What if I told you that the Cabernet Sauvignon you were drinking was really a red blend with at least 6 other grapes in it? What if I told you that the bottle labeled as Pinot noir on your table was also a blend, but not necessarily a “red” one since it had Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay in it. Or how about that bottle of Napa Valley wine that you ordered at a restaurant in Texas which was actually made in Texas?
Now to some degree, none of this really matters because blissful ignorance is truly blissful if you are enjoying the wine that you’re drinking. That is the blue pill of wine and while it would make a boring blog post (and movie), everyone is welcome to take it. But if you want to know the truth and be a little bit more dangerous as a wine consumer, lets take the red pill and look at some of the loopholes in US wine laws.
Fighting Varietals (or not)
The TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) provides a nice brochure with a breakdown of the minimum standards for a wine label in the US. Here we’ll note some key details.
To be labeled as a single grape variety, you only need to have 75% of that grape- This is the fallacy of the grape varietal snobs who drink “only Cabernet Sauvignon” and think red blends are inferior wines made from the “left overs” or would never buy anything unless it says Merlot on the label. HA! Just kidding about that last one. The truth is that most of the red wines in the world are blends. Even if you want to discount many of the amazing European wines from Bordeaux, the Rhone, Tuscany, Valpolicella, Rioja, Douro, etc that have historically always been blends, you still have this huge 25% loophole in American “varietal” wines that US winemakers are all to happy to exploit.
Why? Because blending helps them make potentially better wines. I remember listening to winemaker Ginny Lambrix of Zinfandel specialist Truett-Hurst talk about how she loves blending a little Petite Sirah with Zin because the rich plums, blackberry and pepper spice marries so well with the similar (but sometimes uneven with its ripening habits) flavors of Zinfandel. Of course, Zinfandel can make outstanding wines on its own and, yes, Petite Sirah can also make some great bottles. But, as Ginny described, putting the two together is like adding a little chocolate to peanut butter. Great by themselves but absolutely scrumptious together.
No one can discount that Joseph Wagner developed a recipe for Pinot noir that, literally, hit the sweet spot of American palates with blending in the white wine grapes of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay to add sweetness and make the wine more soft. Yet with that 25% “other grape buffer”, he (and now Constellation Brands) could still market Meiomi as a Pinot noir. While there are many incredible 100% Pinot noirs out there, its clear that the blended grapes have been vital to Meiomi’s smashing success and growth yet I don’t know if anyone can credibly argue that Meiomi would have been anywhere near as successful if it was marketed as a Red(ish) blend.
Likewise, the Lohr family has built a very successful brand for Cabernet Sauvignon with their Seven Oaks label yet every single year they are just hitting that 75-76% minimum of Cab and rounding it out with other grapes. You have to give major props to the Lohrs for being transparent with their blends and tech data which is something that not many wineries do. You can tell that they’re proud of the wines they are making but you better believe that they are still making the business decision that they are going to sell more wine labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon than they would if it was labeled as a red blend.
That is my personal gripe about this loophole. I’m very pro-blend but disheartened that the reality of the wine business is that wineries are basically rewarded for hiding the fact that what they are truly making are blends dominated by a particular variety.
Now, of course, we should note that individual states can add their own conditions to tighten some of these laws. For instance, in Oregon a wine labeled as Pinot noir needs to be at least 90% of that grape. Though, curiously, 18 other grape varieties (such as Cabernet Sauvignon) are “exempt” from these stricter wine laws so, hey, a loophole to a loophole!
Napa with a Twang
Another of the TTB’s bare minimums relate to the use of wine regions or AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) on the bottle:
To have an AVA listed, only 85% of the grapes needed to be sourced from that region— Napa grapes are expensive with the average price of a ton being over $4300 in 2015. To put that in perspective, 1 ton equals about 2 barrels or 50 cases of wine. This is just the base grape costs and speaks nothing to the cost of labor, winemaking equipment, barrels (new French oak barrels can cost over $3000 each), packaging and marketing. This is one of the reasons why it is hard to find Cabernet from Napa under $20. Unless……
You turn some corners. With your grape truck. On the roads between Napa and neighboring counties.
When you go next door to Sonoma County, the cost for grapes is closer to $2400 a ton with Lake County clocking in at around $1600 a ton. And in the southern Central Valley around Fresno, you can get a ton of grapes for around $300. So clearly there is some financial incentive in offsetting the cost of production for your bottle of “Napa Valley wine” with that 15% loophole of grapes grown elsewhere.
But is it really still “Napa” or, at least, what a consumer would expect from a Napa Valley wine? That’s an interesting question but this loophole goes far deeper when you realize that that 15% could include grapes from places like Texas and Georgia. I’m not kidding y’all.
The TTB is currently holding a comment period over a particular loophole that allows a winery to buy fruit from outside their state, truck it into their state and maybe even blend it with local fruit, but still label it under the AVA where the 85%+ of the fruit came from as long as they only sell it within their home state. So, yes, a winery in Texas can buy Napa Valley fruit and potentially blend in 15% of Texas fruit and still sell it as a Napa Valley wine to the wine shops and restaurants of Texas.
The comment period for discussion over this particular loophole will run till December 7th, 2016. For those who like to indulge in some not-so-light reading, you can take a look at the diverse perspectives of people who are both for closing the loophole and against it.
I’m going to bet on the law being changed and this loophole closed, if only because of the big money involved with the Napa brand itself. But, as we’ve learned, there are still plenty of other loopholes to trip over. Maybe its best for all of us to sit back and chase down the blue pills while enjoying our $20 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.