Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends

The Marketing of Wine Phrases

by Monty and Sara Preiser

Preisers’ Reserve: New wine alert!! Last column we featured an $85 Chardonnay, while this time we cast our eyes on a little known, yet huge Chard with a gentle price – the 2006 Sonoma Loeb ($25). We guess it is summer and our hearts have turned to crisp whites, yet for us they still have to have structure and flavor. The Sonoma Loeb offers peaches and melons in front, smooth buttery custard in the middle, and some pineapple and ginger at the long finish. OK, we can stop there. What more could you want?

The Marketing of Wine Phrases

When you hear someone tell you that a wine was “estate bottled,” are you impressed? If so, do you know why? If not, do you want to be? Well, you can make a more informed decision once you know what the term really means (do not feel bad if you don’t yet know, as the majority of people in the industry are in your shoes).

Estate Bottled is used generally to mean that the wine is grown and made by one winery on its estate and from its own vines. The implication is that this makes a better wine because the winery is in charge of all aspects of the growing. The truth is that this is only so if: 1) the vineyard, viticulturalist, and winemaker are good in the first place; and 2) the particular growing season was kind to the vines owned. In other words, if the fruit isn’t well grown, or the weather in the area was lousy, wineries relying on estate grapes may not be able to put as good a quality product in bottle as could a winery that buys grapes from various areas.

But using the term “Estate Wine” is a favorite marketing tool because of what it implies, and so it is one many wineries seek to be able to use. In doing so, they have taken the definition of what an estate wine can be to interpretations that may not have been foreseen by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the Federal authority which governs these matters.

What sparked our interest in all this was that we noticed a winery that grew grapes in one appellation, yet vinified and produced them in another appellation, still labeling the wine as being “Estate Bottled.” We wondered what the statutes said about growing the fruit away from the winery (which, with some restrictions set out in 1c below, is fine), as well as growing it in another appellation (which becomes a very interesting subject).

The TTB definition (4.26), in pertinent part, is as follows:

(a) Conditions for use. The term Estate bottled may be used by a bottling winery on a wine label only if the wine is labeled with a viticultural area appellation of origin and the bottling winery:

(1) Is located in the labeled viticultural area; (2) grew all of the grapes used to make the wine on land owned or controlled by the winery within the boundaries of the labeled viticultural area; (3) crushed the grapes, fermented the resulting must, and finished, aged, and bottled the wine in a continuous process (the wine at no time having left the premises of the bottling winery).

(c) Definition of “Controlled”. For purposes of this section, Controlled by refers to property on which the bottling winery has the legal right to perform, and does perform, all of the acts common to viticulture under the terms of a lease or similar agreement of at least 3 years duration.

[T.D. ATF–53, 43 FR 37676, Aug. 23, 1978, as amended by T.D. ATF–201, 50 FR 12533, Mar. 29, 1985]

Paragraph (a)(2) makes it clear that the grapes must be grown in the same viticultural area as the winery. Thus, if Cabernet Sauvignon vines are in Rutherford, and the wine itself is crushed and made at a winery in St. Helena, it looks as if “Estate Bottled” is not a term that can be employed, even if the winery has an agreement to, and does, control the grape growing for at least three years.

And that would seem to be the end of it. But it is not. Technically (which also means “correctly” in our book), Rutherford and St. Helena, the subjects of our example, plus twelve other AVAs, are SUB appellations. “Napa” is the appellation - the entire county. And so taking that as the yardstick, as long as a winery controls the growing of the vines for a period of three years, they can grow the fruit anywhere in Napa County and then make the wine anywhere else in Napa County, and still legitimately call it “Estate Bottled.”

We are not taking a stand as to whether any of the above is preferable or not, but we do think the consumer should have the opportunity to know the full meaning of terms and phrases that are routinely used by marketers to sell a product.

With that in mind, the term “Reserve” also bears scrutiny.

In many countries, the term “Reserve” has a government mandated definition. In Italy, for example, “Riserva” can be applied only to DOC or DOCG wines that have seen extra aging. For instance, Chianti Riserva receives 3 years aging, Barberesco Riserva gets 4 years, and Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino Riservas each get 5 years. Sometimes, but not always, part of the additional aging time occurs in wood.

In the prestigious Spanish region of Rioja, where Tempranillo is king, Riservas must spend a minimum of twelve months in oak barrels, then 24 months in the bottle (at least 36 months in total) before being released.

But what about in the United States, where as a rule we have excellent governmental requirements to protect the consumer? Well, Reserve has absolutely no codified or required meaning. You are asking: Does that mean a winery can label any wine it wants as a Reserve? The answer, probably quite unfortunately, is “yes.” A winery has no legal duty to employ any standards when using the term Reserve.

However, most wineries, as do most people, have a moral compass. In that the consumer (as well as people in the industry) routinely associates the word Reserve with a winery’s better or upper echelon wines, or with a wine that is simply so good it begs for the term to be on its label, most wineries [at least in California, where we are best able to identify a trend] do try and live up to those standards. Therefore, when you visit a winery of some note and reputation, and it is producing a Reserve of any varietal, you can feel pretty confident that there is something a little special about the wine. But be careful, for struggling and/or unknown producers, or vintners who may only think they have a wine of excellence, may well use the term in an effort to create a false impression so as to better market their product.

The solution? Do as we do, which is to refrain from buying the more expensive wines unless we have tasted them, have a history with them, or have been touted on their superiority by someone whose taste we know mirrors ours to a large degree.

There is no run to legislate the use of the terms above in this country. We think everyone would be better served if they had a distinct meaning, and given the meteoric popularity rise of the wine industry, it may come to that sooner rather than later.

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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