typical wine label

Wine is not always sold in bottles, nor did bottles historically have labels. Rising in popularity in the past few years have been containers other than glass bottles including cans, boxes, and terra packs to name a few. They are also labeled, but not with the typical wine label that has attracted wine lovers in the past century. Does one buy a wine based on the taste, or a recommendation, or on a rating, or is it the design of the label?

Why are labels important to the consumer?

First, according to Wine Spectator in a 2015 report, millennials at that time were drinking 42 percent of all wine consumed in the United States. A “Gallo Wine Trends Survey,” also from 2015, found that millennials were four times more likely than Baby Boomers to buy a wine based on the label.

Second, the traditional choice for a wine label is paper: either a linen-type paper, an organic, rough-textured paper, or a velvety paper. And for wines made in the United States, wine must be marked with a brand name, wine type, alcohol content, bottle volume, sulfite content, and the producer’s name and address. The American Viticultural Area (AVA) can only appear on a wine’s label if at least 85% of the grapes used in making the wine in that bottle were grown within the boundaries of the AVA.

Third, what makes a successful wine label? Professional label designers say that a lot goes into making a great label. It is not just about the government-required information. It should be to help create memories, by telling a story using descriptive words, colors, and intricate designs.

According to Robert Mondavi who is considered the person who introduced successful marketing strategies into the wine world of the 1970s, it was important to create a logo and label that would make it possible to identify your brand. He recommended that the logo, colors, and label remain consistent. Many have followed his advice including Gary Eberle of Paso Robles fame, as Mondavi was his hero/mentor.

The Gallo brothers, of E.&.J Gallo fame, divided up their winery responsibilities. Julio became the grape grower and winemaker, while Ernest handled the business of selling the wine. The brothers made their own bottles, labels, and advertisements. It seemed to work for them as their business started during Prohibition years and is still one of the most successful wine businesses in the world.

Some History on Labeling Wines – How long do you think wine has been labeled?

Wine jars discovered in the tomb of King Tutankhamen (d.1352 BC) had wine labels with details which would meet some countries’ existing wine label laws. And then there is the recorded history of a handwritten wine label made of parchment and tied with string to the neck of a bottle said to be the writing of a French Benedictine monk by the name of Dom Pierre Perignon (December 1638-September 1715).

Prior to the 17th century, generally wine was stored in amphorae, or large earthenware jars because glass was too fragile to use for storing or transporting wines. There was also in the shape of tear-drop or balloon glass bottles which were wrapped in straw or wicker both to allow the glass to stand upright on a table and to protect the glass from breakage (see our article on balloon bottles). The invention of the coal burning furnace where the ability to create thicker and darker glass along with the new cork closures for glass bottles contributed to another major change for bottle labeling. A maker’s stamp or mark became prevalent on bottles of different shapes and sizes at a time before standardized sizes and before labeling laws.

To mark and identify the contents of unmarked opaque glass wine bottles in the early to mid 1700s, silver labels, otherwise known as silver bottle tickets, were used and hung around the neck of glass decanters. Because these bottle tickets became important to the English aristocracy, British silversmiths created unique designs and described them as “Gentleman’s Jewelry”.

Crude paper wine labels involved a stone and an ink roller. By 1798, Alois Senefelder, a Czechoslovakian had invented lithography. The mass production of labels using lithography led wine producers to include increased information regarding their wines.

By the middle of the 19th century, paper labels had been created and were quite common on wine bottles. In Germany the labels were printed on white paper, with a rectangle shape using either a Bodoni or Gothic font and listed only what type of wine filled the bottle being labeled. At the same time in France, labels were made by the champagne houses and utilized blue, bronze, silver and gold colors. The Italians produced labels for their wines that displayed landscapes, portraits, medals or coats of arms. These label designs became the standard worldwide for what a label should look like.

Expand your vocabulary in French, Italian and German to read wine labels

French Terms

Cave – Wine cellar
Château – Estate, refers mostly to large country houses
Coopérative – A syndicate of winegrowers
Côte/Côteaux – Slope of a hill/hillsides
Cru – Status of a winery or vineyard
Domaine – Estate
Millésime – Vintage
Négociant – Merchant who buys grapes, juice, or wine from growers and sells the wines under his own label
Propriétaire – Estate or vineyard owner
Récoltant – A grape grower/harvester
Vendange – Harvest
Vieilles Vignes – Old vines
Vigneron/Viticulteur – Vine grower/grape grower
Vignoble – Vineyard
Vin – Wine

Italian Terms

Azienda/Tenuta/Podere – Estate
Cantina – Winery
Cantina sociale – Co-operative winery
Classico – Denotes the traditional, theoretically superior, vineyard area
Imbottigliato all’orinine – Estate bottled
Riserva – Literally ‘reserve’ and denotes extended aging (in cask, then in bottle) before the wine is sent to market
Vendemmia – Vintage
Vigneto – Vineyard

German Terms

Abfüller – Bottler or shipper
Einzellage – Single vineyard
Erste Lage – High-quality vineyard
Erzeugerabfüllung – Producer-bottled wine
Goldkapsel – Producer’s finest wine
Grosslage – Collection of vineyards
Gutsabfüllung – Estate-bottle wine
Oechsle – Unit of must-weight or grape sugar content
Weingut – Wine estate
Weinkellerei – Winery
Winzergenossenschaft – Winegrowers co-operative

U.S. Terms

American Viticultural Area (AVA), or appellation – indicates the specific geographical area a wine comes from or where the grapes were grown. At least 85% of the grapes must come from the named AVA.
Appellation is how a country categorizes its wines by geopolitical boundaries. Each appellation has laws and regulations that may dictate where grapes are grown and how the wine is made.
Varietal – the norm in the U.S. and must be made from at least 75% of the specified grape.
Vintage – not mandatory on labels, but is usually on the labels. At least 95% of the grapes used in the wine must be from the stated vintage.
Bottled by, or produced by…
Estate-bottled – used exclusively for wines grown, harvested, crushed, fermented, processed and bottled by a single winery estate, within the boundaries of a single AVA.
Vineyard designate – 95% of grapes must come from the named vineyard.

FDR creates the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FACA) at the end of Prohibition

In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Federal Alcohol Control Administration (FACA) as part of the executive order under the National Industrial Recovery Act. In cooperation with the Departments of Agriculture and Treasury, it was to be a guide to wineries and distilleries under a system based on brewers’ voluntary codes of fair competition. After just twenty months, Roosevelt signed the Federal Alcohol Administration (FAA) Act in August 1935 whereby the Treasury was once more regulating the alcohol industry by defining the regulations that ensure an open, fair marketplace for the alcohol industry. The FAA Act continues as part of the foundation of TTB’s legislation.

In January 2003, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) was created. Its mission is to collect alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and ammunition excise taxes that are rightfully due; to protect the consumer of alcohol beverages through compliance programs that are based upon education and enforcement of the industry to ensure an effectively regulated marketplace; and finally to assist industry members in understanding and complying with Federal tax, product, and marketing requirements associated with commodities they regulate.

As a note, the first Federal taxes levied on distilled spirits date back to 1791 as called for by Alexander Hamilton to pay for the nation’s debt from the Revolutionary War. (See our article Drinking Customs 1630-1830: Why Temperance and Prohibition Became Important.)

The implementation of an all-electronic system for processing beer, wine and spirits labels has drastically reduced the time and cost associated with filing paper label applications. American wine labeling laws are managed by the TTB which is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. By law, bottles of U.S. wine must be marked with a brand name, wine type, alcohol content, bottle volume, sulfite content, and the producer’s name and address. The Federal Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act of 1988 provides health warnings on wine labels for pregnant women and people who operate cars.

What will the consumer learn from reading a wine label?

In the United States labels are straightforward and easy to understand, but there are strict laws that govern what the label must and must not show. Primary requirements for wine labels include:

  • Brand name or producer Identification
  • Bottler’s name and address
  • Varietal designation, Class/Type, American Viticultural Area
  • Appellation of Origin, Country of Origin (Where are the Grapes Grown)
  • Alcohol Content
  • Vintage Date
  • Net Volume of Contents
  • Sulfite Declaration
  • Health Warning Statement

Other countries also require by law specific items to be on their wine labels.

Here are some examples by country:

The European Union is the largest wine economy with 27 EU member countries.

  • Each has its own language, traditions and wine classifications
  • There are a set of overarching, EU-wide wine quality classifications and production laws.In 2011, the classification of wine changed to be in the following two categories:
    • PDO – Protected Designation of Origin “produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area, using recognized know-how” Production rules are STRINGENT
    • PGI – Protected Geographical Indication “closely linked to the geographical area in which it is produced, processed or prepared, and which has specific qualities attributable to that geographical area” Production rules are NOT AS STRINGENT

France – Has a complex and well-established array of wine laws. Some are region-based but most apply nationally. There are three official tiers of French wine quality classification.

Italy – Are required by law to show certain basic information: producer name, appellation, vintage, alcohol content and bottle volume and began developing its official wine classifications in the 1960s modeled on the French appellation system. There are four official tiers of Italian wine classification.

Germany – Highly informative and very complex, the Germans provide more information as standard than those of any other nation. They may include: whether the wine was bottled at the winery or by a third party, the name of the village and vineyard the grapes come from, how ripe the grapes were when harvested, the grape variety, the wine’s sweetness, the producer’s name and location,etc. There are four official tiers of German wine quality.

Napa Valley Legislates Protection of Place Names

California’s Napa Valley Vintners Association (NVVA) was the first in the United States to legally protect its appellation name. In 1990, the NVVA successfully lobbied for state legislation requiring conjunctive labeling. In other words, the Napa Valley designation with a sub appellation on Mount Veeder must include both on the wine bottle label. Sonoma County, Monterey, and Paso Robles have also passed similar laws.

In 2000, the NVVA also successfully sponsored legislation that required truth in labeling for any wine marketed with a Napa Valley appellation. The law was finally upheld by the California state supreme court in 2005, after five years in the court system.

In July 2005, Napa Valley made protection of origin an international issue. They hosted a convention of eight regional wine associations who then signed the Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place Names & Origin; this group is now recognized as the Wine Origins Alliance with 24 members throughout the world.

The Napa Valley appellation also attained Geographic Indication status from the European Union in 2008 by trademarking the Napa Valley name in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Thus, global accountability became front and center for the United States after they had stayed out of these international discussions since 1905 when the French federal government had first passed a law that allowed for the delimitation of regions and protected the defined regions noted for their production of fine wines and spirits. In 1958 the Lisbon Agreement which was signed by 28 member nations protected the integrity of appellations of origin; the United States notably did not sign this agreement.

The United States finally signed the Agreement Between the United States and the European Community of Trade in Wine in 2006 but the document grandfathered in mislabelled and misleading place names like California Champagne and California Chianti. So, it seems that the United States is protecting their own names, but still usurping others.

American Viticultural Appellations (AVAs) have a large impact on the look of a wine bottle label in the United States. Gary Eberle was the first to feature the Paso Robles AVA on his wine label in 1983.

Governmental Laws Imposing Wine Label Requirements

The FRONT LABEL is the attention grabber and usually features a designed, eye-catching logo with basic facts. Essential components would include the type of wine, the producer who made the wine, the region of origin (or appellation), the vintage year in which the grapes were harvested that make up this wine, and the alcohol by volume (ABV) or the wine’s alcohol content. Alcohol by volume, or ABV, is the amount of ethanol in a given volume of liquid, expressed as a percentage. ABV is the global standard of measurement for alcohol content. A bottle of unfortified wine is within the range of 5.5% to 16% ABV.

The BACK LABEL adds to the story, and possibly may include a photo or drawing of the winery or owner or legend of the estate. Other information on the label; the grape variety or when the wine is a blend the varieties are listed sometimes by percentage, the government health warnings, bottling information (including who was the bottler, who packages and ships the bottle), the net contents or total volume of liquid found in the bottle and the sulfite declaration. Sulfite compounds are used to preserve wine but may cause allergic reactions in some people. Additionally, one also might find other information regarding how the wine was manufactured, the history of the winery, website information or cellaring advice.

Historic Firsts Happened in San Luis Obispo County

Wine bottle labels did not always have to mention where their grapes were sourced from for the wine that was contained in the bottle. But, in 1977, Edna Valley was designated as the place of origin of grapes sourced on wine bottle labels to produce the wines of some of the top wineries. The Chardonnay grapes were so unique in the Edna Valley that winemakers wanted to acknowledge the place they were grown.

Some of the labels that mentioned Edna Valley on their labels at that time were:

  • David Bruce Winery
  • Roudin- Smith Winery
  • Ahern Winery
  • Glen Ellen Winery
  • Felton Empire Vineyards

Andre Tchelistchef advised Stanley and Michael Hoffman of Hoffman Mountain Wines to designate the Sauret Vineyard on the Hoffman Zinfandel Label in 1976 because of both the quality and consistency of the Zinfandel grapes grown by Richard Sauret.

Gerd Klintworth Wine Bottles with Labels. These bottles with labels are an early example of labeling wine and are on display at the Paso Robles Pioneer Museum, part of their collection. Courtesy of June Bertoni.
John Walker & Co California Pinot Noir 1978
Donation from the Niven Family
Gary Eberle worked with community members Tom Martin, Victor Hugo Roberts and Herman Schwarz to submit the application for the Paso Robles AVA designation. Gary had started his own label in 1979 and decided to print his 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon with the Paso Robles AVA on the label. As soon as the AVA was approved, he held a Press Conference announcing his wine as the first to be released with a designation of the Paso Robles AVA.
Norman WInery Zinfandel
justin label

What’s Next

Learn more about Poor Richard’s Press in our next “From the Collection” article. PRP is a local printer in San Luis Obispo County and is proud to say they are the largest printer of wine bottle labels in the United States. The Wine History Project has interviewed people involved with this important business to the wine industry. Stay tuned…