Defining Audacious in the California Wine Industry

CalifoniaGrandCruAs reported by Dr. Vino, California’s Sea Smoke Cellars out of Santa Rita Hills has placed the following wording on six of their 2009 vintage labels and on one 2008 Sparkling Wine label:


This is, in my mind, the most audacious packaging move I’ve ever seen a California wine ever make.

According to the good Dr., Sea Smoke explained its unique new labeling message by referencing a March 2008 blog post at the in which Jim Laube said of the Sea Smoke wines, “it is an important part of Santa Barbara’s wine scene and one of its “grand cru” properties.”

By this Mr. Laube meant to say that the Sea Smoke estate is one of the Santa Barbara wine region’s best properties. The reference is to the Burgundy “Grand Cru” classification. In Burgundy, the term “Grand Cru” has a very specific meaning. Only those wines that are produced from vineyards that are legally classified as “Grand Cru”, which make up about 2% of Burgundian vineyards, may say “Grand Cru” on their label. More importantly, “Grand Cru”, though not a wine quality designation, has come over the years to be recognized as the designation that the best Burgundian wines carry.

Serious wine drinkers will denigrate Sea Smoke for bastardizing the term “Grand Cru”. Yet, it should be noted that there is nothing that legally stops them from using this term on their label as I’m sure their lawyers told them. It is akin to using the term “Reserve”—from a legal stand point—though significantly different too. The term “Reserve”, while also having legal meaning in other countries, does not have the hugely importantly meaning that “Grand Cru” maintains in the wine world and in the world of Burgundian wine.

It would not be an issue if Sea Smoke had used the term “Grand Cru” on their back label, where oftentimes wineries make claim about their wine in a descriptive manner and in the context of prose writing. Here they could have noted that “the Sea Smoke vineyard, from which the grapes from this wine were grown, has been described as one of Santa Barbara’s ‘Grand Cru’ vineyards”. This would have been entirely accurate and unlikely to stir controversy, condemnation or even a second glance.

But note also that Jim Laube’s description of the Sea Smoke estate identifies it as one of SANTA BARABARA’s “Grand Cru” properties. Not one of CALIFORNIA’s “grand cru” properties.

Who wouldn’t understand the thrill of seeing a critic the caliber of Jim Laube describe their vineyards as a “Grand Cru property”. I certainly understand it and given the opportunity would have touted that description far and wide in my promotional materials and communications. It’s an amazing endorsement.

But on the front label of a wine?

Consider the other information on the Sea Smoke labels with the “California Grand Cru” designation.

Each of them possess the following information:

Name of the Winery: Sea Smoke
Name of the Varietal: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sparkling Wine
Vintage: 2009 or 2008
Appellation: St. Rita Hills
Alcohol Level
Proprietary Name: “Southing”, “Gratis”, “Ten”, “Botella”, “Sea Spray”

In each case these items of information possess very specific meaning for the consumer. What does “California Grand Cru” mean?

The only way to save this audacious labeling move is to put quotation marks around the term, indicating that the term is appropriated from another source, rather than implying it carries the same weight and meaning as the rest of the information on the front label. I’m sure the folks at Sea Smoke had this very discussion when they determined to put “California Grand Cru” on their front label, just as they surely had the discussion of the merit of adding “California” to Jim Laube’s “Grand Cru” comment. In the end, they decided it was in their best interests and would have little downside to omitting the quotation marks and adding the “California” wording.

Both decisions were mistakes.


28 Responses

  1. Fredric Koeppel - October 17, 2011

    “nothing legally to stop them,” yes, but how about ethics? “Grand Cru” doesn’t have just a “specific meaning” in Burgundy; it’s regulated by the INAO, a governmental agency in France that oversees all the details about names of vineyards, quality, production and so on. Using the name on the label of a wine in America is simply a way of pretentiously influencing consumers with no basis in fact or regulation. Such a move only reinforces the notion that the TTB needs to regulate such easily tossed-about and now essentially meaningless terms as “reserve” and “old vines.”

  2. Tom Wark - October 17, 2011

    I agree with regard to regulation of the term “old vines”, but I’m not so sure about “Reserve”.

  3. James McCann - October 17, 2011

    Didn’t (doesn’t) Washington State police the word “Reserve” by limiting it to a certain percentage of wine produced? 10% perhaps – I like that idea.

  4. Pete - October 17, 2011

    It just makes them looks stupid, like they think there really is something called “California Grand Cru,” and that people will be fooled, and that nobody will mind that they’ve ripped off a term with real, deep, historical and specific meaning because they thought it would help sell more wine and because nobody could stop them from doing so. California Grand Cru on the front of the bottle. What a joke.

  5. El Jefe - October 17, 2011

    Interesting, because I cannot put “Rhone Blend” on my label. I must instead put “Rhone-style blend”. Also, I cannot use “Fortified Wine” on my label, but yet the TTB allowed this. Must have been an off day.
    (Fun fact: the TTB considers what we would call the front label to legally be the Back label, and the back label is called the Brand label – where all of the “Real Info” like ABV and warnings must reside. Different rules for what can appear on the Brand and Back labels may account for this getting through. Just a guess.)

  6. Jeff - October 17, 2011

    Completely agree with you, Tom! A poor attempt to blow “Sea Smoke” up the consumers you know what…

  7. Tom Wark - October 17, 2011

    Not sure about Washington and the term “Reserve”. The thing is that with “Reserve” it tends to have a variety of meanings. It does seem that one element of most reserve programs is that there tends to be less of them. But I think there is also a quality connotation. However, how could you regulate a quality connotation? Also, what does it mean that a winery might make less of a particular wine? Does that imply anything other than the rarity of the wine? I don’t know.

  8. - October 17, 2011

    It’s quite the shame that we are out of step with the rest of the world in not supporting clear legal global definitions such as Reserve or Grands Cru.

  9. Marcia M - October 17, 2011

    I would have voted to put it in quotations if management wanted it on the label. The use of quotations would have provided the nod to Laube’s review as well as an acknowledgement that they were “borrowing” the verbiage from France and conveyed (in my inferrence) a touch of humor.
    Without the quotations, everything on the (real) front label is taken as the gospel truth, per the TTB. Interesting this one flew by the TTB sans challenge (although we don’t know the back story).
    Now the poor consumer has yet another new term she’s never seen on a U.S. produced wine label. Just something else to confuse her in her quest to gain wine knowledge….

  10. Samantha Dugan - October 17, 2011

    I think it’s kind of a joke and should/does for me, carry about as much weight as the BevMo in house rating system, means nothing.

  11. Marcia M - October 17, 2011

    Difference is though, dear, you know what you’re doing! Jane Consumer doesn’t have your vast knowledge base. But I do see how you are amused! 🙂

  12. Samantha Dugan - October 18, 2011

    Praying on people that don’t know any better is one of the things about this business that truly burns my ass. There are couple of things about this that piss me off. The first is, as someone mentioned above, is that proclaiming your vineyards or wine, “Grand Cru” is like me saying I’m the queen of the F-Bomb, it is a matter of opinion and not fact. And as you have pointed out, many people don’t have enough knowledge about wine to know that what is on that label is merely a stated opinion. In Burgundy there are governmental controls that ensure that any wine that says “Grand” or even “Premier Cru” on the label is made from those vineyards, Sea Smoke can dump whatever they want in their Pinot, with no controls in place or regimented system to jump through and call it Grand Cru? Bullshit.
    The other part that makes me roll my eyes is that I think California, or any new world region for that matter, needs to stop comparing, or trying to compare themselves to old world growing regions. They are not, can not and should not be the same. Embrace that and find pride in that. Drives me buts!

  13. Mary Williams - October 18, 2011

    Sea Smoke had an “obnoxious air” about themselves. This pushes them over the edge.

  14. Steve Heimoff - October 18, 2011

    Come on, Tom, take a cold shower and chill. This is no big deal. Wineries put all kinds of exaggerated nonsense on their labels. This is no worse than “Private Reserve,” “Winemaker’s Selection” or “Limited Production.” So no need to get your knickers in a bunch.

  15. Shawn - October 18, 2011

    It is interesting for this new label, and really enjoyed reading your post. I live in the general area and am on the Sea Smoke list. It took me about 2 years to sit on a waiting list before being invited to purchase a small allocation. As they are such small production and demand is high, I get it. Once I was invited to purchase on their designated hierarchy, (being bottom level of course) they accept payment (reminds me of futures,less the discount) and then I wait for several months to receive my wine.
    With such exclusivity and high demand, the rational for the “Grand Cru” seemingly leaves us with few reasons to come up with for their move……is it bragging? Or are they are looking to make another price change. I agree with the points on making things more confusing for those that do not understand the labels, etc. Average Joe Blow wine consumer will have a very low chance at even seeing this bottle due to allocation limitation. They should be proud of this destination, although if I were the owner, I think I would have made a different move. The winemaker is a down to earth local guy that is putting out stellar wines both with Sea Smoke and his own label.

  16. Tom Wark - October 18, 2011

    How would I walk straight if my knickers weren’t in a bunch?
    It’s different Steve. Much different. We all know what “Grand Cru” means. So does Sea Smoke. And it doens’t mean what they imply.

  17. PaulG - October 18, 2011

    I’m with Steve. When I see “Winemaker’s Reserve” or “Barrel Select” on a $6 wine, do I believe it means anything? If a consumer gets fooled, well, so what? They will either like the wine or not. The label wording may conceivably sell one bottle. Such abuses of the language are endemic in this industry. “Old Vine”? “Ancient Clone”? It’s all marketing blather. So just add “Grand Cru” to the list. At least Sea Smoke put California in front of it. Kind of like “California Champagne” don’t you think?

  18. Tom Wark - October 18, 2011

    I need to disagree with you too, Mr. Paul. I really think this is substantially different than the idea of “Reserve” or “Barrel Select” or “Old Vine” or even “Ancient Vine”. Those terms, while abused, can actually have significant meaning when used in a definitive way by wineries. Yet, “California Grand Cru” can’t possibly have any meaning of substance. Further, the term is not used to describe anything about the vineyard or winemaking practices.

  19. Samantha Dugan - October 18, 2011

    Man, I’m just waiting for some little region in the Languedoc to rename themselves Napa, guessing some folks might change their tune about place names and the protection of them. Or at the very least see what kind of bullshit this really is. If it were a $6 wine I might be a little more flexible but Sea Smoke carries a fat price tag and with that, for many, there comes a certain refinement. You don’t see Schramsberg putting California Champagne on their label do you? Nope just the crap bubbles that are looking to bank on a famous place name….and in turn confusing people even more.

  20. Neil's - October 20, 2011

    Once again American wineries prove that they are self proclaimed jokes.

  21. Neil's - October 20, 2011

    Once again American wineries prove that they are self proclaimed jokes.

  22. web development Florida, web design California - October 31, 2011

    The other part that makes me roll my eyes is that I think California, or any new world region for that matter, needs to stop comparing, or trying to compare themselves to old world growing regions. They are not, can not and should not be the same. Embrace that and find pride in that.

  23. HP Print Cartridge - November 5, 2011

    That looks like so smooth….Gonna grab one when I go back to california.

  24. What to do in London - February 11, 2012

    That one is very scary. I think it is better to drink branded and quite expensive wine rather than cheap but the process is not so good whereby the bacteria and fungi can live in.

  25. Travel - February 11, 2012

    Must be very careful on choosing cheap and unfamiliar brand of wine.

  26. Cheap Flights - February 11, 2012

    It is not a matter of brand and price as long as the country itself have the regulation on food impoer from other country. Like the questin whether did they do the random check and test? Any food to be import need a proper inspection even once in a while.

  27. Healthy Options - February 11, 2012

    I agree with that, need a proper check and inspection specially for the foods.

  28. Trudy - March 2, 2012

    Wow, people have a lot to say on this topic. Regardless Santa Barbara is a great place to wine taste and visit in general. I always have a great time there and all this controversy needs to sizzle and everyone needs to just enjoy the wine for what it is, great! I guess I’m not too serious of a wine drinker but the few times I have been wine tasting in Santa Barbara it was an exceptional experience and I did learn a whole lot! I stayed at the South Coast Inn ( Great place to stay for wine tasting in the area and it was really nice as well. It would be hard to pass this up.

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