August 16, 2007
When California Wines Aren't

Last week in Napa Valley, the buyer for a prominent group of East Coast wine shops was telling me about a dilemma he recently faced. One section of his stores is devoted to California wines. In it, he's routinely been stocking pinot noirs from such recognizable California brands as Pepperwood Grove and Echelon, among others.

Not long ago, however, someone paid more than usual attention to the fine print on the labels and noted that six of these ostensibly Californian pinot noirs bore the designation "vin de pays," French for "country wine." They weren't Californian at all, but had originated in France. In no other appreciable respect did the labels differ from the labels that the wineries use for their California wines.

I hadn't noticed whether the same thing was happening around here, so I stopped into a supermarket with a fairly representative selection of California wines. I went straight to the pinor noir section and began to read labels. Much to my surprise I found six popular California brands whose pinot noir was from somewhere other than California. The pinot noirs of Redwood Creek, Rex Goliath, Echelon and Heron all were "vin de pays" wines from various regions of France. The Pepperwood Grove was from Chile. The Turning Leaf was from Germany.

Sleight of hand? Some could see it that way. In each instance, however, the source of the wine was somewhere on the bottle. What this turn in labeling seems to say is that California wineries simply can't keep pace with the popularity of pinot noir, so they have to look elsewhere for juice.

I haven't tasted any of the imports, so I have no idea what kind of quality they offer. Except for the Heron, which retails for $13, the wines are cheap, ranging from $5.50 to $9.

Back East, the wine buyer solved the riddle by moving the "California" pinot noirs from France into the French section of his stores. The lesson here is for consumers to take advantage of all the detailed information that is on wine labels, and not assume that because the label looks like a traditional California brand that the wine in the bottle is Californian.

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