Wine Expectorator
Separated At Birth -- Fictional Character Edition

A Vintage Advantage, or, Draining the Wine Dark Sea


The business section of the Los Angeles Times actually does a pretty good job of covering the state's wine industry, as evidenced by that Two-Buck Chuck piece cited in the preceding post. In today's edition, the Times reports a move by the industries trade group, Wine Institute, to propose a loosening in the federal regulations governing vintage dating of wines. The Times summarizes the proposal:

Today, a wine label that says it's a 2002 vintage may contain as much as 5% of wine made from grapes picked during another year's harvest.

Next month, a committee of the Wine Institute, the state industry's top trade and lobbying group, will discuss whether to petition the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau about increasing to as much as 15% the amount of the non-vintage wine allowed.

The rule change would apply only to wine labeled by political boundaries, such as Napa County or California. Wine labeled by appellation — a legal definition of a wine region, such as Napa Valley or Carneros — still would have to follow current regulations requiring that 95% of the contents come from the same vintage.
The rationale behind the proposal seems to be to increase winemakers' flexibility in using the large amounts of excess wine now working their way through the industry. If that wine can be used over more than one vintage, so the logic goes, its drag on the wine industry's economy can be reduced. Opponents argue that this advantage is exactly the reason the proposal is a bad one.
Critics of the proposal contend that wineries just want to use supplies amassed during a three-year grape glut and reduce the amount of fruit they buy from grape suppliers.

Premium grape grower Andy Beckstoffer called the proposal, 'a long-term solution' to the glut, which he said was 'a short-term problem.' What's at stake, he said, is California's position as a premier wine producer.

'I think there will be a perception by consumers that we are reducing quality,' said Beckstoffer, whose 3,000 acres in Napa and the North Coast make him the largest independent grower of top-quality grapes. 'The credibility and image of California wine is at risk here.'
[Neither the proponents (principally winemakers) nor the opposition (principally growers such as Beckstoffer) to this proposal are exactly disinterested parties, are they? How unusual.]

A large part of the reason these rules are even necessary is the inflated significance currently attached to the concept of "vintage". While some wines vary in quality and character from year to year principally because of the climatic conditions of the particular vintage, some of the world's best wines -- French Champagne, for example -- are not vintage-dated and derive much of their quality from the winemaker's ability to mix and match wines harvested in different years. As a consumer, this Fool is something of a Wine Libertarian: make the rules as flexible as possible in order to permit production of the best tasting wine.

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