It's a well-known fact in the wine industry that the majority of consumers decide which bottle of fermented grape juice to spring for based solely on their attraction to the label. If you'd count yourself as a member of that particular buying demographic, we feel compelled to tell you're generally not doing yourself any favors in terms of increasing your likelihood of ending up with a great bottle of wine.
That's because that shiny, pretty picture you're ogling is usually nothing more than a marketing ploy -- and, let's face it -- if you're buying the wine purely because of that picture, then it's a ploy that's definitely working. But what if instead you learned to take advantage of the info printed on each label that's truly relevant to your purchase decision?
The steps outlined below will require a bit of actual effort on your part. If you don't have the urge to uncork the hidden gems of information just waiting to be discovered on most labels, then you're probably not all that concerned with the quality of the wine you're drinking in the first place. If this sounds like you, by all means, carry on. But if you, like us, love wine for its ability to transform any meal (or even just an evening spent in the backyard) into a sensory experience, keep reading.
Country of Origin/Region: You might be smirking over our recommendation to start by figuring out what this particular piece of label data has to tell you -- you might assume it's perfectly obvious which country the wine's from; after all, you were standing in the aisle with the sign over it that read "Wines of France" when you bought it, weren't you? But just because you've made a beeline for that bottle of Côtes du Rhone doesn't mean that you've got a clue as to which grapes that particular bottle of wine from southwestern France contains, how and for how long it might have been aged, or its reputation for producing quality wines. That's because the bottle in your hand might be grenache or syrah predominant, depending on which particular sub-region within the larger Rhone appellation you're talking about (or should we say, the region depicted by the label). If you're a bit confused, that's the point: figuring out the provenance of your wine offers oodles of insight about the wine you'll be drinking.
Vintage: Plenty of buzz abounds on this topic: Do vintages matter or not? Whether or not you subscribe to the school of thought that praises one year's crop over another, be clear that vintage depicted by law on each bottle can still provide major clues regarding the wine you're about to purchase. Example one: When buying wines that peak in the prime of their youth (like all that rosé you've been guzzling this summer), checking the vintage can ensure you buy a fresh, fruity bottle instead of one that's a bit long in the tooth -- most pink wines show best within a couple of years of their bottling. Example two: Champagne or other sparkling wines. While the majority of this style of wine are expected to be non-vintage (aka "NV" on the label), stumbling upon one that's marked with the year of its harvest and in your price range is a little like discovering a field of truffles in the middle of Cheesman Park -nearly impossible, and sure to deliver a surprisingly delicious result.
Importer: Perhaps the most slept-on wine label detail of all is the one which identifies the individuals responsible for delivering that very malbec you're currently obsessed with into the hands of your favorite wine merchant. In fact, it's shocking how few people understand the value of knowing who their favorite importers are, and more important, why committing their names to memory can infinitely improve the likelihood that you'll fall in love with that bottle of wine (whose label you're all giddy about, but which you've never actually heard about or tasted for yourself).
Not sure how to decipher which importers are behind your favorite sips? Time to engage in a bit of research. Over time, procure one case of wine (that's only twelve bottles, people, buck up!) and hold on to the empties of those you were feelin' the most. Spin said bottles around and scan the fine print until you discover the name of the importer. Write it down, and then Google your way into enlightenment. Your Web search of the importer should result in a list of other wines they're liable to be bringing into your 'hood, along with all sorts of other fascinating information about the wines they represent (and best of all, why you should be drinking them).
The bottom line? Investing as little as five minutes looking at the fine print goes a long way toward increasing your understanding of wine labels (beyond the pretty pictures, that is) and will yield years of dramatically increased levels of wine drinking pleasure. And isn't that what it's all about?