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Jason Pahlmeyer still has giddy excitement in his voice when he remembers the birth of his Napa Valley winery’s second label, Jayson, 17 years ago. “I look back on that and say, ‘Wow!’ ” he gushes. Not because that particular wine made him a fortune—actually, he says, he pretty much breaks even on it every year. It’s because he had some seriously top-notch juice on his hands, an iconic dream team of winemakers in his midst (outgoing winemaker Randy Dunn, incoming winemaker Helen Turley, who stayed on for seven years before going on to create her own lauded label, and their buddies Bob Levy and Bob Egelhoff), and a wine that would go on to win the kind of praise that would make even this trial attorney-turned-winery-owner blush with pride. “The Jayson goes into the same brand new French oak barrels [as the main label, Pahlmeyer], has the same barrel-aging regimen, same blending, same care and dedication from my winemaker,” Pahlmeyer explains. “It’s 90 percent of the quality at 50 percent of the price.”
Second labels—wines that a respected producer makes from grapes grown on the same estates and, often, on the very same vines as their more expensive counterparts—offer great quality at a fraction of the price of a big-name wine. That can mean the eye-popping difference of about 60 clams between, say, the Pahlmeyer label Napa Valley Proprietary Red ($105) and the winery’s second label, Jayson Napa Valley Red ($45)—gleaned from the same vineyards and made by the same talented winemaker, Erin Green. To put it another way, it’s the difference between a wine that you’d buy for a milestone birthday and one that you might entertain for a within-budget splurge—and sometimes second labels go for prices that are everyday-reasonable. Feel like having a little Beaucastel with your beef stew? Some Léovalle with your lamb-laden shepherd’s pie?
It all started in Bordeaux, that beautiful, chateaux-laden promised land of viti- and vinicultural tradition, and the bar by which so many other wine regions measure themselves—and where second wines are still an important and large part of the annual production. The bottling of second wines in Bordeaux can be traced back to the 19th century, but became commercially important in the 1980s when increasing competition forced chateau owners to select grapes more rigorously to justify high prices.
Even in the Big Bx, there’s no magical farm or phenolic fairy dust to make every aspect of all grapes perfect every year. After all, this is an agricultural product and, thus, it’s at the mercy of mother nature’s whims—weather, soil quality, pests, disease and the rest. So while some vines will produce the heralded fruit that grabs the golden price tag of a thousand bucks (hello, 2005 Latour!), not every grape, or vine or plot is going to be up to these standards. Maybe one portion of a vineyard won’t get the same sunshine or have the same great soil components as another; maybe the vines are younger; or maybe the climatic conditions of a particular season just didn’t jibe. Whatever the reason, the grapes are not quite stellar enough to cue the theme to Rocky—but still, they’re pretty darned good. Enter second-label wines.
How common are second labels? “Very!” says Robin Kelley O’Connor, director of sales and education at New York’s Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits. “And they’re becoming more common. For really conscientious producers, the greater portion of their production is going into the second vin, upwards of 45, 50 or 60 percent in a great year. Why? So they can concentrate the finest wine into the ultimate quality vehicle, [the main label].”
The idea of taking even very good barrels away and leaving only the great was conceived in Bordeaux (as was the idea of second wines altogether), but it’s a notion that’s caught on in the New World, too. What to do with all that perfectly good wine that didn’t make the cut for the main label that year? Bottle it and market it under a different name. It’s not only a way for an estate producer to elevate the quality of the main label, but a savvy method of holding onto cash and, maybe more importantly, gain new fans that may not have access to higher-priced wines. “During the blending process, we found that if we could eliminate two barrels from the blend, it would elevate the quality of the Pahlmeyer brand,” says Pahlmeyer. “But the wine that was taken out was so incredibly good, we didn’t want to throw it out, or bulk it out to somebody else, so we decided to bottle it under a secondary label. It’s done in the classic way that the French do.”
What this means is after the plots are picked, crushed, fermented and put into barrels, they’re tested, with only the best of the best going into the grand vin. The rest—still high-quality juice from stellar vineyards that are considered contenders for the main label—become the second wine. “In the second wine, the [producer] wants to reflect the production of the estate,” says O’Connor, who spent 20 years as the Bordeaux Trade Liaison and Spokesperson for North America. “They want it to be reflective of the grand vin, all things being equal.”
Determining the Deux for You
Sounds great, right? For the most part, yes, but there are a few hitches to look out for. In Bordeaux, French wine law guarantees that the grapes you are getting from a chateau’s second vin are from the same estate as those for the grand vin. When you’re talking about the New World, it’s not such a sure thing. “See, the can of worms you’re getting into with California and others is that the rules are so different,” says O’Connor. “In Bordeaux, if a wine estate takes the name of the chateau [and, more often than not, the chateau’s name will appear on a second label from Bordeaux, if not in the wine’s actual name, then in small print elsewhere on the label], 100 percent of those grapes must come from that property. If you owned 10 properties and had 10 chateaux, there are no interchangeable parts. You can’t take grapes from Château Lafite Rothschild and blend them with the fourth growth they own, which is called Château Duhart-Milon, even though it’s only 5 minutes away. It’s totally illegal. If the chateau appears on the label, it’s a guarantee. If they’re fudging, they’ll eventually get caught. Whatever the property size is—15 acres or 500—those grapes are coming from that property and that property only.”
Outside of France—be it in California, Chile or Italy—the rules are more lax and don’t guarantee a pure second wine, says O’Connor. For instance, to declare a wine from a particular American Viticultural Area (AVA) in California, like the Alexander Valley or Paso Robles, a minimum of 85 percent of the grapes must come from that place—however, that leaves 15 percent that can come from other plots of land, or even other growers entirely. Things narrow, though, when you see a few other label terms. If a California producer declares a particular vineyard on the label, that means at least 95 percent of the grapes come from that vineyard; the remaining maximum of 5 percent, however, can come from anywhere. (“There’s an evaporation rate over time with barrel aging, so they might need to add 5 percent back to the barrel that doesn’t exist anymore,” explains Gladys Horiuchi, communications manager for the Wine Institute in San Francisco.) The other term you might see is “estate grown” or “estate bottled,” which means 100 percent of the grapes came from property owned or controlled by the winery, in that particular AVA, according to the California Tax and Trade Bureau. While it’s not fool-proof, looking toward boutique estate producers is a good way of hedging your bets. “I don’t go out and buy grapes to make the Jayson,” says Pahlmeyer. “When I harvest, my dream is that every single grape will go into wine that becomes Pahlmeyer.”
If you don’t mind that a small percentage of the wine might be sourced from elsewhere (there are some perfectly wonderful wines out there where this is the case), then seeking out stellar seconds outside of France is pretty easy to do, starting with simply asking about them at your favorite wine shop or restaurant. “I love second labels,” says sommelier Leslie Chapell-Brit, who typically keeps dozens of second labels on her list at the Settlers Inn in Hawley, Pennsylvania. “Take Double T by [California’s] Trefethen. I can approach a table and tell the story of Trefethen, the Robert Parker ratings and all that, and sell a wine with a reputation of quality at a bargain price. And the people come back because I didn’t screw them with a fancy price and just gave them good quality.”
A trusted name is, indeed, the best square-one you can set a toe to. “Does a name ensure quality? No. A name ensures you’re getting great marketing and that doesn’t mean anything,” says Pamela S. Busch, owner of Cav wine bar in San Francisco. “But here’s the thing with second-label wines: usually good estates are going to make good second labels. The wines are not necessarily meant for longer-term aging, but from the perspective of what I’m doing at Cav, this can be good because it’s a wine you can drink earlier and it’s going to be a little less expensive—but it’s still going to be very good.”
One of the reasons second wines tend to fall into the ready-to-drink category is that sometimes the grapes that go into them come from younger vines, which tend to produce less complex, more approachable vino. Also, with the red Bordeaux seconds, you typically find more Merlot in the mix, which is softer and more approachable than its powerful, muscle-y, often higher-priced counterpart, Cabernet Sauvignon—which isn’t to say it’s a grape you can’t age, but Cabernet Sauvignon has much greater cellar staying power because of its higher tannins.
If you’re ever at a loss, though, Busch recommends starting with the mothership. “Bordeaux is a good place to start,” she says. “Pavillion Rouge is the second label of Chateau Margaux, and it’s great—but not exactly cheap. There are other estates, though, like [Chateau] Beychevelle [whose second label is Amiral de Beychevelle] which is often really good and much more affordable. If you look to other regions, like California, for instance, White Rock is a really good producer, and their second label Madigan is terrific.”
“I always tell people if you find a producer you like, look for other wines they make because chances are you’re going to continue like their wines,” adds Busch. And when you’re getting them for a third or half of the usual label cost? It makes that second position look like the best spot in town.
For tasting notes on 10 second-label wines, check out the Jan/Feb 2010 issue.