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A Stopgap Proposal

James Laube
Posted: February 3, 2000

A Stopgap Proposal
By James Laube, senior editor

It may be a case of "too little, too late," but a good number of Napa Valley vintners don't like what's happening to the Napa Valley name, and they're seeking new ways to protect it.

The Napa Valley Vintners Association's board of directors asked its members to adopt a new labeling proposal. The vintners then hope to convince state legislators to endorse the following: Any wine sold in California using a geographic brand name or bottling name that refers to Napa Valley, or to any appellation wholly contained within the Napa Valley, should disclose its percentage of grapes from Napa Valley. This requirement would not apply to wines that already meet the appellation-of-origin requirements; that is, those that are already honestly labeled.

The NVVA also is considering a certification mark for Napa Valley wines. Any wine produced and bottled in Napa Valley with 100 percent Napa grapes would be allowed to use this certification. More on this later.

The first proposal is in direct response to the new Domaine Napa brand and facility, an 18-million-case winery in Napa that is, in effect, a giant bottling factory. Domaine Napa is happy to capitalize on Napa's name and reputation for fine wine, but it will not rely on Napa Valley grapes. Most if not all of Domaine Napa's wines will be shipped in bulk from the Central Valley, or perhaps the Central Coast, then bottled in Napa. The winery can legally use this wording on its label: "Domaine Napa, Cellared and Bottled in Napa, Calif." It can also use this wording for TV, radio and Internet ads, as well as for billboards and in-store promotional displays. Domaine Napa's owner is Fred Franzia, who owns Bronco Wine Co. and more than a dozen wine brands, chief among them Napa Creek and Rutherford Vintners. He is also a convicted criminal, as he pleaded guilty to fraud in 1993, and he and his company were fined $3 million for passing off cheap grapes as expensive ones.

The Napa Valley vintners' proposal would force wineries using Napa in a geographic brand name to state clearly on the label the percentage--if any--of Napa Valley grapes used in the wine. A Domaine Napa Zinfandel, for example, could still legally say "Cellared and Bottled in Napa, Calif.," but the label would have to disclose that no Napa grapes were contained in that wine. It would also force Domaine Napa to identify the sources of its grapes by appellation. This proposal would force brands such as Beringer's Napa Ridge to comply with labeling regulations. Napa Ridge began as an all-Napa Valley brand, but it now uses grapes from throughout the state. Many of its wines carry the Central Coast or North Coast appellations. Still, the label says Napa Ridge.

I'm not convinced that this will be an effective tool to combat what is clearly an attempt by Domaine Napa to mislead wine drinkers. On the one hand, it will signify Napa vintners' concern about the misuse of Napa's name. Yet it takes a leap of faith to expect most consumers to read all the fine print on what should be a rather simple and easy-to-read wine label. Moreover, the law would only apply in California.

The matter of a certification mark for Napa Valley wines, while seemingly noble, will only make wine buying more complicated, especially for novices. Imagine shopping for a Napa Valley Cabernet or Petite Sirah and having to make sure it carried a certification mark as well. But I'm all for the 100 percent Napa Valley authentication. The current appellation laws, set at 85 percent, are far too lax, allowing up to 15 percent of a wine to be from somewhere else.

The issue of Pope Valley, an area currently contained within the Napa Valley appellation, is yet another sore spot for Napa vintners. Napa Valley and Pope Valley are both actual valleys, separate and distinct, with a range of mountains in between. Yet too many vintners seemingly want to look the other way when this topic is addressed. They can use Pope Valley grapes in their wines and call them "Napa Valley" when it suits their needs. But when someone else tinkers with the Napa name, threatening to hurt rather than help their business, then suddenly everyone's up in arms. Two wrongs don't make a right.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube, in a piece also appearing in the current issue. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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