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Goodbye, Belles Soeurs

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 25, 2006 2:46am ET

For years, the Oregon winery Beaux Frères used the Belles Soeurs label for all its non-estate wines, but no more. Starting with the 2005 vintage, all of the non-estate wines will carry the Beaux Frères label with a subhead: "The Willamette Valley."

The reasons for the change underline the marketing challenges U.S. wineries face when they try to emulate Burgundy. All those single-vineyard wines are one thing, but trying to make the rest of the nomenclature communicate a clear idea can strain the brain.

"We kept hearing from retailers and restaurateurs that were constantly having to find ways to tell consumers that these wines were made by Beaux Frères," said Michael Etzel, the winery's managing partner. Beaux Frères Pinot Noirs often rate among the best in Oregon.

Beaux Frères is French for brothers-in-law, a reference to the winery's partnership, which includes Etzel's brother-in-law, the wine critic Robert Parker. Belles Soeurs, French for sisters-in-law, made its debut with the 1996 vintage. It used the same logo font, but any specific reference to the winery name was in the fine print.

Etzel had noticed that portions of the expanding vineyard, on Willamette Valley's Ribbon Ridge, produced red fruit flavors. The dominant flavor profile of the rest of the vineyard was black fruit. Originally, the idea was to create a separate brand for the red fruit-dominant wines. The idea behind the name was to identify it as a separate wine and keep the estate name for the estate wine with the character they wanted to feature.

That lasted only a couple of years. In 1998, a very small crop led the winery to buy grapes from nearby Shea Vineyard, and Belles Soeurs became the catch-all label for wines made with purchased fruit (often blended). That continued through 2004 as Etzel tried other vineyard sources for Belles Soeurs. Meanwhile, a new estate vineyard, Upper Terrace, came into production and got its own brown label under the Beaux Frères brand. Now it has a sister, not a sister-in-law, with a big The Willamette Valley subhead. Got it?

In truth, many restaurants listed Belles Soeurs as a Beaux Frères wine on their wine lists. This just makes it official.

By the way, tasted from barrel, Etzel's 2005s show tremendous variation in style from one portion of the vineyard to another. Some are dark, dense and deep. Others are crisp and zingy. Some have herbal notes. Others are pure fruit. Etzel believes he can make a great blend out of it. The process starts after the 2006 harvest is finished.

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