“Rule 1: When a wine is named for a place, and actually comes from that place, capitalize its name,” William Safire wrote in August 1985. Safire, then the “On Language” columnist for the New York Times Magazine, sought to set the record straight about when wine names should be capitalized. This had become a terrifically bothersome matter for him, so he dedicated a whole column to it.
In other words: A chianti from California deserves to stay in lowercase. If a wine is named after a specific grape, it must be kept lowercase—that is, unless the grape gets its name from a specific place, and the wine also actually originates from that place. (This is the transitive property in action; stay with me.) If there’s a wine named after a given place that corresponds to its place of origin, but that name’s spelling has shifted, somewhat, in transit? Lowercase. He cites sherry, which is originally from Jerez, or Xeres, in Spain, as a justification for this principle. And don’t you dare capitalize wine cooler, unless the wine cooler hails from a town called Cooler.
Safire’s private letters, research notes, and papers were recently digitized by the University of Syracuse. There are about 506 entries within it, many of them dispatches from people like Spiro Agnew and Benazir Bhutto. Among these correspondences is a missive from Julia Child to Safire in September of 1985, who liked his column on wine so much that she decided to write him about it. It’s barely three paragraphs long, yet, like most of her writing, voice-y and whimsical.
“This is a subject that has bothered me for a number of years, and I think you have clarified it perfectly,” she wrote Safire. “Quite a number of French magazines have been uncapitalizing everything, which I feel is an insult to the wine and silly.”
Shop the Story
Today, as you may have heard, is National Wine Day. We've declared something of an editorial moratorium on speaking of these holidays. There are too many to count, and their existence is arbitrary and vaguely pointless, especially given their origins in the minds of attention-parched PR executives. If you're celebrating this holiday, please go ahead; we don’t mean to shame you. Just capitalize your wine names correctly, in a way that wouldn't drive Julia up the wall.
Have any tips for capitalizing wine names? Let us know in the comments.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.