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The significance of "Estate Bottled"

My dad recently met with a marketing guru and spent some time talking about what makes Tablas Creek special.  We sat down after his conversation, and went through the usual suspects: Rhone specialist, organic vineyard, grapevines from Beaucastel, etc.  One thing that we both agreed was of great importance, but which we felt was not that well understood by most people outside the industry (as well as many inside it) was that at Tablas Creek, we are 100% Estate grown, made, and bottled.  Of course, the rules that govern estate bottling contribute to the confusion.

The significance of estate-bottling a wine is relatively straightforward.  It means that the winery grows the grapes themselves, and controls the product from beginning to end.  This does not guarantee a great wine (obviously, not all vineyards are capable of greatness, and just because you farm it yourself doesn't mean that you've maximized its potential) but it does mean that there are no excuses.  You grew the grapes, you made the wine, and you did it all on-site.  And, you at least have a chance of elaborating the elusive sense of place that the French call terroir.

No matter how great the relationship with a grower with whom you work, the grapes are still their product, not yours.  Plus, if you work with multiple growers, you can make a wine that's a reflection of a grape, or of a region, but not of a specific place.  At Tablas Creek, this reflection of place is what we've been reaching for since we started the project in 1989.

And, of course, we've used exclusively the grapes we grew ourselves on our 120-acre vineyard for all wines that have borne a Tablas Creek Vineyard label.  We are, in the classic definition, Estate Grown and Bottled. 

But, how the labeling laws are written, you can claim estate bottled status for vineyards over which you exercise "significant control".  This definition is left up to the winery, and I've never heard of it being audited by the Tax and Trade Bureau, who oversees the wine labeling process.  That looseness of definition weakens the designation dangerously, and if you asked most consumers which was more important, "Single Vineyard" or "Estate Bottled" most, I venture, would say "Single Vineyard".  And this is probably logical; there are stringent requirements set by the TTB about vineyard-designate wines.  All must be at a minimum 95% composed of grapes grown in that vineyard.  But, there's no guarantee (except for the ownership implied by identifiying the source of the grapes) of how, or by whom, that vineyard was farmed.  Many (maybe even most) vineyard-designate wines are from purchased grapes, and the best vineyards (think of Bien Nacido, in Santa Barbara County) sell grapes to dozens of winemakers.

So, back to Tablas Creek.  We are both Estate Bottled and vineyard designate.  It's implied by our name: we've chosen to call the winery "Tablas Creek Vineyard".  We grow all our own grapes, and our winemaker Neil Collins is also our vineyard manager.  In our opinion, it's not a separate job... the vineyard is the first step of the winemaking process.  We'll continue to try to communicate why we feel this is so important.