When selecting a bottle of Napa Valley wine do you scrutinize the label looking for a clue as to its quality? Or, other than making sure it’s a wine varietal that you like, are you solely attracted by the eye-catching design? No need to feel confused the next time you reach for a Napa Valley wine, because we’re here to help you decode what’s inside. With our handy guide to deciphering a Napa Valley AVA wine label, you’ll soon realize it’s full of useful information to help guide you.
To be able to use the exclusive Napa Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation, which also includes its 16 sub-appellations, 100% of the grapes must be from the AVA. In fact, everything on a wine label is there for a reason. Most items are required by law, but a few are more or less marketing ploys. Let’s dive a little deeper.
In the Napa Valley AVA, over 34 different grape varieties are grown in a sliver of valley 30 miles long and only up to 5 miles across at its widest point. Cabernet sauvignon grapes make up 40% of the total wine production, with chardonnay grapes coming in second favoring the clay soils and cooler climates within the sub-AVAs. The elevations in the AVA range from sea level to 2,600 feet, and feature a mostly Mediterranean climate, but certain sub-AVAs are cooled by ocean currents and fog, creating a diverse grape-growing opportunity.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the Federal Regulatory agency governing the domestic wine industry and the import market in the United States, has strict visual guidelines for labels, including mandating size requirements for the typeface used on the front label. For example, the required appellation designation must be printed at least in 1 mm high text in a conspicuous location on the label for a container of 187 ml or less.
California has even stricter requirements for label information. If the appellation listed reads “California” or a specific region of California, 100% of the grapes have to be from California.
Let’s examine a Napa Valley wine label in detail.
It’s the first thing that catches your eye on a label, naturally. It can be a graphic or artwork, but it imparts an expression of identity: what the brand wants to tell you or what’s in the bottle, which will ultimately drive your decision to purchase.
The brand name is the wine producer, winery, or vineyard. Increasingly “brand wine” or fanciful names are becoming common.
The proprietary or fanciful name is a marketing tool named and owned by the brand to develop a following for a particular wine. It is not a mandatory part of the label. Remember the names Blue Nun, Emerald Dry, or Mateus? In the U.S. there is also “Meritage,” a licensed name used by Meritage Alliance members to promote their proprietary blends.
The vintage is the harvest year of the grapes, not the bottling year. In the Napa Valley AVA or its sub-appellations, 95% of the grapes have to be of the vintage year listed.
The label can state an official TTB wine class designation like “Red Wine,” “White Wine,” or “Sparkling Wine.” It can also use “Table Wine” for a still grape wine or the predominant grape variety name like cabernet sauvignon. As a rule, wine labeled using a grape variety must be at least 75% by volume in the bottle of the specified grape and the varietal listed on a label must also be an approved grape name by the TTB. There also needs to be an appellation of origin appearing along with it, as all of the grapes of that grape varietal listed had to have been grown in that specific appellation. In the U.S., these “Table Wines” can’t be more than 14% alcohol by volume (ABV), a classification used solely for determining the tax class by TTB.
This is the viticulture area where the grapes are grown. Some labels go as far as to name a specific vineyard. If using the Napa Valley AVA or one of its sub-appellations, 100% of the grapes must be from the Napa Valley AVA.
Listing the vineyard is an optional designation that many wineries use to impart a standard of high-quality grapes. If the name of the vineyard is used on the label, 95% of the grapes have to be from that specific vineyard.
This is optional on wine bottle labels. If the term “Estate Bottled” is used, it means that 100% of the grapes were grown in vineyards that the estate owns or manages. The vineyard and the winery must be located within the AVA on the bottle. The grapes must be harvested, crushed, fermented, aged, and bottled at the winery, never leaving the property in the process.
The term “Reserve” may be considered by wine drinkers as a special designation denoting a high-end wine, but the truth is, it has no legal meaning in the U.S. It can convey a special bottling by the winemaker, but it is only a marketing tool to appeal to the consumer.
This is required by law on the label which divides tax classes on alcohol by the TTB. All wines must be at less than 14% alcohol by volume. However, a wine labeled “Table Wine” does not need the alcohol content on the label as it is specifically classified by the table wine designation to be 14% or less. Alcohol can be shown on the front or back label.
All wines with sulfites 10 parts per million or higher of sulfur dioxide are required by law to say “Contains Sulfites.” It’s usually found on the label on the back of the bottle.
The warnings are there by law and are thus mandatory on all alcohol sold in the U.S., generally on the back label.