Back in the day when Ernest and Giulo Gallo ruled, they sent their minions to grape farmers all over California, buying various grape varieties for take-it or leave-it prices and then dumped all of them indiscriminately into huge tanks and called the result Gallo Hearty Burgundy. Such wines were the industry standard at the time and often surprisingly good, but grape sources remained anonymous.
In 1966, Joseph Heitz changed the definition of fine wine when he introduced his Napa Cabernet Sauvignon with the vineyard source on the bottle. Heitz Martha’s Vineyard was California’s first cult wine, made from one grape varietal, Cabernet Sauvignon, cultivated at one vineyard. The wine ultimately defined premium wine as “estate bottled,” in other words made by winemakers from their own vineyards as opposed to the Gallo model. That interpretation of premium wine may be changing once again.
Instead of “estate bottled,” many of the wines that are now cutting edge are made by winemakers without their own vines, who are hunting down extraordinary fruit from small, often old, and usually obscure vineyards in out-of-the-way places and making extraordinary wines that command handsome prices. There seems to be no shortage of fine grapes for winemakers who are willing to search for them and shepherd their cultivation. Partners at Arnot-Roberts, Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts make wines from a dozen different vineyards. The wines are highly allocated and can be purchased only from their website. Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project is another name that stands out, but there are others.
Today, only the deepest pockets can afford vineyard land because so much of it, at least in California, is so expensive. Young winemakers, who what to develop their own businesses rather than working for others, are forced to purchase grapes. But they are turning what might be a liability into an advantage because they are free to forage wherever they choose. Just because winemakers own their own vineyards does not guarantee fine-quality wine. Estate vineyards can be mediocre just as easily as industrial wines that are blends from anonymous vineyards.
Most winemakers, who have their own estates, buy at least some fruit. Joseph Heitz did not own Martha’s Vineyard but instead had an exclusive contract for the fruit. Winemakers with their own vineyards often need to supplement with purchased grapes if they want to round out their portfolios with wines that are in demand but whose grapes are unsuited to the growing conditions on their properties. And if their estates are small and their reputations bigger, they might purchase fruit to increase production.
While it’s true that “wine is made in the vineyard, not in the cellar” and that whoever owns the vineyard has total control of the vines, it’s also true that vineyard owners will accommodate those who purchase their grapes and farm those blocks to please the purchaser. Otherwise, that buyer can walk away and find a vineyard owner, who is compatible with their standards. Burt Williams and Ed Selyem, famous for their Pinot Noir and Kent Rosenblum for his Zinfandel were earlier examples of well-know and highly respected winemakers, who made fine wine from purchased fruit and had no intention of buying land.
If the winery owns the vineyard, the label will display the words “estate bottled.” If just the vineyard name is printed on the label, the origin of the fruit will be equally identifiable. Ultimately fine wine is the result of winemaking technique and vineyard quality, regardless of who owns the land.