Defining Audacious in the California Wine Industry
As 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:
“CALIFORNIA GRAND CRU”
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 WineSpectator.com 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
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.