Are labels on wine bottles just “Sticking It” to you?
You are out and about and want to grab a bottle of wine for dinner and are trying to figure out which one is right for you. Looking around at the rows and rows of choices, you think, “I’ll start reading the wine labels – that will help steer me in the right direction!” – but how much help do they really provide?
In today’s world, the wine bottle is essentially a blank canvass for Marketing – yes, "Marketing", not necessarily “factual” information. Depending on where you live, there are certain legal requirements that must be on the wine bottle, such as alcohol percentage, country of origin, volume of liquid – however, with regards to the actual descriptions of the wines, those are left to the imagination of creative people. Their goal is to have their product stand out amongst the vast array of other bottles so, to do so, intricate artwork, photo’s, etc. are developed for a visual effect, while enticing verbiage is scrawled along the flipside of the bottle. Vague descriptors are often used, i.e. “blossoming bouquet of floral aromatics”, or “good depth of fruit”, etc. etc. Based on that language, do you really know what to expect from that bottle? Do you feel confident buying it?
To be fair, not all producers get caught up in the marketing game – truthfully, most quality producers do provide some information that is useful – things like “12 months in French oak”, or even greater details such as “ripe cherry, dried fruit, with notes of chocolate and vanilla and firm, ripe tannin”. These details do indeed go a long way into giving the consumer an idea of what to expect – but, despite their best intentions, they can also create a new problem for the buyer – deciphering what some of the “industry” words (such as tannin) mean. For those folks who are savvy enthusiasts, or who have studied or work in the trade, this type of “wine-speak” makes perfect sense. For the novice to average wine drinker however, industry jargon can overwhelm and confuse – so much for that label being helpful.
Perhaps the best thing is to look for wines that have little stickers on them that celebrate awards won and/or high scores given by seasoned professional writers/critics. A gold winner that received 91 points must be great, right? Not so fast. I mentioned earlier that wine bottles are a marketer’s canvas to “sell” the wine – but that canvas is not restricted to only the front and back labels. Little stickers placed along the neck of the bottle use additional real estate to try and sway potential buyers – some are even colour coded to match the level of award they won – very clever. Winning an award alone though does not directly relate to the level of quality as a lot of information is absent. Will the average consumer take the time to research the event listed to see what the criteria for the judging was? Who were the judges? Etc. etc.…… the marketing folks are betting that no, people won’t have the time (or the interest level) to do an in-depth analysis.
That leaves us with the scores being given by critics and professionals – if Robert Parker (a renowned American wine critic/reviewer) gives this bottle a score of 91 points, then who ever buys it will love it – correct? Sorry, once again, not necessarily. While there are many talented and knowledgeable people across the globe that write and critique wine, just because one, or many, give it high praise does not absolutely mean you will enjoy it. You see, wine, like food, is very subjective. I write reviews for my own website as well as contribute to another one – and while I try to be as objective as possible, I cannot guarantee that a wine I rate high is one you will enjoy. The two biggest reasons why are; 1) Reviews are largely based on the technical aspects of a wine and how it relates to its variety, geography, year of production, etc., and 2) People’s tastes and taste-buds are different. I am a proud Montrealer – born and raised, and one of the most revered food items of Montreal, world wide, is a smoked meat sandwich. Complete with mustard and a pickle. Schwartz’s Delicatessen has long been touted as THE best place for this. Personally, I detest mustard and stay far away from pickles. 1 million people can proclaim a smoked meat sandwich with mustard and side pickle as heavenly but for me, it would be hell on a plate and no matter who or how many praised this combination, I would absolutely despise it.
So, if you can’t rely on labels, stickers or scores, how can you choose a wine? If you are in a specialty store (or province/state run location) you can ask the owner or product consultant for recommendations. Be prepared to be asked a few questions, such as how much you want to spend, what kinds of wines have liked drinking before, how adventurous are you, and what, if anything, will you have with the wine. With that info they should be able to at least point you in the right direction, but that’s not a guarantee. You can also try a few bottles scored high by a particular reviewer. You may find that your taste buds and theirs line up and thus can act as a quasi guide going forward. The downside is that you may not share the same tastes, and you will have wasted both some time and money.
Keeping track of what you have tasted and liked and what you have not may work, however it requires a lot of note-taking. In your own words, you write down what appealed to you (or didn’t) – in doing so you may find an affinity for a certain grape, region, country etc., but how diligent will you really be in documenting what your drink ?
Your best option would be to hire a professional to walk you through some basics. Yes, shameless plug for Somm4All as we do indeed offer this service, but the small investment to learn basic parameters (with Somm4All or, depending where you live, another Sommelier) will pay off in the long run as you will have knowledge and confidence to shop wisely, and most importantly, to enjoy what you buy!
Somm4All can be contacted by visiting www.somm4all.com and clicking on the “Contact Us” page
Let’s Uncork Something Great Together!