When shopping for certain foods, the label gives you useful information, such as where it came from, its nutritional values and what ingredients were used in the final product.
If only wines were that easy.
Yes, there are rules for labeling Washington wines, but sometimes it's what you don't see that can be just as important as what's on the label. That's why having a basic knowledge of the "95-85-75 percent" rules are essential for wine consumers.
Let's start with the 95 percent rule, which applies to a wine's vintage. For a Washington wine to list a specific vintage on the label, at least 95 percent of its grapes must be harvested in that year. Anything less doesn't qualify for a vintage date.
That shouldn't be considered entirely bad (it's frequently the case with Champagne and sparkling wines), because the wine is then simply referred to as "non-vintage."
The 95 percent rule also applies to vineyard designation. If winemakers want to use the increasingly popular practice of acknowledging a specific vineyard on the front label, they can't source more than 5 percent of the grapes from other vineyards.
The 85 percent rule refers to the use of grapes within a particular American Viticultural Area. An AVA is a designation granted by the federal government in recognition of an area with distinct geographic, climatic and soil conditions. The rule is important because grapes grown within an AVA often have different flavor profiles and characteristics than from other areas.
By noting the AVA, wineries are telling consumers they're buying a wine that should be indicative of the grapes from that unique region. Think of the difference between wines from the cooler Puget Sound AVA versus the warmer Yakima Valley AVA, and you get the idea.
A third labeling requirement, the 75 percent rule, means that in order to have a single variety on the label, a wine must contain at least 75 percent of that particular grape inside the bottle. For example, a Washington wine labeled as "merlot" only needs to consist of 75 percent merlot grapes in the finished product. The rest of the wine can be any other grapes the winemaker chooses.
But if those other grapes exceed 25 percent of the total blend, the wine must be given a proprietary name or be referred to as something generic, such as "red wine." Again, that's not a bad thing, but it is a surprise to many people who are unaware they are buying a blend.
The bottom line: Read your wine label carefully, and remember these rules when considering vintages, vineyards and varietals to buy.
Dan Radil is a wine enthusiast who lives in Bellingham. Reach him at danthewineguy.com.