Where Did My Bottle of Wine Come From and What's Inside?

Understanding "Appellation of Origin" and Other Stuff on an American Wine Label

By Brendan Eliason, 

Wine grapes are sensitive. We don't mean, "these grapes go through a box of Kleenex while watching Bambi" sensitive.  We mean that even the smallest influences around winegrapes can have a large affect on flavor. This is why, as we're sure you've noticed, you will never find two bottles of wine that taste exactly the same. Every wine is a unique individual--a snowflake with a cork.

One of the primary reasons that wines taste different from one another is the influence of their growing region. The French, of course, have a word/concept that they use to describe this difference. They call it "Terroir" (pronounced: "Teh-RWAHR"). Although this literally translates to dirt, the word is used to mean everything that could possibly have any interaction with the grapevine. It is the soil, the rain, the wind, the direction and duration of the sun, and any infinite number of other influences.  Each of these influences has the possibility to change, even if only minutely, the flavor of the grapes and therefore the wine. This principle is true down to each individual cluster on each individual vine.

Because of this range of individuality, each block, vineyard, region, county, state and country has its own personality that is made up from the diverse range of influences within its borders. This is why every bottle of wine sold in the United States is labeled with an "Appellation of Origin" which tells you exactly where the grapes came from. This can legally be anything as broad as "The United States" or "California," or as narrow as a few rows of vines in a special vineyard. Either way, the areas used are tightly defined and controlled by government regulation.

How is this Concept, and Other Labeling Rules, Regulated in the United States?

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) scrutinizes every label on every bottle of wine sold in the United States.  The agency interprets and enforces the rules enacted by Congress, which regulate the sale of alcoholic beverages. There are myriads of rules that govern what is printed on a wine label.  We'll start with "Appellation of Origin," then briefly cover other points in understanding what is on the wine label.

Appellation of Origin

If a wine says "California" on the label it must be 100% from California. If a wine is labeled with a specific county name, i.e. Sonoma, Mendocino, Santa Barbara, etc., it must be 75% from that county. As you get more specific, the standards go up.  If the bottle is labeled with an "American Viticultural Area," or AVA, such as Napa Valley, Dry Creek, or Central Coast, then 85% of the grapes in that wine must be from that area. If the label mentions a specific vineyard, then it must be 95% from that vineyard. Generally, the more specific the label, the more consistent and more expensive the wine is going to be.


By law, if a grape "varietal" (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, etc.) is declared on the label, the wine must contain at least 75% of that varietal. Some wineries use nearly 100% of the same varietal. Some wineries blend a major varietal with similar varietals for better flavor balance. Others blend in "filler" varietals to get the most of their Merlot wine supply. Still others don't declare a varietal at all and simply identify the wine by a proprietary name, such as "Le Cigare Volante" (Bonny Doon) or "Conundrum" (Caymus).

The Brand-Name

The Brand-Name could also be the actual producer, could be a "virtual winery," or could be a restaurant or grocery store chain that contracted with a winery for a "special label" purchase.

Vintage vs. Non-Vintage

The year in which the wine grapes themselves were harvested. By law, if a "vintage" is "declared," 95% of the wine must be made from grapes grown in the declared vintage (harvest year).  Wines that do not meet these guidelines are marked NV for Non-Vintage.

"Produced and Bottled By"

The actual "Bonded Winery" who may be producing and bottling the wine under special contract with a third party (a restaurant or grocery chain, for instance).

Estate Bottled

The producer owns or directly controls the vineyards from whose grapes this wine was produced. The winery itself must also be physically located on the specified vineyards.

Declaration of Sulfites

If the sulfite content of the wine exceeds 10 Parts per Million, by law the phrase "Contains Sulfites" must be printed on the label

Government Health Warning

A law taking effect after the 1988 vintage specifies that this message must be prominently displayed on the label. Wineries have become quite creative in how they blend this message with the rest of the label.

Super Grapes (and a few Villains) Categories

Your Guide to the Varietal Grape

Varietal Facts

Select any varietal on the list below to learn the facts!

Barbera Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Sauvignon Chardonnay
Gamay Gamay Beaujolais
Gerwurztraminer Malbec
Merlot Nebbiolo
Petite Sirah Petite Verdot
Pinot Blanc Pinot Meunier
Pinot Noir Riesling
Sauvignon Blanc Sangiovese
Semillon Syrah
Viognier Zinfandel