Wine labels have become cooler, smarter, "lookier" in recent years. They have not, alas, become much more informative, especially on these shores.
In recent months, I have sampled bottles that were dubbed Private Reserve, Grand Reserve and Vintners Reserve. Oh, and Winemaker's Reserve, which presumably is different from Winemaker's Select, Special Selection, Private Selection and Selected Vineyards.
People. Just. Stop. Please!
Most of these fancy-schmancy titles are designed simply to make the wines sound loftier than they are, intended to help the winery sell wine rather than help the consumer decipher wine.
There are semi-exceptions. Kendall Jackson's Vintners Reserve line is cheaper than its Grand Reserve offerings, while Caymus' Special Selection cab and Beringer's Private Reserve line are a huge step up in price and, ostensibly, of higher quality than their "regular" stuff.
In the late 1980s, a consortium of California wineries wanted a fancy-schmancy name for their Bordeaux blends and held a contest; the winner was "Meritage" (rhymes with heritage). The Meritage Association survives to this day, but the Meritage designation is no guarantee of quality (except at the wonderful St. Paul restaurant bearing that name). Still, at least buyers know that such wines contain some amalgam of the traditional grapes of Bordeaux.
Most of these other designations are meaningless. Actually, they can be worse than that, often disguising the fact that the grapes came from vineyards where quantity matters more than quality (very high yields almost always mean inferior grapes, especially in California's sprawling Central Valley), or in areas where a particular grape shouldn't be grown.
It is more honest, and useful to consumers, when labels provide the proverbial sense of place. Consumers can learn a lot about what they like -- or don't -- if they're starting with the wine's place of origin as opposed to some generic catchphrase. It can be a single vineyard (Hyde, Shea), appellation (Walla Walla, Russian River Valley) or a sprawling county (Sonoma, Santa Barbara). I'm not holding my breath for a Central Valley label, by the way.
It wouldn't hurt to follow the example of Spain, where laws decree that a "Reserva" wine be aged three years, with at least one year in oak for reds, and two years, with at least six months in oak, for whites and rosés. A "Gran Reserva" red must be aged five years, with 18 months in oak and three years in bottle.
Even in oft-inscrutable Italy, "riserva" means that a wine has been aged longer than the "standard" ones from that region.
Instead, we're stuck with the likes of "Winemaker's Selection." And, um, shouldn't all wines fit that definition?
Bill Ward • firstname.lastname@example.org