With wine labels, it's what's in back that counts

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 21, 2013 - 3:13 PM

The back label of a bottle reveals a lot of information about the wine.

A lot of people make wine-buying decisions based on the label. Some estimates for such single-bottle purchases run as high as 75 percent.

Here’s the problem: Most consumers are doing it backwards, and not because they’re choosing the bottle with the pretty unicorn on the front. The most useful information, it turns out, almost invariably is on the smaller back label.

Yes, the brand, grape and region names on the front are important, and the design can convey a good bit about the wine or winery (including the fact that too much money was spent on the outside vs. what’s inside the bottle). But the tiny type on the back can be more helpful.

For instance, “Estate Bottled” usually is a good sign. It means the winery controls 100 percent of the grapes used and did all the viticultural work (crushing, fermenting, aging) at its own site. Thus, it is responsible for both parts of the term “quality control.”

More wineries have been putting descriptors on the back, and those can range from flowery meaninglessness (evoking verdant landscapes or aromas of pencil lead) to something actually helpful (“full-bodied,” “a touch of effervescence”). I’m especially enamored of wineries that include some food-pairing tips on the back label. Many riesling labels now contain a helpful sweetness gauge.

One of my favorite California wineries, Ridge, has added an ingredients list (“calcium carbonate, 1.4% water addition, minimum effective SO2”) to its back labels. It would be beyond swell if that started a movement, but I’m not holding my breath.

But perhaps the most beneficial information on those back labels involves the importer, which might have immediate economic benefits and long-range enjoyment advantages.

If the importer is based in Minnesota, you should be saving a bit of money. After all, you’re skipping a “tier” in the supply chain when the importer and distributor are the same company. So even though there are costs involved in both importing and distributing, companies doing both tend to provide bigger bang for the buck. Such local companies range from small (Z, Amara, Domace Vino), to medium-sized (New France, the Wine Company) to ginormous (Prestige Wine Group).

The Twin Cities area is blessed with several pros with great palates who delve deep into Europe in search of great wines at optimum prices, among them Ulf Bach at Margron Skoglund, Joe Kotnik and Mark Mackondy at WorldWide Cellars and Annette Peters, whose newish Domaines and Appellations has enhanced an already strong portfolio at Bourget Imports.

And that’s an area where the name of a non-Minnesota importer can be an invaluable asset in sorting through thousands of imported wines: calibrating our palates, in the same way we come to use our experience with movie or music critics to gauge whether we’re going to like something they like, or come to just trust an author or a musician to produce choice material every time.

If you like a wine brought to these shores by De Maison, Dalla Terra or Winebow; Eric Solomon, Kermit Lynch or Robert Kacher; Rudi Wiest or Terry Theise (via Michael Skurnik), it’s quite likely you’ll enjoy their other selections, too. The wines might not have the exact same flavor profile, but they’ll generally have a similar distinctiveness and quality level.

So let them — and other aspects of the back label — do the work for you.

 

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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