In the unregulated, mishmash world of special labels used by California wineries one that often slips by is Estate.  It is an innocuous word, somewhat neutral in what it evokes, certainly less lofty than Reserve, Special Reserve, Limited Release or countless obscure single vineyard designations. In all my years of wine exploration, I have not paid much attention to this word, until now, after a tasting of some older Pinot Noirs from the well respected Carneros winery, Schug.

The tasting, held at the winery in a special cave with a long dining table, was led by their winemaker Michael Cox. It included five vintages of their popular Carneros Pinot Noir, 2007 through 2011 with a very informative catalog of production details, vineyards, harvest dates, brix, fermentation, cooperage, alcohol and acidity.

Schug Winery makes a number of different varietals but, as admitted by Mr. Cox, holds Pinot Noir as its primary mission, bottling it in the following designations: Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Schug Estate and Heritage Reserve. The first two are obviously run-of-the-mill wines at affordable prices; the other two are more expensive, special ones. As stated above, we were tasting their regular Carneros label.

As we went through the tasting and catalog, a peculiar detail caught my attention and I brought it up to Cox during a detailed question and answer session he held afterwards. The vineyards that provided grapes for each vintage substantially varied from year to year, and included numerous  independent names. Two in particular stood out, Iund, a vineyard famous for elegant Acacia Pinot Noirs from a bygone era, and San Giacomo, a single vineyard designation I had encountered just an hour earlier at Artesa, another Carneros winery, with a Pinot Noir that I thought was their best among many. At $64 (club member price) it was more  expensive compared to Artesa’s own Carneros bottling, $22.

Then there was Estate. In some years Estate contributed 18% (2007, 2010) to Schug’s Carneros, in other years none (2011). In one vintage, 2008, Estate contributed 48%. What was this all about? Why were the contributions so divergent?

The answer was simple. Estate meant the vineyard property owned by the winery. Since the vineyard had an Estate label, this received first right of allocation for the juice sourced from there. In vintages where estate production was scarce as in 2009, Carneros received only 3%; in 2011, a similar year, it got none. The Estate label sucked up the majority of estate  grapes and the winery relied on independent producers to provide them with grapes for their bread-and-butter, high volume label.

Cox explained that San Giacomo is a huge farming operation that provides grapes for a lot of wineries. It indeed is. Farming 1600 acres in Carneros and nearby regions, it outsources to nearly 100 wineries and currently holds the distinction of 35 special vineyard designations among its clients. Artesa is not the only one. Iund once outsourced nearly all of its production to the old, pre-corporate Acacia, with which it acquired its fame. Now it has become a free agent. Cox rattled off special features of the other vineyards they sourced from: Brown, Vineburg, Cornerstone, and Ricci. I’ll spare you the details, except that they are all in Carneros.

The point is that when you see a bottle that says “Schug Carneros”, you might think it is all made of grapes grown at Schug. It is not. Only the “Schug Estate” label carries this distinction. It appears that other wineries have similar business arrangements for their regular work-horse labels.

Is this a bad thing? I think not.

As in the financial world, diversification is always good as long as one knows how to assemble the right mix. Cox, who has been with the winery for 21 years, told us that in any given vintage, his most crucial work is to assess their different source vineyards and decide who to buy from and how to mix them. While a difficult vintage could challenge all the supply, as does a bear market in Wall Street, the skill of the wine producer is to maintain a style true to the winery’s reputation through such years, as in the good ones. Schug has done this well. 

As for an Estate label,  should we be paying extra bucks for it? I suggest that it depends on the winery, their performance and their prices. While special fans may disagree, with well established, well known wineries, their regular bottlings will be a better bargain – dollar per ounce  – than their other labels, Estate or otherwise. I now know the reason.