Do American wine drinkers care about wine label language and the connection of the system of label designations to terroir? Good question that has been circulating among consumers and trade for years but with little resolution. Advocates maintain that such items as place names are important to a wine's pedigree. On the other side of the controversy are those who say that most American wine drinkers are brand oriented, so appellations and the like don't mean much. The controversy is getting to be such a big deal (pushed no doubt by a test case about the use of the name Calistoga) that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a division of the Treasury Department has announced an overhaul of wine labeling rules.
Although the use of place names or appellations appears to be at the front of the controversial move by TTB, there are other commonly seen wine label terms that are just as controversial. Somewhere in the minutia of U.S. wine labeling regulations linger two terms that defy definition. 'Reserve' and, more recently, 'Old Vine' have been kicked around for years, with little consensus by the industry or the federal government as to their meanings. The fact is the TTB prefers not to rule officially on the meanings of Reserve and Old Vine. Depending on one's take on the use of the two terms, the feds' decision to opt out is either a good move or a wuss out. One thing is certain, though: The U.S. wine industry is currently doing little to bolster consumer understanding by putting some meaning behind the terms 'Reserve' and 'Old Vine.'
Moreover, the California wine industry is divided (maybe fragmented is a more apt term) about the meaning of 'Reserve' and 'Old Vine.' A winery wishing to use the term Reserve (or any of its many variations: Private Reserve, Proprietor's Reserve, Vintner's Reserve, etc,) on a label need only notify their printer and it's done. A classic case in point occurred at the World of Wine festival in Southern California in the late 1980s. Bruno Benziger, then owner of Glen Ellen, was a member of a panel of winemakers assigned to talk about such things as the use of the term Reserve on a wine label. Someone from the audience asked Benziger how he could justify labeling all his wines Private Reserve when the production was so high and the price per bottle so low. Benziger didn't miss a beat: 'It's easy. Every wine we make is a reserve wine.' Little did Benziger know at the time that his off-hand answer would clearly define the problem swirling around the use of the term Reserve.
Recently, an industry-wide discussion began gathering steam about the meaning of Old Vine that threatened to impact the consumer market. In an article I wrote a few years back on the subject, the majority of winemakers and growers I asked agreed that 50 years should be the minimum age for any wine called Old Vine. But that majority was a slim one, with some winemakers claiming any vine seven years and older should qualify. The cynic protecting the integrity of his or her vineyard studded with head pruned bush vines, 50 or more years old, might complain that these people probably do not have any vines older than seven years of age. And so the argument goes.
Add to the vine-age disagreement the question of what to call an 'old vine' wine. Creative winemakers and marketing people checked in with synonyms for 'old vine,' with choices like Ancient Vine, Century Vine, Gnarly Vine and more. But what does all this mean? Cline Cellars, a Sonoma-based winery that specializes in Rhône wines uses the term Ancient Vines. According to the winery promotional material, Mourvedre, Carignane and Zinfandel, grown on their Oakley Ranch, range in age from 80 to 120 years old. My dictionary defines 'ancient' as belonging to the early history of the world, which I'm thinking is more than 120 years ago. Cline is not alone in their use of these hyperbolic label terms that only generate more confusion and distrust among wine consumers.
Last year, the Yalumba Wine Company of South Australia took a long hard look at the use of Reserve and Old Vine on all wines under the Yalumba and Hill Smith family of wines (including Pewsey Vale and Heggies) and decided to issue a Yalumba Old Vine Charter and Yalumba Reserve Charter, as a way of setting a company standard for the use of the two terms, while providing their customers with useful information.
The Old Vine Charter explains about the nature of 'old vines' and how a vine ages to the stage where it can legitimately (at least by Yalumba standards) be called old.
Here is Yalumba's Old Vine breakout for all wines under the Yalumba corporate umbrella, starting with the 2007 vintage: 'An OLD VINE is defined as a vine equal or greater than 35 years of age…An ANTIQUE VINE (or Very Old Vine) is defined as a vine equal or greater than 70 years of age…A CENTENARIAN VINE (or Exceptionally Old Vine) is defined as a vine equal or greater than 100 years of age…and a TRI-CENTENARY VINE or (Very, Bloody Exceptionally Old Vine) is defined as a vine whose life has spanned three centuries.'
Straightforward, easy-to-understand terms, although I'm not sure how far a California winery would get with 'Very, Bloody Exceptionally Old Vine' on a label. A small quibble: The dictionary definition of 'antique' stipulates an item 'generally more than 100 years ago.' So as a wine term, 'antique' may be as questionable as 'ancient,' unless a 70-year minimum for 'antique' is acceptable in Australia.
Brian Walsh, Yalumba's director of winemaking admits that trying to legislate the meaning of some terms like 'old' will take some work. 'It won't be easy, particularly where there could be replants in a vineyard and some uncertainty about actual age. That is why we thought it better for a company to 'stick its neck out' to get the debate happening.'
Yalumba's Reserve Charter is a bit more involved, although in Robert Hill Smith's words 'we had the belief that a person buying a bottle of 'Reserve' wine might reasonably expect: A wine of provenance; A guarantee of quality; A wine of relatively limited quantity; A wine possessing superior bottle aging qualities.' A closer look at Provenance clearly explains that the use of Reserve on Yalumba and Hill Smith family varietal wines or blends stipulates the wine must be made only from Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Riesling. Further, a Reserve wine must be from a vineyard that is farmed in a sustainable manner and that has a history of achievement, and be vinified using traditional winemaking practices with minimum intervention.
As for Quantity, Quality and Longevity, The Yalumba Wine Company Reserve Charter requires that a Reserve wine be bottled and bottle matured under Yalumba's control, be of superior quality as assessed by a Yalumba winemaking panel, and carry a money-back guarantee as to the wine's quality for the life of its optimum drinking period. This is an admirable position to be sure, but the use of subjective terms like 'wine quality' and 'optimum drinking period,' need more explanation.
Walsh says that the Yalumba Charters are beginning to attract attention within the Australian wine industry. 'The charters have already attracted quite a bit of interest from other wineries and from the wine media. We have had a couple of suggestions for embellishments and improvements, so the charters may change over time. We are not averse to change if it improves the proposition.'
There may be more important issues for the U.S. wine industry and TTB to tackle, but for now, one nagging questions persists. Must we wait for the slow grind of federal bureaucracy to make its move, or will wine companies do right by the American wine consumer and draft U.S. wine charters for the use of the terms Reserve and Old Vine?