New Twist on Confusing Labels
By Jeff Morgan, West Coast editor
Remember, two years ago, how a wine shortage fear prompted a slew of California wineries to import bulk wines from Europe and South America to avoid shortfalls? Wineries like The Monterey Vineyard, Mondavi, St. Supery, Fetzer and others folded these new stocks into existing California brands and simply changed the appellation in small print -- sometimes on the back label, where no one could see it anyway. Retailers and consumers alike became confused about whether or not they were drinking California wine. It was a misleading marketing concept that mocked the idea that wine comes from a certain place -- and should taste like it.
Here's a new twist on the same technique. Only this time it's about giving California wines a European look. Via Firenze Tuscan Collection is the label in question. It heralds the arrival of a new, upscale line of Italian varietals -- right? Wrong. Produced by New York-based wine giant Canandaigua, which for years has been trying to redefine its jug wine image with higher-quality varietals, this wine turns out to have a label unrelated to the contents.
The label artwork is really quite attractive, featuring a pastoral Tuscan vineyard scene that enhances the brand title, a reference to Firenze (Florence), Tuscany's premier city. The first bottle I encountered was called "Nobella" (84, $19). Upon closer examination, I noticed it had a Napa Valley appellation. And a phrase beneath the appellation reads "a noble Tuscan-style blend."
The irony here is that the wine is a typical Bordeaux blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc -- not a single traditional Italian grape. (Sure, they use Cabernet these days in Tuscany, but that doesn't make it "traditional.")
The Tuscan Collection also features a Charbono Napa Valley 1994 (81, $13). At least that sounds Italian. But it isn't. This obscure red grape was imported from France to California in the late 19th century and is grown only marginally here. There remains some dispute about its origins, as the back label notes in a whopping non sequitur: "A classic Italian tradition, the origin of the Charbono grape is uncertain." Who pays these guys to write copy like that anyway?
According to Canandaigua West Coast spokesperson Robert Larsen, the wines were made before the marketing concept was conceived. Originally destined for a reserve bottling of Canandaigua's Dunnewood line, "they were eventually earmarked for a Tuscan-style line," he said. The next vintage of Nobella will, in fact, contain some Sangiovese as well, in a nod to the super Tuscans.
In all fairness, Via Firenze Tuscan Collection does include two true Italian varietals, Dolcetto and Sangiovese -- albeit from California. In a sense, they just add to the muddle, however. Is this or isn't this an Italian-styled line?
And that's just the opposite goal of a good marketing campaign. Tell us clearly what we're drinking. There is nothing wrong with the Via Firenze wines themselves. They taste pretty good, as a matter of fact. And there is nothing illegal about what Canandaigua is doing here.
It's just misleading. Those who don't know better will probably assume they are drinking an Italian wine. And is that so terrible? Perhaps not. But if wine is in any way a reflection of culture, Via Firenze Tuscan Collection has definitely fogged up my mirror.
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 columnist Jeff Morgan. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Jim Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.
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