What REALLY should be on the label?

This year, my husband (and Savvy Sommelier) Doug Dolinski and I completed the Beer course at Algonquin College. On one of our field trips out of the classroom, we visited Heritage Brewery located in Ottawa and learned about the information that the LCBO considers acceptable (and required) to place on a label.  At this time, Heritage Brewery was applying for approval for their bitter brown ale now called Corporal’s Bitter Brown Ale. 


Beer maker and owner of Heritage Brewery, Donna Warner (and her husband Ron), explained that when the beer was first submitted to the LCBO, it was returned three times, for having an unacceptable label. Looking at the original design, I can only assume that it was too inhibiting a design as it showed a stern looking Corporal holding a cricket stick and the beer was named “Corporal Punishment”. A picture of this beer with the original label still appears on the Internet however it has now been re-named to Corporal’s Bitter Brown Ale.



This brought back to my mind a symposium I attended at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival in April, entitled, “What’s in your wine? Truth in Labeling.”  I found the seminar to be educational and somewhat entertaining when I listened to the facilitators, winemakers, lawyers and educators debate the value of placing all the ingredients on the back of the wine bottle.  I wondered if I wanted my wine bottle to look like the back of a box of dried scalloped potato mix and if as a consumer, I would be interested in reading the label before purchasing a bottle of wine. Or would the list of ingredients dissuade my purchasing a bottle of my favorite wine? Really, does the consumer want to know that the wine was refined by egg white or particles from a sturgeon’s stomach?  Yes you read that correctly and I don’t think so. (these are winemaking techniques thought)


While labeling can lead to more consumer confidence, I’m not sure it guarantees or provides more quality control in giving one label (or wine for that matter) more credence over another. Having said that, the number of governance bodies that would have to agree on labeling is a hiatus that would make winemakers go ‘arggh if this was to be in their future.


Months ago I read an article in the Ottawa Citizen entitled “Information Overload on a Wine label” written by wine columnist and educator Rod Phillips, (who also attended the same seminar with me in Vancouver). He reported that in a five ounce glass of wine, it contains something like 7 mg of sodium, 140 mg of potassium, 4 g carbohydrate, a gram of protein and traces of calcium, niacin, vitamin B6, etc, etc. All of this information raises the nutritional awareness of the ingredients.  He cautioned however, against terms typically used on the front of a wine label such as “Reserve” which are unregulated and said that labeling is complicated depending on the law in force, where it is made and that basically there must be more consistency on labeling before regulations are imposed.


As we know, marketing or labeling does not tell the whole story. Most consumers eyes draw to the country of origin of a wine before checking out the percentage of a particular grape varietal and after that, in my opinion, wine is largely cost driven.  Do we want (or for that matter, need) to know how much yeast goes into a barrique? When it states aromas of cherry fruit, to my mind, it makes the product seem so one dimensional although even I max out when I have more than a few descriptors to read.


Interestingly enough, what prompted this blog was a trip to Prince Edward County last month when Doug and I stopped at Bergeron Estates Winery, to meet up and chat with owner Dave Bergeron. Once again the topic of labeling came up. Dave shook his head when explaining that he wanted his new cider called ‘County Point Cider’ to have a small pistol on the label (an illustration of a Loyalist artifact he found in his apple orchard). The report back from the LCBO: not a chance. Baffled, Dave said, “How come its okay for the bottlers of Captain Morgan Rum to have a swashbuckler with a sword hanging from his waistband, on that label, but I can’t have a pistol on a bottle of hard cider?”


We are all guilty of purchasing a product based on clever marketing. Who cannot be lured by cute little animals and little black dresses. It also reminds me of an instructor of mine from the Sommelier program Algonquin College who said her husband would buy anything with a horse on the label.


All this to say that whether the grapes are organic or aromatic or if the beer smells like skunk or caramel, albeit with a rewarding label, what is placed on the back of a bottle, be it wine or beer, where real estate is of prime importance, for now remains in the hands of the maker.


For those of us who truly savour and enjoy their every day table wine or beer – do we really care what’s on or behind the label?


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