Picture a leisurely trip to the wine store to purchase a bottle of WXYZ Zinfandel. Your clerk says he would be happy to get it for you, but asks whether you prefer the entry level, the Estate, a Reserve, or an Old Vines. Since the price of each category is higher than the last, your simple trip to buy a bottle for burger night is no longer so easy. Should you pay the extra money? Is each wine truly better than the one named before? And, maybe the most important question, “Even if each bottle is somewhat better, is the more expensive one worth the price differential?”
While it’s true that the terms and phrases tell you something about the wine in the bottle, they’re also strong marketing tools. They are designed to make you feel better about spending a little-to-a-lot more than might be necessary for you to experience a similar enjoyment from a bottle that costs less. For example, a GL Chardonnay might cost $29, while a GL Reserve Chardonnay might cost $52. Chances are the Reserve is better, but no doubt you’ll find a lot of discussion as to whether the Reserve is worth $23 more. Only your palate can make the final call for you, but maybe we can help with some parameters. Here’s a brief overview to help you demystify the various terms and phrases:
Estate Wines: Most people believe this means the fruit is grown on land contiguous to the winery and, because it’s owned by the winery, it follows that the grapes are superior. Therefore, placing the word “Estate” on the bottle’s label is designed to induce sales—often for a higher asking price than if the fruit were purchased elsewhere.
There are two realities here of which to be aware. Firstly, the estate’s fruit may not be that good—there are no rules or regulations as to quality. Secondly, a winery can grow (own or farm for three years) grapes anywhere within the same appellation as the winery where they will be vinified. Thus, a grower can farm in Carneros, vinify at a winery in Calistoga (30 miles away), and call it “Estate” because it’s in the same appellation—the appellation of Napa. As you can see, the word Estate might in certain instances not be describing a better wine at all.
Reserve Wines: Respected wineries (most in Napa and Sonoma) often marry their best grapes with the finest winemaking processes to create special lots of wine, often referred to as “Reserve.” Again, the term is designed to imply a more superior product, as well as to permit a higher price point.
The reality in this scenario is that in California there is no regulated meaning of the word “Reserve.” Thus, while in most instances a Reserve will indeed be better than a non-Reserve to many people, any winery may call any wine they make a Reserve, even if they don’t produce a non-Reserve of the same varietal. Thus, once again we find a term that could be misleading in causing a consumer to spend additional money.
Old Vines: This phrase is usually associated with Zinfandel for some reason, though here and there other varietals are said to grow on “old vines.” The concept (and it’s not necessarily incorrect in the abstract) is that the older the vines, the less fruit is produced, but because there is less fruit, there is more concentration per grape. More concentration equals better taste and complexity. Hypothetically, this sounds enticing.
In reality, again, there is no statutory definition for the phrase “old vine.” In fact, if you ask a group of professionals to tell you how old a vine must be to qualify for old vine status, you’re as likely to receive an answer of 25 years as you are for 60. Most don’t know where the line is drawn, which is not surprising since one does not exist. Yet, again, producers feel comfortable charging more money when using the term, and consumers too often blindly bite.
It’s important to note that most wineries, as in most businesses, are ethical and honest. While making a profit is to be expected, they believe the prices they charge are competitive and fair for the product they put into the bottle. We believe it, too. Yet that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few subconscious marketing desires and beliefs that creep in. Our recommendation is that it’s important to taste the wines yourselves before blindly accepting that a product is good or worth a higher price simply because one or more of the conditions set forth above have been met. Ask the relevant questions, taste, and then trust your own palate in spending what you think is necessary to please you.
Monty and Sara Preiser have been writing about wines in magazines and newspapers from coast to coast for more than 25 years, as well as on the Internet. They co-own Shadowbox Cellars in Napa and publish the most complete guide to Napa and southeastern Sonoma, The Preiser Key.
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