Wines of Mystery 

Though "vinted and bottled by" tells you nothing about who made the wine or where the grape is from, at $2.50 a bottle, that can be forgiven.

Wine snobs may shudder to hear it, but France's time-honored practice of making a wine's appellation the most prominent thing on the label, with the brand in smaller type and the name of the varietal often absent altogether, may soon be a thing of the past — at least in a certain price range. French producers are now permitted to blend wines from different regions and sell them under a blanket "Vignobles de France" label. Some are even sneaking the varietal name on the front of the bottle, with the appellation relegated to the back.

But it's still the United States — brimming with germ-phobic, hypochondriac information junkies — that sets the standard in telling you everything you want to know, and some things you probably don't. Brand, variety, bottling location, alcohol content, and net volume all must be prominently displayed on domestic wines, and there are long lists of additional regulations within each category. The words "produced and bottled by," for example, can only be used on labels if 75 percent of the wine was fermented and clarified by the bottler. If that standard isn't met, the words "vinted and bottled by" or "cellared and bottled by" may be used instead.

Vinted and cellared tell you nothing about a grape's origin or who made the wine, so we information junkies get a mite frustrated when we see them on a wine we find intriguing, like the 2005 Sea Ridge California Merlot we sampled this week. Of course, once we realized that it costs just $2.50, all was forgiven. I thought the Sea Ridge had an impressive aroma — deep, dark earth, but also ripe, spicy, and smoky — along with a mellow taste and a pleasantly grapey aftertaste with just a bit of burn. Overall, a full-bodied wine I'd be proud to serve. Less of a fan, our Token Winemaker thought the Sea Ridge tasted dirty and complained that the acidity overwhelmed its finish.

He preferred the 2005 Bogle Vineyards Merlot ($6.99), which he found dry and well-balanced, with an aroma of very ripe red fruit along with a little oak and vanilla. I thought the Bogle smelled a little sweaty and had a flat taste — a so-so Merlot, in my book. Incidentally, this wine seemingly hails from lovely Graton, near the Russian River in Sonoma, but again, "vinted and bottled by" may tell a different story.

Finally, the 2004 Bonello Merlot-Nero D'Avola blend from Italy ($4.99) was a disappointment. Its hot, pungent aroma and acidic burn might cut nicely through a juicy steak, but would overwhelm on its own or with lighter fare. However, recent medical evidence suggests that young, cheap, highly tannic wines may be more heart-healthy than their highfalutin bottle-aged counterparts. That's a claim all three of these Merlots, especially the Bonello, could proudly slap on their labels — if only the feds would let them.


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