Variety Versus Varietal ~ Keeping The English Language On Course

I’m a stickler for using the right word.

Someone once said to me,

“It is I? Isn’t it, It’s me?”

No… sorry, you missed school the day that one was explained. “Is” is a copulative verb (the verb “to be”), and takes a subjective pronoun after any use of the verb “to be.” It is I, it is she, it is he, it is they, it is we… etc.)
When I came into the wine business, I learned most of what I did from others for the first few years. Then, I decided to take copious college units to catch up, which included viticulture, enology, sales, marketing, PR, Spanish I and II, wine components… the list goes on…

In all of that, I never came across which word is correct to use in which instance; “variety” and/or “varietal.” Then, on a wine blog I saw something that made me stop and take notice.

David Graves of Saintsbury Vineyard made reference to the misuse of the word “varietal.”

He certainly got my attention. I didn’t know I could be using the word incorrectly. I sent David an E-mail asking him to please explain… Because I have to write so much, and use the word as much as a mother uses the word “milk” with kids, I don’t want to be misusing either word.

Here’s his explanation, and we all need to take notice, if we’re responsible for copy writing…

“Variety is a noun, and varietal is an adjective, which I learned at UC Davis.”

Today, the word has been misused so often that dictionaries have simply given up and are now including the word “varietal” as a possible noun. It pains me to see that which is wrong become right simply because of misuse and abuse. It is I who will be sticking to its original forms. It perhaps doesn’t matter to most of the rest of us; but, there are a few diehards left among us.

I’m sure there are much bigger issues burning on everyone’s mind today; but I needed this slight diversion right now, as I write “variety” one more time and reflect on its abuse. Thanks Wikipedia!

23 Responses to “Variety Versus Varietal ~ Keeping The English Language On Course”

  1. Peter May says:

    I recall the the first time I encountered the word ‘varietal’. It is such a useful word meaning a wine named after a grape variety and made just from that variety (as opposed to a wine labelled geographically, such as Burgundy, or a branded wine or a blend of varieties)

    A varietal Cabernet Sauvignon is made from the variety Cabernet Sauvignon. A red Bordeaux may be predominately Cabernet Sauvignon but it also has some other varieties and so its not a varietal wine.

    Unfortunately it took only a short time since people used varietal in that sense for others to use it when they meant variety (e.g. ‘this wine is made from the Cabernet Sauvignon varietal’) for this most useful word to have lost its meaning.

    Real shame.

  2. Jo Diaz says:

    It is a shame, Peter.

    The only way people can imagine the shame, for those who don’t, would be if their own name became bastardized…. Like someone putting an “e” at the end of Jo for me. I’m not insulted, honestly, because it’s a simple mistake. I know, however, that the difference between the “e” or not is the difference between genders. I’m far from being a guy, after giving birth to three children.

    I think this is why I personally hang on so tightly. Thanks for the correct use of grammar support!

  3. Vinogirl says:

    Good post 🙂

  4. Jim Caudill says:

    I’m still stuck on copulative verb…I can think of a few, but they’re not fit to share on this blog.

  5. Tina Caputo says:

    As editor of a wine trade magazine I’m constantly faced with the misuse of variety/varietal — not only by writers, but also by winemakers and growers. Thanks for setting the record straight… maybe it will save me a couple minutes of work on the next article that comes in! (:

  6. Jo Diaz says:

    Thanks, Tina. You’re just backing up with this is all about, letting us all know that it still matters to print media.

    I was recently astounded by a media person addressing me as “u” (instead of the obvious “you”). There’s a whole new generation (it would seem) hell bent on destroying our language to simple initials. While it works on Twitter, because it’s only 140 characters and one has to be extremely creative to say a lot with as little as possible, my business writing professor would throw that one out as not even being able to grade.

    Fingers down the blackboards, kids…

  7. Amy Gardner says:

    Thanks for writing this. I do enjoy a great variety of wines, often of single grape varietals. Is that the right usage–never been a great copy editor. But my mother on the other hand is, and is my copy editor, and hates the misuse of varietal.

    I also often get tripped up when talking about wines, using varietal when it doesn’t sound correct–but that’s what people are used to hearing around here.

  8. Jo Diaz says:

    Thanks for the thanks, Amy.

    The easiest way of remembering it is this way… if something else is describing it, like “single grape,” then it’s a noun and should read “single grape variety.” Varietal’s usage is ususally before the noun, like… varietal character, varietal differences, and varietal discrepancies. It’s always describing a noun, or more simply another word.

    Since you’re our “wine talent,” we’re going to get you on the right page ;^)

  9. Clark says:

    This is something that has been bugging me for a while. I have heard someone using the word varietal when talking about wine, and honestly I thought it was just a fancy variant of the word variety, that wine people like to use. Turns out it was my ignorance of the English language, though I do feel like I could be excused in this case. Thanks Tiff, and everyone else, for setting the record straight!

  10. Roger says:

    As always, great piece Jo!

    Hello Peter,

    A Bordeaux can be a varietal. According to the TTB “A varietal designation on the label requires an appellation of origin and means that at least 75 percent of the grapes used to make the wine are of that variety, and that the entire 75 percent were grown in the labeled appellation (except “Vitis labrusca” grapes, such as Concord, which require at least 51 percent).”

    Have a great weekend all

  11. As a wine columnist and former wine mag editor, I am always faced with the variety/varietal dilemma.

    A bit off topic, but irritating to someone who has a BA in English and an MA in Linguistics with a major in Romance Philology (which is a lot less sexy than the “copulative” verb that Jim is still stuck on!)

    When the the “tweet” generation uses “u” for you, that’s one thing.
    But it isn’t just the tweeters. I was advising the head of a very big (read “important”) law firm on wines for a corporate event. She emailed me regarding something that I can’t remember. She wrote, “I thot…”

  12. For me, this is the easiest way to remember it:

    Variety = grape (e.g. a vineyard has many varieties of grapes growing in it)
    Varietal = finished product

  13. Jo Diaz says:

    Just back from the Patty Bogle Memorial Service this afternoon and the Suisun Valley wrap-up of a seven year grant for PR/marketing funding. Both were closure (of a sort), and both very important in a-day-in-the-life of a wine publicist. Variety versus varietal took a back seat, but I’m back.

    Good to hear from each of you:

    Pamela, good examples!

    Marlene, I’m with you on that one, “Thot?” Oh, please! I’m not even going to pass that one through my spell check. I’ll bear with the red underline.

    Roger, a Bordeaux is only a varietal with it’s a varietal wine, not a wine that’s a varietal.

    “Varietal designation…” Designation is the noun, and the adjective is “varietal.”

    I’m with Roger… Happy weekend, all.

  14. I just loved this topic, but I thot it would not get much action. Wrong. Good on ya.

    That’s just me.

    I could of sed nothing, but that’s not me.

    I also don’t cotton to the use of the word “vineyard” when folks mean “winery”–as in “I like to visit the vineyards in Sonoma on the weekend”. I tempted to ask “what are you planning to do, pick the grapes?”.

    I suppose that one of the reasons I dislike Twitter is that I cannot say anything in 140 characters. I start with about 265, then have to whittle it down to fit. And u thot I cud, thx.

    I do have to disagree with my good friend, Pamela, who despite her Boston education, has used varietal as a noun. It is not, as you have now sed several times.

    I am also a member of the “Unused Positives Society”. And this topic is very ane.

  15. lt says:

    good post.

  16. Jo Diaz says:

    So, I want to type “LOL.” I’m going to go the the full course, however. Charlie, you’ve made me laugh out loud!

  17. Roger says:


    Ahh, eyes opened now 🙂

  18. Jo Diaz says:

    I knew you’d get it, Roger 🙂

  19. Arthur says:

    “Varieties grow on vines. Varietals come in bottles.”

  20. Jo Diaz says:

    Varieties grow on vines. Varieties come in bottles. And, they both have to do with varietal wines…. When I need to be 100 percent accurate with their grammatical usage. ;^)

  21. […] Then, I brought it up again on March 11, 2011. […]

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