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Wine labeling among 
new rules in 2014

By Don Frances INDEX-TRIBUNE NEWS EDITOR

It was signed into law more than three years ago. But a bill requiring Sonoma County wines to include the words “Sonoma County” somewhere on the label finally comes into full effect Wednesday.

Given all the time they’ve had to prepare, not to mention the marketing potential the new law may offer, “The majority of the wineries are on board with this,” said Ravenswood founder and winemaker Joel Peterson.

Many wineries were using the “Sonoma County” designation prior to the law, Peterson said. That includes his own Ravenswood, where “Much of our bottle labeling already included the Sonoma County conjunctive labeling.”

But even for the go-it-alone vintners, “This is something that has been well hashed out. And the wineries for the most part have bought into it,” he said.

Assembly Bill 1798, “the Sonoma County conjunctive wine label initiative,” was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September 2010. Since then it has been phased in over a three-year period, and as of Jan. 1, 2014, full compliance is mandatory.

That’s a good thing, said 
Peterson.

“Napa Valley has had this for a very long time. And it’s worked well for them, in the sense that it creates a united banner, if you will, for the wineries to fly under.”

Peterson said he sees this as “the beginning of that process. It’s coming together. And other things are going along with that” – such as a new Sonoma County logo – which altogether are “kind of a front to make Sonoma County more of a place.”

Although the city and Sonoma valley have always enjoyed the name recognition, there are other important American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, in the county – the Russian River Valley, for example, or Alexander Valley – that can benefit from the Sonoma brand, Peterson said. The law applies only to wineries designating one of Sonoma County’s 13 AVAs on their label; if they drop the AVA altogether, they don’t need to include “Sonoma County” either.

Fellow vintner Michael Muscardini, of Muscardini Cellars, said he supports the bill, but is uncertain of its merits.

“I’m actually working on four labels right now,” he said Monday afternoon. And as he worked out the designs, he was keeping in mind that “I have to use the words ‘Sonoma County’ somewhere.”

That’s OK with him, Muscardini said, but “I like to keep my bottles very clean, on the front label in particular.” So he wondered: While it reads “Sonoma Valley” on the front label, should it also read “Sonoma County” beneath that?

“We tried to argue that Sonoma Valley wines didn’t have to say ‘Sonoma County.’ How many Sonomas do you need?” he said, adding, “That didn’t go over very well.”

A compromise was worked out, he said, with vintners allowed to put the county designation anywhere on the bottle.

But Muscardini remained skeptical on whether it would have much of an impact. “It’s not going to promote people buying more wine,” he said. “So I don’t know the answer” to why the law exists.

The website of Sonoma County Vintners states that conjunctive labeling is intended “to build brand equity for Sonoma County wines and preserve and strengthen Sonoma County’s position as a recognized world-class wine region.”

According to a bill analysis by the state, “This provision mirrors existing conjunctive labeling provisions for Napa, Lodi and Paso Robles.” It was not immediately clear how effective labeling rules have been in increasing sales in those areas.

Other rules with local impacts that kick in Jan. 1 include a change to abalone fishing regulations on Sonoma County’s coastline due to a vote by the California Fish and Game Commission.

According to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the commission voted in June “to modify abalone fishery regulations along the northern California coast. Specifically, the commission voted to reduce the annual limit to 18 abalone (previously 24), with no more than nine taken from Sonoma and Marin counties.”

Commissioners also implemented a start time of 8 a.m. for abalone fishing, and they closed off Fort Ross to fishing altogether. The moves are part of ongoing efforts to keep red abalone numbers strong following “a recent abalone die-off along the Sonoma coast,” the department states.

Meanwhile, a bill authored by state Assemblymember Mariko Yamada and taking effect Jan. 1 may be of interest to the Sonoma Developmental Center: AB 602 “requires employees at developmental centers and state hospitals to report serious assault and abuse incidents directly to outside law enforcement agencies within two hours.”

Previously, reports were made only internally within two days of an incident – and reporting to outside law enforcement wasn’t required at all. Yamada, D-Davis, who represents Sonoma County, stated that under this law “Local law enforcement will also participate in specialized training for conducting investigations involving the residents of these facilities.”

The Sonoma Developmental Center, one of a small handful of such centers around the state, has repeatedly come under fire for alleged abuses against patients in its care.