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Don't always trust what you think is on wine label

  • It may look like California wine, but it may not be. Look on the back of the wine bottle for true grape origin.

Labeling has been the subject of the past few commentaries. Here we go again. This time, however, it is not GMO food labeling. It’s wine labeling.

Earlier this fall my wife and I were visiting family and friends in Dallas. At a dinner, we were offered wine. Knowing we were from California, our host proudly proclaimed he had a nice selection of California wines. Sauvignon Blanc is one of my favorites, and our friends proudly offered up a selection from Cupcake Vineyards. He handed me the bottle, and I glanced at the label to check the California appellation. In relatively small print, at the top of the label was printed “Marlborough.” I did not recognize it, but that is not unusual. There are far too many appellations to recognize them all.

A sip confirmed my host’s pride in his wine selection. It was a very nice Sauvignon Blanc.

I rolled the bottle to read the label on the back. First thing I look at is usually where it was bottled. So many wines today are bottled in Modesto, Calif., a dead giveaway that it is from Gallo. However, before I could read the fine print at the bottom of the label, the words “Marlborough” and “New Zealand” on the top right of the label popped out. I pointed out to my host that his California wine was actually a New Zealand wine bottled by a California winery. He seemed a bit incredulous at my revelation until I showed him the label. He had been hoodwinked, but obviously did not want to admit it. He thought he had discovered a cute little California winery with a catchy name and a good wine.

Little did he know that his little winery is part of the The Wine Group, a 58-million case world wine conglomerate. Google Cupcake Vineyards and you will find it’s in Monterey County, Calif., near Soledad, Calif. You have to wade through a myriad of different labels and marketing organizations to discover that the cutesy sounding winery is part of the second largest wine corporation in the world that has marketing plans to sell 1 million bottles of Cupcake wine.

Nothing wrong with any of that. New Zealanders make a nice Sauvignon Blanc. U.S. wine labeling laws are so convoluted, The Wine Group had done nothing illegal. However, I will never buy or drink a Cupcake Vineyards wine — foreign or domestic again.

When browsing wine selections, I want to read on the front label exactly (or relatively close considering all the allowable, highly bendable blending rules) what is in that bottle. I am a Californian, and I want to buy only California wine. Grape growers deserve my support.

California grape growers have been battered around for more than a decade in the “new worldwide wine business.” They have been told to get tough and be competitive. Most wine grape growers know that is baloney. The fate of the California wine grape market is just another country’s wine glut away.

What irritates me more than that is that consumers — like my dinner host — are being  duped by legal, yet clearly deceptive labeling. And don’t tell me there is no California Sauvignon Blanc equal to Cupcake’s New Zealand offering.

Discuss this Blog Entry 10

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 13, 2011

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is highly coveted. Especially from Marlborough. It is considered the best appellation in New Zealand for Sauvignin Blanc and Pinot Noir. Not sure how you wouldn't recognize it. It would be like not knowing Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa or Chianti.

You must not really drink wine.

Kate Regan (not verified)
on Oct 13, 2011

Cupcake Vineyards is known for creating high quality, affordable wines from the regions around the world that are best known for specific varietals - hence the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. They also have a Barossa, Australia Shiraz; Mendoza, Argentina Malbec; etc etc... However, in addition to making a number of wines in the international regions, Cupcake Vineyards also makes really great wines from the Central Coast of California. If you did indeed enjoy the Sauvignon Blanc but would prefer to drink only California wines, you could try the Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, or Red Velvet Red Blend which are all Central Coast appellated.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 13, 2011

Many companies are outsourcing certain varietals as California can not keep up with the supply to meet the demand or the pricing dictates that in order to get that great priced SB into your hands, certain areas just couldn't support the price off of their price per ton. The great thing i that Marlborough arguably offers one of the best expressions of SB in the world. Marlborough has a definite sense of place in the glass, green notes and passionfruit, and it is beautiful.
Regarding the Gallo dig. No one is trying to dupe the wine drinker by saying bottled in Modesto. If you look at it from a practical standpoint of actually making wine and selling it, who would want all their wine called Gallo and just one style? What you obviously do not know about the Gallo winery is that many of the brands have a history behind them. How nice is it that they honor that history instead of slapping their name on everything?

on Oct 13, 2011

Using the same logic, I presume that there's a chance that you will not be driving your Dodge Ram pickup, as it may have been built in Saltillo, Mexico.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 13, 2011

Cupcake is a pretty big name and so is Marlborough as a region - for someone who claims to know a lot about wine you were clearly duped on this for not having heard of it. And the rules are not really that "blendable" in California it is actually pretty straightforward: 75% for grape varietal and 85% for appelation are the minimums if you are putting those specifics on the label. You also just admitted you only drink wine based on the label not on the taste and if you hadn't seen the label you would have still enjoyed the wine. Your article says nothing about believing what is on the label because "Marlborough" was on the label.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 13, 2011

Cupcake is a pretty big name and Marlborough is also an acclaimed wine region so you probabley don't drink that much wine for having not heard of either one. In regards to "blendable" California labeling laws they are actually pretty simple 75% grape varietal and 85% appellation are the minimums if you put those details on your wine label. No one was duped when "Marlborough" was written on the lablel. Your article does not say you shouldn't believe the label when actually the label told the truth - your host just didnt look hard enough. And you also admitted you choose your wine based on label alone not on taste.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 13, 2011

Looking at the label of Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc, I can't see any reason that you would assume that it is from California. There are five words on the label: "Cupcake Vineyards", "Sauvignon Blanc", and "Marlborough".

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 13, 2011

The author's point is very simple. For the average consumer (not you precocious snobs who give wine a bad name by acting aghast when someone can't tell a California Sauvignon Blanc from a New Zealand; you're everything that's wrong with wine, but that's another story) let's be honest, SOME of Gallo's wines have a heritage and history behind them...but the majority of their brands are commodity brands. There is absolutely no history behind past and present brands such as Apothic, Bear Flag, Bella Sera, Black Swan, Copper Ridge, Canyon Road, Crystal Lake, Dancing Bull, Ecco Domani, Ghost Pines, Las Rocas, Liberty Creek, Livingston Cellars, Maso Canali, Peter Vella, Rancho Zabaco, Red Bicyclette, Red Rock, Polka Dot, Redwood Creek, Naked Grape, Sebeka, Tisdale, Turning Leaf, Twin Valley and others. These are all bulk juice brands vinted in Modesto or Healdsburg. Heck, even Red Bicyclette has put out a wine labeled as Pinot Noir that was actually Syrah. Not telling the difference between those two would be like not being able to tell the difference between a California and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Gallo knows that wines that bear the Gallo name, gives many consumers a perception of low-end cheapness. They cleverly rebrand their wines and maket them as something more than they are. Let's not be apologetic of this on here. It's exactly what they do.

Heck, even some of their brands with a "history" are so far removed from that history other than by name that they may as well be rebranded. Frei Bros., MacMurray Ranch, Louis M. Martini and others have historical names, but very little if any fruit for these wines are coming off the historic vineyards. You can't quadruple production with outside fruit and tell me of the great heritage in the bottle.

And let's not forget the Wine Group. The Wine Group is an extension of the Franzia empire. The Franzia's are equally, if not more so, deceptive than Gallo, and in fact, have received more fines and paid out against more lawsuits involving industry deception, than most other wine companies combined. You can research that on your own.

My point is that labelling practices these days are extremely mis-leading. Part of the experience of wine is a sense of place, and when we find out that place isn't real, as in the Cupcake story above, then you've killed a part of the romance and mystery that is so important to wine.

I'm waiting for the day that a well known journalist dives into the labelling topic, and exposes the industry. It's okay to be a big, mass-produced brand. Many of these wines can be quite nice. Just don't paint it as something else. As my friend said the other day...he was out car shopping and he came across this great car that had all-leather interior, a souped-up V6 engine that got over 30mpg, in-dash gps, an 8 speaker stereo with satellite and ipod connections, a sunroof and an unbeatable price. I asked him if he bought the car, and he said no. When I asked him why, he said because at the end of the day, it was still a Ford Escort.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Oct 13, 2011

It is unfortunate that this writer is so mislead about the wine industry and in particular California wines. Every wine brand available is designed to offer a large portfolio of unique wines in order to market to different consumers. Cupcake is doing this by bringing the best varietals of different countries together into their line of wines. Not to mention they were awarded "Wine Brand of the Year" at Market Watch's annual Leaders Award Dinner in September.

Second, being bottled in Modesto does not indicate it is a Gallo brand. One of the largest bottling, labeling and cork companies in the US bottles out of Modesto and distributors like Diagio, Wine Group, Constellation, etc outsource this company for bottling needs.

Lastly, those "clearly deceptive" labeling laws are actually pretty clear in California. USA AVA= 85% of the fruit from that particular AVA. To be labeled as a "California" wine, it must be 100% California fruit (which clearly the writer didn't realize is the only US state to require all of the grapes to be coming from CA).

If you're all for the California wine growers- next time do a little homework before attempting to write an article on California wine.

montereywinescene (not verified)
on Oct 17, 2011

I keep hearing about "Cupcake" from Monterey County. I'm a little more particular than Harry, pretty much only drinking Monterey County wines (I'm a big locavore). I've yet to see Cupcake at a local vintner's event/tasting room...I might have to head to Costco.

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