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Copyright © 2015
Forkmedia LLC

by Fred McMillin
for April 2000


The Law of the Land...

What the Label Doesn't Tell You


Your California Chardonnay could legally contain 25% Riesling. Your Oregon Chardonnay could not legally contain 25% Riesling.

Your 1997 California Merlot may contain 5% of the 1996 vintage.

Your Napa Valley Pinot Noir may contain 15% Pinot Noir from another county such as Sonoma.

But in Oregon, your Willamette Valley Pinot Noir may not contain 15% Pinot from another county.

A California red wine named "Burgundy" might be 100% Zinfandel, or a mix of Merlot and Pinot Noir, or of any other red wine grapes.

No Oregon wine may be named "Burgundy," or any other European place name.

That 1982 Cabernet Sauvignon in your cellar could legally contain 49% Zinfandel, or other varietals.

The label says the wine contains 12.0% alcohol. Legally, the actual content may be as low as 10.5% or as high as 13.5%

The American appellation system was established only 20 years ago by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco (not the Dept. Of Agriculture??) to help the consumer identify the source of the grapes in the wine. The smaller the region, the clearer the source. Here are the categories:

1. U.S.A.
2. Two or more adjoining states
3. One state
4. Two or more adjoining counties
5. An area usually (but not necessarily)within one county, established formally by the Bureau. It is called an American Viticultural Area, or AVA. Example: Sonoma Valley is an AVA within Sonoma County. Another example: The Carneros AVA is partly in Sonoma County and partly in Napa County.

A major disadvantage for the consumer is that the producer is not required to use the most specific designation. Hence, a vintner using grapes from Stanislaus County may label his wine California since he feels a New York consumer will be more impressed by the latter name. Several authors cite this example of the options available to some locations. A winery-vineyard near Windsor in northern Sonoma County may use whichever of these options that the owner feels will maximize sales:

North Coast
Sonoma County
Northern Sonoma
Sonoma Coast
Russian River Valley
Chalk Hill



1. Label information is helpful.
2. The American appellation system is in its infancy. Don't despair. It's going to continue to improve.



Was the nation's first AVA located in California or New York State? The very first AVA was established in 1980 in Missouri!


This page created April 2000