Has the term ‘California Grand Cru’ Gone too Far?

Has the term ‘California Grand Cru’ Gone too Far?

Has the term ‘California Grand Cru’ Gone too Far? I belong to a professional sommeliers guild and I was intrigued by a conversation that stemmed from a ‘members only’ message board about the use of ‘Grand Cru’ on California labels. The discussion started when a certified sommelier questioned the validity of using ‘Grand Cru’ on a California producer label, Sea Smoke, which recently decided to use this classification on their “Ten” and “Southing” Pinot Noir labels.  Having just returned from the Champagne region, I jumped in with both feet (and in a bit of a rant) to defend geographical indicators and names, but the conversation quickly turned to whether or not California should adopt the French wine classification system, and if so, what would the model look like? Would we rank it based on vineyard (Burgundy), village (Champagne) or producer (Bordeaux)?

In hindsight, I was not concerned so much with the marketing aspect or the consideration of creating a California ranking system as much as I was to question the legal aspects of using a ‘Grand Cru’ designation on American wine labels today. Was there any wrongdoing by doing so? I set out to answer this question.

Starting with the obvious, who uses ‘Grand Cru’ on their wine labels anyway? Sea Smoke, of course. But are there others? I found a couple of American wineries who use the term as part of their winery name, such as Grand Cru Winery in Sonoma County and Grand Cru Estates in Oregon. I suspect there are more, but I am excluding the latter as they represent the producer’s name rather than a classification. What about vineyards? Saxum in Paso Robles has a vineyard named James Berry, and they claim it is “…one of the iconic grand cru sites of California”—but as far as I know, they do not use ‘Grand Cru’ on their labels. I could not confirm this as my queries were left unanswered. There are probably other producers that use the term—if they exist, I could not find them.

I suspect Sea Smoke is the first U.S. producer to boldly use ‘Grand Cru’ on their label. Queried to find the answer, Vice President, General Manager, and Director of Winemaking Victor Gallegos validated my assumption by stating, I suspect we are the first American producer, but there might be a winery out there that has used the term and we are simply not aware of it.Gallegos confirmed they started using this term with their most recent 2009 release. Why did you decide to use this term—was it a marketing decision, or something else?  “Sea Smoke, as a brand and as a company, is all about one special piece of dirt…..the Sea Smoke estate vineyard.  The California Grand Cru designation simply reinforces that message to our customers.   It would have been unseemly for us to have unilaterally declared ourselves a Grand Cru vineyard…but we thought it reasonable to repeat the words of a noted California wine authority”, stated Gallegos. Victor’s comment is referring to a Wine Spectator article in which James Laube called Sea Smoke “an important part of Santa Barbara’s wine scene and one of its ‘grand cru’ properties.”

One thing for sure is that Sea Smoke is not using this term loosely. They have a defined definition, which should be noted. In France, the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) controls the ‘Grand Cru’ definition but it is a bit confusing since its meaning changes based on region. At a high level, Grand Cru is a regional wine classification that designates a vineyard known for its favorable reputation in producing wine. Technically, it is not a classification of wine quality, but rather an indication of vineyard or terroir potential.  It is the highest level of classification of AOC wines from Burgundy or Alsace. The same term applies to Saint-Émilion Châteaux, although it does not represent the top tier classification. In Burgundy, premier cru is immediately below grand cru, and is also known as 1er cru. This can get extremely confusing even for wine aficionados with advanced knowledge.

In California, Sea Smoke has its own definition, but Gallegos suspects the opinion in the wine industry will differ widely as it relates to the definition of a Grand Cru vineyard….Sea Smoke’s definition includes three components:

  1. A vineyard which produces wines of world-class quality
  2. A vineyard with distinctive and recognizable terroir
  3. A vineyard, which has shown consistency, across vintages and across producers

But getting down to the hard facts, who decides classification in California anyway? No one—that’s the point. Wines from outside of the traditional wine growing regions of Europe tend to classify by grape rather than by terroir or quality, although I am aware of Australia’s attempt at a quality classification, not to be confused with the American Viticultural Area (AVA), which does not limit the type of grapes grown, the method of vinification, or the crop yield. Their mission is to define a geographical location.

Moving on to a more obvious question, do American producers have a right to use ‘Grand Cru’ on their label? Meaning, are there any laws that prohibit the use of such a term in the U.S.? On one hand, there are a number of agreements signed to protect geographic indications on an international level. The International Agreement of Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (a.k.a. TRIPS) administered by the World Trade Organization (WTO) is one of those agreements. Many signatory countries (including the U.S.) have agreed to protect Geographical Indications (GIs) such as Port, Champagne, Napa, etc., and the Center for Wine Origins has been hard at work to protect the GIs.  For example, under current law, new producers cannot use the term ‘Champagne’. However, the grandfather exception clause allows continued use of geographic indications that were in trademarks in actual use before TRIPS became effective—which is why you still see Korbel’s “California Champagne” on American wine shelves.  Are Champagne producers and growers happy with this? Absolutely not. This was evident as I sat down to dinner with Champagne producer Bruno Paillard, a story I will cover later.

Digging deep into the Intellectual Property Protection and Enforcement Geographical Indications agreement, I find several references that highlight indications of quality and reputation, as well as positions that speak for misleading the public. Here are the excerpts:

 “Geographical indications are defined, for the purposes of the Agreement, as indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a Member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographical origin (Article 22.1). Thus, this definition specifies that the quality, reputation or other characteristics of a good can each be a sufficient basis for eligibility as a geographical indication, where they are essentially attributable to the geographical origin of the good.”

“The registration of a trademark which uses a geographical indication in a way that misleads the public as to the true place of origin must be refused or invalidated ex officio if the legislation so permits or at the request of an interested party”

“This applies even where the public is not being misled, there is no unfair competition and the true origin of the good is indicated or the geographical indication is accompanied be expressions such as “kind”, “type”, “style”, “imitation” or the like.”

On a follow-up conversation with a WTC official, I asked if the aforementioned excerpts broke any international laws by using the term ‘California Grand Cru’, and whether or not the term misleads the public as to the true place of origin. The official told Enobytes.com,

“Although the TRIPS Agreement states that geographical indications are related to both the origin and the quality or characteristics of a product, it does not specify how the quality is defined or identified. Nor does it refer to any terms or names that might be used to describe the quality, and what constitutes misuse. That is left up to each country’s domestic law to determine. So whether a term is a misuse or misleading in the US would depend on US law. No other country has challenged US law on this point under the WTO dispute settlement system, which is the ultimate arbiter on legal interpretations of WTO Agreements.

Paragraph 1 of Article 1 on “Nature and Scope of Obligations” of the TRIPS Agreement says: “Members shall give effect to the provisions of this Agreement. Members may, but shall not be obliged to, implement in their law more extensive protection than is required by this Agreement, provided that such protection does not contravene the provisions of this Agreement. Members shall be free to determine the appropriate method of implementing the provisions of this Agreement within their own legal system and practice.”

When querying many organizations on this topic, I received a response from Thibaut Le Mailloux, Director of Communications at the Le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) which responded, “…we should focus on Grand Cru once wine GI names are protected in the U.S.” This is not to say the CIVC would have direct involvement in this debate. Yet, they are a governing body that supports the Center for Wine Origin’s mission to protect Geographical Indications.

What about the AOC? They must care about expressions such as ‘California Grand Cru’, right? Nope. They only care about governing French regulations, and believe me, they will go after producers who break the rules. You may have heard of a recent story where a Loire producer faced jail time for labeling his wine inappropriately as ‘AOC’, as pun on the initials ‘Anjou Olivier Cousin’, an offense that carries a €37,500 fine or up to two years in prison. But since the AOC only governs French regulations, the Americans have nothing to worry about. However, I still agonize over regional branding as they serve as source-identifiers for consumers. For example, the French use the term ‘Grand Cru’ to represent quality, in a sense. Will using this term in other parts of the world deflate the reputation as an indication for vineyard or terroir potential, which ultimately defines unique quality? I believe the verdict is out on this one, but this seems like an appropriate lead to introduce the specifics of the U.S. /EC Wine Agreement with the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (IRC), which defines semi-generic names as a name of geographic significance as well as designations for wine ‘class’ and ‘type’. This law specifically dovetails into the TRIPS agreement to state that preexisting uses of semi-generic names on non-European wine are acceptable under the grandfather law, but prohibits new brands from using the names on non-EC wine. An example of a semi-generic name would be something like Burgundy (France), Port (Portugal), Chianti (Italy), Sherry (Spain) and such.

Producer XYZ may continue to use the semi-generic name “Sherry” or “Burgundy” on a label, provided they do not change the brand name or fanciful name as they appear on a Certification/Exemption of Label/Bottle Approval (COLA) issued prior to March 10, 2006 from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

So for example, Producer XYZ produces “Smith Elegance California Cream Sherry.”  On the label and corresponding COLA, the brand name is “Smith,” the fanciful name is “Elegance,” “Sherry” is the class and type designation, “Cream” is considered an  expression, and “California” is the labeled appellation of origin. Sherry that is not from Spain must be labeled with an appellation of origin.

If you read that last paragraph carefully, you will see how the COLA treats the term ‘Grand Cru’ in its label approval process—it defines it not as a means to qualify classification or quality but rather as an optional fanciful name.

The EU and US agreement also covers expressions. For example, “The US is allowed to use under certain conditions and for a limited period of time, 14 EU traditional expressions: Château, classic, clos, cream, crusted,/crusting, fine, late bottled vintage, noble, ruby, superior, sur lie, tawny, vintage and vintage character”, but nowhere in the agreement does the term ‘Grand Cru’ come up.

So what is the conclusion?  With no back yard or international governing body, Sea Smoke has every right to do whatever they want with the ‘Grand Cru’ term, and my assumption is that many American producers will follow in their footsteps.

My only concern is that without defining an agreeable classification for California, we will see things like ‘California Grand Cru White Zinfandel’ on the shelves and I doubt anyone wants to see the market saturated with this sort of nonsense. At least Sea Smoke has done their due diligence to define what they mean by ‘Grand Cru’ and they make a quality product to back up their claims. But is this enough?

It will be interesting to see where this topic takes us in the coming months and years…


About the Author:

Editor and co-founder of Enobytes.com, Pamela is a sommelier and former restaurant manager and wine buyer with Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), Court of Master Sommeliers & Center for Wine Origins certification. She has contributed to or been quoted by various publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Sommelier Journal, Vegetarian Times, VIV Magazine, UC-Berkeley Astrobiology News, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, NPR and USA Today. True to her roots, she seeks varietal and appellation integrity and is always passionate about finding the next great bottle of wine.


  1. Douglas Trapasso October 18, 2011 at 7:14 PM - Reply

    Dear Pamela:

    This is simply my opinion. One person. But you’re about to see the biggest PR disaster since the 9/11 wine. Anyone who is indifferent about wine or thinks he/she can’t afford anything decent (i.e. 98.0% of the population) will not be tempted to buy Sea Smoke because of it having “Grand Cru” on the label. The other 2.0% will be profoundly offended (they don’t buy American “Chanpagne” either) and will turn negative to the winery.

    • MacDaddy Marc Hinton October 19, 2011 at 5:18 PM - Reply

      I think you nailed it and the fact other wine writers found this subject to be relevant only bolsters the opinions here at Enobytes. Even winebusiness.com agrees otherwise they would not have pulled two stories about this subject to their homepage. As always thanks for your opinion.

  2. Heather October 18, 2011 at 7:26 PM - Reply

    Well written post with excellent posing questions! My two cents? I want to lean towards the WTF?!? for Sea Smoke, but based on the evidence, it is their prerogative to do what seems right. If they think they have a grand cru vineyard, then scream it and market it like nobody’s business! If they have a vineyard that designates ‘Grand Cru’ in their mind, then so be it. Until there is some governing body that tells them otherwise, let them do what they want to do.

    • MacDaddy Marc Hinton October 19, 2011 at 6:50 PM - Reply

      Thanks for your two cents worth and more. Presuming only the American wine market has to deal with this issue I can see your reasoning from a marketing standpoint and let the buyer beware. However in the rest of the world counterfeit labels appearing on all sorts of products including their place of origin is something that has an effect on trade and economics and waiting until there is a governing body does not seem to be fair to other wine markets where we (U.S.A.) are allowed to export our wines for sale in their countries. Thanks for the comment and your compliment about the article.

  3. Grant J. October 18, 2011 at 7:34 PM - Reply

    Isn’t there ethical issues to consider here? It’s bad enough American producers are allowed to use the term Burgundy under the grandfather law. Let’s nip this in the bud once and for all.

    • MacDaddy Marc Hinton October 19, 2011 at 5:55 PM - Reply

      Grant J.,

      Well stated and applauded. Ethics. In our current state of worldwide economic woes I would hope that word starts to become a lot more popular, otherwise we will keep footing the bill for those who had none.

  4. Karen Reid October 18, 2011 at 7:50 PM - Reply

    I can’t believe we are even having this discussion and I’m surprised the COLA you mention allows a quality designation to fit under a fanciful name. Are you kidding me? I can only assume the TTB turns a blind eye to this sort of thing. Nonsense? Yes!

    • MacDaddy Marc Hinton October 19, 2011 at 6:16 PM - Reply

      Your comments are insightful and appreciated.The TTB label approval folks are not as consistent as you might think in their allowances or rejections. I remember an Oregon winery who made a Port style wine. When they were notified they could no longer use the word ‘Port’ on the label they had a contest among their wine club members to come up with a new name and the first name submitted was ‘Export’. I think you know where this is going when I say the first name they submitted for approval. Having you as one of our audience readers makes bringing subjects like this to the attention of others a worthwhile effort.

  5. Derek October 18, 2011 at 9:36 PM - Reply

    Personally, it is hard to take sides without laws in place. We can’t blame Sea Smoke for doing what they did, and in all honesty it seems like a bold and tactful move to gain brand recognition but can you blame them? I’m not for it but for what’s it is worth, until laws are in place, there is free reign for them to do what they want any old time. ~Rolling Stones

    • MacDaddy Marc Hinton October 19, 2011 at 6:40 PM - Reply

      We as citizens of this country make the laws, so no personally it is not hard to take sides. The stand back and wait to see what happens approach to legislation is exactly why things like this take place. You as an individual can go to the hearings where laws are formed on a national and state level. Lobbying for an ideal is not an activity granted only to paid corporate lobbyists. I saw the Stones live in 1975 and they were tired then, but that aside I’m pretty sure only the last eight words of your sentence is a quote from I’m Free. It therefore does not constitute a quote. Sort of like putting Grand Cru on a California bottle of wine.

  6. Gilad, Israel October 19, 2011 at 4:07 AM - Reply

    I’m just wondering the choice of the name “Grand Cru”. I believe that the “Judgment of Paris” has legitimized California wine in particular and new world wine in general, and in today’s world several new world wine growing regions have enough merit to stand on their own (not to mention teach old world wineries a thing or two).

    You want to have a classifications system for wine quality, terroir, etc…fine – why the French “wink”? Why not develop a name that represents California and Californians?

    I personally do not feel that new world wines need to suck up to the French – let the classification system be new world as well, no need to annex it to the old.

    • MacDaddy Marc Hinton October 19, 2011 at 7:11 PM - Reply


      A better solution I could not have thought of myself, I agree there is no reason to give the French classification system the props and imitate what they do nor reuse the name with an approval legally. Your siting of the “Judgement in Paris” is quite relevant and considering how many years have passed since that historical event it boggles my mind that US winemakers do not share your line of reasoning. We make world class wines and why we want to use the names and classifications from other proprietary growing regions is beyond me. I see this a lot when I am in other wine regions outside of Napa and Sonoma. Lesser known regions often have winemakers and winery owners who use comparisons to wines from the two regions I just mentioned while they are talking about products from Anderson Valley, Livermore, Lodi, Amador, Mendocino or Lake County It is always refreshing when someone stands up and say’s here is my wine, taste it I think you will be impressed. Your comments will always be welcome here. Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Sammy October 19, 2011 at 6:45 PM - Reply

    Give me a xanax so I can simmer down from all of the ruckus. I guess good press is equal to bad press. It’s still talking about the brand baby!!!

    • enobytes October 22, 2011 at 10:08 AM - Reply

      Indeed it is…

  8. plesherb October 19, 2011 at 7:07 PM - Reply

    Excellent timing on Sea Smokes part as the AOC is busy processing Domaine Olivier Cousin.

    • enobytes October 22, 2011 at 10:08 AM - Reply


  9. Grand Cru Master October 19, 2011 at 7:45 PM - Reply

    An interesting debate to say the least. I say we call all California wine the Grandest of all Cru and be done with it! I’m not buy’n it.

  10. Tish October 19, 2011 at 7:52 PM - Reply

    Excellent post, Pamela. And comments, especially by Douglas Trapasso and Gilad, Israel. I’d like to add a couple points:

    1)It should be noted that the Sea Smoke “Grand Cru” story was first broken by Tyler Colman aka drvino.com http://www.drvino.com/2011/10/17/sea-smoke-pinot-grand-cru/

    2)I don’t exactly blame James Laube the term Grand Cru showing up on the Sea Smoke labels, but for full context it should be noted that “noted California wine authority” referred to was indeed Laube. It would be nice if he came out of the White Tower and commented. It’s one thing for a winery to quote a critic in its own promo materials or ads. To snip out the Grand Cru from a quote and use it on a label is beyond tone deaf.

    3) This has happened before. Grand Cru Vineyards was once an actual Sonoma winery. It is now just a California brand, owned by Bronco Wine Co. (Forest Glen, Two Buck Chuck, et al). Another example: Wolffer Estate on Long Island once released a “Premier Cru” Merlot (http://wine.appellationamerica.com/wine-reviews/295/Wolffer-Estate-Vineyard-2001-Premier-Cru-Merlot.html); it cost $100 and was good but not great. Just my opinion, but both of these examples seem less offensive than the Sea Smoke one. Grand Cru Vyds. label goes back to a time when LOTS of California wineries used various French terms (albeit not all regulated terms) to enhance the image of their wine. And the Wolffer example (no longer being made, based on checking the current website) was done as a conscious gesture by the producer to say, in effect, “WE think this is as good as many of the famous wines of Bordeaux.” (By the way, I actually bought a bottle and drank it with friends in Napa Valley; we were not so impressed.)

    My hunch moving forward is that sommeliers will shun the wine; high-end retailers will not. For somms, listing such a wine would create a situation in which they would have to “defend” an abomination, whereas retailers would have less of an obligation to explain it other than saying it is controversial but good wine.

    Anyway, nice to see discussion of this online…

    • enobytes October 22, 2011 at 10:09 AM - Reply

      Thanks for your comment Tish. It will be interesting to see where this goes (if anywhere).

  11. Jennifer S. October 21, 2011 at 12:59 AM - Reply

    Thought-provoking post. Thanks for sharing.

    • Pamela Heiligenthal October 24, 2011 at 5:24 PM - Reply

      Thanks Jennifer…we’ll see where this discussion leads us in the coming months (if anywhere) :)

  12. Liz Martins October 21, 2011 at 7:04 AM - Reply

    An interesting debate to say the least.

  13. Randy Caparoso October 24, 2011 at 7:31 AM - Reply

    As you point out, Pamela, there’s nothing that keeps an American winery from designating their own single vineyard bottlings as “grand crus,” and so the only surprise is that other wineries haven’t done this before. If anything, kudos to Sea Smoke for having the cojones to do so, as ridiculously self serving as it may be. Hey, it’s free enterprise: if one company wishes to insinuate that they produce superior products, c’est la vie. It’s up to the consumer to accept or reject it.

    The real pain, of course, will come when a thousand other wineries decide to do the same thing. There are other label designations, of course, that are unregulated (“Reserve,” “Old Vine,””Special,” etc.), and it’s been a free-for-all for years to such an extent that consumers have grown to take them with hefty grains of salt. Again, c’est la vie.

    Fact is, Sea Smoke makes wonderful wine, although no better than that of numerous other producers. Therefore, I wouldn’t sweat it. Life’s just too short to worry about the repercussions of one winery’s marketing ploy.

    • Pamela Heiligenthal October 24, 2011 at 5:22 PM - Reply

      Thanks for reiterating … and I’m keeping my fingers crossed we don’t see any ‘California Grand Cru White Zinfandel’ show up on our shelves any time soon!! :)

  14. Harvey October 25, 2011 at 12:08 PM - Reply

    Pamela, I thought you would find this interesting. I know I did! I came across an American Grand Cru society with a mission:

    “The American Grand Cru Society has the authority to designate wines the status of being Grand Cru wines from their state of origin (i.e. California Grand Cru, Oregon Grand Cru, and Virginia Grand Cru). Wines selected to receive this prestigious status are authorized to use the status in marketing activity for no charge.”

    I am perplexed this sort of society exists. Check it out here: http://www.americangrandcrusociety.com/

    • Nick November 3, 2011 at 6:53 PM - Reply

      It’s interesting that the American Grand Cru Society (which is apparently owned and run by Greg Poirier of Wine Guy tours) states on their website: “Designation status requires approval by a board comprised of wine specialists and technical experts governed by the American Grand Cru Society.”

      I would be interested in seeing a list of who is on the board, but can’t find any details anywhere.

    • enobytes November 4, 2011 at 7:08 PM - Reply

      Wow! A wine tour guy responsible for grand cru status! Priceless.

  15. Glenn S. October 30, 2011 at 4:13 PM - Reply

    Interesting how Sea Smoke isn’t on that American Grand Cru Society list. But I’m even more surprised to see ten other vineyards on that ‘grand cru’ list.

  16. Nick November 3, 2011 at 6:50 PM - Reply

    Top notch post that gives this a very close look. My feelings are that if anyone can slap “Grand Cru” on a bottle, it’s kind of pointless and certainly wouldn’t inspire me to pick up such a bottle for that reason alone.

    The concept of a for-profit business in the US designating wines as grand cru also seems a bit suspect to me.

    • enobytes November 4, 2011 at 7:15 PM - Reply

      Completely agree Nick. On a side note, my first reaction to this labeling was similar to the reaction I had when I saw American producers using the term Champagne — we don’t need to add another level of confusion for U.S. wine drinkers!!

  17. Gregoire November 7, 2011 at 9:47 PM - Reply


    Interesting dialogue indeed. Just for the record I started the American Grand Cru Society for two purposes. First and foremost to protect against the mis-use of any American Grand Cru or California Grand Cru for marketing a misleading use of the phrase. Second because I believe and am personally committed to developing our own American hybrid vineyard based classification taking some parts of the French system, along with some new world thinking that will actually result in becoming a credible benefit first and foremost for the consumer.

    While in the earliest of stages of development, we are looking for support and community moving forward that perhaps you would like to discuss. To be successful with our intellectual property for the use of these terms moving, it will by necessity need to be deemed credible and would welcome your input.


    Gregoire M. Poirier
    Founder, The American Grand Cru Society
    Certified Sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers since 1995
    Masters of Business Administration, Wine and Spirits Program
    Bordeaux Ecole de Management

  18. Pamela Heiligenthal November 9, 2011 at 6:19 PM - Reply

    Gregoire, thanks for the clarification on the mission and vision. I commend your efforts for initiating such a project. On a side note, has there been consensus among the California wine community that the majority supports this? I’m being transparent here but creating a definition of said classification and assigning vineyards as grand cru seems a bit premature, like placing the cart before the horse, no? And isn’t ‘Grand Cru’ intellectual property of France? I’d be interested in participating with the hopes that voices are heard from many facets including the Center for Wine Origins and the numerous producers and consumers that have a stake in this discussion. Thanks for listening!

    • Gregoire November 10, 2011 at 11:03 AM - Reply

      I too highly respect the Center for Wine Origins, and look forward to discussions and input. I have collected input on some linkedin wine group communities, as well as meeting with a variety of constituencies of stakeholders and that will continue much beyond the ME in this dialogue.


      If there existed a credible California Grand Cru vineyard specific classification today, what vineyards do you know of that you think should qualify?

      Hope to chat live and meet at some point.

      • Pamela Heiligenthal November 10, 2011 at 6:31 PM - Reply

        Hey Gregoire, Where do I start :) Before charging forward, I think what’s needed is a more formal process to determine need and interest—maybe it’s as simple as sending a survey to all California wineries. We would use this to validate interest and to initiate ownership. With interest, we could select a classification board, which would decide on the approval process, define the categories, qualification criteria, and scoring methodology, examinations (e.g. visits and tastings). Re-using a model such as the Demeter biodynamic certification process or a hybrid of the AOC might work. Once in place, producers would apply for classification. This is my longwinded story explaining why I don’t think I qualify to make recommendations on who qualifies for a status such as this. It should be based on well-defined criteria with a board that makes the decision, not an individual. It’s sort of the same terms if I had a vineyard in St-Emilion—the AOC or Bordeaux National Institute wouldn’t come searching for me to classify my vineyard—it’s up to me to submit an application and the board makes the decision. I would see the American version working in similar terms. But with all of this said, the first step is really identifying the need—if we don’t have that, its worthless to pursue. That’s my optimistic (and pessimistic) view! I’m not on board until I see a clear need for it. Next steps? I’d love to hear all of the great work you’ve done thus far. Additionally I could poll readers from my site which would be a good sample set consisting of consumers and industry folks—then we could think about creating a survey which would go out to the California producers. What do you think?

        • Gregoire November 11, 2011 at 3:21 PM - Reply

          Interesting points, great input, ….thank you.

          To me one significant area of disagreement however, is any belief that it’s a producers need and interest thats of primary concern at all really rather than that of consumers which you also express.  By focusing on the interest of the consumer first and foremost, the needs and interest are much more clear. Plus the will to address and solve issues surely to arise, is a more powerful tool. There will clearly be benefit for producers with the best in class vineyards, particularly as an alternative or compliment to wine ratings enterprises like Spectator and RB.

          That’s what my research to date supports, and that is the core premise for the journey ahead as envisioned.  Do consumers want or need the outcome?  Recent studies like this one you may have seen, continue to show that they really do, and with passion.


          Identifying best in class ” Grand Cru ” vineyards and wines produced from them is right in line with this strong consumer sentiment.

          The producer community has a stake and I wont disagree, so having seats at the table is a honest need too and that will be accommodated and has been to date.

          While doing research for a masters thesis related, (delivered and defended last month), the past few years have included input from a variety of luxury wine producers from California, along with credentialed Sommeliers, and other trade professionals.

          Polling at this point would not improve what we have from research I do not think unless we did this at a very high level……..to build on the current research done to date. (Particularly without benefit of lots of information sharing, in my view a real need at this point).

          That being said, your roadmap as suggested follows a logical path ahead.  A board needs to be chosen for each time vineyards are considered, criteria needs to be set, a system for changes over time imbedded, and recommendations / applications need to be introduced for candidate vineyards before a designation moves forward.

          While I respect any hesitation to make suggestions of worthy vineyards, building that database has been on-going for some time now. Offereing suggested vineyards is simply a request to help create and add informal input to that data-base. If you or others are so willing, we will gladly accept.

          While any concerns about control are still a bit premature from where I sit, if I had not been working on this in the background over the past few years and sitting where I do, I would not make that assumption either…..;-)

          Those in the trade (aside from producers) will be in a strong position to provide support needed for credibility, and can chose not to. This industry does not lack for passionate and diverse points of view. Therefore, there are some inherent checks and balances involved.  I believe that trust can be placed in that premise.

          Remember too that this is not only about California, size of market notwithstanding.  Best in class vineyards in the other states all have the interest of the wine consumer community too of course.

          Since I shared a caution about producers, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the amount of strong leadership within that community. Notwithstanding however, producers compete against other priducers and consumers don’t. Strickly putting the consumer first, there will be ways to accomplish the ambitious nature of this endeavor.  

          If your offer to engage in a honest spirit of collaboration is sincere as I sense it is, your input will always be welcome btw.  

          Again there is much to do, and as with anything that is something worthy to do a commitment is important. The metric for success of this effort will be measured by the test of time I imagine.

          Lastly, I appreciate this opportunity to share and I would like to continue this dialogue in other ways too. When time permits, I hope to have an opportunity to sit and gain input in person with you and or others…


          • Pamela Heiligenthal November 13, 2011 at 1:07 PM

            Thanks Gregoire, I am sincere in helping to define this space as long as there is strong consensus that it’s wanted. And I agree with you that this goes beyond the state of California; if it’s to be done right, a U.S. focus (at the least) should be in scope. I would love to see the database of current vineyards :)

            On a separate note, I agree with you whole-heartedly that consumers want truth in labeling. The poll you provided definitely points that out—but this poll does not enforce that consumers want to see grand cru (or another classification term) on American labels. The term grand cru is a slightly different animal. The center for wine origins focuses on GIs, not classifications. They have enough on their plate defending GIs without adding complexity of classifications. I’ve had discussions with them on numerous occasions about this topic—it’s out of scope for them but they do see the importance of it and may embrace it at a later time.

            But this also brings up another question—if consumers demand truth in labeling, I would imagine they might have concerns seeing French terms on American labels—I could go so far as to say this term is intellectual property belonging to France. I’m not saying not to pursue U.S. vineyard classifications, but finding an agreed upon American terminology might be a better route?? I don’t know. Maybe another option is to define a worldwide classification but that would obviously add a level of complexity.

            Anyway, I’ll send you an email so we can continue this discussion off line :)

  19. Shawn November 9, 2011 at 9:34 PM - Reply

    I’ve been purchasing Sea Smoke for a while and like the wine, yet feel it is slightly over priced for the area. In the retail world it is far inflated fetching often times well over $100 a bottle for the “Ten” Pinot.

    I live in the area and have spoken to a few locals, including winemakers. Many seemed to have the opinion that the business decision was entirely the owners. In my opinion, this is an entirely ego driven choice, as there is a waiting list to purchase. That being said, it sadly puts a taint on the wine in my view. The funny and amazing thing, is that if you ever saw the location in Lompoc where they were located until recently, you would laugh that such pretension could be placed on a label with such an industrial dive looking location. When I picked up my wine, I had to climb up a rod iron latter from sunken concrete designed for truck drivers to back into. The Lompoc Wine Ghetto area is great for wine tasting other fantastic Pinot Noirs, mainly grown from the Sta Rita Hills. Many priced under $40.

    The winemaker of Sea Smoke, Don, is a good guy making good wines. He also has his own label producing Gruner, which are pretty stellar wines too.

    • Pamela Heiligenthal November 10, 2011 at 7:01 PM - Reply

      Shawn, thanks for chiming in! Do you think your opinion would change if California would adopt a classification model? Meaning, if California put a classification in place, and Sea Smoke met the criteria to deem its vineyards superior, would it mean more to you? Or do you think all of this talk about classifying CA vineyards nonsense? I would sincerely appreciate your input. I’m trying to get a handle on whether or not classification would mean anything to consumers. Oh yeah, your ghetto reference cracked me up. I twittered a query asking if France has any ghetto French Grand Cru vineyards :) I’m still waiting for a response but the answer might surprise us!

  20. Shawn November 14, 2011 at 8:01 PM - Reply

    Pamela, my opinion would not change of the arrogance of Sea Smoke if a vineyard classification model were adopted, since they did it first.

    I think the idea of creating this type of model would be bad for 98% of the vineyards, and most of the general public, that can hardly understand a wine label as it is currently presented. Even most wine geeks don’t understand things like biodynamics, so adding more, would further complicit things for wineries and the consumer in my view. Also, I’m not sure how this could be “policed” to ensure whatever criteria were set in place for the vineyards. This would also seemingly add more expense and then the question becomes, who pays for it? The consumer?

    • enobytes November 16, 2011 at 8:08 PM - Reply

      Shawn, I appreciate your candid response and I understand your concerns…

  21. Ingrid J. November 16, 2011 at 5:41 PM - Reply

    I’m afraid this problem will only continue to grow if critics like Laube and Steinman use the term loosely. I read this in the WS today:

    Per Steinman, “Brothers Bill and Andy Den Hoed farm more than 1,500 acres in Columbia Valley, but this vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills is their “grand cru.””

    I’d be interested in Harvey’s response in this matter. This only causes more consumer confusion.

    • enobytes November 16, 2011 at 8:10 PM - Reply

      Hey Ingrid yeah, I saw that too…Harvey? Laube? :)

  22. Leonard Zolman December 17, 2011 at 2:28 PM - Reply

    Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch as I found it for him . So let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch!

    • enobytes December 18, 2011 at 10:19 AM - Reply

      Hope you had the crab cakes :) Cheers Leonard.

  23. […] for Wine Origins has been hard at work to protect these GIs, and I have brought this issue to light last week. This particular problem is a little bit different—it focuses on an interesting loophole that […]

  24. Angus December 26, 2011 at 3:03 AM - Reply

    Brilliant post, well researched and eloquent.
    Making labeling clear and consistent for the consumer should be priority N*1.
    any classification of superior quality or name that indicates this, should be asses and given by a reputable source, organization, well experienced tasting panel and so forth.
    If wineries are allowed to start using terms that will eventually misslead and confuse the consumer they will be undoing the great work of people out trying to simplify wine and getting the consumer more connected with the liquid in their glasses..
    The french appellation system does not work for the consumer in most cases as it is overly complicated, not consistent and in some cases even misleading (St Emilion..?)
    The USA should seek a different classification, a more modern clear and unique to them, To french wines are a benchmark in some cases their apelación is not, And in some cases The declasify wine

    • Angus December 26, 2011 at 3:11 AM - Reply

      Cont.. That is of outstanding quality but does not represent The wine style desired by the board panel of the regions AOC like on Jean Thevenet top Macon Vire-Clesse wines to be declassified. More here http://bit.ly/uWeuRK

    • Pamela Heiligenthal December 26, 2011 at 7:37 PM - Reply

      Angus, thanks for chiming in–valid points to say the least! I agree that the French appellation system is quite complex and I think bringing the consumer into the picture is a great point. On a separate note, your comment brings up the bane of my existence—trying to educate consumers on German labels. This of course has nothing to do with the AOC but I think it dovetails into the complicated issues consumers deal with on labeling. Most consumers give up when trying to decode the words associated with region names, level of sweetness, districts, etc – words like Erzeugerabfüllung, Anbaugebiet, Edelfäule scare them off. This is, of course, a situation primarily stemming from the language barrier but it came to mind when you brought up consumers—which we tend to forget their perspective too often. If they can’t interpret the label, they get frustrated and walk away from a purchase unless someone is there to educate them. And many sales people don’t even know how to translate or decode labels! Thanks for sharing the Jean Thevenet story by Per-Henrik Mansson—it was an excellent read.

  25. Dirk Bromley January 5, 2012 at 7:04 AM - Reply

    A appelation accreditation is bestowed. For a winery to bestow itself,
    is folly in the extreme. Pretentious even. The French have thier way, the New World their
    own. Lots to celebrate there, but do not revert to a system that has little or nothing
    to do with you. When you’ve been making wine for 2000 years; give us a call!

  26. Kamryn Cavazos January 15, 2012 at 2:44 PM - Reply

    Im thankful for the article.Thanks Again. Awesome.

  27. […] Pamela Heiligenthal: Has the term ‘California Grand Cru’ Gone too Far? […]

  28. […] Pamela Heiligenthal: Has the term ‘California Grand Cru’ Gone too Far? […]

  29. […] Pamela Heiligenthal: Has the term ‘California Grand Cru’ Gone too Far? […]

  30. […] to all of the nominees, but especially to our friend Pamela Heiligenthal from Enobytes for her post Has the term ‘California Grand Cru’ Gone too Far? which was nominated in the category of Best Investigative Wine […]

  31. Gabrielle November 26, 2013 at 10:41 PM - Reply

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you writing this article and also the rest of the site is very good.

Leave A Comment