If milk was marketed and labeled the way wine is, you might encounter this scenario at the grocery store: On the bottom shelf would be the bargain priced “Farmer Brown’s White” for $3.00 per gallon. Just above it, slightly more conveniently placed, would be “Brown Family Dairy’s Guernsey Select, Mid-State White Milk”, priced at $4.00 per gallon. And on the top shelf, easiest to see and pick up, would be “Baron von Brown Farms, Estate Bottled, Sunshine Valley, Herdsman Select Reserve, Premium Blanc Milk” priced at $4.00 per quart. The inexperienced milk shopper encountering these choices would be forced to either go home without milk and consult Milk Spectator for some third party recommendation, or try to extrapolate from the information on the labels if the difference in price was worth paying. Perhaps, the store would “help” the confused shopper with some descriptive signage hanging from the shelf edge. “Pairs well with Cheerios”, or “Firm, Round, Well Balanced. Serve Chilled”, these shelf “talkers” might convey. But the hapless milk shopper is still left wondering, why is this one so much more expensive, and does the mumbo jumbo on the label mean anything.
O.K., enough with the milk analogy already. But there are valid questions about the terminology on wine labels, and equally valid questions regarding why this one costs more than that one. A few key points address both questions, at least to some extent.
One of the items generally found somewhere on the label is some geographic description, such as “Sunshine Valley” on the high-end milk. You might (often) see California, or North Coast, or Napa. These legally controlled wordings tell you where the contents of the bottle came from. Generally, the larger the geographic region specified, the less expensive the wine. A “California” wine or a “South Eastern Australia” wine can be made from grapes sourced anywhere within that region. Conversely, a Californian labeled “Napa” or a German labeled “Mosel”, must be made 100% from grapes of that smaller area. Some of these recognized areas (AVAs in the U.S) can be giant, millions of acres in size, like “North Coast”, or a few thousand acres or less, like “San Ysidro”. While there is NOT a direct, predictable, infallible connection between a wine being sourced from a small, specific area and its deliciousness (or lack thereof), it is a key factor in the cost. It’s a two edged sword. A “California” Chardonnay producer can get grapes where ever the best deal-or the best grapes-are available at a given time, while the “Sonoma” Chardonnay producer can’t use, say, Paso Robles grapes, even if they’re having a great year and Sonama is not.
Then there is the “Estate Bottled” phrase. That is supposed to mean the whole process-the growing, harvesting, pressing, aging, and bottling is all done by the winery itself. Their grapes, their processing, their supervising wine maker. Again, while this is definitely the more expensive way, it does not in any way guarantee better wine. Just because a winery grows the grapes themselves, it doesn’t make the grapes necessarily any good! In theory, the personal, direct control of the winery over every step makes a better wine. In theory. The popular, low cost names may not actually grow a single grape! But if they buy from the right vineyard, and hire the right processor, they can produce a good product far less expensively. And, while “Estate Bottled” is suppose to mean all that, the industry has stretched the definition to include facilities they “control”, so the significance has been somewhat diluted.
Finally, the phrase “Reserve”, or “Vintners Reserve”, or many similar variations of “Reserve” have come to mean exactly nothing. At one time, a winery might “reserve” some of its best wine for connected customers, or bottle very small quantities, or keep wine from an outstanding year to blend with not-so-outstanding future vintages. And, they may still do so, but the word “Reserve” is unregulated, used promiscuously, and thus rendered meaningless.
Obviously, there is a whole lot more to reading wine labels than this. We’ll revisit the topic. But the bottom line? Stoop down, buy the $3.00 milk, and use the savings for Oreos.