SOME WORDS ON WINE labels, such as “Chardonnay” or “Sonoma,” have real meaning and convey specific and genuinely useful information. Others, such as “Private Reserve” or “Hand Selected Lots,” do not. In fact, in the U.S., to label a wine as “Private Reserve” or assert that it’s produced from selected lots, a winemaker—or marketer—is required by law to do nothing more than say that it is.
Words do have selling power, of course. Take the Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, created by the late Jess Jackson in 1982. The sweetish Chardonnay, positioned as the carefully selected work of a “vintner,” was an early example of the kind of creative labeling I’m talking about. The wine’s taste was populist, as was its price (about $12 in today’s currency), yet the term “vintner” had a soigné sound. The wine was an immediate hit.
Longtime Kendall-Jackson winemaker Randy Ullom, who has made several vintages of Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay over the years, offered this take on the name: “I believe [Mr. Jackson] wanted to make it stand out and considered ‘Reserve’ as a quality statement, especially since he was fermenting it in barrels. And ‘Vintner’s Reserve’ was even more special, coming from the vintner him or herself.”
Never mind that there was no non-reserve Jackson wine to which the Vintner’s Reserve could be compared. One of the wine world’s great marketers, Jess Jackson helped establish a trend. Today there are lots of “Vintner’s Reserve” and “Proprietor’s Reserve” and “Winemaker’s Reserve” wines, as I found during a recent visit to a few local wine shops.
In the U.S., wineries are allowed to use many front-label terms that have no “regulatory definition,” according to Gladys Horiuchi, media relations director of the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. She sent me a list of such terms that she and her staff have compiled over the years, including “Vintner’s Reserve” as well as “Old Vines,” “Old Clones,” “Private Harvest,” “Barrel Select,” “Bottle Aged,” “Proprietor’s Blend”—and on and on.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s rules on labeling state: “Labels may contain information other than the mandatory label information required…if such information complies with the requirements of such sections and does not conflict with, nor in any manner qualify statements required by this part. In addition, information which is truthful, accurate, and specific, and which is neither disparaging nor misleading may appear on wine labels.” This gives wineries rather wide latitude.
To get a sense of the sort of impact terminology can have on consumers, I gathered a group of friends to assess a number of wines based solely on their labels. To them, “Reserve” clearly invoked a notion of quality; the term, though it has no legal definition in the U.S., suggests a stash of the best wine, set aside for the discerning. As my friend Julie put it, “I’d definitely buy a wine with a name like Proprietor’s Reserve or Vintner’s Reserve because the wine sounds better, more serious.”
Do drinkers understand what “Hand Selected Lots” means? (Another vague term, this one suggests—but doesn’t necessarily mean—that the winemaker walked the vineyards in search of the best fruit.) Among the bottles my focus group considered, the one labeled “Hand Selected Lots” happened to be the cheapest Chardonnay—$10 suggested retail—from Clos du Bois. The winery’s pricier offerings include its $16 “Sonoma Reserve” Chardonnay and a $24 “Calcaire” Russian River Valley Chardonnay that I can only presume takes its name from the calcareous limestone soils much prized by winemakers around the world.
Why would a winery make its cheapest Chardonnay sound like the fanciest? I put this question to a Clos du Bois spokesperson in an email. The reply I received didn’t address that question but noted instead that the winemaking team selects “the best lots from our source vineyards throughout California” for the $10 wine.
My friend Julie isn’t the only wine drinker I know who is susceptible to any wine with “Reserve” on its label. For years my Uncle Noel, a worldly and sophisticated man, made it his self-declared mission to drink only “the reserve wines.”
There are other ways that wineries establish notions of scarcity and selection to sell wines. For example, they sometimes assign them numbers. What did my group of label-reading friends make of the Vineyard Block Estate Limited Block 558 Reserve Chardonnay from California, with the number 04173 on its front label? “That sounds special and rare,” said Holly. “It sounds like a numbered Picasso print,” offered Julie. In fact, this “limited edition” bottle cost me a mere $13.
“ ‘I’d definitely buy a wine with a name like Proprietor’s Reserve or Vintner’s Reserve because the wine sounds better, more serious.’ ”
In some countries in Europe, wines labeled “Reserve” or “Grand Reserve” must, by law, undergo longer aging in the bottle, the barrel or both. In America, where no such rules apply, the term could mean anything—though in some cases the designation “Reserve” is actually attached to wines of high quality. One such example, the consistently impressive Beringer Private Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, has been produced for more than four decades.
I reached out via email to Mark Beringer, chief winemaker at Beringer Vineyards, to ask if he thinks “Reserve” is at risk of losing meaning. Does he worry about so many inferior wines co-opting the term? He replied that he was less concerned that Beringer Private Reserve wines would be misunderstood than he was about the possibility that consumers would buy some other “Winemaker’s Reserve” bottle and be disappointed by its quality. “The onus and danger is more on the producer of that wine,” he wrote. “Simply calling something reserve doesn’t make it so.”
American wineries aren’t the only ones to employ puffed-up terms with vague meanings to sell their wines. In Argentina, for instance, quite a few wines are labeled “High Altitude.” Made mostly from Cabernet and Malbec in Argentine vineyards that may or may not lie at truly elevated altitudes, these wines range from inexpensive to pricey. Anyone may label a wine “High Altitude,” according to a spokesperson for the Wines of Argentina; the Argentine government does not regulate where and how wineries must cultivate their grapes in order to use the term on a label. As it happened, none of the wine drinkers I polled were impressed by the term. They had no idea what it meant, though Julie speculated that it sounded like a wine to drink après ski.
Equally meaningless, misleading or downright annoying are some of the “descriptive” paragraphs wineries employ on a bottle’s label to sell the wine within. The wordy label of Meiomi Rosé notes “chilly fog” and a “soft hand in the cellar” as key factors determining the character and quality of the wine. On the label of the Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages, no fewer than 17 words are used to say very little: “Classically crafted to showcase layers of complexity, this wine blends rich texture with the elegance of Sonoma.”
What in the world is a “soft hand in the cellar,” and what does the purported “elegance of Sonoma” say, really, about how or where the wine was made or what it tastes like? If winemakers and marketers would just stick to words with established and specific meanings, wouldn’t wine consumers be that much better off?
Email Lettie at firstname.lastname@example.org.