Whatever the name, the wine remains the same

“What’s in a name?” cried out the fair Juliet from yonder window in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Juliet may know a little bit about true love, but she clearly doesn’t know a thing about the wine business. Names, specifically names of places, have a big influence in how we appreciate and enjoy wine.

For example, say the word “Barolo,” the renowned red wine district in northwestern Italy, and you immediately get the juices flowing for many wine lovers. Add the word “Cannubi,” one of the well-know “cru” vineyards in Barolo and you’re sure to see that wine lover rubbing his or her hands together in anticipation.

You also might see them start calculating how close they are to their credit limit as three or four bottles of Barolo, such as the one I’ve described, can easily equal a mortgage payment.

Strip that wine of its pedigree, in other words “Barolo” or “Cannubi” are not permitted on the label, and what do you have? The wine inside the bottle stays the same, but does our appreciation and enjoyment of it change? It doesn’t have to, but too often it does.

And I’m not immune. I was recently given a sample of wine by an anonymous wine professional (for anonymity’s sake, we’ll call him Joe Chapman). It was in a bottle with a white label that said in big, black letters “No Name.” All I knew was it came from Italy. Immediately, I put on my best this-can’t-possibly-be-any-good face of smugness and took a sip.

I could not have been more wrong. It was wonderful and, as it turns out, it was a Barolo from the vineyard of Cannubi and the cru vineyards of Liste and Fossati. It was made by Borgogno, which has been making well-regarded wines in Piemonte since the 18th century.

As the story goes, a spiteful consorzio told Borgogno that regardless of following all the rules that Barolo makers must follow, its wines were not typical and they would not be allowed to call it a Barolo. So, is it not a Barolo just because someone says it’s not? Here, Juliet wins the argument. The wine doesn’t change, only our opinions and expectations do because we call it something different.

(The wine that was denied its place of origin was later re-submitted and did receive the OK to carry the Barolo name. The owners of Borgogno were so angered by the bald-faced bureaucratic shenanigans that the winery declined the designation. It bottled the “No Name” wine under a much more general classification in protest and have made a No Name “Barolo” ever since.)

And I don’t mean to be dismissive about “terroir,” that mystical coalescence in the wine world of place. “Terroir” is the all-encompassing term that describes the many factors that make a wine smell and taste like it does.

Does “terroir” exist? You bet your sweet bippy it does. If you’ve ever had a pinot noir from Burgundy that shakes your hand and says, “Hello. I’m a fabulous wine and I come from the town of Chambolle-Musigny,” you’d know what I’m talking about. But that’s the wine talking, not the label. I’ve had plenty of pretty average wines from famous towns and vineyards that on the face of it, using the label as my guide, should have been fantastic.

The point here is that you can have show-stopping, delicious wines from famous places, but the location of a vineyard is merely one factor among a long list of dynamic components that makes for a yummy wine. And here’s where we start treading into the swamp of snobbiness with regard to wine.

If I poured you a glass of wine from a bottle that appeared to be a generic Italian wine and you can’t get your head around the idea that, despite its pedestrian pedigree, it is a great wine, you are the worst possible wine drinker and a big phony. You like a wine only when you believe it is a special wine from a special place and therefore must be delicious. That’s ridiculous bordering on delusional.

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Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at gil.kulers@winekulers.com.