Here’s a quick wine quiz: What’s the meaning of commonly used terms such as Reserve, Old Vines and Estate Bottled?
The answer is the same in each case—nothing. The term “reserve” has legal meaning in Spain and Italy, but not elsewhere (for example, Georges de Latour Reserve Cabernet and Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet may sell for $95 and $110 respectively, but Yellow Tail Reserve costs less than $10 and Glen Ellen Reserve is $5). The age of an old vine isn’t specified anywhere, as far as I know—not even in France, where almost every aspect of grape growing and wine making is tightly controlled by the government. Here in the U.S., an Estate Bottled wine must be grown and produced on the property, but an Estate Grown wine can be sourced from grapes grown and bottled in other places.
Fear not. The TTB (the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau, which replaced the old ATF) is coming to the rescue. They’ve designated a period of public comment on these terms, which will be followed by an attempt to define them. At the end of this process, the public might have some formal definition for descriptors such as Proprietor’s Blend, Single Vineyard, Vineyard Select and Barrel Select.
Or will they? I suspect that the process of public comment and debate will uncover the fact that these terms are difficult, if not impossible, to define. A vine is generally considered old when it reaches 25 or 30, but location and grape variety are also a factor. Certainly, Vineyard Select and Barrel Select are words without meaning, but Single Vineyard is an important concept in the wine world. To use a vineyard name on a label, producers must currently include 95% of the grapes from a specific vineyard site, but Single Vineyard means that all the grapes must come from there—even the wine used to top off the barrels after natural evaporation in the cellar. Is a single vineyard wine better than a blend of different vineyard sites? Most people think so, but much depends on the vintage and the hand that nature deals the winemaker. Many consumers believe that Dutton Ranch is a superior vineyard site, and parts of it are; the entire site encompasses nearly 900 acres, though, and some sections are clearly better than others.
In the end, the TTB will probably come down on the side of truth in labeling, which is good for everyone. What they can’t do, of course, is educate consumers or stimulate them to be better informed.