The old (and bad) days of wine labeling

The other day a gentleman asked me for "pinot chardonnay." This made me think back almost 40 years to the craziness that ruled the wine labeling business in California. Let me give you a few examples:

Rhine — Some California wines used to be called "Rhine wine." This not only made no sense but was misleading on every level. The great wines from the Rhine region in Germany bore no resemblance to U.S. "Rhine wine," which was made of anything one wanted to put in the bottle.

The noble riesling grape for which the Rhine is known is capable of producing profound wines and is historically important to the region and its people. The gallons of screw-top junk white with the name "Rhine" on the label drove those in the know almost crazy. Thankfully, this practice was dropped.

Burgundy — Yes, wineries who used and still use the name "Burgundy" have confused the great appellation Burgundy with marginal wine, at best. Burgundy is the home of the noble pinot noir for red wine production and chardonnay for white production. American Burgundy is nothing more than a blend of whatever the winemaker wishes to slosh in the bottle.

The name Burgundy has been poorly used by many folks who are describing anything red of ordinary quality. In the new world of wine, this does not fly, yet I still find people describing what they want as "Burgundy," meaning a simple red wine. I think it is strange that a red from a classic growing area of France could be confused with an adjective describing a level of red wine taste with no association of what a real Burgundy is.

The same problem exists with "Chianti." Of course, most of us understand that a Chianti comes from that district in Tuscany. However, we find, because the American winemakers also slipped the name "Chianti" on labels of red junk, that people are still confused about what a Chianti is and what grape it comes from. It is not uncommon for some customers to ask for an "American Chianti." I either point them to an Italian Chianti or an American sangiovese.

Sauterne — Ah, yes, the problem with sauterne. I probably get five clients a month asking for a "cooking sauterne" or a "cheap sauterne for cooking." This is a direct result of California winemakers putting "sauterne" on the label for a wine that many cookbooks called the "perfect cooking wine."

Of course, sauterne comes from the great region of Bordeaux, France, which is known for its overwhelmingly lovely dessert wines. These wines are very expensive, time-consuming to make and are the best in the world of their kind. American "sauterne" was a result of someone's imagination gone crazy. There was nothing in common between the French and California wines. American wineries did a huge injustice labeling non-appellation, everything-in-the-pot, junk white wines after this stunning viticultural district. It all seems crazy today.

Cooking wine — Okay, this takes the award for stupid labeling. "Cooking wine" was a wine labeled to indicate that, obviously, it was "good" for cooking. The problem was that all of these labeled wines were inoculated with cups of salt and various spices. No two were alike and the wines were, to put it mildly, awful!

Cooking wines were many times put in gallon jugs for restaurant use. In the 1960s, we offered them for sale in the family wine shop, and from time to time they would explode — especially if they had come into the shop from the supplier the previous day and it had been warm in the truck. To this day I can smell the "wine" in a large puddle on the linoleum floor after the entire gallon had let go. It just took a little jiggling, residual yeast reacting with residual sugar and wham, I was there with mop, broom and bucket, holding my nose.

To this day, I am still asked for "cooking wine," and when I am, I reflexively hold my nose.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at

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