Thursday, November 11, 2010

Defining wine terms: Some proposals

What does "old vine" mean to you? 25 years? 75 years?

As I posted Tuesday, the federal government is considering defining the word "estate" on wine labels, which could force brands like Beringer Founders Estate to be renamed.

The same notice in the Federal Register listed 15 other terms the TTB is thinking about. These are at an earlier stage than "estate," which could be defined as soon as January. But they're a big deal for wineries with names like Concannon Vineyard.

The 15 terms are: Proprietor grown, vintner grown, single vineyard, vineyard, orchard, farm, ranch, proprietors blend, old vine, barrel fermented, old clone, reserve, select harvest, bottle aged, barrel select. There are also a few combos like "single orchard" and "single ranch."

As with "estate," the feds are asking for public comment on all of these. And we have until January 3.

Here at Opinions R Us, I'm going to get the debate rolling on all, even "old vine" and "reserve." Feel free to post your own opinion below -- or, go right ahead and tell the TTB. Here's the link. (It's Notice No. 109, click on "comment form.")

Proprietor grown (used by Hanna Winery and Bryant Family Vineyard): I propose this -- "All grapes used to make the wine must come from vineyards owned by the proprietor." (Would any consumer really care about this?)

Vintner grown: I don't find anybody using this now. And it's so vague, like Vintners Blend, that I don't see any reason to define it. Think about (Ravenswood) Vintners Blend for a moment -- what wine is NOT a vintners blend?

Single vineyard: The TTB writes, "It has been the position of TTB that the use of the designation 'Single vineyard' on labels and in advertisements is appropriate only if 100% of the grapes used to make the wine come from one vineyard." That's perfect -- stay with it. And apply it also to "single orchard" and "single ranch."

Vineyard: There are two issues with defining this term -- what is a vineyard, and how can the word be used?
The first is easy for me: If grapevines grow there, even if it's a hothouse in Alaska, it's a vineyard.
The second, though, could cost The Wine Group a lot of money in new stationery for Concannon Vineyard, a brand name for a winery based in Livermore that actually has a vineyard named after the founding Concannon family, but makes the great majority of its wines from other sources.
I'm sorry to keep picking on The Wine Group, which inherited the name when it bought the brand. But I would outlaw this type of name; it's potentially deceptive when there's no need to be. They can rename the winery "Concannon."
Proposed definition -- "The word 'vineyard' as part of a proper noun on a wine label must refer to a specific vineyard, and 100% of the grapes used to make the wine must come from that vineyard unless otherwise specifically stated; i.e., 74% Smith Vineyard, 26% Jones Vineyard. 'Vineyard' and 'vineyards' may be freely used as non-proper nouns as long as they describe areas where grapevines are grown."

Orchard: This applies to fruit wines more than grape wines. It's hard to see somebody using it to deceive grape wine consumers because it doesn't have strongly positive connotations; would you be more excited about Jones Orchard Chardonnay than Jones Chardonnay? But fruit-wine consumers also deserve to know what they're getting; Jones Orchard Apple Wine sounds much better than Jones Apple Wine. Define it the same way as "vineyard."

Farm: Are there Boones, and do they have a farm? I guess we should try to protect the Boone's Farm consumer, because I'm sure that right now when they buy Blue Hawaiian they imagine a pastoral place where all the Blue Hawaiians are raised and crushed -- or is it bled?
But seriously, I see some potential for deception here, especially as the back-to-land movement has more consumers looking for responsibly grown produce. "Jones Farm Chardonnay" does sound more appealing than "Jones Chardonnay."
Sorry, Gallo, I suggest the TTB issue the following definition, similar to 'vineyard': "The word 'farm' as part of a proper noun on a wine label must refer to a specific farm, and 100% of the fruit used to make the wine must come from that farm unless otherwise specifically stated; i.e., 74% Smith Farm, 26% Jones Farm. 'Farm' and 'farms' may be freely used as non-proper nouns as long as they describe areas where fruit is grown."
Of every term on this list, this is the one least likely to be defined because Gallo and the Wine Institute will fight like hell to protect the Boone's Farm brand. Maybe the Wine Institute will settle for getting Boone's Farm safely grandfathered in.

Ranch: Are there cattle at Oakville Ranch? That said, unlike "orchard," I don't see how "ranch" has a strongly positive connotation for consumers of any beverage other than milk. Until we start partying like they do in Mongolia, leave it undefined.

Proprietors Blend: A South African winery uses this. It's the same as "vintners blend": meaningless. Leave it undefined.

Old vine: This is a can of worms.
I think this term should be defined. It is clearly used to sell wine and it resonates with consumers. Moreover, because there's no definition, it can be used on any wine, even if the vines were planted during the George W. Bush administration.
But how to define it? I could write an entire post on it.
First, you have to think about how many years it takes vines to develop "old vine" character, which differs by grape. For Pinot Noir it might be 30 years, but for Carignane it might be 75. (I don't choose Carignane randomly; for me, the quality difference from old vines may be the greatest for this variety.)
Then you have to handle the issue of replanting. Many vineyard blocks have been replanted piecemeal as vines die. This is not a nefarious marketing move -- it's simply farming.
I'm not a farmer; we need input from farmers on this.
But as a consumer, here's the outline of a definition:
" 'Old vine(s)' may only be used on the label of a wine where at least 75% of the grapes used to make the wine come from vines that are more than 50 years old."
It's an arbitrary number, 50 years. But for many grape varieties, 30-year-old-vines aren't old; they're middle-aged.

Barrel fermented: This is a no-brainer. "Barrel fermented may only be used to describe wines that have been 100% fermented in wooden barrels."

Old clone: A few small Zinfandel producers use this -- Boeger, Alderbrook, Thornton, Vin Nostro. I have no idea what it means, and I'll bet consumers don't either. But it makes me think of R2D2. Leave it undefined.

Reserve: Is there a more meaningless word on wine labels?
I've seen private-label wines -- basically bulk-market juice -- called "reserve" when there is no non-reserve.
The problem is that many consumers think "reserve" means something special, mainly because every tasting room tells you it does.
What is a "true" reserve? Is it made from grapes from the best section of the vineyard? Is it a selection of the best barrels? Is it aged longer? Or is it just priced higher?
(Side point: these days the cheaper non-reserve is often better, because the reserve wine is made for fans of oaky, low-acid wines.)
In theory, "reserve" should be defined. It is in Rioja, to consumers' benefit (Rioja Reservas are great value). But until recently every winery there made the same style of wine -- elegant wines from Tempranillo -- so a definition was easy. Even now that some Rioja wineries make "vinos expresivos" -- big New World Reds -- "Rioja Reserva" still has a specific meaning.
This will never be the case in California because we have so many different types of wine from different grapes. A rule made for Reserve Cabernet probably would involve types of oak and length of aging, and should never be applied to Reserve Sauvignon Blanc.
My best solution is to issue a vague definition that would give wineries some pause about simply slapping the word "reserve" on any ordinary bottle and charging more.
How about this: "The word 'reserve' may only be used on a label if a winery makes multiple wines in a vintage from the same variety, and the 'reserve' wine represents a wine which is differentiated from the others in a way that demonstrably indicates the potential for higher quality."
If I were a lawyer specializing in writing regulations, I wouldn't be wine blogging for free, so feel free to show me a better way.

Select harvest: A few Riesling producers use this, and it makes sense given that Riesling vines are often harvested multiple times. It's not "late harvest"; it could be the earliest harvest.
I don't know how special this term is for consumers; you have to be a Riesling geek to get it. Leave it undefined.

Bottle aged: If the wine sits in the bottle for a week awaiting shipping, does that count as bottle aged? It should. The term is supposed to imply that the winery holds the wine until it's ready to drink. But it's another term that I don't think has much power over consumers, and let's face it, it's always accurate, unless we're talking about Black Box Wines. Leave it undefined.

Barrel select: Should this mean that the wine was made from the best barrels from a vintage, or that the winery put the wine in the best barrels that it bought that year?
I think it means the former. But I don't know how you could legislate which are the "best" barrels: Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson would never agree.
I would define it thus: "The term 'barrel select' may only be used for wines which were aged in wooden barrels." As consumers, we do expect that much.


  1. It'll be interesting to see how many producers will be forced to make modifications as result of the definition decisions. Who knows, it might be a good time to get into the label printing business.

  2. There is no better argument than your column that we need to fire a few government bureaucrats.

    We're not idiot. We can buy what we like. We don't need the government defining "farm." (And I'm a liberal!)

  3. When it comes to "barrel fermented" it'd be good to define what a barrel is ... how much volume it holds, what it's made of, etc. Basically answer the question: at what size are you no longer talking about barrels and in fact talking about tanks?

  4. Andy: It's a fair point, but I wonder how much difference there is between an oak barrel and an oak tank. It's a hard one to legislate because then you also have to consider the newness of the barrels. But I do think it ought to mean fermented in wood (notice I'm not even saying oak).

    Trailer Trash: Nice nickname.
    Keep thinking that way while the government sells you "Farm Fresh Soylent Green."
    In Europe they define the curve of a banana. Seriously. I think that's going too far, but I trust our government -- even (gulp) the Tea Party Republicans -- more than I trust completely unregulated industry.

  5. Your "Vineyard" definition doesn't work for a plural label; XYZ Vineyards makes wine from grapes from multiple vineyards, not 100% from one. Since there is no implication of a single vineyard, no reason to define it.

  6. Ross: This won't be a popular position but ... should a wine with a brand name called "XYZ Vineyards" actually come from those vineyards? I would say it should.

    There's only so much we can expect the TTB to rule on. I don't think they'll rule on this, any more than I expect them to require a new brand named Boone's Factory.

  7. Please change the picture, it confuses me if this just cut/paste.
    This will be very fun to see how it works out but like the last post it's be careful what you wish for.

  8. How do you determine the age of a vine? Do you have to take core samples of every vine and count rings? Is a yellowed newspaper clipping that grandpa says is from 1933 that sort of looks like the vineyard in question sufficient proof? Or if you actually have some sort of record (say a receipt from a nursery in 1933), how do you know it's for real? Or even applies to this parcel? What about grafting?

  9. El Jefe, these are all excellent questions.

    I'd like to see "old vine" defined, but you point out that it's going to be difficult if not impossible.

  10. As I posted over at Charlie Olken's CGCW blog - regulations usually rear their ugly heads because someone somewhere feels they are being injured by the unrestrained and improper actions of others.

    I welcome solid definitions for some of these terms. It's unfortunate that confusing usages of many of them will be grandfathered for existing brands, but over the long haul the result will be more fair to people who actually do produce wines from single vineyards of old vines, grown and bottled on their own estate. Those terms imply a level of commitment, hard work and capital investment that add value to a brand in the marketplace. Wineries that have not made those investments are cheating those who have, and the public, when they use the terms.

    RE: "old vines" - every grower knows how many vines were bought every year, and when and where they were put in the ground. Calculating a weighted-average vine age for a particular "vineyard" (however that is defined) is trivial. I'd like to see that number be at least 40 years, but I don't care what it ends up being so long as it is a hard number, and it is calculated from the number and dates of holes put in the ground.