Thu 13 Dec 2007
Winemakers and producers in American, though they usually don’t want to admit this, have a much easier time as far as governmental regulations are concerned than their counterparts in Europe. Or maybe they do admit it, but sort of gruffly, in an American sort of way. In America, the rules set down by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), formerly the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms — and thank god they finally got the guns out of there! now the vice president can handle those directly! — primarily effect what terms can be printed on wine labels and what the terms mean.
In Europe, the story is far different. The regulations laid down by the official wine bureaus of various countries stipulate what kinds of grapes can be grown in what regions and what grapes go into different sorts of wines, often including the minimum percentages of grapes in blended wines. Some rules are so stringent that they dictate what the yields must be in the vineyards, what sort of trellising system must be used and when harvest must begin.
Whew, I’m glad we don’t have to worry about all that stuff in America! Our guiding power is the can-do spirit of frontier individualism which says, essentially, plant any grapes anywhere you want to and make the wine any way you can. The main point, as far as the TTB is concerned, is that fraud not be perpetuated by misleading label terms. So, if a label says that the wine is from Sonoma County, it “must be derived from not less than 75% of grapes, citrus or other fruit or other agricultural commodity grown in the named county AND must be fully finished (except for cellar treatment and blending which does not result in an alteration of class and type) in the state in which the named county is located.” I’m quoting here from the official Department of Treasury The Beverage Alcohol Manual: Basic Mandatory Labeling Information for Wine, a fascinating document written 75% in real English and available here.
If the label states that the wine is a product of an approved American Viticultural Area (AVA), such as Russian River Valley or Stags Leap District, then the amount of grapes in the wine from that AVA must be 85 percent. If the label states that the wine was “Estate Bottled,” then 100 percent of the grapes must derive from land owned or controlled by the winery, which much be located within the same AVA as the vineyard and “must crush, ferment the grapes, finish, age, process and bottle the wine on their premises.”
There are other various picayune label matters that producers must attend to, like the size of the type that the government warming is printed in, but it’s good that generally the federal government wants to prevent, as much as possible, the hoodwinking of innocent wine consumers.
Which brings me to the word “reserve,” a term that we see on wine labels all the time over which the TTB has no control at all and has never attempted to control and the whole reason for today’s post.
The word “reserve” on a label implies that the wine is special in some way, that it was, perhaps, produced from a better part of a vineyard, that the wine was selected from barrels whose contents demonstrated higher quality, that more care was taken with its making and that it is limited in production, therefore commanding a high price. There is also the implication that a winery produces a reserve bottling to augment its “regular” wine in the same genre.
Variations on the term “reserve” include Private Reserve, Proprietor’s Reserve, Vineyard Reserve and Vintner’s Reserve, Special Reserve and such terms as Special Selection, Special Release and Our Finest Selection. None of these terms is regulated, so that Glen Ellen, during “the fighting varietals” promotions in the 1980s, was free to label its wines as “Proprietors Reserve,” even though they were produced in the millions of cases and sold for $5 or $6. Then there’s Kendall-Jackson, whose well-known “Vintner’s Reserve” series, costing from about $12 to $16 a bottle, is ubiquitous in the country’s restaurants. Surely the situation is confusing for consumers when they can buy a bottle of Glen Ellen Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon for $5 while the Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon costs $116 and the Caymus Special Selection costs $136.
I think there need to be some rules, not necessarily the way it is in Tuscany, for example, where the differences between Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva and between Rosso di Montalcino and Brunello di Montalcino are enforced by government regulations. No, I think it is enough that a producer be required to prove that a wine labeled in some manner to indicate its superiority to a cousin wine from the same winery was indeed derived from a special vineyard or portion of a vineyard, that the grapes received particular treatment in the winery and that the wine was bottled in a limited quantity. These factors should be enumerated on the back label in straightforward language that consumers can understand. Wineries that did not follow these procedures or that could not justify using the terms would not be allowed to produce so-called “reserve” wines.
Next week: A similar rant on an equally nebulous and often misused term, “Old Vines.”