number of vines (10,575), spacing (6 feet by 10 feet), vines per acre (726), year planted (1984), rootstock (own-rooted), 17-year average crop yield, 1987 through 2003, (1.30 tons per acre) and then hectoliters of wine per hectare of vineyard (19.5), so you don’t have to calculate the translation.

Next, time of harvest (Sept. 22-30), tons harvested (12.26), tons per acre (.80), average ripeness (27.1 sugar), followed by fermentation info (native yeasts), barrel aging (16 months in 60-gallon French barrels, 30 percent new), malolactic fermentation (100 percent) and filtration (none).

Last, Jensen provides the bottling date (Feb. 24, 2005), quantities bottled in 750 ml. (9,312 bottles), half-bottles (1,200), magnums (42) and jeroboams (7), which all add up to 835 full cases (12 times 750 ml bottles).

Informative? Yes. Excessive? At points. Useful? Definitely. Missing anything? Yes, pH …

American wine drinkers may be geekier when it comes to this kind of numerical/statistical data. You don’t see this depth of information on the back labels of most imported wines, though I would like to see some of this data, especially varietal breakdowns for wines that are blends, whether they're super Tuscan or Bordeaux.

What kinds of information would you like to see on a back label? Do you care? Or are we too hung up on minutia?

Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  February 12, 2007 4:32pm ET
James, most of this info is quite interesting to me, though the site/vineage details are over my head. I find a number of Brunellos and Burgundies have information on the back label though usually in Italian and French, respectively. From what I can discern, mostly tasting notes with a bit of history about the family's winemaking tradition back to the Renaissance ro thereabouts. I too would like more technical data on the back of old world wines.
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  February 12, 2007 5:43pm ET
I find that the back label is usually used simply as a place holder for self promotion. That's fine but its rarely useful. If the wine is a blend, I'd like to know the percentages of the varieties (Southern Rhone comes to mind). When it comes to Chardonnay, I'd like to know what style its made in (fat/oak, or otherwise). When it comes to Chenin Blanc, Reislings and Gewurtz, I'd like to know the level of residual sugar. Basically, I want to know what I'm getting myself into. I want the not so obvious details that will make a wine work or fail. As for the rest, none of it matters except for the final judgement. Dan J.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  February 12, 2007 6:01pm ET
James Laube, I totally agree with your point. I even said as much on Suckling's blog, but I got blasted by everyone who read it. It seems like the answer from most is that I need to study the wines more so that I know what I am getting myself into. Below is the question I posed. I appreciate WS trying to at least get US producers to listen: http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Blogs/Blog_Detail/0,4211,855,00.html James, I know that wine drinkers with knowledge and wisdom know what is in each wine, but I have an issue with foreign wines that are reviewed by WS. From my limited knowledge, I would assume that the 2003 Ch?au La Grave ¿omerol that you had with dinner is a Merlot or mainly Merlot blend. I think I am dealing with a bigger topic here. Why many Americans prefer Cali Cabs to more affordable options from France. WE HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IS IN THE FRENCH WINES. If they just put on the label what the approx breakdown is each year, we could drink what we think we will like without having to buy a wine and then find that it does not suit our tastes. My point is, why don't you, Bruce, and the rest of the tasters make a point to include the wine makeup in tasting notes. Or at the very least, the grapes that are in the wine. Laube and Harvey usually do include this detail in Califoria Central cost "Rhone Rangers" and in Australian blends. We as Americans need the most help when trying to decifer labels from France, Italy, Spain, etc. We count on you guys to lead us in the right path. I can buy a bottle of 2003 Ch?au La Grave ¿omerol at my local wine shop for $40 so that I can try to emulate your wine experience, but I hesitate to for fear of it being a heavily oaked Cab/Merlot 50/50 blend as opposed to the 80-90% merlot blend that I expect it to be coming from Pomerol. Please help, now and in the future
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  February 12, 2007 6:10pm ET
James, ultimately what counts is what is in the bottle, and you can't tell that by what is on the label. But, if I find the wine to be really good, then the information on the label, back or front, takes on more meaning.
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  February 12, 2007 6:28pm ET
James, I would say that if the information is important then it would be nice to have a web page to go to on the back. There on the web they can list everything for the varietals, pH, yield, fermentation, ect. It is nice to have the information available. If they decide to put it on their back label they are the ones fronting the cost..more power to them. If I had a choice to save a dollar and not have the back label...I'd save the dollar and go to the web page.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 12, 2007 6:58pm ET
Kirk, web pages aside, if I'm at a restaurant or party (and talking about a wine I know nothing about with friends or strangers) I'd rather have the information (or at least some of it) on the bottle...not sure I'd want to go home and look up a bunch of different wines on the web...
Thomas A Mobley Iii
Tallahassee, FL —  February 12, 2007 8:04pm ET
James, I absolutely think more information is better for both producers and consumers. Information is essential for knowledge development and more knowledgeable consumers buy more and better wine. On the back label I would like to see info such as the following: residual sugar, whether malolactic was employed, grape varieties and proportions, age of vines, fermentation vessels, aging vessels and time, soil description, and geo exposure. I drink quite a bit of Champagne and the most informative Champagne label I have seen is on the Tarlant Cuvee Louis - this label info also is available at www.tarlant.com for those interested. Excellent topic - thanks.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  February 12, 2007 9:01pm ET
A map of the appellations can be very useful, particularly now, as I'm trying to learn them. pH is also something I would value, as it might help me validate some of the flavor aspects, and might even help me determine ageability. Not that it would be useful on every bottle, but any wine having any amount of residual sugar ought to tell us how much. It can really help focus your palate to know whether the "sweetness" you perceive is just a low-acid fruitiness or actual sugar, e.g.. I recall a bottle of Artesa 2001 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon that I was convinced was off-dry, but could not get a response from Artesa despite having sent 3 emails using their website. Date of harvest and elevation seem like the only other things that would be useful, but who knows... More info, not less!
Joseph Byrne
Gardiner NY —  February 12, 2007 9:20pm ET
Back labels are the best source of information for consumers if done correctly. Most Old School wines do nothing, but if you go to their websites they give really good information about the wine that could fit on the back label. New Schools wines sometimes go on and on about the moon and stars that went into making the wines, which is irrelevant. So the philosophy should be the KISS(Keep It Simple Stupid) method. Just give what is relevant as is done in most tasting notes, i.e. blend and percent of, wine process if important(vine age, yields, time fermenting, malolactic, etc) and time in type/percent barrel, aromas, flavors, cases made and when to drink.Joe
Chris Hilliard
Minnesota —  February 12, 2007 9:38pm ET
I love to see that kind of info on the bottle. It will NOT persuade me to buy it, but I love it. I do like to know the differnt facts about the Vinyard and the bottling for that year and how much was made how the weather was on so on. I do think every producer will "talk up" there bottle on there lable. You will never see a lable that sayes "this year was not our best but still a bottle worth buying" I guess what I am saying is that if they do not give information on the vineage then what can they tell me that will help? What kind of meal to have with it? Please.
Chambers And Chambers
San Francisco, CA —  February 12, 2007 10:11pm ET
JamesI'm surprised the ph level is not on the back label of the '03 Mills, it is on the '02, are you sure your glasses were focused properly? Glad you enjoyed the wine, one of California's best producers for sure.
Frank L Hugus
Danville, California —  February 13, 2007 12:27am ET
I like to know what grapes are used in the production as well as the specific vineyard in some cases. I also like to note the alcohol level as I'm always interested in comparing such levels with what the French/Italians consider "enough". Other than that they can put anything they want on the back label...it's just marketing and like others have noted, the proof is in the drinking. Thanks James.
Thomas J Manzo
Brielle, NJ —  February 13, 2007 9:31am ET
I'm all for some stats on the back of the bottle. When money is an issue as it is for most of us, it's nice to have a better idea what you're putting your dollars towards. However, one point of concern is honesty - not necessarily an affirmative misprepresentation made by the vineyard, but more along the lines of a misrepresenation by omission. Without regulation, vineyards can pick and choose the stats they disclose and those they leave out. It's reasonable to see that a consumer at least partially relying on the info could be mislead as to the product he or she decides to put that extra 10 bux towards...but hey, maybe some information is better than none. I can certainly see both sides
Tim Webb
high point nc —  February 13, 2007 10:56am ET
basically, the more info the better. any info is better than none. in addition to the tech info about the making of the wine and the physical characteristics of the vineyard, it is also nice to see the name of the winemaker. sometimes knowing the winemaker tells more about what you are about to drink than the tech info does.
Don R Wagner
Illinois —  February 13, 2007 10:31pm ET
Jim...a bit of irony...we just returned to Chi from Fla and were still in a summery white wine mood so I picked up 4 different Viogniers to do some tasting (Feb snowstorm in Chi so you need to invent fun sometimes)...one, by chance, happened to be the 04 Calera...in checking the Alc content (which I always do) I noticed the label...very, very good info (especialy about the AVA) that added a + fun factor to the tasting...maybe not the "class" of a Gemstone or Paloma bottle, but a cool source of info - regarding the tasting (I won't mention details), I will continue to follow your advise (& ratings) - Thanks!

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