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Who’s to decide what wine phrases are illegal?



I blogged the other day about a lawsuit brought by an L.A. guy against MillerCoors. He’s suing them because he found it “unsettling” to discover that they were really the producers of a beer he thought was a craft beer, Blue Moon.

Evidently, this topic—of when or whether a beer is an authentic craft beer as opposed to something else—has caused something of a brouhaha in the industry. This article, in Wine Industry Advisor, explains some of the complexities. Entitled “Craft: A term in controversy,” it points out the murkiness that a lack of definition of the word “craft” can cause.

I told a friend of mine, co-proprietor of a wine shop that also has a small but excellent selection of craft beers by the bottle, about the lawsuit, which she hadn’t heard of. I asked what she thought, and it was the same as I think: The L.A. guy is probably looking for some easy cash. Then she said, “If he wins, then half the wineries in the world will get sued.”

What did she mean? That wineries routinely use words and phrases that have no legal definition, but that have certain meanings or connotations in the consumer’s mind. “Reserve” is one such word. I wrote about numerous others several years ago in this blog post. At that time (2011), I suggested that the government should “clear up” these terms. But I’ve now changed my mind. As I’ve gotten older and, hopefully, wiser, I’ve become more concerned about the government getting its fingers into every aspect of our lives, so that now, I don’t think we need legal, binding decisions from On High on what things like “barrel select,” “Old Vines” or “Bottle Aged” mean. These are evocative terms that imply certain practices and conjure up pleasant visual images. That’s what marketers do, whether it’s with autos, high tech gizmos, perfumes, fashion or vacation spots, and if we forced every advertisement, commercial, brochure and packaging text to adhere to some strict, formal meaning of each and every word and phrase, we’d be even deeper into continuous litigation in America than we are today.

Besides, think how hard it would be to define these terms. Take “bottle aged.” Every bottle of wine sold anywhere has been aged in the bottle for some period of time, even if it’s just a few months. People may imagine dusty wine cellars where splendid old bottles lay sleeping until they’re nectar, but there’s nothing wrong with them having that mis-impression, especially if it adds to their pleasure when they actually drink the stuff. Do we really want or need to know that “bottle aged” means ten months, or fourteen months, or nineteen months? I mean, come on. Besides, if there was an overly-specific definition for “bottle aged,” wineries would just start using terms like “”aged in the bottle,” and then we’d have more regulations, more lawsuits and so on, ad infinitum. Ditto for “barrel select.” This, too, implies something very special about the wine, but in truth, most wine—whether sold in bottle, box or keg—has come out of a barrel. Can a stainless steel white wine be called “barrel select”? I wouldn’t go there, and I doubt if any winery would actually label a stainless steel wine “barrel select,” but if they did, I wouldn’t lose any sleep. (Besides, some investigative blogger would probably bust them for it.) And then there’s “old vines.” I, personally, think an “old vine” should be at least thirty years of age, but that’s just me. Besides, if a winery is really using ancient vines and is proud of them, they can always put that information on the back label. I’m a big fan of information on back labels—not ingredients, which I think can go on the winery’s website, but authentic, interesting information, like how old the vines are, what the varietal blend is, the vineyard’s elevation, amount of new oak, and so on.

This line of reasoning that I outlined above also touches on the nature of small wineries that claim to be, or are thought of as, “artisanal” versus larger wineries. I always said, as a wine critic who tasted many thousands of wines every year, that I didn’t care about the winery’s size. I cared about the wine: Was it good, savory, interesting, worth sipping and considering, or was it plonk? I always thought it was snobby to dismiss big wineries (whatever “big” means), and that it was disingenuous to celebrate small wineries (whatever “small” means) just because they were small. I had lots of wines from tiny little wineries that were awful, and lots of wines from “big” wineries that excited me. I still feel that way. We should experience things as they actually are, and not sweat the small stuff, like the way they describe themselves, or how many cases they produce. As for those fans of organic and biodynamic wines, I can’t tell you how many off-the-record stories I heard about bags of chemicals on the back loading dock of wineries that claimed not to use any. My advice: Don’t believe any hype. None of it. Taste the stuff, and if you like it, buy it, and tell the critics where to go.

  1. Paul Jacroux says:

    You might also include “Family Owned” in your essay. The term is often used by Jackson Family Wines and is accurate but missleading.

  2. Sherman says:

    About the only term used in wine production that has true legal binding meaning is “estate,” referring to the source of the fruit used. All the other terms that we see on wine labels (except government mandated AVAs) are subject to what is usually called “puffery.” If this plaintiff can’t be bothered to do some research to find out who is producing what he’s putting into his body *before* he makes his purchase, then it’s really not all that important to him and his claim should be summarily dismissed. The info is there, just takes a little time to find out — thus the basis for the age-old legal doctrine of caveat emptor, “Buyer beware.”

  3. Dear Paul Jacroux, in the case of Jackson Family Wines, I can’t see how you can possibly call the term “family owned” misleading. JFW is not publically owned; it is owned by the Jackson Family, whom I personally know and respect.

  4. Steve–
    It seems to me that you would be doing yourself and us a favor if you explained the circumstances under which the term “Family Owned” is used.

    Does it apply to vineyard, to wines coming from Jackson Family vineyards or to any wine that bears the KJ, or related, name?

    Can it be put on wines that are purchased and then bottled?

    There is clear intent in the use of the term. What is it specifically?

  5. “Family-owned” would seem to me to be self-explanatory. Every brand in the Jackson portfolio — some 48 or 49 — is owned by the Jackson family.

  6. What does “vintner’s reserve” mean when it is on a wine that dwarfs the production of all other wines in the lineup combined? Maybe it’s just me, but that one is not self-explanatory…

  7. Bob Henry says:

    On the subject of “large” versus “small” artisanal wineries . . .

    In 1989, I visited Caymus and barrel sampled the 1985 “Special Selection,” 1986 “Special Selection,” and 1987 Cabernet Franc with ol’ man Wagner.

    Case production of the 1985? Around 500. (Roughly equivalent to Screaming Eagle today.)

    By contrast, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild’s annual production varies between 20,000-25,000 cases. (Source:

    Begging the question: how does Mouton craft a single wine to be uniformly consistent?

    Their 203 acres of grape vines are made up of Cabernet Sauvignon (77%), Merlot (11%), Cabernet Franc (10%) and Petit Verdot (2%).

    Their wine is fermented in oak vats (they are one of the last châteaux in the Médoc to use them) and then matured in new oak casks.

    To the best of my knowledge, there is no “master cuvee” residing in a single storage tank from which all bottles are drawn.

  8. Re: “Vintner’s Reserve,” there is no legal definition for this term, or others like it. And I would not want to see the govt. impose one.

  9. Bill Haydon says:

    The ttb should most definitely bring some sense and rationale to the use of “reserve” and any other form of it (i.e. grand reserve, vintner’s reserve, barrel reserve) etc. As you rightly pointed out in 2011, to have a cuvee produced in the millions of cases with no legal structure of necessary ageing is ludicrous.

    California should take a cue from Spain in this regard and put some substance beneath what is now merely a crass and vacuous bit of marketing.

  10. So what changed your mind since Jan of 2011? I thought you hit the nail squarely on the head when you wrote:

    ““Reserve” and “Private Reserve.” These are routinely and wantonly abused because they have no meaning whatsoever. A wine cannot be a “reserve” unless there’s a “regular” but in case after case, you find there is no regular. So change the law. Make it mandatory that “reserve” is a small percentage of the winery’s regular bottling of that wine.” – See more at:

    Seems to me that “Vintner’s Reserve” falls into that category. Though, “Marketer’s Reserve” may make more sense… Don’t get me wrong, I’m not faulting the wind itself, but just the misleading term used on the label.

  11. Kyle, as I wrote, I did change my mind. I like to think it’s the wisdom and maturity that come with increased time on this planet.

  12. Bob Henry says:

    As Steve will recall from his reading (and no doubt re-reading) of the timeless book titled “Great Winemakers of California: Conversations with Robert Benson,” Joe Heitz and Benson got into quite a contentious sparing match over Joe’s opaque use of these terms on his wine labels as:

    “Perfected and bottled”

    “Produced and bottled”

    “Selected and bottled”

    [Page 184]


  13. Steve, I have two honest questions. First, you stated phrase such as Vintner’s Reserve are just, “evocative terms that imply certain practices.” What is the certain practices that qualify a KJ Chardonnay as being reserved by the vintner versus just a regular Chardonnay? Second, what is your current relationship with JFW or any other wine producer? Last year you left your former employer to take a job with JFW, yet recently you alluded to being a consultant. Are you still an employee of JFW or do you now work with a number of producers? Cheers!

  14. In Italy, words of wine are important, mainly if printed in the label on bottle. ‘Reserve’ (Riserva) means that a wine by law (Disciplinare, DOC or DOCG) aged for 3 years, was aged for 4 years. Brunello Riserva means 5 aged yr. Superior means that a wine by law of 12% alcohol, is 13%. No other words are permitted in the label, and there is a reason: not all consumers have wine knowledge, and writing in exactly way made they able to compare different wines. I don’t see that like a limit of my freedom, but only keep us (producers, seller, consumers) agree with same words to define same things.

  15. Historical postscript.

    It ain’t just the Bordeaux producers who can crank out Cabernet-blend case production within hailing distance of 20,000 for their showcase “reserve” wine.

    Courtesy of today’s WineAccess e-mail blast hinting at a “perfect” 100-point score for the 2012 Phelps “Insignia” coming from The Wine Advocate.

    “96-100 Points Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate (Oct. 2014)

    “Joseph Phelps’ flagship wines include the incredibly ageworthy Insignia. The 2012 Insignia Proprietary Red is composed of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, 10% Merlot, 3% Malbec and 2% Cabernet Franc, all aged 24 months in 100% new French oak. The vintage was of such high quality and quantity that 17,500 CASES WERE PRODUCED. A magnificent Insignia that will be bottled in several months, it boasts an opaque purple color as well as fabulous notes of graphite, blackberries, blackcurrant liqueur, camphor, barbecue smoke and spice box. Rich, full-bodied and opulent with plenty of tannin and structure lurking beneath the extravagant generosity of fruit, this stunning 2012 should drink well for 25-30+ years.”

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