Do 21st-Century Drinkers See Wine Differently?

Is brand now more powerful than land?
Jun 19, 2012

You can make a pretty good case, I think, that 21st-century wine drinkers see fine wine through a different lens than wine lovers of just 20 years ago. What's the difference? It is a matter of the degree of interest in and the amount of attention and weight given to whether a producer makes wine from vineyards he or she owns.

This is no small thing. If you are of a certain age, you will doubtless remember the sermonizing we wine lovers received from the Wise Men (and they were always men back then) about the critical importance of estate bottling.

First, we were told what that term meant, which was that the producer named on the label made wine from grapes he grew on land he owned. We were told that this distinction ensured the greatest authenticity and created wines of uncommon originality.

Estate bottling was presented to us as the most significant imprimatur of quality and authenticity. "Grown, produced and bottled" was the most powerful and sought-after designation on an American wine label.

For two or three decades, starting in the 1970s, this celebration of producers who made wine from grapes they grew on land they owned was the most prominent feature of the wine landscape. It was the highest accolade, as well as a producer's biggest selling point.

Of course, there have always been numerous négociants or shippers everywhere wine is produced. But the huzzahs and the worshipful attention went to the growers who made wines only from their own grapes. (Witness the fascination today with "grower Champagnes" if you want a sense of what this was once like on a more universal scale.)

Today, I would submit that a new generation of wine drinkers doesn't especially care about this distinction. For their part, a new generation of young winemakers, especially in California, simply cannot afford to own their own vineyards. Many of these same young winemakers cannot even afford to own their own wineries, using so-called "custom crush" facilities to make their wines from purchased grapes.

Now, the issue is not whether wines from purchased grapes cannot be as good as anything "estate bottled" or some equivalent thereof. We all know that some of the finest wines produced in California today come from producers who do not own a single grapevine, let alone an entire vineyard.

This does not, however, negate the genuine significance of "Grown, produced and bottled." There is, after all, a fundamental divide between vineyard owners who sell their grapes to others and winemakers who grow their own grapes: It comes down to full control.

Quite reasonably, vineyard owners wish to see the highest return on their production, which means higher yields. Winemakers, on the other hand, often seek lower yields in order to create higher quality wines. This is why many ambitious winemakers prefer to enter into contracts with growers on a by-the-acre basis rather than negotiate a fixed price per ton of grapes. These same winemakers often seek the right to go into their contracted block to prune their own vines, the better to achieve a lower yield at harvest.

That all sounds good. And indeed it is good. But make no mistake: There is still a fundamental difference between what you can achieve when you rent and what you create when you own.

For example, the vineyard owner has already made critical and profoundly informing decisions about clones, spacing, trellising, irrigation and row alignment, among other elements of the installed vineyard.

The owner will also be the one who determines how the vineyard is treated, whether it is organic or biodynamic and how often or little the vines are sprayed and with what. Renters can sometimes sway owners about vineyard management, but much has already been determined long before the renter arrives.

Winemakers who are priced out of vineyard ownership must make a virtue out of necessity. They point to the greater variety of vineyard sites available to them by purchasing grapes, rather than being confined only to what one owns. They note their ability to persuade owners to grow grapes in a certain fashion, saying that the distinction between renting and owning is of ever less significance. It's better to be "free," they conclude.

Now here's the question: Do you believe this? Does the phrase "Grown, produced and bottled" (or, in French, mise en bouteille au domaine) have any significance for you?

Do you look for it when you buy wine? Or has that distinction devolved into something that no longer either reflects or ensures a certain level of quality or even of consistency?

If these same questions were asked 20 years ago, estate bottling would have been resoundingly endorsed as critical to the highest quality. Today, my bet is that this is no longer seen as true—or at least nowhere near as powerfully so.

The bottom line: Does estate bottling matter anymore? Or is the producer's name now the only thing that really counts?

Opinion

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