There aren't a lot of pejorative terms in the world of wine, but I've heard the term "Vanity Winery" more than once used with derision. I was talking with someone just the other day about a winery that I happen to be a fan of in Napa and they asked me with some incredulity, "but isn't that just a vanity winery?" In this case, it most certainly wasn't, but I got to thinking about just what this person was getting at.
The term vanity vinery as I understand it, refers to a winery started and owned by someone wealthy, whose presumed or admitted purpose for starting the winery is just "to have one." Call it bragging rights, call it ostentation, call it egomania -- the general stereotype at work consists of the rich dude (yes, usually a man) plowing a ton of money into a winery more for his own sake than for anything the effort might produce.
Without a doubt there exist many projects that might be tarred with such a label. Pick any winery that bears a celebrity's name, just for starters. But in my experience, most wineries that might be dismissed as projects purely of the ego don't actually deserve such a label.
Most of the time, when people start a winery, they do so because they are passionate about wine at some level. The fact that someone may pour millions after that passion can't really be held against them.
What can be held against them might be the fact that they make lousy wine, especially if they have the kind of money to spend that allows them to erect a few acres of vineyard in a prime growing area, a sparkly new winery, and a cave in the hillside with a lot of expensive barrels. However, expenditures at this level also come with a prominent consulting winemaker, so it's pretty rare that the wine is truly lousy. Although I have tasted wine from a winery that fits this sort of description, where the owner decided to put their vineyards wherever they wanted, rather than where good wine grapes could actually grow, and even the hired gun winemaker couldn't manipulate them to the point of decency.
The biggest criticism of such wineries that can be made might be that they often make wines to the owner's taste, and those tastes, especially in California, lean towards the extracted, oak-laden side of the spectrum. But really, when you think about it, that's just as true of any winery, no matter what it's origins.
So consider this a suggestion that we drop the use vanity winery, and instead concentrate on the wines themselves. I've had excellent bottles of wine bearing the name of an actor, a golfing pro, a rock star, a billionaire CEO, and even a porn star. Let us not be too quick to judge a wine by its owner.
A wine book like no other. Photographs, essays, and wine recommendations. Learn more.
Warm Up: The North Fork of Long Island I'll Drink to That: Kareem Massoud of Paumanok Vineyards 2015 Family Winemakers Tasting: August 16, San Francisco I'll Drink to That: Ryan Looper of T. Edward Wines Lost Treasures in the Sierra Foothills: The Wines of Renaissance Vineyards Warm Up: The Wachau I'll Drink to That: Leo Alzinger of Weingut Alzinger Petaluma Gap Wine Tasting: August 8th, Petaluma, CA I'll Drink to That: Monica Samuels of Vine Connections Vinography Images: Cool Climate Chardonnay
Wine Will Never Smell the Same Again: Luca Turin and the Science of Scent Forlorn Hope: The Remarkable Wines of Matthew Rorick Debating Robert Parker At His Invitation Passopisciaro Winery, Etna, Sicily: Current Releases Should We Care What Winemakers Say? The Sweet Taste of Freedom: Austria's Ruster Ausbruch Wines 2009 Burgundy Vintage According to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Charles Banks: The New Man Behind Mayacamas Wine from the Caldera: The Incredible Viticulture of Santorini Why Community Tasting Notes Sites Will Fail Chateau Rayas and the 2012 Vintage of Chateauneuf-du-Pape A Life Indomitable: The Wines of Casal Santa Maria, Portugal Bay Area Bordeaux: Tasting Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets Forgotten Jewels: Reviving Chile's Old Vine Carignane The First-Timer's Guide to Les Trois Glorieuses of Hospices de Beaune