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Drinking Out Loud

Do 21st-Century Drinkers See Wine Differently?

Is brand now more powerful than land?

Matt Kramer
Posted: June 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?

Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  June 19, 2012 11:25am ET
Matt,

Perhaps something that might provide insight into the current shift would be to explain what caused the shift in the 1970s to placing extreme importance on "grown, produced, and bottled" from the previous few decades and whether or not that change led to consistently better wines. Do you have some insight into that?

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Ryan Pease
Paso Robles, CA —  June 19, 2012 11:36am ET
I look at the ability to choose trellis, rootstocks, spacing etc as not a benefit to estate owners vineyards but as a benefit to winemakers that purchase their own fruit. Often estates are bound by what they have planted, rarely do they plant the right balance of varietals and clone selections. As someone that gets to contract fruit, I get an almost infinite selection of vineyard sites, row orientations, clones, and irrigation/spray management decisions. If the grower at a certain site does not meet my quality preferences, I choose another vineyard. If you are estate, and your vineyard is not producing in a fashion you would like, you are stuck with it and must pay a lot of money to move farming practices in a better direction. I like having the choice of land and not being bound by it. I also determine the varietal composition of my program with ease every year. Estates cannot do that with out selling or bulking excess fruit or juice. Estates are like a ball and chain to me.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 19, 2012 11:49am ET
Here's my take: "Grown, produced and bottled by" means exactly what it always did—a legal indication of where the wine came from. Unfortunately, that never was a guarantee of quality. Rules for estate bottling, as for France's AOC or Italy's DOC regulations, cannot guarantee quality, only authenticity (absent fraud). A good pedigree can increase our odds of finding quality, but we have all had too many disappointing bottles of estate-labeled Premier Cru Burgundy, slipshod Barolo and, yes, Napa Valley Cabernet, to buy into the notion that estate or appellation can guarantee it.

Good producers will always make better wine from lesser sites than bad producers do from great ones. It's as simple as that.
Scott Elder
The Dalles, OR —  June 19, 2012 1:58pm ET
I agree with you that there is nothing more special than a wine that is made by the farmer that grew the grapes. These wines are in a different category than wines made from purchased grapes by a winemaker. And of course for both categories I am assuming wines of quality. But what the consumer has forgotten, or now maybe never knew, is that great wine has more to it than just quality. Great wines have a uniqueness and an individuality that can really only have a chance to show itself through the interplay of land-farmer-winemaker.
I really believe that most consumers (novice to expert), wine trade, critics, writers, bloggers, you name it, think wine is made by winemakers, period. Winemakers and winemaking are sexy and farming is what people in dusty overalls do.

Scott Elder
The Grande Dalles
Scott Elder
The Dalles, OR —  June 19, 2012 2:37pm ET
Adam Lee:
-Our agrarian roots and the agrarian life became less important.
-The rise and influence of UC Davis enology.
-And subsequently wine grapes, and many of the vineyards that produced them, became commoditized and the winemaker became the single most important “input factor” for the finished wine.

Scott Elder
The Grande Dalles

Jeff Zimmitti
Glendale • California • USA —  June 19, 2012 2:38pm ET
My preference is to support "Grown, produced and bottled" wines as much as possible. I still feel that it is the best assurance of quality despite some occasional under-achievers. No doubt I've had plenty of excellent négociant wines but as a business owner myself there seems to a certain amount of "skin in the game" (though I hate that expression) that comes with owning your own vineyards, that leads to a clearer sense of an "all-in" striving for the best.

Jeff Zimmitti
Rosso Wine Shop
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  June 19, 2012 3:02pm ET
I think "Estate Bottled" becomes most important when viewed from the perspective of passing years. Total control of what's planted and how it is farmed, when it is picked, etc. can give a continuity to a wine brand that gains reliability vintage after vintage. With Estate grown wines one has a pretty good idea of what one may expect before opening the bottle. For long-time wine drinkers track record can mean a lot.

To the steadily growing number of younger wine lovers, novelty may play a greater part in their buying decisions, since they are very much in the exploration phase, still figuring out what they do or don't like.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Michael Schulman
Westlake Village, CA —  June 19, 2012 4:11pm ET
I have to take exception to the notion that "there is nothing more special than a wine that is made by the farmer that grew the grapes." While I believe that the grower (if he/she is an exceptional winemaker) can often make great wine, I can think of many times in which the grower produced mediocre wines when compared to wines produced by talented winemakers who purchased that very same fruit. Look at folks like Brian Loring, Adam Lee and others who consistently produce wines that are held by critics to be better than those produced by the growers themselves. My personal experience with their wines have borne out the same conclusions. Matt, the questions you posed at the end of your article are a bit unfair. You asked "Does estate bottling matter anymore? Or is the producer's name now the only thing that really counts?" The answer to the first is conditional. To answer the second in the affirmative assumes that the producer is the only relevent factor. Again, too simple. Winemaking is always a Gestalt. Great wine comes from just the right combination of all the individual factors. I think more wine drinkers today are like art lovers; focused on the beauty of the painting, not the manufacturer of the paint.
Kelly Fleming
Calistoga, CA, USA —  June 19, 2012 4:38pm ET

Well said, Matt. When I began my endeavor I knew I wanted to control my destiny from the outset. Knowing that I’ve farmed every grape for my Cabernet means that I’m offering my customers something that’s truly artisanal as well as delicious. I think that the equation of estate = quality is here to stay, and discerning wine buffs will seek out those vintners, like myself, who wave that flag as our credo.
Scott Elder
The Dalles, OR —  June 19, 2012 5:01pm ET
Michael Shulman:

Note my qualification that I was speaking only of “wines of quality” from both camps, not mediocre from one and quality from the other.
And since you bring up art, what we humans typically end up calling great is art that exhibits true uniqueness and individuality. True uniqueness and individuality in wine “comes from just the right combination of all the individual factors” as you put it and I agree. I would add that when a wine is grown and made by the same individual with a singular vision, then the ultimate expression of the individual factors, land-farmer-winemaker, may be achieved.

Scott Elder
The Grande Dalles
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 19, 2012 7:15pm ET
It might be important to note that the definition of estate bottled in the U.S. is not limited to wine made from vines grown on the owner's property. It also allows grapes purchased from vineyards under long-term agreements.
Mr Andrew J Green
Kansas —  June 19, 2012 11:36pm ET
Sheesh. What's important is not what's on the label: it's what's in the bottle.
Eric Pottmeyer
Portland, OR USA —  June 20, 2012 3:03am ET
It depends on what kind of wine the buyer is looking for, or perhaps more importantly, where the wine originates from. From my perspective, folks who focus on wines from the new world tend to put significantly more emphasis on producer than grower while people who focus on old world wines (excluding Bordeaux) tend to give more weight to the "grown-produced & bottled" model. It also appears that buyers looking for wines that highlight succulent fruit tend to elevate producer while those who have a preference for wines that trade on the factors that can only originate from terroir place more value on the grower-producers.
All good wine originates in the vineyard, regardless of who owns the land. Having a competent winemaker is handy too.

Eric Pottmeyer
Sec Wines
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  June 20, 2012 7:46am ET
Scott,

I think you and I might be talking without communicating. As Matt pointed, "this celebration of producers who made wine from grapes they grew on land they owned was the most prominent feature of the wine landscape" began in the 1970s. As Matt, and many others, have written about, before the 1970s negotiants were far more prominent and valued, especially in Burgundian. My question was what changed in the 1970s to make that so? Furthermore, did the change result in an increase in quality? If not, then perhaps the change that is occuring now (and is the subject of Matt's post) isn't that important and is simply cyclical rather than groundbreaking.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  June 20, 2012 1:57pm ET
I think Adam's right. There was a definite change in the domestic winescape in the 70s - toward more higher end, varietal wines, as oppossed to the generic blends (chablis, burgundy, rhine, etc). At that time, "estate bottled" became synonymous with the higher quality wines, since it required a new paradigm in the vineyard, as well as in the winemaking.

But in the 90s, we started to see a major shift to vineyard designated wines, even within estate bottlings. With this greater exposure of individual sites came more pressure on the growers, since their name (or vineyard name) was now appearing in the bottle. As a result, the debate between grower and winemaker over quantity or quality virtually disappeared, since they both now had a vested interest in making the best wine possible. So IMHO, at least at the vineyard designated level, the concept of estate bottled wines has little meaning to me, as far as a quality statement goes. In a sense, "estate bottled" is just another form of vineyard designation these days.

Additionally, I'm not sure why there's an implicit assumption that someone who's a great grower will also be a great winemaker. Or vice versa. Although related, the two skill sets are quite different. Afertall, I don't expect a chef to also raise the cattle and grow the vegetables that he uses.
Scott Elder
The Dalles, OR —  June 20, 2012 1:57pm ET
Adam:

I guess I misunderstood what both you and Matt were saying.
I am under the impression that now, and especially prior to the ‘70s, most European wine (again, wine of quality) is made by people who also grow the grapes, with the possible exceptions of Burgundy and Champagne. I think the same can be said for wine made in the US, at least up through sometime in the ‘80s. And then at some point, especially in the US, the winemaker and the winemaking started to become the most prominent and heralded of the individual factors. I think that trend in the US is still there, but as Matt points out, that is no longer the case in Champagne.

Scott Elder
The Grande Dalles
Scott Elder
The Dalles, OR —  June 20, 2012 3:48pm ET
I think the trend in the chef world is to get ever closer to their meat and produce growers. Even to the point now where chefs/restaurants have their own gardens. Raising livestock is a bit trickier, but I suspect many chefs would jump at the chance to do that as well.
Wine is the most special and unique agricultural product we produce, or at least it has the chance to be. That is why we are having this blog conversation. The reason it is so special is that it can be something quite individual, and the farmer-winemaker monks figured that out centuries ago.

Scott Elder
The Grande Dalles
Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  June 20, 2012 7:03pm ET
Scott,

Matt wrote in his seminal work on Burgundy,and Allen Meadows has written in his great work on Burgundy, that the move away from negotiants to produced and bottled by really took over in the early 1970s. Prior to that negotiants in Burgundy were the rule not the exception. Certainly (and undoubtedly for numerous reason) I wouldn't look at the 1970s as a great decade for Burgundy (nor the first half of the 1980s) so my question is simply, what positive difference was made moving away from negotiants?

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Michael Twelftree
Barossa Valley, Australia —  June 20, 2012 11:55pm ET
Matt, I think the answer is even simpler than the one you outline; it now comes down to who can understand and interact with their consumers the best. In the days gone past estates were very dictatorial with what they told there consumers they should have, now the consumer is more empowered with the greater knowledge of blogs, twitter, tasting notes with ratings, websites, message boards, publications, magazines, etc. so now the consumer is king and the best wineries are the ones that are the most consistent producers, estate or not…….don’t get me wrong I'd love to have more estate vineyards but sadly I was not a member of the lucky sperm club.……Also how many estate labeled Burgundies are from a metayage agreement? Many more that the consumer would think.
MT

John Lahart
New York NY —  June 21, 2012 10:16am ET
As is all too often the case with discussions of wine, generalities and conventional wisdom (some bad some good) cloud the issue.

"Wine lovers" is a pretty vague term. The vast majority of those who regularly drink wine probably could care less about the where's , why's and who's and more about how the wine tastes.

Wine aficionados (I prefer this to the awful term "geeks") are another story. I recall reading a quote from a wine maker (I believe it may have been Tom Rochioli) wherein he was asked about single vineyard designated bottlings vs blending.

He said something to the effect that he often could make a better wine by blending the best lots as opposed to bottling each lot separately and could charge more for the single vineyard wines because those who bought them saw them as more desirable. This is, I believe an element of "specialness" that is rooted in a Eurocentric approach to wine.

I am certain Estate vs? No estate was never as important as we seem to think it was. In the end it is the producer who is most important. I believe today's wine makers are much like the movie directors of the "auteur" period.
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  June 21, 2012 3:38pm ET
Great topic and I appreciate reading the responses of consumers like me, as well as the winemakers like Adam, Michael and Brian. However, I must admit I like Andrew Green's response best, isn't it really about what it is the bottle that matters? Great wine is being made by the so many people today that I am just as happy to drink a Burgundy from Jadot as I am from Dujac, or a pinot from Siduri as I am from Beaux Freres.
Dave-anne Childs
Denver, CO —  June 21, 2012 7:09pm ET
Some of the best wines I've ever tasted were from the To Kalon vineyard, and I don't think Andy Beckstoffer makes wine. Having full control may be nice, but I don't think it's needed to make the best wine.
Christopher Miller
New York —  June 21, 2012 7:26pm ET
Great lively discussion with some great winemakers espousing their opinions.

There are numerous examples of producers making wine from their own land as well as from land owned by someone else and the differences between these vary from non-existent to vast depending on many factors. The Sea Smoke Vineyard is a great example of such: Owned by one camp with wine made by two camps. The Foxen Vineyards team and the Sea Smoke team. Foxen also makes plenty of great wine from their own vineyards as well as Sea Smoke. Foxen partner and Viticulturist, Bill Wathen was asked to consult on planting and managing the Sea Smoke site, but the consumer likely won't know that.

All comes down to knowledge, the more one has the better buying decisions that can be made (fruit or bottled wine). So the closer the winemaker is to the farmer, and 'end user' the better for all parties.
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  June 24, 2012 12:44pm ET
I don't think it's necessary. thinking of wineries who do both, it is evident that, so long as the winemaker understands the fruit he uses (and possibly participates in the vineyard management), the wines can be excellent either way.

An case that I just had the good chance to sample was Cliff Lede's Diamond Mountain (purchased) vs Cinnamon Rhapsody (select estate parcels) bottlings -- both distinctive, and by tasting alone, no way to tell which is estate-grown.

A unique expression of location and time has appeal to be sure, but this is purely intellectual and only relevant to those who are truly interested/knowledgeable.

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