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Straight From The Vintner’s Mouth: Everything You Need To Know About Wine Labels This Holiday Season

How to read wine label

​​​​​Sing it with us! It’s the most wonderful time of the year. However, we’ve all been at a holiday festivity sipping on a glass of wine that’s quite literally the opposite of wonderful. There could be many reasons for this tragedy. The host(ess) with the most(est) could have bad taste. Or, more likely, they could not know how to read a wine label.

We’ve all been there. This may be shocking, but none of us in the wine biz popped out of the womb with the wherewithal to read wine labels like pros. We had to learn — often the hard way after buying a bottle of vino that just wasn’t to our liking. And, admittedly, it’s an easy mistake to make. There is a lot going on on those 3.5-by-4-inch squares of paper sealed to the backs of bottles.

Luckily, we have the bomb-dot-com Sonoma-based winemaker Erica Stancliff on hand to remind us that wine labels are our friends (not our foes), and befriending them really is in every wine drinker’s best interest. Read on to see what wine label tips and tricks she divulged just in time for holiday shopping and gifting.

“The first thing you need to know is what the most frequently used words mean,” Erica told us. “Vintage is the year the grapes were harvested and made into wine. Appellation is the area the grapes are from. And varietal is the type of grape that was made into wine. If you want to find out where a wine is from, where a wine is made, and what wine you will be drinking, knowing these words is the only guide you’ll need.”

This might sound like vocabulary homework from your elementary school days, but Erica is right. Sorry, not sorry! Having these words in your wine arsenal really will help when you’re perusing the wine aisle online or in-store. Not to mention, imagine how much of a Smarty McSmartypants you’ll feel when you drop the word appellation into a sentence like a former two-time spelling bee winner at your next seasonal soirée.

Vintage, appellation, and varietal are also important wine words because they’ll help you discern the kinds of wines you enjoy drinking.

“Quality is in the eye of the beholder,” Erica emphasized. “If you like a type of wine, that’s what matters. However, if you’re really concerned about quality, this is where knowing the winemaker comes into play. It’s the same concept as farm to fork. Knowing the winemaker and where the fruit is coming from gives you more of an understanding of the wine you’re buying. There is always information on the label that directly links to a winemaker’s philosophy.”

This could include any ethical stances, such as unrefined/unfiltered, vegan, sugar-free, low intervention, and sustainable.

“However, not all of us winemakers use those kinds of fancy wine marketing terms to sell our wine. This is why knowing the winemaker, vintage, appellation, and varietal is important,” Erica shared with us. “These are tidbits on the label that will directly link to a winemaker’s farm practices. The Lodi Rules logo is a good example of that. Basically, the more transparent a wine label is will give you a better idea of the wine and the company you’re buying from.”

Of course, if and when it’s possible, you should use the wine label as a springboard to a wine company’s website and social media. Typically, these are both treasure troves of information on everything Erica is encouraging us to learn about the wine we’re buying.

All in all, if you use Erica’s wine label tips and tricks, we all but guarantee hearts will be glowing when wine glasses are near at your next holiday event. Not to mention, the only scary ghost stories will be of holidays past when the wine was not sublime. Until next time, we wish you merry wine-drinking experiences this holiday season!