Dunne on Wine

Perusing old wine bottle labels offers tasty glimpse into evolution of California winemaking

For decades, the Louis Martini label featured a horse-drawn wagon loaded with freshly harvested grapes. E.&J. Gallo Winery of Modesto bought Martini a few years ago and turned around the team and wagon on the label.
For decades, the Louis Martini label featured a horse-drawn wagon loaded with freshly harvested grapes. E.&J. Gallo Winery of Modesto bought Martini a few years ago and turned around the team and wagon on the label. Special to The Bee

Anyone still collect wine labels? For decades after the repeal of Prohibition, people enamored with the history, romance and art of wine patiently would steam or soak off labels from bottles.

They did this to remember an especially notable wine.

The more orderly of these collectors would arrange the labels systematically in a scrapbook. Others simply would toss them haphazardly into shoeboxes, where they would remain in the far reaches of closet or basement, awaiting to be rediscovered by mystified heirs.

It’s been years since I last ran into one who waxed poetic about his or her wine-label collection. The closest I’ve come to reliving that experience lately has been the wine enthusiast who whips out his or her cellphone and scrolls through label shots to find just the one with a story that needs to be shared.

The cellphone camera has done away with the tricky science of removing labels from wine bottles as has the development of stronger glues and the rise in popularity of etched bottles.

But if a pal offers to show off his old-time collection of wine labels, take him up on it. A wine-label collection, if arranged methodically, can reveal the evolution not only of typography and illustration in labels but also history – of a wine region, shifts in marketing strategy or how individual wineries perceive themselves.

Did Maynard Amerine, for example, have any notion that the 5,081 labels he gathered would reveal him to be such an ardent Francophile? He is widely regarded as a founding father of the modern California wine trade, yet the labels he saved – pasted into notebooks and supplemented with remarks about the quality of the wine, the occasion he drank it and with whom he shared it – show him to be nuts about French wine, especially Bordeaux. Like the teacher he was, he graded many of the wines, not on a 100-point scale but with letter grades.

In 1935, Amerine was hired as the first member of the faculty for the new department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis. This was just after the repeal of Prohibition, when California didn’t have much of a wine industry but France did.

Until he retired in 1974, Amerine taught countless students how to grow grapes and make wine, authored or co-authored 16 books, wrote more than 400 scholarly articles, and with fellow UC Davis instructor Albert J. Winkler developed the Winkler Scale, a method to classify grape-growing areas by temperature, a technique that continues to help guide the development of vineyards. His books and tapes of his lectures continue to educate winemakers. In 2007, nine years after his death, he was among the first nine inductees of the Vintners Hall of Fame in Napa Valley.

Busy as he was, he made time not only to taste thousands of wines but to patiently and painstakingly remove labels from bottles and paste them in notebooks. While his experience ran strongly to French and other European wines, he also saved labels from early pivotal players on the California wine scene like Christian Brothers, Fountain Grove, Charles Krug, Louis Martini, Wente and Simi.

Today, his labels are stashed at the Peter J. Shields Library on the Davis campus. Anyone can see them online by visiting the Label This project whereby the public can help university officials develop a database so the Amerine collection some day – it’s hoped by year’s end – can be searched by keywords, such as “Chateau Latour,” “chardonnay” or “Napa.”

Visitors to the site can browse casually through the randomly arranged labels or join the university’s efforts to transcribe everything on each label to help develop the database, which university authorities see as benefiting historians, sommeliers, vintners and others eager to get a handle on the development of the wine trade.

“This is a tool to help us build it (a searchable database),” says Amy Azzarito, the project’s product manager. “It’s not fake work; it needs to be done.”

For now, even in its offhand order, the Amerine collection is instructive, entertaining and provocative.

It shows, for one, how more accurate, colorful, lively and varied the California wine label has become. When Amerine started to collect labels, California wineries customarily released their wines with the names of classic European wine regions – Burgundy, Chianti, Chablis and the like – even though the wines bore no resemblance in pedigree or style to those areas.

Next to a label of the 1919 California Burgundy by Beaulieu Vineyards, for example, Amerine noted that the wine was “predominately cabernet,” a grape historically not identified with Burgundy. By and large, that early California practice has ended, with wines now customarily named after the variety of grape on which they are based, such as “pinot grigio” and “zinfandel.”

Axel Borg, “distinguished wine and food science bibliographer” for the Peter J. Shields Library, notes that the Louis M. Martini Winery in Napa Valley played a role in that development more than half a century ago. At that time the winery added to the rigid script of its label a small humanizing watercolor of a horse-drawn wagon loaded with freshly harvested grapes. Several examples of that label are in the Amerine collection.

Curiously, after E.&J. Gallo Winery of Modesto bought the Martini winery in 2002, it tweaked and flipped the illustration so the wagon would be coming forward rather than retreating. Gallo officials didn’t respond to my request for the reasoning behind the change.

Amerine was a man of few words, at least when it came to his wine labels. If he liked a wine, it got an “A” or “B,” and not many of either is in his assortment. I really wanted to know more about the 1924 Chateau L’Evangile, which he tasted in San Francisco in 1945. Other than anointing it with a rare “A-plus,” he says nothing of the wine.

The closest he generally came to criticizing a wine negatively was to call it “passé” or tired. The 1916 Chateau Montrose he drank at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel in 1941 earned this note: “Either passé or badly decanted.”

UC Davis librarians’ work in digitizing the university’s growing inventory of wine and food material is just underway. After the Amerine collection, they have two other collections totaling about 50,000 labels to get online, along with donated ephemera.

There will be more from Maynard Amerine. He also gathered around 1,000 menus that the university hopes eventually to have online.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.

Vintage labels

If Maynard Amerine’s label collection whets your appetite for more, consider taking in “Vintage,” an exhibit of wine, beer and spirits labels continuing until April at the California Historical Society in San Francisco. The labels were produced by the Lehmann Printing and Lithographing Co. of San Francisco, largely during the Depression. www.californiahistoricalsociety.org.