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Are vineyard designates better than blended wines? Not necessarily. So why do they cost more?

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I was reading Peg Melnik’s article on Chateau St. Jean’s 2010 Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay, in yesterday’s Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which reminded me that Chateau St. Jean pretty much single-handedly created the vineyard-designated Chardonnay market in the 1970s, with a brilliant series of wines crafted by their then-winemaker, Richard Arrowood. Belle Terre, Les Pierres and Robert Young were perhaps the best known, but one year, Arrowood produced 9 individual Chardonnays. (He also made vineyard-designated Fume Blancs and Rieslings.)

It got me thinking of how obsessed we are today with single-vineyard wines in California, not just Chardonnay, obviously, but everything, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.

The first vineyard-designated Cabernet I ever heard of was Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard. It was, back in the day, the most famous Cab in Napa Valley, and if it’s lost a little of its luster in the glare of so many newer brands, it’s still well-regarded. I don’t recall the first single-vineyard Pinot Noir I ever had. The first one I ever reviewed in my wine diary was a 1982 from Louis K. Mihaly, with a Napa Valley appellation. The label said “Produced and bottled by the estate of Louis K. Mihaly,” so I suppose that, technically, it was a single-vineyard wine; but I’m talking about vineyard designations on the label. Ditto for the Dehlinger 1985 Lot #2 Pinot I tasted (in 1990, by which time it had gone downhill).

Today, of course, many producers make single vineyard wines. They fetch a higher price, on average, than blended wines. (Even the word “blended” sounds pejorative. We need to come up with a better one.) When you think about it, though, there’s no reason per se why a single vineyard wine should be better than a blended one. The reason the Bordelais grew so many different grape varieties was because they knew that blending could fill in the divots that a single variety wine might otherwise have (unripe, too acidic, too tannic, not enough color, etc.).

It was in the 1990s that vintners opted to go bigtime with vineyard-designated bottles. They said they were spurred by the extra complexity that certain sites exhibited, but that’s only half the story. The other half was that, by then, it was apparent the public would pay more for single vineyard wines. (We can thank Heitz and Chateau St. Jean for that!) I myself have never quite bought into the theory that the wine from a particular place is necessarily better than a blend. Some critics make much of “wines of place” and, of course, to question the concept of terroir is to hold oneself up for ridicule. However, I don’t see how you get around the “divot” theory: in a perfect vintage, a particular site might yield a complete wine. But not all vintages are perfect, and it’s only logical to expect that, in other vintages, the grapes from a particular site will be lacking something and could benefit from being blended with the grapes from another place.

Today we have brands that specialize in single vineyard wines: Siduri, Loring, Testarossa and Williams Selyem (among many others) in Pinot Noir, and practically everyone making high-end Chardonnay. (Williams Selyem, Lynmar, Rochioli, Paul Hobbs, Marimar Torres, Martinelli, Talley and Thomas Fogarty in particular come to mind.) There also are an increasing number of wineries that bottle vineyard-designated Cabs. Sometimes they buy grapes from other growers, and sometimes they simply make block bottlings from their own vineyard or from separate vineyards in their own portfolio. (Sometimes it’s hard to say what the difference is between blocks from the same estate, and separate vineyards. Witness Diamond Creek.)

As I said, I’m not sure that the best, most wholesome and complete, not to mention satisfying, wines come from individual vineyards. But wine isn’t just about hedonism, it’s about intellectual fun. For me, as a wine lover and critic, I love these single vineyard or block designation wines because they’re so interesting in themselves, even if they’re sometimes a little lacking something essential. Just like some people.

  1. Steve, you ask such lovely innocent questions. Vineyard designation by itself is not always a good reason for consumers to pay premium prices, even in the face of limited yield and production. Bottling by vineyard makes sense when the unique character of the vineyard, in one or all vintages, is expressed AND there is a quality quotient to the vineyard and resulting wines’ profiles.

    You mention Talley, as just one example. When I first met Brian in 1995, and I walked around Rosemary’s and Rincon vineyards with him, and then tasted the pinots and Chardonnays there, it was obvious to me that he would want to represent the vineyard characteristics in separate bottlings, and that the limited production of the Rosemary’s, and less limited production of the Rincon would have different price points and strong quality. Both were more interesting and better wines for me than the blended estate bottling, which of course is cheaper.

    One night at dinner after his split with Pax Mahle, I suggested to Joe Donelan that his brand’s proliferation of single vineyard wines might be out of hand. It was actually consumer-unfriendly. Which ones to buy? Is it necessary to buy them all, just the most expensive limited productions, a cross section? It was confusing enough to simply overlook the whole Pax consumer proposition, which he ended up pairing down anyway under the Donelan Family name. I use Joe Donelan as an example, but this over extension of single vineyard bottlings under a single brand with premium pricing applies to many of the examples you mention, and others.

    Vinification by vineyard is another story, of course. Last week I was with Josko Gravner and walked around his cellar tasting from buried amphoras that macerated, in some cases, individual vineyards and rows, and in other cases blended vineyard fruit. In the end, the final wine is a blend of various amphoras and vineyards, never single vineyards. The right wine for that vintage, in the wine maker’s opinion, is represented in the final bottling.

    This makes the most sense to me. I am happy to pay more for the highest quality wines, single vineyard or not. And, it’s so less confusing in the marketplace.

  2. Steve -

    The first question regarding single-vineyard wines should always be, “What’s the point?” If the point is that the vineyard has shown a distinctive character with a track record, I’m thrilled to experience that. The reason most single-vineyard wines cost more is because there are fewer of them. Simple supply and demand.

    You approach this from the 100-point scale perspective. How to make a wine “better”, which equals “more delicious”? For me, it’s more important to make a wine that’s interesting and intellectually compelling. Sometimes single-vineyard wines are a sham, designed to increase profits. Sometimes they’re riveting. But wineries producing single-vineyard wines should be careful to strip away as many variables as they can; I know a winery that makes three single-vineyard Rieslings, but puts one of them through ML! Sigh.

  3. Steve, I agree with everything you state (today). Quite often, single-vineyard designations get out of hand. Hell, even wineries are doing multiple bottlings from different blocks of a single vineyard (e.g. Rochioli). I guess it is the Bordeaux vs. Burgundy frame mind. Some wineries make their blend the top priority (shout out to Two Shepherds) and the varietal wines secondarily whereas others make the site-specific wines and then blend the leftovers. Both approaches can work. And this leads into the recent Twitter discussion I had with Bruce Schoenfeld about “wines of place.” I think a sense of place can be more than a very specific location. Take any winery from Pritchard Hill. Each has an identity, but can you imagine what a wine blended from Bryant, Colgin, Chappellet and Continuum could taste like?

  4. Ridge

  5. Adam: this question of “the unique character of the vineyard” fascinates me. Who’s to determine if it’s unique or not? And how do you control for when the determiner knows what he’s drinking, and sub-consciously imputes to the wine characteristics he believes are in it? I may blog about this.

  6. I really focused on the term “blended” in the article and you’re right, it sounds pejorative. But using the terms Red Wine or Red Table wine often sound worse to me, those of course being the legal words on a bottle that’s blended. Cuvee’ has no legal definition and since it’s French, it sounds better. Just ask Rosenblum.

    Speaking of sounding better, I’ll take your Chateau St. Jean example one step further with blended red wines; their master stroke was 96 Cinq Cepages. WS Wine of the Year, blended Bordeaux and no one outside French students and cork dorks could pronounce the name. Brilliant. I loved that wine on release and then a year later, I couldn’t afford it.

    I think what some wine companies have done in high-end Bordeaux blends is simply take all reference off of the customer facing label to blended wines and put all of the particulars on the reverse side. Now “brand” is more important that “blend”.

    Personally, I’m a fan of the labeling methodology from Ridge, just tell me what’s in the bottle and I’ll decide for myself.

  7. Steve,

    I could swear that you have written on this subject before but it is interesting to read again. But first I need to ask if Les Pierres was Sonoma Cutrer, not Ch. St, Jean?

    Why do single vineyards exist in the first place? With few exceptions they are owned by small growers, are relatively small and defined by geographical boundries, sustained because of their suitablility to a particular terroir and likely have demonstrated positive characteristics. But just putting the Designate on the label doesn’t tell the complete story. Virtually every vineyard is made up of different clones that can create a single ‘blended’ designate. Nevertheless, when I think of wines sourced from Rochioli, Keefer or Shea I expect that there will be something worth tasting regardless of what part of the vineyard they came from. I mention those three vineyards because I have tasted wines made from single block/clones grown in each that were some of the purest expressions of Pinot Noir in my memory. Limited prooduction level, and market demand for fruit are a couple factors that drive the price.

  8. Doug Wilder, Les Pierres was owned by Sonoma Cutrer but according to at least two older wine books I have they also produced a Les Pierres Chardonnay.

  9. One other thing to consider as the cause of the increase in single vineyard wines is the increase in the amount of nomad winemakers. For people who are making a few hundred cases of wine, with grapes getting trucked into an urban winery, a single vineyard designation is a way to give credit to the person or people who are doing half of the work.

  10. I find it extremely interesting to try single vineyard wines. Not because they are better or worse on a 100pt scale, just because they can be a more interesting expression of the wineries terrior. In a world of mass produced corporate wines, seeing an artist’s version of his/her ‘land in a glass’ is pretty cool, and can be worth paying a few extra bucks for. (If its the right winery)

  11. In instances like Stagecoach and/or Rochioli, I don’t mind block designations because the vineyards are so large it almost seems laughable to refer to them as a single vineyard.

    I’m surprised that no one has answered the “why” portion of this discussion with a reference to the Burgundian model. I don’t know how long Burgundy has been noting single vineyards/climats with special characteristics as 1er or GC, but there is definitely some history there. In seems to me that in all too many instances in California, the single vineyard reference is simply a marketing tool for all but the most quality minded of producers.

    I appreciate Bob Cabral’s approach to this (who makes tons of single vineyard designates) wherein he uses any new vineyard sources in his blended bottles at least until he is comfortable with the fruit and only produces a vineyard designate if he thinks that wine can stand out as unique and value added in his portfolio.

  12. Bruce Snyder says:

    For the longest time I’ve found many instances where appellation wines are superior to their vineyard designated counterparts. Recently, I drank a 2009 Ramey Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and just found it a more complex, and balanced wine than the Ritchey and Hyde bottlings of the same vintage. In no way am I saying that I didn’t find the single vineyard wines lacking in quality – they were in fact quite delicious – it was just that on this occasion, the Sonoma Coast was easily of greater quality. Last night, my wife and I drank a 2007 Kosta Brown Sonoma Coast Pinot. It was the second time we had this wine. Both bottles were better than their Koplen and Kanzler counterparts. They too, were wonderful, but not in the same league as the appellation offering. I’ve had similar experiences with Williams Selyem Pinots. By no means is this a consistent phenomena, but neither is it rare. The explanation? Artful blending? Chemistry? Food pairings? Who knows…but it does happen.

  13. Steve,
    Agreed- a single vineyard designate wine does not in and of itself make a wine better.
    In 2008, we made vineyard designate wines that were both 100% Cabernet- which was a first for us. People found it really interesting to try the two wines side by side, to see what difference “terroir” made to the wines, since they were made by the same winemaker, same vintage, 100% Cab (thus no difference due to blending), and more or less the same barrel regimen.
    Additionally, the whole Locavore movement ties into this, with single vineyard designate wines allowing people to identify with the source of the wine they are drinking.

  14. Evan Dawson in the comments above has it right: Supply and Demand.

    It seems a lot of the comments are looking at the wine as some lofty goal of creating a perfect product or wine experience. I’m sure this is true in some respect. I suggest the wineries are also thinking about a revenue management problem where they want to sell a limited product (number of bottles) and how do they maximize their revenue each year.

    If they successfully sold their product in the past, then one consideration is to generate a bit more scarcity and / or product price levels to better present a product portfolio across the demand curve. The single vineyard wines can be priced higher because they are marketed to a consumer who believes the product *must* be better / different / more unique / something else than the more general non-designate wines.

    Just my thoughts at this point…

  15. Bill Haydon says:

    Don, you express, if inadvertently, exactly the underlying California approach to “terroir” and why it is more marketing hucksterism and a feeble attempt to co-op a market trend than true understanding or commitment to the concept.

    It’s not the wineries’ terroir. It’s that specific plot of land’s terroir, and the winery in question should have as little imprint on that expression as possible. Also, the mere notion that it is somehow the winemaker’s “artists version” of that terroir is again fundamentally at odds with the general understanding of the term and more in line with the traditional Napa story of “genius winemaker” and the wizardry that commences once the grapes are safely in his cellars.

    But in a valley that traditionally obliterates whatever vineyard distinctiveness does exist beneath an avalanche of extract, oak and alcohol, I wouldn’t expect much more.

  16. Vineyard-designation says as much about the farmer it as it does the land itself. Shoot-positioning, crop-thinning, irrigation, soil inputs, pest management and canopy management in all its forms is a lot of work. Good farmers will do all that is required. Great ones do it at just the right moment.

    You could argue that the reason Beckstoffer- or Sangiacomo- or Hyde-farmed vineyards command such a high price is because they are the best at what they do. And since he’s mentioned in this thread, let me add Dennis Koplen (of Kosta Browne fame) to that list.

    I would also echo Chris’ point that vineyard or block or even altitude designation gives wineries more SKUs to peddle.

  17. “It’s not the wineries’ terroir. It’s that specific plot of land’s terroir, and the winery in question should have as little imprint on that expression as possible.”

    Bill, this is a complete myth. Burgundy, the Mecca of Terrior, even reflects that the winemaker has A LOT of influence over the wine and thus the market value. If the goal was as little imprint as possible, then just eat the grapes and be done with it. There is a reason Domaine Dujac or Jayer cost more than, say, Phillipe Leclerc or other lesser domaines producing wines from the same vineyards as Dujac. The reason is because the wine is better, and this is because it is better made and crafted. Wines are better made because the winemaker is more skilled at making them.

  18. Chuck Hayward says:

    Chateau St. Jean made a “Les Pierres” chardonnay? Calling Charlie Olken…

  19. Chuck Hayward says:

    Ooopppss…. Just read Doug’s post. Never mind….

  20. It’s in Laube’s California Wine book and also in Frank Henqiques’ “Signet Encyclopedia of Wine.” I bet if I went through my other 600 wine books I’d find more citations.

  21. A very interesting discussion for which I have two additional, unrelated comments. First: I find single-vineyard wines incredibly interesting and educational primarily when they are tasted in a vertical context, because the similarities over the vintages highlight terroir and the differences really speak to weather-affects (assuming the winemaker is constant). A wine of a broader geographical designation has too many unknown influences. A single vineyard wine outside the context of multiple vintages is merely a separate cuvee (IMHO) thus could be designated Chardonnay A versus Chardonnay B versus Chardonnay C. Whether single vineyards are worth more, is merely a matter of personal taste. For those who like to understand the “whys” and “wherefores” of wine, however, perhaps single vineyards are a worthy obsession.

    Another reason we need to come up with a term other than “blend”, is that it is confusing. In my eyes, blend primarily refers to a blend of varietals or even clones. For example, I make a single vineyard blend of Cabernet and Syrah, all from my tiny 10-acre vineyard. I don’t know of a better term (“broader goegraphical designation” and “geographic blend” seem clumsy), but to my mind, the simple term “blend” is already taken.

  22. i agree with Samuel on his point. Nobody says that the farmer is responsible for your dinner, and the chef should have no imprint on the taste of your vegetables. Why on earth do people keep repeating this myth about wine?

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