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Friday Fishwrap
Mr. Kramer Goes Overboard—“Reserve” Wines Are Not “Bunco”

By Stephen Eliot

During my long tenure as an instructor at the California Culinary Academy, most every class sooner or later asked me about the meaning of often seen terms such as “Reserve”, “Private Reserve”, “Special Selection”, et. al. on a California wine labels. I would usually throw the question back directly and asked what they thought it meant, and I would hear answers ranging from “best” to “nothing at all” to “cynically marketing hype”. I had to admit that every response was correct, and the terms still cause a goodly deal of confusion and even rancor when the topic is raised among those who like to talk about wine.

This past week, in fact, Matt Kramer warned against believing that the “Reserve” designation necessarily meant that a wine was of high quality, but then he went too far in offering up the following advice…”California is the hands-down winner in the “Reserve” bunco game. Let me make it as simple for you as possible: if you see a wine from California designated “Reserve”, run!”

Well, Mr. Kramer, I respectfully and emphatically disagree and would in turn warn of the pitfalls of ridiculously pat answers.

It is true that here in California, the term “Reserve” and all of its permutations have no legal meaning, and none comes with the guarantee that a wine has met some quantifiable standard for quality. It does not, however, that such designations have no meaning at all. They mean, quite simply, whatever a winery chooses them to mean. And, more often than not, those terms in hands of reputable makers mean that the producer has chosen wine believed to be special.

There was a time when only a small handful of producers such as Beaulieu, Charles Krug, Inglenook and Mondavi employed such terms, and they signaled not only a winery’s best effort, but also a wine assembled with great care and bearing a price meant to convey the intended up-quality results. Then, sometime around 1980, there was a sudden explosion of labels employing the wholly unregulated “Reserve” designation, and what was once an almost entirely meaningful and reliable term became the stuff of big-budgeting marketing. It was and still is hard not to be cynically dismissive of the term these days, but if you were to run from any California wine labeled “Reserve”, as Mr. Kramer suggests, you might be running from an extremely remarkable wine.

Yes, there are literally millions of cases of everyday wine and worse that come dressed up with the word “Reserve” in their titles, but that should not mean that those who use the term conscientiously should be summarily dismissed as bunco artists. Now I admit that there are times when “Reserve” works its way onto the labels of those for whom high quality is antithetical to their business models, but, I for one will never refuse a glass of “Reserve” anything from wineries like Pride, Lewis, Frank Family, Beaulieu, Robert Mondavi, Lewis and Dehlinger to name but a few.

So, what is the wine lover to do? A little homework is my answer. If you are expecting that $6.00 “Reserve” to be an eye-opening experience, well, think again. But, do not automatically assume that a pricey “Reserve” is no more than a trick. Yes, do a bit of homework, and find out just what this or that winery means by the term. Ask your favorite retailer. Call the sommelier to the table. Read what folks who write about wine for a living have to say…and then make your decision.

To borrow Mr. Kramer’s words, the biggest “modern wine fallacy” is the idea that there are easy, yes-or-no answers, quick litmus tests and fast tracks to understanding fine wines, and that goes for everything from alcohol levels and winemaking technique to the way a producer might chose to label his or her wines. Real wine appreciation is a process. It is a journey of discovery that takes some thought and the willingness to ask questions. It takes some homework, yes, but homework of the most delicious sort.


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