Learning About Wine Labels with Tricia Bump Davis

We caught up with Trica Bump Davis, general manager of Darms Lane Winery in Napa Valley, last spring. We were devastated when the video did not come out. But Davis’ discussion on learning about wine labels was so much fun, we couldn’t resist using the transcript. So here it is. With a wine label to look at.

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Q – You are the general manager of Darms Lane

Davis – Yes. I am the gm, I am the general manager of Darms Lane. It’s actually my family’s business. My parents started just as investors in a vineyard in Napa Valley. And then over the course of time, their investment got bigger and bigger, and then they became the sole owners of our property. So just since 2000, it’s been in my family. And then I have two sisters, so my dad didn’t really have a choice on having a son run it because he only had girls.

Q – So what does a general manager do?

Davis – So my responsibilities… There’s not really any set specific things. I’m kind of responsible for everything. We have a vineyard manager who does our farming for us. So I manage that relationship. And then we have a winemaker that makes the wine, and I manage that as well. And then I also do all the not as fun stuff, like the compliance. I do compliance with the Federal government and then with all the states for all the licensing.

Q – What is compliance?

Davis – Compliance is just making sure… We’re making wine, which is an alcoholic beverage, so that complicates the process a little bit because the Federal government keeps track of and would like some excise tax from us so they want more information about what we’re making, and how much alcohol is in it, where it’s stored and all of those things. So there’s quite a bit of compliance that goes along with the winery.

Q – To switch directions, because you are dealing with an issue that a lot of people don’t understand – why labels are the way they are. And you’re dealing with that. Tell us about that and what everything means.

Davis – Every wine, when we go to bottle it, before we actually print the labels, we submit them to the Tax and Trade Bureau, which is the Federal government. And they look at a few specific characteristics on the label to make sure it’s within the law. So the things that they care about are the percentage of alcohol. They’ve switched it around. It used to always have to be on the front label, now it can actually be on the back label. And then where the wine comes from. That’s where they’re really really specific about when you put where the wine is from, it has to say… So if you say Napa Valley, it all has to be from Napa Valley. You can have a little bit of fruit from other places, but there’s different percentages, thresholds that we have to stay within for each of the items. So if it says cabernet sauvignon, then it needs to be 75 percent cabernet sauvignon. It can be a little bit of other things, but it needs to be at least 75 percent cabernet sauvignon. And then there’s a whole lot of other characteristics, like if you say estate grown. And on the back label there’s a statement that’s called… We call it the produced and bottled by statement. So that actually tells you a lot about specifics on the wine. So if it says produced and bottled by that means we made the wine, we produced it, so we made it into alcohol, and we bottled it all under our own permit. So you might see some that don’t say that and that may mean that the person maybe bought the wine from somebody else and put their name on it. So there’s a lot of different really, really technical things about the label that we don’t know about until you get into the business.

Q – Okay, what’s the point of putting all those technical things on the label if nobody knows what they are?

Davis –Well, industry professionals know, so if you’re working with wines in a restaurant, so a sommelier knows all of these legal requirements for a label, and then most wine shop owners know all of these technicalities, as well. So they can look at your label and know more about it than your average consumer. Your average consumer who walks up to a wine on the shelf and turns it around maybe isn’t going to know the little tiny details. But most professionals do.

Q – What’s the most important thing on the label for the consumer to understand?

Davis – I think the most important thing for the average consumer is to know, and it’s mostly based on preference because if I’m going to drink a pinot noir, if it’s a pinot noir and it just says California, then I don’t really know that much about where it specifically came from. But if I’m looking at a pinot noir and it came from the Russian River, or if I’m looking at a pinot noir and it came from Oregon, then as a consumer, I can start to see characteristics that are similar in those wines, and if I like them, I can go and seek those out. Once you start knowing what kind of variety of wine you like, then you can start to dive down into the detail of well, I like pinot noirs from Sonoma County, but maybe I don’t like them as much as I like Oregon pinot noirs or wines from other places. So it’s just a way of categorizing the wines within the specific variety.

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