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The mantra of real estate buyers everywhere -- "location, location, location" -- is almost as important for wine buyers. While certain foods and beverages carry a general notation of their origin, like Idaho potatoes and Sumatra coffee, wine can narrow the notion down to the precise plot of land where the grapes grew.
Governments in virtually all winemaking countries have made it illegal to cheat consumers by putting misleading information about a wine's origin on a label. They needed to, because a minority of dishonest winemakers is constantly tempted to make more money by tricking the consumer. They make a wine from inexpensive grapes grown in a low-quality growing region, then pass it off as something pedigreed and expensive.
Most wine producers are honest, of course, but it's still important to know what you're buying. Look carefully at the wine label to learn at least the minimum. The front label of most U.S. wines usually carries the name of the grape variety along with an appellation (place name), which refers to the legally defined American Viticulture Area (AVA) in which the grapes were grown. In general, the more specific the appellation, the better you can expect the wine to be.
Here's what the most common terms on American-made wines mean:
California: If a wine label says "California" on the front it means the grapes could have been grown anywhere up and down this gigantic state. In effect it often indicates that a high percentage of the wine comes from cheaper Central Valley grapes that make less concentrated, less interesting wines.
Coastal: Be careful with this increasingly popular term. Many of the wines are great values, but "Coastal" is not an AVA and doesn't mean a thing, legally.
Counties, valleys: Specific terms such as Napa Valley, Sonoma County and Willamette Valley are almost always a good sign. They mean that at least 85 percent of the wine was made from grapes grown there.
Towns, districts: If you see a town name like Oakville or a district name like Carneros it means even more specialization, better odds for high quality and an inevitably higher price.
Vineyard designations: The individual property where the grapes came from, like Sangiacomo Vineyard or Bien Nacido Vineyard, is the finest geographical distinction a winery can put on a bottle. This is usually a good sign of quality and a chance to experience what the French call terroir, the taste of a place.
Estate bottled: Another good sign of quality. It means that the wine was made from grapes grown in vineyards owned (or leased for the long term) by the winery itself, not grown by an independent farmer or another winery.
Produced and bottled by: This is one of the best phrases to see in fine print on a label. It means that the winery itself actually crushed the grapes, fermented the juice and put the wine into bottles. The only thing better in this regard is "grown, produced and bottled by," which is basically the same as estate bottled. Other phrases, such as "vinted and bottled by" and "cellared and bottled by" can mean the winery bought the wine from another vintner, maybe blended it and aged it a bit -- maybe not -- then bottled it.
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