Are you one of those people who choose a wine because it has a cute picture of a critter on the label? With the vast choices facing a consumer, wineries invest huge amounts of money designing packaging that will make their wine stand out in the crowd. Once they have your attention, the label can also tell a lot about the quality of the wine inside the bottle if you know what to look for.
Wine is labeled by where it is produced. Wine can be labeled by country, state, region, specific appellation, or even the individual vineyard where the grapes were grown. Knowing this we can make better choices even before opening the bottle. Simplistically, we just need to know the region best suited for a specific varietal.
A wine labeled “California” can be made from grapes grown anywhere in the state. Typically these wines are less expensive, usually blends of different lots of wine from various regions. Higher end wine will usually list a specific appellation such as “Carneros”, “Fairplay”, or “Rutherford”. Wines labeled for the specific vineyard go one step further as the reputation of the grower and the winemaker is on the line.
A little study tells us to look for the best pinot noir from the Russian River, Carneros, Anderson Valley, or Santa Maria. Good zinfandel can be found in Lodi, Sierra Foothills and Sonoma County. Chardonnay achieves greatness in cooler climates. Syrah thrives in warmer zones.
There are examples of great varietal wine made in the “wrong” place but for consistency we will place our money on the safe bet unless we have a chance to taste it first.