What Makes a Wine a Wine?

Fast shuffle on Schild 2008 Shiraz raises issues
Mar 16, 2011

A composer writes a tune, gets six musicians from New Orleans to play it in a recording studio, calls the group The Grapes. The single is a hit, but dang, can't find the master tape. So the recording company hires a different bunch of musicians, also from New Orleans, to be The Grapes. They cover the song and it's released under the same title.

In essence, that's what Schild Estate has done with its 2008 Barossa Shiraz (read the full news story for all the details). When the wine turned out to be a huge hit and they ran out, they simply went out and bought more Barossa Shiraz wine from 2008 and made a new blend.

The folks at Schild stress that they made every effort to make the new blend in the same style as, and as good as, what they had made from their own vineyards in 2008. Maybe the new cuvée tastes just as good. Maybe it's better. I won't know until I taste samples that are on their way to me now.

Was it legal? Sure. The Shiraz indeed came from Barossa in the 2008 vintage. Was it right? That's the question.

In researching the story I contacted several winemakers, including some of the most prominent in Australia, described the situation (without mentioning the winery, because I had not yet confirmed the facts) and asked if they thought this was proper practice. They all said no. The reason was that the original so far exceeded expectations that it defined in consumer's minds what the wine was.

If Lindemans comes up 100,000 cases short on its Bin 65 Chardonnay, a nice $8 wine currently producing 1 million cases, and decides to add another cuvée of various lots of South Eastern Australia Chardonnay from the same vintage, it's not that big a deal. The winemakers responsible for Lindemans can make a nice blend that will not disappoint anyone spending eight bucks. You're not buying Bin 65 for depth of character.

But what if a wine gains high praise from critics? That's a different story. Schild captured lightning in a bottle with the 2008 Shiraz. Its knowledge of its own vineyards, careful selection and sharp blending produced one of the most insanely great values ever, a $20 wine that rated 94 points when I reviewed it this past fall. I tasted it twice, blind, and gave it the same score both times. (Schild has been consistently in the 90s with this wine, so it wasn't a huge surprise, but a pleasant one.)

Vineyard sources were the key. Schild farms more than 400 acres in southern Barossa, one of Australia's prime Shiraz regions. It sells most of its grapes, but keeps enough to make a few thousand bottles to sell under its own label. The Schilds are longtime growers, but only recently got into bottling their own wines.

Every producer who gets a big push from a high rating or high-profile recognition soon realizes that it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they love the kudos. The wine sells out fast. Demand can raise the price. But then you run out until next year. The temptation must be great to cash in on the publicity.

There may have been a certain level of naïveté in deciding to bottle up some more Barossa Shiraz and sell it under the same label. Winemaker Scott Hazeldine and general manager Casey Mohr seemed genuinely surprised that anyone could think they did something inappropriate. Only after I contacted them for a response to these concerns did Mohr offer to affix a "2nd blend" strip label to clarify for consumers what they might be getting.

Some producers typically bottle a given wine in separate batches over time, as Schild did with its original 2008 Barossa Shiraz from its estate. I have little quibble with that practice. It's not ideal, but it's not uncommon for small wineries with lots that are larger than they usually deal with. (The Shiraz is by far Schild's largest production wine.) It's more efficient to keep the wine in a tank than to store it in a lot of glass bottles. The various bottlings will only differ significantly for the first few months, but they should be just as good since they came from the same grapes and fermentation tanks.

The distinction here is that the sources are not the same. It's not even made from Schild's own grapes, which brings up another issue, whether the word "estate" in Schild's brand name implies that the wine inside the bottle came from their own grapes. Although the winery's website and back label emphasize the family's vineyards, Australian rules do not require that the wines actually come from there, any more than Rosemount Estate must grow all of its grapes.

But the rules do require that the total package not be misleading, and it seems to me Schild walked right up to the edge on that score. Ironically, if the 2008 Shiraz had not won such high marks from me and other critics, a second blend under the same label might not be considered misleading at all. In this case, Schild made itself a victim of its own success.

Australia Red Wines Syrah / Shiraz

You Might Also Like

First Impressions of Angler

First Impressions of Angler

Offshoot of Saison in San Francisco keeps the precision, relaxes the style

Dec 18, 2018
A Tenor Discovers Wine

A Tenor Discovers Wine

Brian Jagde had to make a choice: wine or opera. He got both

Nov 13, 2018
Ted Baseler, the Ad Man Who Became a Wine Industry Leader, Steps Aside at Ste. Michelle

Ted Baseler, the Ad Man Who Became a Wine Industry Leader, Steps Aside at Ste. Michelle

As CEO, he managed to expand both quantity and quality at the Washington wine titan

Aug 23, 2018
The Music of Wine

The Music of Wine

Pairing wine and sound can be rewarding, and instructive

Mar 21, 2018
Remembering Archie McLaren

Remembering Archie McLaren

He brought flair and generosity to the table

Feb 22, 2018
Wine Kludges

Wine Kludges

Odd but effective remedies and hacks for problems with wines and corks

Dec 19, 2017