Lots on labels – but not on American wines

lotnumberwinelabelShould wine lot numbers appear on the labels of American wines as they do in Europe?

The recent saga of Sierra Carche exposed some cracks in the process of wine making, wine reviewing, and wine buying. For those who haven’t checked out the saga (see Felix Salmon’s excellent summary over on Reuters.com), an influential critic gave a wine brand called Sierra Carche the score of 96, retailers sold the wine touting that score, but many consumers then found the wine undrinkable (as the critic also did 10 months later).

Although the mystery of how this could happen remains unresolved, the winemaker has pointed out there were three “lots” (a batch bottled under nearly identical conditions) of the wine and admitted one of those lots a different wine entirely that was bottled as Sierra Carche.

Charlie Olken, publisher of the Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine, posted several comments on this subject on the previous thread about his experience with lot variation in domestic wines. An excerpt:

I cannot name the winery because of legal reasons, but I was asked to testify in a law suit in which a winery sued another company over wine lost in an accident. It turned out the winery had sold out of the wine in about eight months and simply went out on the open market and purchased wine in bulk and bottled it as their own under the same label. In discovery, it was found that the lost wine had 20% Chenin Blanc purchased at wholesale at a price way below what labeled grape would have cost.

Unless wineries are required to identify separate lots, whether they are bottling wine in California or Spain or Morocco, these kinds of events will continue to happen. Sometimes it will be only a slight difference in character as in the Ste. Michelle and Mondavi examples above, but the potential for mischief when anybody can bottle several lots under the same label is real and the Sierra Carche is not the only bad example.

Lot labeling has been mandatory in the EU since the early 1990s to facilitate traceability in the event of a recall or consumer complaint. Importer James Koch also posted to the comments: “I have been selecting wines by lot numbers since 1992 – a year after lot numbers started to appear on every bottle of wine – when I discovered that ‘bottle variation’ often is just the result by mixing up different lots. Due to the lot numbers I’ve been able to offer my clients the wines I tasted and selected on my wine buying trips – not only VERSIONS of it.” Koch also pointed out that lot numbers may be difficult to see since it can appear anywhere on the outside packaging material. Lot numbers must start with the letter “L” in Europe.

But American wineries are not required to print lot numbers on bottles. They should. And they should have a standard of 100 percent accuracy. Maybe some progressive wineries will start to do this as Bonny Doon has with ingredient labeling.

Several factors can cause bottle variation to the consumer and disclosing lots would at least provide more transparency. Remember all those consumers who found variation in Two Buck Chuck? Lot numbers could help sort out some of that.

Do you think critics should also list lot numbers in their reviews?

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17 Responses to “Lots on labels – but not on American wines”

  1. Variation in Two Buck Chuck is not as problematic as variation between lots of more expensive wine, but lot numbers would help informed consumers make better choices.

    Lot numbers would amount to what vintages used to mean.

    What about the composition of wines? Why are wineries permitted to label a wine as “chardonnay” if it contains only 75% chardonnay grapes? I realize that’s not the same issue as lot numbers, but this is something that has never made sense to me, as a consumer.

  2. As regards Two Buck Chuck, one might want to recall that a 2BC Chard won a gold medal at the CA State Fair wine judging where the minimum lot size is 50 cases. Now, I have no proof of this, but my gut instinct is that this particular lot of 2BC never saw a retail shelf. Just a guess, but the other part of that guess is that most of the wine bottled as 2BC Chard did not taste the same way.

    As for the question “Should critics list lots numbers in reviews?”, the answer ought to be yes, unequivocally yes.

    Non-vintage Champagne and sparkling wine are among the most likely places for consumers to be fooled by different lots. Connoisseurs’ Guide has long asked for wineries to provide this kind of reference on the labels of its bubblies–even for vintage bubblies for that matter, because wines disgorged over a period of a year can have very different personalities.

    I would wonder, however, how many critics would taste every lot of a big production wine like MMondavi Fume Blanc or Ch. Ste. Michelle Riesling. Probably not me, but maybe more than just one if the lot identifier were to become required label information.

  3. “Lot numbers would amount to what vintages used to mean.”

    Mark, lot numbers (a ‘lot’ = 1 tank/barrel/cask/batch) would go even further.

    You’d be able to find out if the entire 2011 production of a particular Chardonnay from a particular winery was 100% identical = 75% Chardonnay + 25% of a white wine? (L01) or if some bottles contained 85% Chardonnay + 15% of another white wine (L02) and some 100% Chardonnay (L03).

    So, if Dr. Vino would review L03(100% 2011 Chardonnay) and would note this part as part of his review but you see “the same wine at a store”, marked ‘L01’ – you’ll immediately know that he tasted a (slightly to totally) different wine (lot).

    It would be the end of ‘review samples’ — if they ever existed.

  4. “I would wonder, however, how many critics would taste every lot of a big production wine like MMondavi Fume Blanc or Ch. Ste. Michelle Riesling. Probably not me, but maybe more than just one if the lot identifier were to become required label information.”

    Charlie, it think one can assume that the producer would submit his/her best lot/bottle (if he/she made more than one) to a reviewer/magazine. So you really wouldn’t be confronted with having to taste numerous lots of the same wine. On the other hand the ‘weakest’ batch would probably show up first in retail stores/restaurants.

    I remember a wine review which included the picture of that highly rated wine. Too bad that the alcohol percentage was on the front, not on the back label. Because it was later discovered that ALL of the “store bottles” showed a much, much lower percentage of alcohol. The reviewer had tasted the same wine but it came from a very ‘special’ lot. 🙂

  5. The problem of “reviewer samples” may exist. We have frequently gone out and purchased a wine to check for that practice after the winery submitted wine did very well. Most of the time, we found that what was in the market at first release was the same wine.

    We have also dropped wines from review when the second sample did not square with the first in ways that were not likely to have been the results of bottle variation.

    Lot numbers would be a good first step. But tasting later lots would also be de riguer in my world if large volume wines were identified by bottling lot. If wineries in Europe can do it, so can wineries in this country.

  6. It would seem the answer to this dilemma would simply be to buy wine samples from a retail store. Besides, if there is deception on the part of a winery with sending a different wine to reviewers than that which is sent to stores, what makes you think lot numbers won’t be fudged?

  7. “Lot” numbers on a bottle of wine probably won’t solve the problem. The reason is that “lot” numbers as required by the gov’t mean something else than what we, as consumers, think they mean. Regulatory agencies want lot numbers to facilitate traceability, so a lot number as seen on bottle of wine may simply be the bottling date in code, which is no more than starting point by which to research the wine.

    In this sense, different “lot” numbers could mean that the same wine was bottled on different dates. You may argue that identical lot numbers on different bottles of wine should mean that the wine is identical. But it is important to remember that lot numbers are a means by which companies comply with gov’t regulations, instead of offering important information to the consumer (i.e. they are fudged, even legally, as gov’t regulations are notoriously tolerant of variation in product).

  8. I agree with Jason. We are terrific at complying to the letter of the regulation without complying to the intent.

    It reminds me of a Italian maker of Caluso passito wines I visited once in the 1970’s. (I was a fan of his 1961.)We tasted a half dozen wines from the tank each quite different than the other, obviously varying in age from brand new to fully developed. I noted the labels on all the tanks said “1961” and I asked him about it. He explained that Italian wine regulations said that the vintage number you put on the bottle had to match the vintage number that you had on the tank… and since people seemed to like his 1961, he used that number on all his tanks(and bottles). That’s logical, isn’t it?

    The solution to all this is to have reviewers buy the wines off the shelf and get reimbursed from the winery. If you figure in the cost of the wine, the trouble and cost of packaging and shipping, and the number of bottles you send out that are never reviewed, it is much cheaper and easier to reimburse the reviewer than send out a sample.

    Reviewers wouldn’t like this because they would have to shell out to buy the wine, actually review the wine, and submit a receipt to be reimbursed. Much easier to take what comes, fill the cellar with un-reviewed bottles, and turn a blind eye to the problem.

  9. Point taken, Jason, but lot numbers on US wines do not have to have the same meaning as they do in Europe. I think we are all thinking about lots numbers that do exactly as you have described: offer important information to the consumer.

    How to keep them from being fudged legally is an obvious concern in any system of supposedly meaningful lot numbers.

    Your first solution–buying wine from stores simply does not work when the character of the wine changes from bottling to bottling because the lots had very little to do with each other.

    Let’s take a simple hypothetical case. Winery Doe has 300,000 gallons (120,000 cases) of Sonoma County Zinfandel. It bottles them in three lots and it segregates those lots according to this formula: Lot 1 will show best when young because it has more of the winery’s best juice in it; Lot 2 is an OK average lot of wine, not all that dissimilar to Lot 1; Lot 3 is the least of the lots; it goes into a big tank or tanks about the time that Lot 1 is bottled and is manipulated with acidity, tannin powder and oak chips to make it a different wine because, as it is, it is not very likeable.

    Lot 3 clearly winds up nothing like what the winery put out in Lot 1 or even Lot 2. But, wait. There’s more. The entire 120,000 cases of wine, based on the reviews of Lot 1 and the way folks have enjoyed Lot 1, sells out in nine months and the winery has studied the market and finds that the retail marketplace is low on product. So, it buys wine in bulk at wholesale that will match its own wine in nomenclature. The wine is no longer 100% Zinfandel and no longer 100% varietal. Its alcohol has changed, its acidity has changed, it fruit level and focus and winemaking methodology have changed. In point of fact, it is a yet another different wine.

    In this hypotheical, which is not far from fact by the way, for some wines, whatever was seen in Lot 1 is different by varying degrees as the year progresses. Lot numbers that are meaningfully defined and appropriately displayed would alert consumers and would end the worst abuses we see in the marketplace as regards changing character of wine over the year. Wine could still change, but at least we would know.

  10. “The solution to all this is to have reviewers buy the wines off the shelf and get reimbursed from the winery.” — Morton Leslie, above

    Interesting. But what winery would pay money for a negative review?

    And a funny story re: 1961…

  11. Interesting topic, but one that I think you guys (and gals) are thinking too much about . . .

    Do wineries try to ‘fool’ consumers and/or reviewers as a normal means of business? No. Therefore, should regulations be put into place to try to curtail a problem that really is not that rampant? You’ll have to make up your own minds about this . . .

    Yes, it’s possible to have wide variations in different lots of wines . . . That’s the nature of the business, especially with larger wineries that either a) purchase a lot of bulk wine or b) produce such large volumes that it’s impossible to make ‘identical’ batches or lots throughout the year . . .

    We are not the soft drink industry where each bottle will taste pretty much identical (unless, of course, you find a mouse in your can (!) ) regardless of where and when you purchase it ( taking into account expiration dates on the package, of course).

    And what about ‘bottle variation’ which everyone seems to accept as a normal part of our business? What about reviewers who review wines from overseas, for instance, that are in ‘pristine’ condition but are bottled unfiltered, and, when shipped, have a brett bloom and are therefore NOT the same wine as reviewed?!?!? What should be done about this?

    Just more things to think about . . .


  12. Larry-

    All good points, but small amounts of bottle variation in fact do not amount to much. On occasion, our staff have mistakenly put two bottles of the same wine into one of our blind tastings. In every case I can remember the wines were reviewed very similarly to each other.

    As to the question of whether wineries try to fool reviewers, I have no hard proof and make no accusations. But, when I taste a $12 Chardonnay supplied by a winery and it wins a blind tasting, and then I go out and buy that wine at retail and it performs differently, I can imagine that there may be more than bottle variation at work here.

    The one constant you will find across most winewriting is that we all want simple truth to come out. It does not matter whether that writing is in CGCW or on Dr. Vino or with a skywriter, the purpose of most wine reviews is to get at the truth. We may get there in different ways, some of which are being questioned here and elsewhere, but, in the end, wine criticism is a search for the truth as best as we can explain it. It would be a good thing if wineries helped by not bottling wine that was undifferentiated on the label when it is differentiated by winery action in the bottle.

    When a winery sells wine under a specific label that has varied because of winery practice, those separate lots ought to be identified. The CONSUMER is owed the truth. It is not a winewriter issue per se. It is truth in labelling, plain and simple.

  13. In the earlier years of my winemaking career, while working for a large custom crush winery in the lab, I remember being shocked that a number of wine labels were in fact produced from multiple lots. I was also shocked to see other producers bring in one large lot of wine and bottle it up with 3 or more branded labels from the same tank.

    But then I got over it. Because those were value-priced wines, and they never claimed to be “something special” and because the owners of those brands understood that consistency in their blends was key to their brand value.

    But that is totally different than what is being discussed here. And I think that the threat is that we are seeing the values / tactics of “vin ordinaire” being applied to ratings-seeking luxury brands – and in THAT I think we have a problem, because people expect integrity from that product.

    But I don’t think the answer is in governmental regulation. I would rather see producer groups who have vested interests in their region setting up their own quality assurance methods – like DOCG and AOC in europe.

    Of course, those systems have their drawbacks too, but I do think that if we don’t do something, then we really risk losing even the basic level of trust that consumers have in our product

  14. @Morton Leslie – great 1961 story

    @larry schaffer – props for the mouse in Pepsi can mention!

    @Markashley – you don’t like a wine with 24% Syrah marketed as Pinot Noir?

    @Charlieolken (and everyone) – interesting about the repeat wine. Do you think that blind flights should include repeat wines to promote/ensure reviewer consistency? Or even include a related outside wine (e.g. Long Island cab franc in a red loire tasting)?

    @Tim Keller – yes, it will be interesting to see how lot numbers help–if at all–in the as-yet-unresolved story of Sierra Carche 2005.

  15. Why not consider the German wine labels, which state the quality level of the wine, the grape, the vineyard, and a style or taste indication, along with the producer, vintage and region?

  16. Great post. As a witness to this from the production side I was amazed that it is legal. Unlike Mr. Keller above I’ve seen three versions of a $25 Chardonnay cooked up from bulk wine when the original sold out quickly.

    Hard to believe everyone is so concerned about labeling with nutrition facts while this bait and switch scheme goes on unchecked.

  17. […] even started, coordinating the lineup. He managed to find four bottles of Sierra Carche from two different lots of the wine (astute readers may recall mention of a third lot, #7033, but bottles from that small […]


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