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Selling Sauvignon

Wine labels walk a straight line.

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Livermore's Concannon Vineyard, one of California's oldest wineries, will release a new label this month. Will you notice? Perhaps not, because as Jim Concannon says, "The new label is going to be depicting the old label, but also modernizing it."

Judging by other recent examples, "modernizing" might mean getting a little goofy, very carefully. When Rosenblum Cellars, another East Bay institution, released the mirthful "Chateau La Paws" wines, it was with a tongue-in-cheek -- yet anxious -- disclaimer: "The little paws on the label relate to winemaker Kent Rosenblum's veterinary background, not to our method of crushing the grapes."

Thomas Coyne's labels used to feature little more than casual calligraphy on an off-white background. Recent vintages include a drawing of the vineyard, thus moving Coyne's labels from pure simplicity to something more complex -- a construction of simplicity.

Conventional wisdom suggests that label changes are intended to lure a new generation of consumers, to "demystify" wine, and to reflect the growing importance of branding on a relatively young industry. Jim Concannon says, "I'm no expert on labels, but it is your [business'] billboard."

Yet it's also because both the industry and consumers are realizing that most of the written information on wine labels is useless. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms regulates almost everything about American wine, with the notable exception of quality, and "ensures to the best of its ability that an alcohol beverage label accurately reflects the contents in the container."

As it develops, the best of the bureau's ability is not very good. Most of the required information -- what the wine is, where it's from, how potent it is, who made it -- is subject to interpretation. Is "Red Table Wine" made from red tables? Or can the tables be of any color? Is "California Burgundy" a wine or a Crayola crayon? Even the names of grapes cannot be trusted. In the same way that California, a Democratic state, might contain some Republicans for added dryness and acidity, a Merlot, for example, might contain up to one-quarter Cabernet grapes, or small percentages of other varieties.

Speaking of percentages, the amount of alcohol in a given wine often is fudged, within an allowable range of 1.5 percent. Thus something described as 12.5 percent alcohol by volume might really be 11 percent or 14 percent, the difference between white Zinfandel, which is to say, spiked Kool-Aid, and red Zinfandel, which is to say, real wine.

In the great American tradition, valuable label space is taken up by an ineffectual Surgeon General's warning, soberly explaining, among other vagaries, that alcohol "impairs your ability to drive a car and operate machinery, and may cause health problems." These don't sound like incentives to buy the wine, nor do they say anything about what it tastes like. Actually, wine may also prevent health problems (though probably not while operating machinery), but there's hardly room on the label for a full report from the American Medical Association. Even "net contents" are usually measured in metric units, which sound suspicious to most Americans.

Labels sometimes use words like "reserve" or "premium," which in this country are legally required to avoid meaning anything, and disclaimers like "contains sulfites," which don't tell you what difference they might make (sulfur dioxide is fatal to many bacteria and bothersome to some people). From a marketing standpoint, the right font and an exclamation point could do wonders: THIS PREMIUM RESERVE WINE CONTAINS SULFITES! But it still wouldn't tell you much.

As for actual descriptions of taste, here's what one Renard wine has to say for itself: "The nose suggests leathery jasmine, white peppered violets, and blah blah blah. ... Isn't wine indescribably fun? Just enjoy it." That almost sounds churlish, but it doesn't matter, because the label is so pretty. The rule is: Show, don't tell.

While this makes a consumer's life difficult, try being the winemaker. "Choosing a label is one of the most gut-wrenching experiences you can have," observes Michael Dashe, of Alameda's Dashe Cellars. Dashe chose carefully. "Ours is only moderately wacky," he says. "We don't have a chateau or any vineyards per se, so we didn't have anything to put in there."

Dashe and his wife Anne decided they needed something iconic to illustrate their wines and hired a designer who understood their affinity for the art of Marc Chagall. Using as a theme the Dashes' marriage, described by Dashe as "two creatures going on a journey," the designer found a likely motif in a Chinese illustration of a monkey riding a fish. The resulting eye-catching labels look like Chagall's riff on Curious George and Free Willy. "Anne is French, from Brittany, from this fishing village," Dashe says. "I never quite understood why I'm supposed to be the monkey."

The Dashes continue to enjoy their own rationalizations and customers' interpretations, "some of them fantastical and some quite obscene," he says. In any case, the label is visible from far away. Dashe sometimes watches customers home in on his wines in stores. "You can see them going, 'What the hell is that?'"

It's a legitimate achievement for someone who had to make do without the social resources of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, whose wine labels have been decorated by some of the most famous artists of the twentieth century, including Dali, Miro, Kandinsky, Picasso, Warhol, and even Chagall (the artists, it is told, were paid in wine).

How will the new-old Concannon label fare against such competitors? It will have to be a surprise, but remember, not much of one. "A lot of times," Concannon says, "it's just a shot in the dark."

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