The Challenge of Changing a Wine’s Name

Last week Eric Asimov of the New York Times visited Bucklin’s Old Hill Ranch here in Glen Ellen. Eric drove up the gravel road in a black Dodge Magnum rental that looked ominously like a hearse. I thought he might be there to bury us.

It was one of those beautiful days in Glen Ellen where the afternoon temperature is about 92 there’s a slight breeze coming up the valley from the North and it was pretty quiet all around. We walked through the vineyard. Eric asked question and will did his impression of the Amazing Kreskin, point to vines surrounding him and saying, "that one’s zin, that one’s grenache, that one’s syrah, that one’s Alicante Bouschet, that one’s petite syrah…" etc, etc.

They look the same to me.

The best part of the visit actually came after we took ourselves out of the sun, parked ourselves under some old eucalyptus trees, tasted some wines and nibbled on some lovely cheeses and talked.

When Eric left, will and I remained to finish the cheese. At first the discussion went to the towering Eucalyptus trees. Will is considering taking them down. These trees are affectionately known as "widdowmakers" for their tendencies to lose their very heavy branches with no prior notice. I think the comfort of the shade got to him. He decided to think on it more

After that decision was taken, conversation turned to the topic of Bucklin’s Old Hill Ranch vineyard. It’s  remarkably unique piece of make that makes remarkably unique wines. I’ve been thinking about this vineyard and the wine it makes. What I’ve been thinking is this:

Why shouldn’t Will take the word "ZINFANDEL" off the label of his wine and simply call it,
"Bucklin Old Hill Ranch"?

This idea simply lends credibility to the idea that the wine behind the label is more indicative of the vineyard than the 75% of the vines in the vineyard that are Zinfandel. As Eric pointed out in his story, the very idea of doing this contradicts the realities of selling wine in a varietal based market. Will and I talked about whether this reality would actually inhibit the sales of the wine.

We both agreed it would. But, I think it would only…initially. It’s not like there is a lot of Bucklin Old Hill Ranch to sell. The vineyard dates to the 1850s and the vines yield at most a ton and a half per acre. With a little effort and communication I think we could carry out the education necessary to make the wine a "vineyard’s reflection" rather than a grape’s reflection as it is now with "zinfandel on the front of the label.

The most difficult part of this plan would be getting the wholesalers on board. They’d have to deliver this message to retailers and restauratuers and convince them to put the wine in the "Zin" or the "proprietary red" section of the store or on the restaurant list. But of course, there are other ways to make the wholesaler’s portion of this effort much, much less involved. But that’s another story.

Intuitively, I am in love with the idea of taking the varietal name of this wine off the label. In and of itself its a terribly elegant way to convey the meaning of the wine. Yet, will and I both agreed that now was not the right time to do this. Varietal labeling is so ingrained in the minds of the consumer and the trade the disruption to current marketing efforts would be enormous.

But, it’s not out of the question….later….I hope.

4 Responses

  1. Jack - August 11, 2006

    You could call it Geyserville! Oh wait, that name is already taken.
    So, yes, Ridge has been doing this for years – they had to do it when Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel didn’t reach 75% zin in a given year – it, too, is a field blend. (The ever-changing yearly varetal percentages our on the bottle, though.)
    I definitely think you can do it.
    So the question is, “Can you do it now?” Will consumers know what it is? This depends on how this wine is sold, I think. If much of it goes to restaurants and tasting room/mailing list customers, it would seem to not be a problem (as those people would know what they are getting). Otherwise, perhaps a card attached to/through the bottle’s neck might be advisable in the short term (or shelf talker).

  2. Jeff - August 11, 2006

    I completely agree with you. When I read the article in Wine News on Bucklin, I was immediately taken with the notion of the old vines and the cuvee that results from such a diverse mix of grapes.
    In and of itself, I think that is a far more interesting story then just being a Zin with some other stuff.
    Good post.

  3. Fredric Koeppel - August 11, 2006

    Change the name; it’s about the vineyard. People who care and love the wine won’t mind at all, and a little education for the public would be good too.

  4. Erwin Dink - August 11, 2006

    There’s an easy way to satsify both objectives (using a descriptive name of the wine that isn’t limited to a single varietal while keeping varietal seekers happy at the same time). Use the front label for the wine name and include varietal/blend information in smaller type on the back label. I can’t think of a down side.

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