Reserve Judgement on “Reserve” Wines


I opened a bottle of wine this weekend that had the word "Reserve" on the front label. The wine cost $9.00 It was unclear from anything written anywhere on the label just exactly what made this wine a "Reserve". I can tell you this: the quality of the wine certainly didn’t suggest this word on the label had any meaning.

However, the experiences begs the point: what does, or should" the world reserve mean on a wine label?

There is no legal meaning of the term "Reserve" when it shows up on an American wine. However, there is an implied meaning: "this wine is better than our other bottlings."

As a marketer, I’d love to see the meaning of the term "Reserve" be formalized through government regulations. And though I can almost guarantee this will never happen in this country, and though I can’t even begin to fathom the number of lawsuits that would be filed were it to become a regulated term, I do have some ideas of how the world "RESERVE" could be defined.

Selection Reserve: A wine created by selecting no more than 10% of the total wine dedicated for a separate bottling. (The implication here is that the selection process is one that looks for the best lots in cellar that will be the "big brother" bottling to a larger production wine.)

Cellar Reserve: A wine created using specific production techniques different from those normally used that are expected to create a wine of higher quality. Such techniques might include but not limited to using only free run juice, whole cluster fermentation, no fining or filtering, using only new oak barrels. (The implications here are that certain cellar techniques can help create a wine similar in character to the bigger brother wine but will have special qualities due to cellar techniques)

Vineyard Reserve: A wine created by choosing grapes from no more than 10% of a specific vineyard or set of vineyards that show a higher quality prior to harvesting. (The implications here is that a vineyard will produce higher quality grapes in part of the vineyard that if segregated from the rest of the harvested grapes will create a better wine than if all the grapes were used together to make a wine.)

Again, as a marketer of wine it appeals to me to have terms that deliver actual meaning. Of course, were this sort of state regulation to occur, you can be sure that new names with similar implications in their meaning would show up on bottles: Vintner’s Selection, Cellar Choice, Winemaker’s Offering, etc.

The term "Reserve" obviously has real implications for quality at a number of wineries. You can count on these wines being a step up from regular bottlings. But this is hardly the case across the board. And as a word to the wise, lower your expectations for "reserve" bottlings that cost $9.00.

Posted In: Wine Business


11 Responses

  1. Gabriel Chapman - May 2, 2005

    I spoke at length one day with one of the reps from Grgich Hills and he had mentioned that the Reserve term meant nothing and that for many of the lower end wine makers it was a pure marketing gimmick. Though I have seen high end groups put the Reserve on their labels as well. I liked your classification system, one need only look at the French labeling system to draw upon in hopes of correctly labeling a wine.

  2. Bradley - May 2, 2005

    Well, that’s one way to get some clarity on the issue. But are more regulations the answer? I worked in the Excited States of America (Washington) and I was a little suprised at the hoops to be jumped through from a red tape perspective. Label approvals are a fun charade.
    Why not do what I do? Ignore these add ons. They don’t mean anything because if it’s a true description on one label it will be bastardized on the next one that uses the same term. One of my favourites has always been “Proprietor’s Select”. A lot of proprietors I’ve worked with have no business selecting the wine.

  3. tom - May 2, 2005

    There are a number of “Reserve” Wines out there that have real meaning behinnd them. However, as we have noted, there are a number that do not.
    Brad, there will be no such regulations as I’ve suggested, at least not in my lifetime. Besides what it takes to get regs passed, there would be far too much opposition. I can’t even concieve of the massive disagreement that would ensue over the definition of “reserve” labeling.

  4. Mike Duffy - May 2, 2005

    Wouldn’t it be nice if you could go to a winery’s Web site and find out (at least) what *they* meant when they labeled something as a “Reserve” wine?
    That’s the sort of thing that Web sites are great for (and perfect for one of those winery blogs you mentioned in a recent post).
    Basically, a lack of clarity in the marketplace is an opportunity for wineries to distinguish themselves by being clear.
    But regardless of the label, was it a pretty good wine for nine bucks?

  5. tom - May 2, 2005

    It was average.

  6. huge - May 3, 2005

    “one need only look at the French labeling system to draw upon in hopes of correctly labeling a wine.”
    This has to be sarcasm, right? If not (given what’s going on in France right now, I nominate it for “post of the year” (yes, that was sarcasm)).
    I think that the nature of a true “reserve” wine is usually conveyed in the price – it sells for more than the wine below it. The problem with that (and Tom’s solution) is that the top 10% of Two-Buck Chuck ($4-buck Chuck) is now “Reserve”. Is that helpful or not…?
    Personally, I think the trend away from using the term (I first saw wineries doing it almost 10 years ago because K-J ruined the term for everybody else) and going to sub-appellation selections and vineyard-designate wines ends up solving most of the problem.

  7. huge - May 3, 2005

    Also Tom, I think your “Vineyard Reserve” is written wrong. Don’t you mean 90% of the grapes should come from the vineyard on the label? I’d use the “T” word, but we don’t have any here in California anyway….

  8. tom - May 3, 2005

    As always you are right. The best indicator of the meaning of “Reserve” on a label is usually price relative to regular bottlings. Furthermore, you’re point about “RESERVE” $2 chuck is well taken. However, I thin it was Glen Ellen Winery that first screwed with the word RESERVE. Finally, what I meant about “vineyard reserve” was that the wine should be a selection of the best 10% of the grapes in a particular vineyard. But then again you have the same problem here. 10% of the Shied (Sp?) Vineyard would still be about 1000 acres.

  9. Ryan Scott - May 3, 2005

    In my understanding of Reserve wines, at least in Italy, they are more expensive, yes, but it is much more than that. They are wines that are meant to be cellared for many years. You wouldn’t buy a Chianti Classico Riserva and expect it to taste at its peak right when you get it back from the store, it would need some cellaring for a few years to smooth out the rough edges.
    It’s pretty silly for someone to try to sell a Reserve wine for $9, is the nonreserve going for under $5? Reserve should be higher quality, cellarable, and should be a limited run.

  10. Mike - May 3, 2005

    One can have examples of “Reserve” without actually using the word. The Oscar Semmler Shiraz from Dutschke Wines in Australia is made from the best barrels from the shiraz vintage and the rest go into making the St Jakobi Shiraz. There is definitely a difference in quality between the two wines and they are priced accordingly. I wish they were $9pb!

  11. Bogus Gold - May 27, 2005

    Home Wine Delivery – Lies, Damn Lies, And Statistics

    Here’s an interesting report from the excellent wine-blog Fermentations on an issue I expect to see a lot of in the coming year – home delivery of direct shipped wine.


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