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Most Sonoma Wines Must Say 'Sonoma County'

Governor signs conjunctive label law; phase-in starts in January

by Kerry Kirkham
Sonoma County labels
Alexander Valley Vineyards already includes "Sonoma County" on its label.
Sonoma, Calif. -- On Sept. 24, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law AB1798, the Sonoma County conjunctive wine label initiative. The new law takes effect Jan. 1, with a three-year phase-in period.  Wineries must comply by Jan. 1, 2014.

What does this mean for Sonoma County wineries? Nothing, if wineries don’t designate one of Sonoma County’s 13 AVAs on their label. If they do, they have two options: Comply with the state-mandated law and place the words “Sonoma County” on their approved label, or drop the AVA entirely. Both options require a label redesign and the filing of a new COLA (Certification of Label Approval) with the TTB. This is non-negotiable: The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) will suspend or revoke the license of any person who violates the provisions, amounting to a criminal misdemeanor.

According to Art Resnick in TTB’s public and media affairs, “In light of the new California law, wineries that use an AVA on their label that fall within the boundaries of Sonoma County must also include the county on their labels. If they currently have label approvals that do not include the required information, the company will need to obtain a new COLA. TTB will not reject or send label applications back for corrections if the information is missing from the label. It is the responsibility of the winery to ensure state and local government compliance.”

Sara Cummings, director of marketing communications at Sonoma County Vintners, pointed out that wines that are bottled with approved COLAs before the 2014 deadline, but have a post-deadline release date, will not be required to change labels. 

Legal precedent

Although the law is new to Sonoma County, the concept is not new. Napa County won a conjunctive labeling law, Business and Professions Code Division 9, Chapter 12, Section 25240, in 1989. The Paso Robles AVA followed with AB87 in 2007; and the Lodi viticultural area with AB2397 in 2008. The French have mandated similar labeling laws for years.

With so many wineries spread across a county with diverse terroirs, AVAs and local identities, some wonder if AB1798 will prove to be a difficult transition with weak support.

Terry Hall, communications director for Napa Valley Vintners Association, said, “Napa Valley is homogeneous, so the label law wasn’t as contentious. It was early in the world of AVA recognition, and there were fewer wineries, so it was a fairly easy transition.”

Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, said that all major Sonoma County AVA associations supported the bill, which will affect 100 million label faces per year.

“In this increasingly competitive wine market, building awareness for Sonoma County and the wine regions within the county is critical to Sonoma County grapegrowers and the wineries they supply. AB1798 will ensure that consumers recognize every bottle of wine produced from Sonoma County grapes,” Frey said.

He pointed out that in a trade survey conducted in the fall of 2009, consisting of wine suppliers, wholesalers, retailers, sommeliers, more than 81% of respondents preferred seeing the words "Sonoma County" paired with the AVA on the label.

Kevin Hall, winemaker at 125,000-case Alexander Valley Vineyards, supports the new law. “We moved toward conjunctive labeling a couple of years ago because we want to promote the Alexander Valley AVA as well as the county,” he told Wines & Vines.

He said consumer research showed that wine buyers favor conjunctive labeling, which further strengthened his support.

Some winemakers feel that adding “Sonoma County” to a label not only clutters overall design aesthetic, it dilutes an exclusive sense of place with highly individualized AVA-designated wineries, and in some cases can be redundant. 

Bart Hansen, winemaker and owner of 400-case Dane Cellars, said, “If I made wine in Dry Creek Valley, I would put ‘Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County’ on my label, because someone who’s not familiar with Sonoma County might not know where Dry Creek is.  But I make wine in Sonoma Valley, so putting ‘Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County’ on my label is redundant.”

Hansen said he is not against the new law. Rather, he suggested, it should be a winery’s choice, and there should be an amendment to AB1798. He’d prefer that if an AVA already includes the word “Sonoma,” “Sonoma County” need not be included on the legal label.

Almost 65,000 acres of vineyards are planted in Sonoma’s 13 AVAs, which include: Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Green Valley, Knights Valley, Los Carneros, Northern Sonoma, Rockpile, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Mountain. For wine to have Sonoma County AVA status, 85% of the grapes must be from within the specific AVA.
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