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Published: Tuesday, 5/16/2006

Wine world gets new wording

Wines' and winemakers' names are changing as the industry alters its marketing rules and labeling requirements.

If you haven't been keeping up with old favorites, the labels may look different. And the wording in today's wine world is changing in two specific areas.

One is the roster of California's wineries, being revised by new owners as third or fourth generations of the founders are selling their heritage. For example, Delicato, with an outstanding line selling at bargain-basement prices, has become familiar to retail customers as a large-volume producer of finished wines for labels other than its own. And for $28, you can buy a striking new Bordeaux blend, Seduction, made by the O'Brien Family Vineyard, a new Napa winery. Add to these West Coast newcomers all the names pouring out from Australia and South America onto American wine shop shelves and there's a lot to learn.

A second far-reaching revision of industry practice aims at uniformity, setting standards for labels that will tell the retail customer more precisely what's in the bottle. It's a simple enough development, but to some customers it may seem like an alien language. It calls for the varietal name - the name of the grape and the wine made from it - to be on the label. This is one instance when we American customers are ahead of the rest of the world, for the California industry, in aiming to distinguish its wines from those of the rest of the world, has taught us to buy a bottle of chardonnay or merlot rather than a particular brand, such as Robert Mondavi.

The impact of this practice calls for much reconsideration in Europe, where many German and French winemakers are already revising their labels, in most instances along with the long customary place or estate name. And so many small Italian producers are stubbornly set in their ways that it may be many years before we're instructed in the four or five varieties that together constitute chianti.

It may be an endorsement of the view that wine is food, at home as much as potatoes on the dinner table, that wine displays have sections all their own in grocery stores. One doesn't have to be too old to remember when only a few varieties of sickly sweet, syrupy wines were all that most Toledoans and others could find to contribute to a supper evening menu. Now groceries, particularly large ones, sell many varieties and brands of fine wines.

So far as I know, Walt and Lois Churchill led the way for this change in their West Toledo and Perrysburg stores. In the Bassett's Market that has succeeded Churchill's in the River Place shopping center at State Rt. 25 and Eckel Junction Road in Perrysburg, the wine stock is extensive in every way: most varieties, domestic and imported, arranged by variety.

Customers would do well to know which varietals and winemakers best satisfy their tastes, however, because little live guidance has been apparent when I have visited the store. It would seem that wine sales have a way to go before justifying the cost of a significant inventory and sales staff; this is part of what sets very big wine shops apart from small specialty retailers, whose shortcomings of size and choice must in turn be redeemed by readiness to respond to customer tastes and special orders.

Distinctive Argentine varieties - spicy malbec, of course, and shiraz, both rich, full-bodied, in a $16 to $20 range - come from Graffigna, the Argentine winery with the Italian family name dating from a 19th-century emigration. The Italian vineyard magic is sure there.



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