Beringer Blass Wine Estates is planning to triple the output of its recently acquired Etude brand, adding several new Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings to boost annual production from 9,000 cases to about 30,000 cases over the next seven years.
Key to that plan are Beringer Blass' development of new Pinot Noir vineyards in Napa's Carneros district and its purchase of the RMS Brandy Distillery, also in Carneros, to create a permanent home for Etude.
"The facility is just a fantastic evolution for Etude," said founder and winemaker Tony Soter, who had been leasing a winery and buying all the grapes for the label. He plans to renovate the distillery to include separate fermentation areas for Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, the winery's top varietals.
Owned by Cognac giant Rémy Martin, RMS produced some of California's most highly regarded brandies, although brandy and Cognac sales have been stagnant at best in recent years. RMS cellar master Rick Estes said the brand will be discontinued and it's not clear what will happen with the distillery's sizeable cellar of aged brandy, some of which dates to the facility's founding in 1982.
"A lot of questions are in the air," said Estes of the sale, which was announced today. "It's not easy for us out here."
The deal is not expected to be final until August, and the first harvest for Etude in the new facility won't be until 2003, the same vintage in which many of the winery's new Pinot Noir vineyards, on the Grace Benoist property, will come into production.
If collectors were concerned that tiny Etude might get lost in the huge Beringer-Blass portfolio, Soter believes that the new winery and Carneros vineyards shows the conglomerate's commitment.
"Where in the past we have had to scrounge for a few acres of well-situated Pinot Noir, we now have acres and acres at our disposal," said Soter. "We also have the advantage of farming it as a company with one mission [and] not in the customary buyer-seller mode of the past."
Soter plans to make four or five vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs from the new property and move away from the Carneros appellation bottling he has been making.
Also included in the Pinot Noir expansion will be a small boost in the production of Etude's Heirloom Pinot, which currently stands at about 500 cases. Made from a selection of low-yielding clones chosen by Soter, the Heirloom grapes have been purchased from several vineyard sources.
The new Carneros property has a 7-acre site planted exclusively to Heirloom clones, giving Soter full control over the grape source while increasing production of the premium cuvée to 750 cases a year. The debut 1996 vintage of Etude's Heirloom Pinot Noir scored 92 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.
Along with the Pinot Noir expansion, Soter also anticipates adding five new Cabernet Sauvignon—based bottlings in the next few years. Etude currently produces one of Napa Valley's most consistently outstanding Cabernets.
"I have been putting in place for several years now numerous new sources of Cabernet Sauvignon and related varieties to initiate a new series of wines based on specific sites," Soter said.
Production of each of the new Cabernet wines will range from 400 to 1,000 cases a year, with overall Cabernet production targeted for 10,000 cases.
Soter founded Etude Wines in 1982, and steadily built up the operation while also consulting for such top California wineries as Araujo, Dalla Valle and Spottswoode. In 1999, Soter retired from the consulting end of his business to focus full-time on Etude, which also produces small amounts of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Merlot. Beringer Blass bought the brand in September 2001.
Check our recent ratings of Etude wines.
Read more about the purchase of Etude: