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Read the label

Wine labels are designed to convey information, and the nature of that information is strictly controlled both by the wine's country of origin, and, in the U.S., by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Wine labels are also designed to seduce, and here the BATF is especially vigilant; in its zeal to prevent Janet-Jackson-like label malfunctions, it has frequently adopted the kind of fig-leaf mentality that considers even some classical works of art verboten. The bottle's back label, however, appears to escape such scrutiny; it's fair game, not for salacious images but for any kind of assertion the winemaker cares to make, from dry recitations of sugar content at harvest to Harlequin-style purple prose that would make a barfly blush.

The Spanish wine Torremoron Ribera del Duero Tempranillo 2003, a bargain favorite, takes the didactic approach. Its back label repeats the name of the wine, the grape, and the region, describes the wine in straightforward terms, pinpoints the location of the winery down to the village and the number of its inhabitants, and provides earnest textbook information on the vineyards, the soils, and the climate. At the other end of the spectrum is another favorite, the 2004 Sincerely Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa. The back label contains this bit of information: "Imitation is the sincerest flattery - Charles Caleb Colton 1780-1832," and this is supposed to trigger an Aha! Sincerely is imitating the Sancerres of France.

But the hands-down master of tongue-in-cheek label larceny is Randall Graham of California's Bonny Doon. On the front of his Cardinal Zin he gets away with terminology such as "beastly old vines," but the back is where the fun really begins, with a blurb that concludes " ... this wine will complement all manner of game and other wild beasts, including sloth." The back of his Ca' del Solo Big House White looks like a ransom note and reads thusly: "Yadda, yadda, yadda, warden, we invite you to break outta the confines of stuffy tradition with the Stelvin closure ... `this` white ... is a worthy successor to our previous efforts. It more than Sing-Sings for its supper ..." Graham's Pacific Rim Dry Riesling (a blend of Washington and German grapes) claims, "This eclectic blend is ... the liaison dangereuse that links New World and Old World ... and is the perfect foil for most foodstuffs, pan-Asian or pan-fried ..."

Graham, I suspect, has been the inspiration for many other sincere imitators, one of which is the Jest White and Jest Red line from California. Copy such as "This tempting ambrosia is blended from the most sensuous grape varietals, lovingly pressed by the tender caresses of 69 nymphs dancing under the pale light of the full harvest moon ... " is only the warm-up act for "honeyed kisses ... breathless anticipation ..." and more. After which the back of the Vinum Cellars CNW Cuvee 2003 Chenin Blanc is a breath of fresh air. "It is our belief that Chenin Blanc (when made well) rivals some of the greatest white wines of the world. This wine was made from cool climate grapes, barrel fermented in French oak and aged for 6 months. Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah ... REDISCOVER CHENIN BLANC." It's good wine, too.

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