Wine Labels: Secrets of the Universe Revealed

* WINE 101 FOR BEGINNERS series 


“In vino veritas (In wine there is truth)”, or so Pliny the Elder has been credited with saying. He would have been even better served if someone had slapped a wine label onto the amphora.  Wine labels reveal the secrets of the universe.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration; however, wine labels can tell you a lot when considering what bottle of vino you want to buy for that romantic dinner, gift for a friend, etc.

There’s a lot to know about wine, such as varietals, proper storage, styles versus grapes, oak versus unoaked and why it is a seriously bad idea to fill your pool with Champagne and go for a swim, no matter how rich you are.  Instead, I’m going to concentrate on the humble label.  This way, when you’re standing in the wine aisle, staring at the 8,000 varieties of wines and feeling like you’ve been pole-axed, you can decide what to buy based on something more than a name like Honeysuckle Sweet or Batty Old Tart.

What I’m chatting about here is strictly related to rules and regulations set out by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).  While the vintner I work for is a fourth generation Italian wine maker, he’s making and selling his wines here in the U.S.  As such, I’ll have to leave the reading of a European wine label for someone else.

Here’s a short and dirty translation of the U.S. wine label.  And just a quick note—this list addresses wine of at least 7% alcohol made from grapes.  Wine, however, can be made from a variety of fruits and other interesting things like peaches, berries, flowers and even jalapenos (not for the faint of palate but awesomely good stuff!)


Brand – Brand name, i.e., ABC Vineyards, is used by the bottler to identify the product.  Any brand name is okay as long as it doesn’t mislead the consumer.

Vintage Date – This is the date shown on the bottle such as 2005.  The vintage date tells you that 95% or more of the wine is produced from grapes grownin that year.  If there’s a vintage date, an appellation of origin, smaller than a country must also show up on the label.  So you’d have something like ABC Vineyards, 2005, Texas.

Appellation of Origin – This is just another name for the place in which the dominant grapes used in that particular wine are grown.  It can be the name of a country, state, county or geographical region called a viticultural area.  A country, state or county appellation means that at least 75% of the wine is produced from grapes grown in that appellation of origin.  Take note of the statement regarding using a country as appellation of origin.  This can only be placed on a bottle of wine that doesn’t have a vintage date on it.

Viticultural Area – In the U.S., a viticultural area is a grape-growing region with soil, climate, history and geographic regions that set it apart from surrounding areas.  Think Napa Valley.  Using a viticultural appellation on the label also means that 85% or more of the wine is made from grapes grown in that area.

Net Contents – Basically, how much wine is in the bottle.  Net contents are stated in metric measurements.  750 ml is a standard size bottle of wine.

Varietal Designations – If the label says something like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, etc., that’s a varietal designation and indicates the dominate grape used in the wine.  A varietal designation requires an appellation of origin and means that at least 75% of the wine produced is made from grapes of that variety.

Estate Bottled – This means 100% of the wine produced comes from grapes owned or controlled by the winery, which must be located in a viticultural area.  The winery must crush and ferment the grapes as well as finish, age, process and bottle the wine on their premises.

Name & Address – Name or trade name of the bottler or importer.  This has to appear on the label.  For domestic wines, you’ll see “Bottled By:” and “Imported By:” for imported wine, followed by the name and address of the bottler or importer. “Produced By” tells you the name of the actual company that made the wine. “Vinted By” informs you that only 10% of the wine in the bottle was actually made by the company named. “Cellared By” states that none of the wine was made by the company.  They acted as the storage facility.

Country of Origin – Required on all imported wines.  Look for “Product of…Spain, Italy, etc.”

Alcohol Content – Appears on most labels in percent by volume.  For wine between 7%  and 14%, some bottlers prefer the option of calling it “Table Wine” or “Light Wine.”

Other items like health and government warnings are on there too but not as pertinent as the above list for helping you decide what to buy.

Reams of information have been written about wine.  I hope this sheds a little light on the vintage you plan to purchase.  ¡Salud!

GRACE DRAVEN is the author of the fantasy romance MASTER OF CROWS, as well as other romance titles.  She considers herself one lucky woman to be part of the Circle S Vineyards family and continues to expand her knowledge of wine making by incessantly picking the brain of vintner and Circle S Vineyards owner, Dave Stacy.

To learn more about Grace and her books, stop

To learn more about Circle S Vineyards, visit