Buzz: Hey, Marnie, how come winemakers feel like they need to lord it over us average Joes? Boasting on wine labels about their fancy estates and chateaus is pretty low. It's not like we don't know they're living the high life in wine country!
Marnie: Whoa — take it easy there, pal. No one's trying to make you feel ashamed of your rowhouse. Wineries that put "estate grown" or "estate bottled" on the label do it for a reason – these are regulated phrases that have a very specific legal meaning.
Buzz: Must be a French thing, then.
Marnie: It's more than just France. For estate wines, 100 percent of the grapes used to make wine must be grown in vineyards that are owned by the winery. Estate wines are usually superior and can command higher prices. That's why they often make these designations prominent on labels.
Buzz: Phooey! Why would any winemaker care if they owned or rented their grapes?
Marnie: Renting isn't a thing for vineyards, Buzz, let alone grapes. If you're a vintner and you don't own your vineyards, you can't control how they're farmed. If you can't control how they're farmed, you're stuck buying from growers who charge by the ton.
Buzz: Wait a minute. The grape buyers can't make demands from these grape farmers?
Marnie: Growers have little incentive to do the kinds of things that improve grape quality and make finer wine. Why? Because they take time and money to implement, and often lower the total crop volume to boot – it's a lose-lose proposition. Because there are logistical limits to how much land a winery can manage, estate wines are never mass-market wines. They are often small-batch artisanal wines. I'd bet that only 10 percent to 20 percent of the world's wines are estate-grown. Winemakers need to let their customers know.
Buzz: That makes sense, but can't they just say "good wine" and be done with it? Or maybe they can set up "all-stars" awards for folks who make good wine?
Marnie: I don't know how effective that would be if everyone started doing it. Plus, there are all sorts of regulations governing what you can and cannot say on wine labels.
Buzz: I wish they'd do that for all advertising, not just wine.
Marnie: Vineyard ownership is such a hugely important quality factor in the wine world that some European regions have their own honorific terms that can be used only for estate wines. In France, words like chateau or domaine in the winery's name are essentially code for estate-grown. The same goes for tenuta and azienda agricola in Italy.