Some thoughts on Schild Estate, wine labels and things that don't look so good

The "Schild Estate affair" reported by Harvey Steiman and Tyson Stelzer in Wine Spectator (and also on Mr Stelzer's website) this week raises some interesting questions about wine labelling in Australia, and probably elsewhere too.  Here's an extract from part of the Wine Spectator article:

"... Wine Spectator has learned through an investigation that Schild Estate, a family-owned winery in the Barossa Valley whose 2008 Shiraz placed in Wine Spectator’s Top 10 Wines of the Year in 2010, found itself running low on supply and decided to purchase, blend and bottle additional wine under the same label.  While technically legal, the decision raises questions about the winery’s integrity and philosophical issues of what defines a wine’s identity ... 

Wine Spectator recently learned that the winery responded by buying and blending an additional 5,000 cases of 2008 Shiraz, bottling it under the same label.

"We found ourselves in the situation where we are running shorter than expected on domestic stocks of ’08 Shiraz," Schild winemaker Scott Hazeldine told Wine Spectator when asked about the new bottling. "In order to get us through to a stage when the 2009 will be ready for bottling, I have been asked to put together an additional blend for sale in Australia." The 2009 is scheduled for bottling later this month, to be released in Australia in June."

... Hazeldine stressed that wine was not intended for export to North America, but confirmed that the blend was "over and above the original."


Mr Stelzer on his own website perhaps went further saying that (extracted in part):

"The damage has been done, and it’s too late now to undo it. The thing that concerns me is that there’s nothing to stop it from happening again.

 There is nothing illegal about what Schild Estate has done. There is no breach of the Australian Wine and Brandy Act to bottle two completely different wines under the same label, provided the regions, vintages and varieties are as they are stated on the label ...


 There is a secondary issue here, that it is perfectly legal in Australia to bottle non-estate fruit under an estate label, and this deserves consideration in itself on another occasion. The core of the problem at hand lies in the fact that Australian wine law has nothing to say about the consistency or otherwise of wines bottled under identical labels.


 I’m not talking about wineries bottling the same blend in successive batches. Logistics naturally dictate that this is unavoidable in large-scale blends, and if the blend is from the same, original source, I see little problem with this ...


 Australian winemakers and marketers work overtime to build the good reputation of Australian wine on an increasingly challenging global stage. So much good work is undone by incidents like this. The vast majority of winemakers – who continue to do the right and honourable thing – would do well to raise their voices and close the legal loophole that permits this practice.  


Surely this is simply a matter of The Australian Wine and Brandy Act stipulating that different blends under the same brand must be labelled in such a way as to clearly identify successive blends?  


Winemakers would do well to campaign for this ..."


I understand that the new wine is to have a strip label included to the effect that the new wine is a "second blend".  So, in a sense, the problem has been solved.  I don't know whether this was planned, or the consequence of Wine Spectator's article.  But nonetheless, I do think it's worth shining the light on the more general underlying issues at stake.

While I am not going to make any comment on the legalities of what may or may not have taken place with Schild Estate, I think that there are some interesting issues that are raised here for the wine consumer.  I will say though that, assuming Wine Spectator has reported this correctly, Schild Estate emphasizing that the "new" wine will only be sold in Australia (rather than the United States), isn't particularly compelling marketing to me as an Australian.  Quite the opposite.  And wine scores have a tricky habit of being cross border creatures, as even my own humble approximately 40% non-Australian readership demonstrates.  Indeed, wine's grey market will no doubt ensure that the wine itself is not confined to Australia's shores.

That said, irrespective of the legalities, I think that most of the issues identified here could be addressed by something quite simple: put more information on wine labels.  I think Mr Stelzer is saying much the same thing.  With more information, hopefully there's then no confusion, recriminations or allegations.  This Schild Estate issue probably wouldn't have happened.  Which then begs the question as to what types of circumstances warrant more information being included on a wine label than currently appears to the case.  This got me thinking about some scenarios:
 
1. A winery owns vineyards "A" and "B" in the same region, produces a blend of the two from the same vintage, and bottles them at the same time.  The bottle label refers to the name of the producer, the region and the vintage. 
2. A winery owns vineyards A and B, produces a blend of the two, and bottles them in successive batches over time.  The bottle label does not refer to the successive batches of the wine having been made.
3. A winery owns vineyards A and B, buys fruit from vineyards "C" and "D" in the same region and from the same vintage, produces a blend of all four, and bottles them at the same time, or in successive batches over time.  No mention is made on the label of the use of fruit from vineyards C and D, but nor is it said that the wine only comes from vineyards A and B.  In effect, the winery functions like a French négociant in this example. 
4. A winery owns vineyards A and B, buys fruit from vineyard "C" and produces and bottles a blend of vineyards A and B separately to vineyard C, though the fruit purchased from vineyard C is selected and vinified in such a manner as to produce a wine similar to the vineyard A and B blend.
5. The blend produced from vineyards A and B is a mixture of 85% pinot noir and 15% shiraz.  No mention is made on the label of the use of the shiraz in the blend.  The wine is identified as "pinot noir", but not 100% pinot noir.
 
Scenario 1 is unremarkable, and I identify it solely to illustrate the paradigm of what a consumer might sometimes think is in the wine bottle, at least without being told otherwise. 

Scenario 2 is marginally more challenging.  In effect, Mr Stelzer deals with this scenario by pointing out that successive bottlings (for example, in Schild Estate's case which appears routine, according to Wine Spectator, bottling of the original blend took place over almost the course of a year) are a function of the logistics required to produce large scale blends.  They are a commercial and pragmatic winemaking reality in other words.  We must also accept, as a consumer, a certain level of difference between wines made from the same vineyards, if only because not all grapes, unlike other commercial products, are the same.  Wineries are of course free to describe their wines within the constraints of Australian law.  As I understand it, this may mean that this information does not need to appear on the bottle (though of course consumers cannot be misled by act or omission).  As a consumer, I nonetheless generally would be interested to know this type of information, if only that the label identifies something along the lines of "this wine, while produced from a master blend, may be bottled at different times for practical reasons.  The resulting wines may therefore differ".  But then again, I like to know where fruit and vegetables at the supermarket actually come from (beyond a pat reference to "Australia" that is), so I feel that I may not be representative.

Scenario 3 is a little more challenging again.  As I understand it, it seems that more successful wineries can act almost rather like an economic magnet that can draw in the grapes from all around them: presumably the pricing on offer is either higher or more certain or convenient than what could otherwise be achieved by the growers producing the wine themselves.  The growers may also lack resources.  Again, it appears that wineries have a relatively free hand again here in their labelling so that no mention is required to be made of the use of "non estate" wine, provided that they do not mislead consumers and otherwise comply with the laws referred to above.  See also this information from Wine Australia.  But again, I would personally always be interested in this information (ie information about the use of non-estate wines), if only because I am attracted to the terroirist ideal of at least being given the opportunity to follow the fortunes of particular vineyards (even if I don't actually always wish to partake in that opportunity, as per my recent note on vintage variation).  It also may assist in explaining why one label might vary from one year to the next if actually different vineyards are being used.  It probably wouldn't make sense to be prescriptive about this, as I can see that there could be any number of ownership and contractual arrangements that result in fruit ending up at the doorstep of a winery.  I am just saying that would be nice, in my opinion, if more wineries mentioned, if possible and practicable, the vineyards they obtained their wine from on their wine labels.

Scenario 4 is the problematic situation perhaps analogous to that highlighted in Wine Spectator and by Mr Stelzer as seemingly having taken place in relation to Schild Estate.  While seemingly legal, to me, the possibility that a wine could encompass two completely different blends should be identified on the wine label: there seems a real possibility of confusion in this scenario, even if the sole confused person is me.  Further, perhaps the practice should not be permitted to occur at all so that the second wine must be sold under a different label.  That said,  I do tend to prefer disclosure to prohibition as a general rule, so that people can make up their own minds about what a winery is doing.  Either way, the additional disclosure needs to be clear and not confusing or hard to find or a new label is required.  Examining bottle numbers as a solution, or subtly nuanced wording on labels is not what I have in mind.  Obvious is good.

Scenario 5 is a function of Australia's wine laws which appear permit a wine to be identified as a particular variety if it consists of at least 85% of that variety.  While I accept that there will be some cases were it is simply impracticable to precisely identify the varieties that go into a wine and Australia is not alone in having such laws, as a consumer, I am really quite interested to know what the remaining 15% might be.  Particularly if it is say a variety that is not generally thought to be sympathetic to the dominant varietal eg. what if our hypothetical pinot noir's colour or flavour was being topped up with shiraz?  The result may in fact be a better wine.  But it's nice to know.  I recognise that I may be alone in this view given the current laws referred to above.

Disclosure has its limits, but applied sensibly, more rather than less of it will be good for wine.

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2 comments:

  1. The Second Blend has obviously been a PR disaster for Schild's Estate. I like alot of others really enjoyed the first blend and thought it was fantasic value for a sub $20 wine. I should be raving about their label to my friends and a convert for life looking forward to future vintages. Instead I feel duped and won't rushing out to buy it again.

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  2. I agree. I personally think that this sort of thing, if wineries wish to do it, should properly be disclosed on wine labels (without media intervention), and I hope it's an isolated instance among Australian (and overseas) producers. It's not a good look. It will be interesting to see whether Schild Estate and others following the same approach now will be subject to an additional degree of scrutiny. I will probably think twice about their labels, fairly or not. Certainly, all with whom I spoke were surprised that this was even possible under existing laws.

    Regards
    Sean

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