For us wine enthusiasts there are numerous regular irritations we encounter in our wine-life, from ridiculous prices, to wines that taste nothing like they should, based on their labels, to haughty sommeliers, and more. One which I have wanted to complain about for the longest time but haven’t, is back labels on wine bottles. It is now time to tackle this annoyance.
I don’t know if you ever read these. I regularly do. Almost all books teaching about wine appreciation recommend – usually somewhere around chapter one – that these labels be perused, for, according to their authors, they are chock full of useful information. I don’t know what they are referring to, because most of what I see in these is highfalutin bullshit with very little useful information.
There are some recurring themes in back labels. References to anything “old”, seem a must. It could be “old vines”, or old family wine making traditions, or some famous old vineyard which an upstart has purchased. There are countless variations on this theme. “Old” and “wine” are two words that marketers seem to couple as often as possible, thinking that maybe it will inspire awe in customers. Well, it doesn’t! Ultimately the only awe inspiring factor should be how the liquid in the bottle presents itself, and oftentimes the wines advertised with “old” pedigrees fail to satisfy.
Then there are all those fruit, nut and vegetable adjectives used to describe the wine, which populate the back labels. “Our old vine selection, produced since 1812, the time of our ancestors, has a hint of currant jelly, with cloves and nutmeg; on the palate flavors of celery root mix in with bacon and tobacco, and slight hints of truffle oil”, and so on. I may be exaggerating a bit, but those of you who read back labels know what I am talking about. Who the heck knows how some of those items mentioned taste or smell, let alone what they look like?
Connecting the wine to some pedigreed label is another frequent back label game. This is often done utilizing the word “clones” as a vehicle, as in “Pauilliac clones”, referring to some storied wine region from which the roots of the vines are supposedly derived. While such connections may indeed be the truth, often the wines taste nothing like those of the region mentioned as the source of the “clones”, making such statements disingenuous.
Then there are those who resort to paragraphs that have nothing to do with the wine but quote historic people who were known as wine enthusiasts, like Thomas Jefferson. Others write something humorous (usually Australian wine labels). These are not informative, but can be entertaining.
It was thus very refreshing to encounter a back label that actually conveyed a tremendous amount of no-nonsense information in a tidbit. The wine was a 2009 St. Innocent pinot noir from Oregon. The winery is in Salem (mid state), but the grapes are from the Willamette Valley (upstate). This was a wonderful pinot noir, that combined the silky texture, berry type noses and flavors expected of the grape, with a well balanced structure, including good acidity in the finish, with a New World fruit forward style which still revealed its unique terroir. An unusual example of what Oregon can accomplish, crowded in a heterogeneous field from this region where all sorts of styles from over- the- top, to watery and underfruited, usually at ridiculous prices, now abound.
One sip and I was blown away. Then I perused the back label. It starts with location an appellation. Then it makes reference to “Pommard clones”, a well respected region in Burgundy, France. There we go again with clones! But in this case the wine indeed resembles Pommard, so they are justified in making this mention. Soil composition, fermentation and ageing follow. Then there are various summarized numbers on crop level, harvest and bottling date and number of cases produced (a paltry 557). Recommendations are made on food pairing, ageing and decantation. Finally the wine maker’s name, phone and e mail number follow. Mark Vlossak is confident enough in his wine to let his customers contact him directly.
No references to family tradition, anything “old”; no ridiculous descriptions of the unfamiliar smells and flavors we should be experiencing but won’t; no other haughty utterances. “Just the facts” as the inspector in Dragnet used to say. Congratulations to St. Innocent, a good wine with a good label.