An Upper or Lower Case of Chardonnay?

08 Apr 2008

I was writing a piece about a sommelier when I came across a dilemma: Which, if any, of the names of wine should be capitalized? Should I capitalize appellations in honor of their geographic origins? Should varietals be lowercase? We don’t capitalize the names of trees, why should a product made from grapes be different? Maybe all should be lowercased?

I reached for the Chicago Manual of Style. I found nothing in the index, so I tried a search on the book’s website. Apparently, the Chicago Manual of Style is silent on the issue.

So I peeked at some style guides on the Internet. Vino capitalization is a murky area. National Geographic requires its writers to capitalize the names of wines that “derive from geographic regions,” are from “developed varieties of grapes,” and “those that are trademarks.” If the term is merely descriptive or no longer refers exclusively to a product from geographic region, the writer is to lowercase it. National Geographic claims champagne and cognac have lost their geographic distinctions and capitalization is unnecessary, but they “may be capitalized in French context.”

So, the National Geographic writer can sit at a restaurant named Le Chapon Fin in the Bordeaux region of France and sip a Bordeaux, an Armagnac, a port, or a sherry.

But if that writer moonlights for The Times or The Guardian, the requirements change. These publications prefer all wines to be lowercased, with The Times making an exception for instances in which the lack of capitalization “would look out of place.” The Times cites the controlled term of origin “Côtes du Rhône“ as an example of a phrase requiring capitalization.

So, a journalist for The Times—who sits across the table from the National Geographic writer in Le Chapon Fin—can enjoy a bordeaux, an armagnac, a port, or a sherry.

As for my dilemma, I considered setting down the wine and the dice and perishing all thought of capitalization (a shameful bastardization of one of Virgil’s lesser-known poems) when I remembered someone told me that a good glass of wine gives as much pleasure as the best poetry. e.e. cummings aside, poem titles are capitalized. I’ll do the same with wine.