Friday, March 04, 2005

Do Wines Under $10 Really Need a Vintage?

It ocurred to me recently that since most wines in the sub $10 retail category are from larger producers and broader appellations (California, Central Coast, Southern Australia, etc.), and often have multiple blends for a single vintage, of what value is knowing the vintage for most sub $10 wines? If I've got a choice between the 2002 Ravenswood VB Zinfandel and the 2003 edition, am I going to notice a significant difference between them? Replace Ravenswood with [yellow tail], Sutter Home, Fetzer, Stone Cellars from Beringer, etc. and you have the same answer. Wines at this price point are intentionally made to taste consistently across vintages. There was a great article a few months ago about the trials and tribulations that the $2-Chuck winemakers go through to make each blend (which is about every month!) integrate seamlessly with the prior blend.

It is not required for a wine to have a vintage date, but if it does, 95% of the wine must come from the stated vintage. There are examples of wines (like Rosenblum Zinfandel Cuvee) that are quite good, and quite successful and don't use a vintage date (rather a consistent style), however non-vintage wines are more commonly in "jug" or "boxed" wines.

Now granted, I do want to know what the year was for a Napa Cab or a Santa Barbara Pinot, but does it make a difference to the majority of consumers at the sub $10 price point? Wouldn't it be easier to just allow the wineries to voluntarily show the vintage date or, as an alternative, use a "born on date" to prevent consumers from getting 5 year-old Sutter Home White Zin?

It seems to me, that like the recent controversy over vintage dating, this will be opposed by grape growers. The reason is that, during a period of oversupply (as we have just gone through), wineries can use cheap bulk wine still sitting in tanks instead of having to buy grapes from the current vintage. The result of this would be that the bulk wine market and the grape market would have similar pricing - during 2002-2004, you could buy Chardonnay wine for a fraction of the equivalent price of grapes - and this would be very unfavorable to grape growers.

Personally, I think the two should stay in balance and that over the long term, it would actually buffer these huge swings in under/oversupply, thus making the growers much happier, with more stable income. Alas, this will probably not be the case....


Blogger Andrew said...

I think you are right - most of the big brands at this price point are blended to be consistant every vintage and iron out nay troublesome vintage variations - the very thing that makes wine at higher price points so interesting.

March 04, 2005 10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I agree with you regarding the bulk wine that flows in an ever increasing torrent from the bowels of central California and Australia, I feel that eliminating the vintage date could have disaterous effects upon international wines. In a market where a lovely $11 bottle of 5-year-old Rioja sits unnoticed next to a giant display of Yellow Tail, we cannot in good conscience give any more advantage to the mass-producers. Wineries and import/export companies are being snapped up at an alarming rate by world wine conglomerates. Soon enough the days of the small scale grower/producer will be replaced by Wineco's blend #13. Allowing the giants to skip the most important step of actual winemaking will just make it that much easier for them. Vintage variation to the mainstream consumer isn't interesting, it's troublesome. So what's next? Why don't we just skip the whole terroir, vintage and small producer thing and just go straight to making 30 million cases in a laboratory somewhere in Mendocino. Hey, if all you are doing is buying a style of wine, what's the difference.

March 08, 2005 7:00 AM  
Blogger Huge said...

“Allowing the giants to skip the most important step of actual winemaking…”I don’t follow your logic on this…the most important steps in winemaking are (note use of the plural): site selection, viticulture, harvesting properly, fermentation, aging/elevage, THEN blending, packaging, marketing, distribution. And they occur in that order…
Putting a vintage date on your product is nowhere near the most important step in winemaking...Vintage dating your product would fall under the blending/packaging/marketing portions. And while judicious blending is very important to your final product, I don't see how putting out non-vintage wines in that price range could be seen as "skipping" some important step...

Also, I’m not advocating the complete dismissal of vintage dates. What I’m trying to suggest is that producers should start exercising their current legal right to package wines without vintage dates -in the $10 & under tiers- as consumers in those categories don’t seem too interested in vintages anyway. And as the EU allows 15% of it’s blends to be outside the stated vintage while the US only allows 5%, utilizing the law as it stands right now would help make many companies more competitive internationally.

And if the wine produced is of good quality, and priced properly it should sell like hotcakes.
No clear advantage would be given to larger wineries, especially if one thinks about the need for smaller wineries to get returns on their investment faster than, say, a larger winery which had a larger war chest and could hold more of it's product in storage while weathering a financial slowdown.

And these wines could be labeled “Vertical”, or “Vertex”, or maybe “Vertigo” (I’m trademarking all three here & now!)…think of the marketing potential!

March 08, 2005 1:57 PM  
Blogger Deena said...

Well, I think that vintage labeling has one more use that not many people think of: it helps the average joe consumer to know when the stuff was bottled. If I'm buying a wine that is supposed to be young, it helps me to check on that. That way I know this stuff hasn't been sitting around forgotten in some warehouse for years and now it's past its prime but the wine shop put it out there on the shelf anyway. The length of time spent in the bottle also affects the wine, so why not have a quick way to check that? The more information, the better!

March 10, 2005 3:18 PM  
Blogger Huge said...

Agreed, Deena.
That's why I think it'd be good to have a "born on date" or something to that effect.

Vintages are already optional information on labels here in the US, but culturally we're used to having that information present.
My thought is that we could see more wines on the market which were less than 95% from one vintage. That information still could be shown on the label, and could introduce some nice blending options & characteristics for the wines produced. It just would have to state "80% from 2003, 20% from 2004", etc., because it would be outside our limits for a single vintage designation.

In the categories I'm thinking of, the wines are consumed quickly after production, so the overall effect in my mind would be one of mutual advantage to both consumer and producer.

March 11, 2005 10:05 AM  

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