So, the French are good at making do…not going for the latest/greatest just because.
Well, here’s something they don’t do so well…back labels. That’s right! I can’t tell you what percentage of French wine labels do not have a back label but its a BIG number…I’ll guess more than 50%.
When I’m out shopping for wines to try, I like to explore region I don’t know well and producers that I don’t/hardly know. So, I key in on a region and look over the selection…pick up a bottle or two and do what I think everybody does, flip the bottle around for some more information. And, like I said, I’m disappointed more than 50% of the time to find the naked glass reflecting back an odd image of myself.
Why is this? Why are there so few back labels?
Is it the additional cost? Not likely as a back label would add 0.04 euros per bottle. I know many French vignerons are having a bad time economically of late but I can’t see that 4 euro cents will firmly push them into the poorhouse.
Is it arrogance? As in…“well everyone should know my wines!” attitude. Also unlikely. The average French winemaker, the same guy most likely not using a back label, is the salt-of-the-earth farmer who has pride in his country’s wines but no attitude.
My guess is related to something found on the front label. On your average French wines front label, what is most prominent? More times than not, it’s the appellation of the wine, that is the place it is from. Not the name of the winery or cuvee or such but the A.O.C. I think most winemakers here have a trust and pride in the system A.O.C. and that’s why many lack a back label.
Let me explain… The system A.O.C. (Appellation d’Origine Contrõlée) basic premise is that where a agricultural product is from is the most important issue…not the grapes, nor techniques, nor…and here’s the kicker…the brand. Personally, I think the system is the best in the world. Sure, it has it’s flaws but as a winemaker I completely agree with the premise: A Chardonnay is not a Chardonnay because it’s a Chardonnay. Or, Chablis is not what it is because it’s Chardonnay BUT because it is a unique place called Chablis. You cannot substitute a Russian River Chardonnay if your favorite wine shop is out of your preferred Chablis just because they are both Chardonnays! The A.O.C. system covers not only wine but cheese, sea salt, chickens, oysters, etc. BRILLIANT, I say.
So, how does this connect to the lack of a back label? Well, the French trust that if the wine clearly identifies it’s point of origin that should be enough to sell it. That is probably true…in theory!
In today’s world, you must establish a more specific reason to by that particular bottle of wine than just a fairly general point of origin. All Cotes du Rhone do not taste the same, thank God!
And the specific solution is to create/highlight the BRAND. Yes, the general point of origin is important but your specific story, place, techniques, history, etc. is totally unique! This, in my opinion, is the necessity of a back label (or a multi-million dollar/euro advertising campaign!). For a loose comparison, bookstores have a type of A.O.C. in that books are grouped by subject or genre. If you write a crime thriller, your book will be with other crime thrillers. But if all you do is title the book and put it with its peers, you better be pretty famous if you intend to sell any books without a back cover giving some indication of plot or story or some background. To me, many French winemakers have trusted their classification system too much.
In California, the AVA system (America’s A.O.C.) is a bit less restrictive and broader. It specifies that a certain AVA has unique soils and/or climatic influences and leaves it at that. It does not restrict nor specify grape varietals, trellising, spacing, harvest dates, etc like the French system. Hence, it states something like “Napa is unique due to X, Y , and Z now go make some wine”. I have not encountered a winemaking region that has better back labels than California. Many times, there is a wealth of information and therefore (and most importantly) another reason to buy that specific bottle of wine. Take a look at one of the best at this…Ridge Vineyards Geyersville Label
A wise man once told me “We are not in the business of making wine but rather in the business of selling wine” As a passionate winemaker who loves (almost) every aspect of the craft, I respect this statement…I working on my back label!