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What’s Wrong With Wine Labels

20 June 2015

On a recent trip to New Mexico, I made a point of returning to my favorite winery in the state, Casa Rondeña. I ordered a glass of Meritage in the tasting room, and a gentleman next to me asked how I liked it. “Very much,” I replied. “It’s well-balanced, and a fine example of what New Mexico is capable of in terms of wine.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” he responded, “Since I made it!” I went on to say how pleasantly surprised I was by New Mexico wines, the Cabernet Francs in particular, but I didn’t disclose that I was a wine blogger who had written about Casa Rondeña previously. I was off the clock. “Have you visited any other wineries?” he asked. “Which ones do you like?”

I listed off a few, including St. Clair, where I remembered liking the D.H. Lescombes line of wines. He didn’t agree with that selection. St. Clair, he noted, adds corn syrup or other sugars to many of its wines. I can see why — in New Mexico, the local palate skews heavily towards sweeter wines, so much so that most wineries will taste reds before whites, de-emphasizing the reds’ dryness.

While certainly not illegal, that practice of adding sugars isn’t necessarily the hallmark of great wines. “They really should have to disclose that on their label,” I protested. But they don’t. In fact, beyond noting that they contain sulfites, a completely unnecessary declaration, wines need not list any of their ingredients. Nor, for that matter, do spirits. Just what is in Blue Curaçao, anyway?

How is it that in 2015, in an era of ever-greater concern about the quality of the things we’re putting into our bodies, that wines and spirits can still get away without listing anything other than their alcohol content? Some studies promote a glass or two of red wine a day as a healthy  addition to one’s diet, but surely some red wines are more beneficial than others.

Red wines with added sugar, for example, don’t strike me as the healthiest choice. At the St. Clair Bistro, our waitress offered us free samples of Chenin Blanc. And indeed, it tasted rather flabby and too sweet. I ordered a $13 glass of D.H. Lescombes Cabernet Franc instead, thinking that this more expensive line of wines would surely adhere to higher standards of winemaking.

It tasted quite ripe and free from any vegetal, green-pepper notes which can sometimes plague Cabernet Franc. But vanilla notes overwhelmed the palate, and indeed, it tasted jammier than I expected. Was I imagining that it was overly sweet because of what the owner of Casa Rondeña told me? I took another sip. No — the too-strong vanilla notes were quite clear. I won’t presume to say whether the wine had added sugar or not, however, because I have no way of knowing for sure.

Of course I wouldn’t have to guess, if wines and spirits actually declared their ingredients! All non-alcoholic beverages in the supermarket have lists of ingredients. Even unflavored water lists “Water” as the sole substance in the bottle.

It’s time spirits and wines followed suit. As a consumer, I want to know if my wine contains “Grape juice” or “Grape juice, high-fructose corn syrup and red dye #32.” Price, as indicated by my rather expensive glass of Cabernet Franc, is not necessarily a guide.

Time to write my Congressman!

Cabernet Franc, New Mexico

6 Comments to “What’s Wrong With Wine Labels”

  1. I agree that this is a big concern. It’s unconscionable that at a time when foods are required to be clearly labeled, we still can’t be 100% sure of what we’re drinking. I tend to choose organic wines and hope that the level of ingredient quality trickles down from there, but that’s not an option everywhere.

    • Absolutely. One hopes that an organic wine is a good choice, and that seems to be the safest option, all else being equal. But even an organic wine could have organic sugar added, for example. It really is ridiculous that we don’t have more information about what’s in the bottle these days.

  2. Interesting. With all of the information that must be disclosed, why not on drinks.

    • Right — why is it different with alcoholic beverages than with non-alcoholic beverages? They’re all going to the same place.

  3. I agree! I am so tired of the space filler: “This wine has rich/smooth/bold/delicate/complex/intense flavors of luxury/sophistication/”. However, this is a slippery slope, does one mention microxygenation? Staves? Does mention what went into the vineyard (pesticides) or just into the wine?

    • Absolutely. The space filler you describe tells us next to nothing! I see your point about it being a slippery slope — it would be ridiculous to try to explain everything that went into the wine. But I imagine we could follow the same rules as a bottle of apple juice. It doesn’t list things that happened in the orchard, just what went into the bottle itself. We could do the same with wine without too much effort, I imagine.

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