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Estate Wines: What are They, and Are They Worth the Price?
By Michael Apstein
Oct 14, 2014
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The word “Estate” on a bottle of wine lends prestige and often entails a bigger price tag. But what does the term really mean…and is this designation actually worth the price premium?

The Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (a.k.a. TTB) regulates wine in the US. According to their rules as detailed in the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (eCFR) (Title 27, Chapter 1, Subchapter A; Part 4.26) a winery can label a wine as “Estate” if: 1) the winery grew all the grapes on land it owns or controls with at least a 3-year lease; 2) the entire wine making process took place at the winery, and 3) the winery and the vineyards are in the same AVA (American Viticultural Area). An estate wine should not be confused with a “single vineyard” wine, which may or may not also be an estate wine, depending on whether it conforms to the TTB regulations.

The estate concept and its accompanying cachet is not limited to U.S. wines. Though not labeled “estate,” grower Champagnes (renditions from producers who make Champagne solely from their own grapes as opposed to large Champagne houses who buy a significant proportion to meet their needs) are all the rage these days. Sommeliers, who often reject wines from large négociants or big producers out of hand, go gaga over wines from small growers in Burgundy, New Zealand or Australia. Some retailers specialize in wines from small producers, while others, who carry offerings from the “big” guys, still trumpet their latest finds from small family-owned endeavors.

Advantages of Estate Wines

Producers and winemakers who own their own vineyards are quick to say that a big advantage of ownership is that you can determine precisely when you want to harvest, which of course, is a major factor in the ultimate style of the wine. Generally, grapes left longer on the vine get riper, have higher sugar and lower acid levels, which translates into bigger more robust wines. On the other hand, Jacques Lardière, who recently “retired” as Maison Jadot’s winemaker after 42 harvests and is now overseeing their Oregon property, told me that he is experimenting with earlier harvesting to capture the delicacy of Pinot Noir.

Stylistic imprint aside, timing the harvest with weather conditions can be a gamble. If rain is in the forecast, do you wait to pick until after the rain, hoping for sunshine to boost ripeness, and take the risk of waterlogged or rotten grapes if the sun doesn’t appear? Or do you pick now, settling for grapes that are healthy, but not quite at the level of ripeness you’d like?

Not Just When to Harvest

Jean-Philippe Brett (who with his brother, Jean-Guillaume, owns both a high quality négociant company--Brett Brothers--and their own domaine--Domaine La Soufrandière--in the Mâconnais) emphasizes that the work done in the vineyard during the year is as important as selecting the date of harvest. He points out that when you own or control the vineyard, you can decide whether to farm organically or biodynamically, how to prune, how to tend the vines and when to treat for diseases during the growing season.

Megan McClune, who has vast experience and is the new managing director charged with reinvigorating the Burgundy Domaine Jessiaume, notes that the relationship between the winemaker and the owner is critical. “The winemaker’s vested interest, either consciously or subconsciously, has an enormous impact. If the winemaker is making the wine for him or herself, he or she knows that she is the one calling all of the shots and taking the risk. But, if a winemaker is making it for a boss, there is an added level of emotional constraint on the winemaker. That level of psychological and personal investment is always reflected in the wines.”

David Croix, a Burgundy-based winemaker agrees that control over when to harvest and how to work in the vineyards is a great advantage of estate wines. Equally important, he added, is “Where you make the wines.” He should know, since he makes wines at two different places, Maison Camille Giroud, a medium-sized Beaune-based négociant and at his own property, Domaine des Croix. “Everything is different. The yeasts are different, the bacteria are different, the humidity is different. If you did the same thing that Coche-Dury [one of Burgundy’s top Domaines] did somewhere else the wines still wouldn’t taste the same.” Though I’d never heard this line of reasoning before, it made sense. When I mentioned what Croix had said to Becky Wasserman, one of Burgundy’s top brokers, she said nonchalantly--reminding me of the GEICO ad--“everybody knows that.”

Don’t Jump to Conclusions

For all these reasons Estate wines, in theory, should be better than those made from purchased grapes. But sometimes theory doesn’t translate into practice. So before we shun non-Estate wines, let’s look at the flip side of that coin.

Grape growing and winemaking require different skills. Some people, such as Andy Beckstoffer, are superb viticulturists. He owns roughly 1,000 acres of vineyards in Napa Valley including the famous To Kalon, Dr. Crane, Missouri Hopper and Las Piedras vineyards. Yet, he makes no wine. Paul Hobbs, Stag’s Leap, Franciscan, Cain Cellars, to name a few, have purchased his grapes and have made stunning wines from them.

Beckstoffer is not alone in selling high quality grapes. Over the years, multiple producers have made highly acclaimed wines from grapes purchased from the famed Sanford and Benedict vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills. Merry Edwards in Sonoma County, one of California’s premier Pinot Noir producers, purchases grapes from her neighbors for some of her Pinot Noir. The differences between wines made from her own grapes and those she purchases reflect the differences between the vineyards, not the owner of the vineyard.

And, in Burgundy itself, we need look no further for examples of fine wines from purchased grapes than Lucien Le Moine (the high-end micro-négociant whose wines are highly allocated) or the famous négociant Leroy (whose non-domaine wines are among the highest priced and most sought after in the world). Even Leroy’s simply-labeled Bourgogne Blanc and Bourgogne Rouge are stunningly good. If these examples don’t convince you that spectacular wines can be made from purchased grapes, look at Penfolds’ Grange, Australia’s iconic wine, the current release of which goes for $600+ a bottle and contains a significant portion of grapes Penfolds purchased from growers.

Quality aside, just because a wine is labeled “Estate,” doesn’t mean it will suit your taste. You like delicate nuanced wines, but producer X’s Estate Cabernet is a robust 15+% stated alcohol. It’s better to find a producer, regardless of where they get their grapes, who makes a style of wine that you enjoy.

I’ll never forget what Pierre-Henry Gagey, president of Maison Louis Jadot, one of Burgundy’s top négociants, once told me: “Some of the best [Jadot] wines I’ve ever had came from other growers’ grapes.”

Producer, Producer, Producer

In the end, whether you’re drinking wine from California, Australia or Burgundy, focus less on who owns the vineyard and more on the wine. It’s still producer, producer, producer.

October 14, 2014

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E-mail me your thoughts about Estate wine at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein