What's So Confusing About 'Sonoma County'?

In 1989, a regulation went into effect that many feel helped put California’s Napa Valley on the map.

The regulation required that those two words – “Napa Valley” – be included on any wine produced in the valley, even if the name of a more specific viticultural area (such as “Rutherford” or “St. Helena”) already appeared on the label.

Not long thereafter, similar regulations went into effect for the Paso Robles and Lodi growing areas.

Now, any wine made in Napa’s neighbor to the west, Sonoma County, must include “Sonoma County” on its label. The new rule will be phased in over three years.

It took a while for the legislation to be written, passed and signed, in part because opponents feared it could cause confusion among consumers.

For instance, there’s at least one winery that has bottled a “Sonoma Coast” bottling and a “Sonoma County” bottling of the same variety for several years. Under the new rules, that “Sonoma Coast” wine now must also include the words “Sonoma County” on the label.

I can see why the winery owners might be concerned in that case; a minor revision of the label’s design probably is in order, with the “Sonoma Coast” designation appearing in larger type or perhaps a different color.

Had the legislators gone overboard and required even more extensive “conjunctive” labeling, then there could have been a real problem. Nobody would want to see something like this on a label: Russian River Valley / Sonoma County / California / West Coast / United States / North America / Earth / Solar System.

But if “Sonoma County” is added to a label that traditionally has included just “Alexander Valley” as the designation, where’s the harm? A winery is not being required to eliminate the “Alexander Valley” verbiage, but merely to add “Sonoma County.”

And if the new regulations help Sonoma County estates become more viable in the marketplace, that would seem to be a positive development for them.

There was one argument proffered against the legislation with which I agree 100 percent: that the wine industry already is overregulated. Many wineries must employ a full-time “compliance director” simply to assure that all of the Ts are crossed and Is are dotted on the myriad of paperwork required for a label to be approved.

For the vintners impacted, the new rule means not only crossing those Ts and dotting those Is, but also adding 12 new letters: S-O-N-O-M-A C-O-U-N-T-Y.

Posted in Editor's Journal
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