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Assert Your 21st Amendment Freedom by Transcribing Wine Label History

Label This project
A wine label from the 1950s in the Maynard Amerine collection at UC Davis (courtesy UC Davis University Library)

More than 5,000 wine labels at the University of California, Davis, chronicle the industry from the 1800s to the 1950s, before and after Prohibition in the United States. Until recently, the only way to study them was in spiral-bound notebooks at the Special Collections Department of UC Davis University Library. The Label This wine label transcription project is now crowdsourcing assistance to, as they put it, help “uncork a piece of history.”

The labels were collected by Maynard Amerine, a professor for almost four decades in the esteemed Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis. When Amerine started, the wine of Northern California was just emerging from its 18th Amendment slump. Amy Azzarito, the library’s assistant director of online strategy, writes on the Label This blog:

Before 1920, there were more than 2,500 commercial wineries in the United States, less than 100 made it through Prohibition. The program in Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis was started as part of an effort to revitalize the industry. Maynard Amerine was one of the first faculty members hired into this newly formed department. Even with the help of wine making experts at UC Davis and Maynard’s ceaseless work writing, traveling and advising, the turn-around was slow. By 1960, that number had only grown to 271.

Label This project
A House of Howe label in the Amerine wine label collection (photo by Peter Brantley/Flickr)

The great turning point was arguably the 1976 Judgment of Paris, in which California Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays bested French wines in a blind tasting. But that’s decades ahead of most of the labels in the collection, which are as interesting for their design and typography as for their spirits. Being that he was in California, Amerine procured numerous labels from the Napa Valley and Sonoma County, as well as examples form France, Italy, Germany, and South Africa. Many represent bottles consumed by Amerine himself, often at the elite Bohemian Club where he was a member.

Visitors to Label This can mark image and text on labels, and work on transcriptions, including of Amerine’s handwritten notations. All of this information contributes to a searchable database. Experts and those with family history are also welcome to get in touch with the UC Davis researchers. Like other libraries and institutions crowdsourcing transcription on whaling logbooksundelivered letters from the 17th century, sci-fi fanzines, and reference cards for Bronze Age objects, the goal is to create a globally available resource for something that was previously difficult to access.

“Label This is one example of how the UC Davis Library is using digital technology to provide greater public access to unique materials in our collections,” Azzarito told Hyperallergic. “With crowdsourced help in transcribing these labels, we’re excited to be able to make the collection searchable by researchers, historians, and wine lovers everywhere.”

For now, you can scroll through labels at random online, discovering realistically illustrated grapevines on a 1948 Cabernet from Italy, gold-lined black text on a 1943 pinot noir from the Napa Valley, and a regal crown on a 1929 Bordeaux from France. Perhaps not quite as great as sipping those vintages yourself, each suggests something of the bouquet of its time, place, and taste.

Label This project
Marking text with the Label This project (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Label This project
Transcribing text with the Label This project (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Label This project
A Villa Vista Vineyard label in the Amerine wine label collection (photo by Peter Brantley/Flickr)
Label This project
A wine label from Italy (courtesy UC Davis University Library)
Label This project
A 1948 cabernet label from Italy (courtesy UC Davis University Library)

The Label This wine label transcription project is online with the University of California, Davis’s University Library.

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