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Paso Robles Wineries Judging Wine Labels

Walking through any wine shop is enough to make your head spin. Each label, it seems, is calling out for your undivided attention. They’re all so beautiful, and—at a glance—there’s no easy way to tell the fakers from the fabulous. Eek! We all know that marketers rely heavily on visual tricks of the trade to turn your head and open your wallet. And what about those quirky wine descriptions on the back? If you’ve puzzled over whether or not you can really tell a wine by its label, these tips are for you. Note: This post pertains to American wines. For the European bottles, you’re on your own!

Don’t Put Too Much Weight on the Image

Real talk. That wine caught your eye because (let’s face it) it had a gorgeous, cool, or at least semi-compelling label. Maybe it was a scenic oak tree backed by blue skies, perky pink cupcake covered in cheeky sprinkles, edgy, nontraditional tattoo flash, or minimal white space that wooed you (that all depends on what demographic you’re lumped into). The fact remains: You fell for the visual bait. Now is the time to use your critical thinking skills. Why did this winery’s label compel you so? We cannot control what imagery we, as consumers, are attracted to. However, we can make informed decisions about whether or not the product really thrills us as much as the packaging. Give the text on the bottle a good scan and never purchase a bottle on face value alone. This will save you from heaps of buyer’s remorse. Read on to know just what to look for.

No Varietal? No Go

This one’s easy. If a wine label does not tout what varietal is inside, it’s probably not worth your time. Bulk and jug wine producers know that their customers aren’t choosey about quality or flavor, so they will usually slap something incredibly general like “rosé” or “red blend” on the label. A good blend should be emblazoned with the varietals that make up the mix (and most very good wines will tell you the exact percentage of varietals).bowl of grapes

Does it Say Where the Grapes are From?

Boutique Paso Robles wines will almost always tell you where the grapes were specifically grown—whether at a winery’s estate vineyard or sourced from another piece of land. Even if this is not a big part of the visual marketing, a good wine always has an emphasis on terroir, or sense of place (and that means actually telling you where its grapes were really farmed). Fine wines will also often boast the AVA (American Viticultural Area) and sometimes even the sub-AVA where the grapes are grown. This adds a level of prestige for the winery and security for buyers who know they can rely on—say—a Templeton Gap Rhone. Quick and dirty shopping trip? At a minimum, you should be looking for a state of origin (California, Washington, Oregon). If the bottle is over $12 and also shows a general wine region too, then you can probably take the gamble. However, remember that it is a gamble unless it’s all spelled out in black and white.

Decipher the Description

Wine tasting notes are there for a reason. No, not just to make you bust up laughing from time to time—they are created to give the buyer a preview of what they’ll be tasting once the cork’s popped. That’s not to say that some commercial wineries won’t try to sell you a glowing product despite its contents from time to time, but a reputable Paso Robles winery won’t ever promise what it can’t deliver. Does the description mention mouthfeel, bouquet, and pairing suggestion without coming off too fancy schmancy? Great. Wine descriptions should be approachable and informative first, entertaining and flouncy, second. Does the label show literally no tasting information whatsoever? Instead, does it showcase a romantic story about a wayward fisherman or great dog that did something remarkable? Beware. The wine can still be good, but make sure it’s got all the other factors you’re looking for—including varietal and location—before you fall in love with a few pretty words.

Look for the Vintage

While only some mid-priced grocery store wines will show the vintage, (it’s not mandatory), almost all boutique wines will. This is a huge indicator that this a real winery you are purchasing from, not a bulk wine operation more concerned with growing as much wine as possible. A good wine will want to showcase that it is indeed a unique and thoughtfully crafted product unlike the year before or after.

wine barrelsUnderstand Aging

Does the label say what the wine was aged in and for how long? If not, chances are that the “Bordeaux red blend” on the shelf was aged with oak chips or synthetic flavorings. Whites (usually aged in oak, steel, or concrete) will not be aged for long, but most good reds will have at least 12-18 months in barrel. If a wine tells you how long it was aged and in what kind of vessel—French oak, Hungarian, clay—you are on the right track. When it comes to details, more is more and less speaks louder than words.

5 Paso Robles Wines as Delicious as Their Labels


Kiamie buy the wineKiamie 2015 White Kuvee – 91 Points, Wine Enthusiast

“The Viognier and Grenache Blanc for this white blend come exclusively from the Adelaida District in Paso Robles. The wine is bright and floral in character with undertones of minerality unique to the vineyard. This vintage offers aromas that envelope the glass with real density and weight with a crisp, seemingly faux dry finish.  The pungent hints of peach schnapps, tarragon and spiced applesauce characteristic of Grenache Blanc merely round out and compliment Viognier. Pairs well with  Vietnamese fresh spring rolls with mango honey shrimp and Thai basil wrapped in rice vermicelli served with a garlic peanut dipping sauce.”

Click Here for Mapping and Directions to Kiamie Wine Cellars


Seven Oxen 2013 Mourvedre

“Made of 90% Mourvèdre, this wine shows all of the characteristics of the varietal. Notes of black pepper, licorice, leather, and candied fruits are prominent. The full-bodied flavors of the Mourvèdre are balanced out with a touch of Grenache, giving this complex wine a subtle, round fruitiness. Excellent to drink now, Seven Oxen’s Mourvèdre will improve as it develops in the bottle and will age well for the next five to ten years. Aged 18 months in one year old French Oak. Pairs well with game, marinated meat, and mildly spicy foods.”

Click Here for Mapping and Directions to Seven Oxen Estate Wines


Hearst Ranch Winery Buy the WineHearst Ranch 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Bunkhouse Magnum – 98 Points, Double Gold Medal/Best in Class of Region, 2016 California State Fair

“2014 Bunkhouse Cabernet Sauvignon is a wine of nuanced depth. By utilizing four noble Bordeaux varietals in supportive roles, we were able to add intrigue while keeping this wine true to its roots. The dominant Cabernet Sauvignon portion shines the brightest from the zesty spice on the nose to the rich stone fruit flavors. The Malbec and Merlot portions were integral in elevating the aromatics of this wine adding subtle notes of black currant and wet clay. The Cabernet Franc component added resolve to the mid-palate with firm yet elegant tannin. Petit Verdot contributes to the exceptional length, providing a steadfast platform on which flavors of ripe plum and violets linger. This wine was aged in primarily neutral oak barrels and as such may need a bit of time to open up in your glass.”

Click Here for Mapping and Directions to Hearst Ranch Winery, San Simeon

Click Here for Mapping and Directions to Hearst Ranch Winery, Cholame


Pelletiere Buy the WinePelletiere Estate 2016 Viognier

“Glittering and brilliant, like a canary diamond perched in the glistening sun this Viognier is crisp and racy. Aged in stainless steel, with refreshing aromas of peach, mango and a bouquet of blossoms, it finishes in a silky citrus setting looking great in hand. This wine, truly is a girl’s best friend.”

Click Here for Mapping and Directions to Pelletiere Estate


This blog was written by Hayley Thomas Cain, food and wine writer for SLO New Times and You can reach her at [email protected] or follow her on instagram @flavorslo.

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JUST Inn at Justin VineyardsMake ReservationsEnjoy the elegance, style and natural beauty of California’s Central Coast at the JUST Inn®. Surrounded by vineyards, our JUST Inn Suites offer luxurious appointments like fireplaces, Tempur-Pedic®mattresses, Frette linens, hydro-spa tubs, and range in size from 600–1,200 square feet. An overnight stay includes breakfast and a tour of the winery and caves.


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