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Consensus for Sonoma Wine Labels

Countywide and AVA organizations will draft act mandating 'Sonoma County' designation

by Jane Firstenfeld
Sonoma AVAs
Numerous Sonoma County wineries already employ conjunctive labeling that includes the AVA and Sonoma County. This would become mandatory should proposed legislation be signed into law.
Santa Rosa, Calif. -- If everything goes according to plan, all regionally designated wines produced from Sonoma County grapes will be required to include “Sonoma County” on their labels beginning in 2014. Yesterday, leaders of the Sonoma County Vintners, Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, Sonoma County Tourism Bureau and regional associations representing the county’s 13 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) announced they had achieved a consensus to pursue what’s known as “conjunctive labeling.”

The groups’ Presidents Council will draft legislation to be introduced in the California State Legislature; if the measure is signed into law, it could go into effect as early as Jan. 1, 2011. Producers would have a three-year phase-in period to allow for design changes and required TTB label approvals.

Although the initiative was formally launched at the Sonoma County Vintners’ annual meeting Jan. 20, 2010, the idea has been floating around for much longer. According to SCV executive director Honore Comfort, “We’ve been working on it for almost 18 months, starting last year at a meeting with the marketing committees of SCV and the SCWC. It’s an initiative that’s actually been on the table for about 15 years.”

The concept of legally mandated conjunctive labeling already has been put into practice by the Napa Valley, Lodi and Paso Robles AVAs. Napa adopted the notion in 1987, Comfort told Wines & Vines. “It’s been a very important part of Napa’s ability to build its image and reputation as a wine region, with consistency across brands and time,” she said. “Consumers want to know where their wines come from.”

Previous efforts in Sonoma did not progress, Comfort said, “Because the environment was not conducive to build consensus.” She credited the formation of the SCWC in 2006, and close alliances with the individual AVA associations, for the measure’s current progress. “We worked together to advance this program, despite the fiercely independent spirit of our industry. We recognized that the environment of cooperation and collaboration had started to evolve. Now we’re at a point where we think we can make this work.”

After the pivotal marketing meeting last year, SCWC commissioned WineOpinions to conduct market research among consumers and the wine trade last fall. The study sampled 889 core wine consumers (those who buy the majority of wine over $10 in the U.S.). Results showed that these consumers “preferred labels that included Sonoma County along with the AVA,” and that this preference was most significant for newer, less established AVAs.

Perhaps even more critically, more than 80% of the wine trade surveyed recommended the addition of Sonoma County to wine labels, in addition to the AVA.

According to WineOpinions’ Christian Miller, who commented on the issue on Tom Wark’s Fermentation blog, “Pinot Noir labeled Russian River Valley, Sonoma County was perceived as high in quality and price as the one labeled just Russian River Valley. In fact, the conjunctively labeled version was actually slightly higher in average rating.”

Armed with this positive research, the Presidents Council announced its intentions and reached out to the AVA groups. “We partnered with them, and asked them to share this information with their constituents,” Comfort recalled. “We engaged in a dialogue, and the consensus came back very clear.”
Sonoma AVAs
Although not all the stakeholders are convinced, these wineries chose voluntarily to use both their AVAs and Sonoma County.
Some remain dubious
She acknowledged that there remains some opposition. “We worked hard to listen to their concerns, understand them, and try to mitigate these concerns, including the three-year window,” to phase in proposed changes. The draft legislation will, she said, closely follow the successful model employed by Napa, Lodi and Paso Robles, which allows for considerable latitude in label design.

“It does not specify a font size, although there must be a relationship between type styles: It must be legible, as is the required alcohol content. But there is so much flexibility. It’s not our intention to design labels for wineries,” Comfort said. She urged vintners who remain dubious to look at examples from Napa, Lodi and Paso wineries for reassurance. Representatives from each AVA will be invited to participate in the process. “We want no surprises,” Comfort said. “We want everyone to be familiar with this bill.”

Comfort is hopeful the proposed legislation will pass promptly and without problems. “The industry asked for this,” she said. She is optimistic that California lawmakers will be eager to support “a major driver of the Sonoma business sector.

“Our intention all along, with the leadership of Sonoma’s vintners, growers and AVA groups, was to make this an engaged, informed, collaborative process.

“You’d be amazed at the questions we get (about appellations), even from sophisticated wine consumers,” she said. “This measure is important in building the identity of Sonoma County and the individual AVAs.

Once the legislation becomes law, Comfort said, it will become part of federal TTB labeling guidelines.  
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