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Musings on Vanity Wineries

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.

Comments (22)

Jack Everitt wrote:
10.13.09 at 10:38 PM

"that we drop the use vanity winery,"

What the? First you give usa a great new amusing term and then you tell us we shouldn't use it?!

Frisky Farmer wrote:
10.14.09 at 10:51 AM

Vanity Wineries and Vanity Vineyards are what have gotten us into this downward spiral, glut of a market, and are putting the Farmers out of business. Every winery on one acre of land and every hotshot that plants a 4 acre vineyard takes away from the stability of the industry. Putting those of us with 30, 50 and 60 acres right out of business, because of their over oaked $100 a bottle sparkly label wines. Did you know that price of the wine is actually supposed to be tied to the price per ton of the fruit? $60 bottle of wine - The Farmer should be getting paid $6,000/ton. I haven't seen $6,000 in the 40+ years I've been growing; and without the fruit you might as well pour San Francisco Bay water in that bottle and cork it.

10.14.09 at 10:52 AM

Can we substitute "trophy" for vanity? Okay, all together now...GROAN.

Mark Sinnott wrote:
10.14.09 at 2:34 PM

Alder, great post. Regarding your taking issue with a winery owner/maker who makes wine to their own tastes: isn't this what we would want them to do? I.e, the opposite would have them make wines based on what they think the current fashion is (what will get the best reviews/points, etc).

We may differ with their taste preferences, but at least they are following their convictions.

The real issue might be that too few winemakers/owners actually have any convictions. They make wine for the status/scores/celebrity that comes with it. That to me is where the vanity is.

Just my 2 cents.

Alder wrote:
10.14.09 at 2:41 PM


No, I agree with you. I was trying to make the point that the only problem is when their tastes aren't so hot, not that they're trying to make wine that they would like, which of course they should be doing.

Overwhelmed Consumer wrote:
10.14.09 at 4:25 PM

The problem with these vanity wineries is they're detracting from those of us that NEED to sell out to make a profit. Vanity wineries will sell half their production, library the rest, and simply add another label to the already 6000 in the US alone. In doing so, they're taking customers from wineries that were built on sweat equity and not trust funds. My only hope with the economic downturn is that some people that thought starting a winery would be so glamorous will become so disenchanted with lack of return that it forces them to close. Its time for a washout of the people who are into wine vs. those that are making living out of it.

St. Vini wrote:
10.14.09 at 4:26 PM

Frisky: There are plenty of grapes that sell for $6k (prior to this harvest anyway). RR and SRH pinots hit that as have Bx reds from Napa. Many savvy growers are asking for bottle-price contracts (using your same saw about 1%).

That said, to blame the current situation on relatively tiny vanity wineries is just naive. We're in our 8th year of oversupply in California, did they cause all eight years?!? Hell no, farmers planting too much did! Now they've even over planted/grafted Pinot and you can get it for less than half of 2008's prices!

Dylan wrote:
10.14.09 at 5:29 PM

The biggest takeaway here is simply to judge a winery by its wine and little else. At the end of the day, what's been placed in your glass is the result of passion, expertise, wealth, and hard work--all amounts of which may vary.

Alder wrote:
10.14.09 at 9:30 PM


Thanks for the comments. Though I disagree with the premise that somehow these wineries are stealing your customers. That's like saying that the Range Rover dealership in town is stealing all the customers from the Ford dealership. It doesn't make sense.

Alfonso wrote:
10.15.09 at 5:56 AM

OK, no more vanity wineries; will now concentrate on vanity blogs.

John Skupny wrote:
10.15.09 at 12:45 PM

I think 'dilettante' is an appropriate synonym in this instance.

Tom Johnson wrote:
10.15.09 at 12:58 PM

The glut of wine is not being caused by vanity wineries because their production is so small. The glut of wine is being caused by mass, industrial production of wine in places that have not, historically, produced and exported wines. I have a book on wine from the late 1960s, and Australia rates a token one paragraph mention. Today, Australia exports 3 million bottles of wine a day.

As for the price of wine being tied to the price of grapes, only peripherally. It is more closely associated with the land on which the grapes are grown. Grapes from the best land are never sold, since the land is attached to a winery, so there is no way to calculate what the grapes' value might be.

Price is much more a function of the quality associated with the winery/winemaker/label. Assuming grapes from the same vineyard, which wine would you pay more for: one made by Paul Hobbs, or one made by Fred Franzia?

Frisky Farmer wrote:
10.15.09 at 2:43 PM

St. Vini. Check out district 4 industry averages. RRV is the most recent trend, therefore vanity winemakers will pay $6k to slap RRV on their vanity label. And while I agree that vanity wineries are not to blame for the 6 year downward spiral, for every 12 acre planting that goes in some retired silicon valley execs back yard off atlas peak is 12 acres of fruit that detracts from my living - farming fruit since 1936. I farm next to my crew. I don't use a vineyard management company to over plant/graft my pinot so my wife can take photos of our vines and show her society friends and I can dabble in the industry. As far as contracts go, no one is being handed out contracts tied to bottle price, yet alone a simple contract saying I'll buy from you next year. Wineries are calling up contracted growers two days before harvest and asking "can you get someone else to take the fruit" My intention is to shine a light on what truly is going on out there - not put a PR spin on how great the vintage will be because of the mild season and hang time. The industry is a mess.

Happy Wineguy wrote:
10.16.09 at 8:35 AM

The problem is when wineries like KB sell for 40 million with NO hard assets!!! No land, no vineyards, no winery, simply a list of people who want to buy viscous, high octane liquid brown sugar. Can you imagine VinTech (new owners) walking into a bank during these type of financial times and asking for multi-million dollar loans based on a few people's scores and a list of no-so-loyal clients?

THAT'S why this industry is a muck. Vintech, get a clue! You'll never recoop your expenses... Never. That purchase will go down in history as a huge flop. Stay tuned.

10.16.09 at 6:31 PM

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Alder. I'll also point out that even vanity wineries employ people - so create jobs - and give back to their communities through sales and property tax revenues. And at the end of the day, who is anyone to tell someone else how to spend his or her money (after all, we're not talking about arms dealing here)?

Joseph Spellman wrote:
10.20.09 at 8:30 AM

Alder, great subject. The proliferation of producers creates an immense amount of distraction, and yes, to Overwhelmed's point, disproportionate press attention, to the detriment of established producers. Cult, vanity, dilettante--I've also heard them decried as "hobbyist"--all useful in describing the fragmentation driven by ego and capital. Small does not equal good. It is so much easier to grow, make, and sell a garageful of wine than a commercial cellarful.

Time to go read Montaigne.

KGlass wrote:
10.20.09 at 10:18 PM

Great discussion, great points by Messrs. Sinnot, Skupny, and Spellman. Are we asking here what sort of origin constitutes "authentic" or "legitimate" or "valid" wines? If that's really the kernel question, I suggest Alder's point is correct: let's focus on the wines themselves and whether they hold up to careful scrutiny.

tannic wrote:
10.21.09 at 2:23 PM

Great topic, Alder.

Vanity Winery, not to be confused with Vanity Brand. Of the two terms, I believe the latter to be far more sinister. With the proper amount of cash you can launch a label that when the soup hits the fan, clogs up the market place. At least the Vanity Winery has a physical presence. When the veneer of losing money wears off, perhaps someone with more strings attached can flip it into a more legitimate concern (rather than a monument to an ego).

Forgive my Blazing Saddles reference, but I can't resist: Tom Johnson is right!

John Skupny wrote:
10.21.09 at 11:04 PM

From my experience it really does not make a difference between Vanity Brand vs Vanity Vineyard... both achieve the same level of mucking up the marketplace... save that the $$ behind the vanity brand leaves a smaller turd streak than a Vanity Vineyard, which is usually purchased but the next dilettante who pours huge sums of money into it.. Only to produce more labels and brands that clog the sphincter, known as the distribution system... 30 years ago, these brands created the revolution, kept the complacent on their toes, today they clog the already corroded distribution pipes….

KGlass wrote:
10.26.09 at 11:08 PM

Vanity (hubris) infects all parts of the wine industry: growers, producers, wholesalers, importers, retailers, e-sellers, consumers. And why should that surprise? We're all human. It's just so disgusting when people effectively try to buy what is sweat for by so many ordinary folks: taste, tradition, simple beauty.

Greg wrote:
10.30.09 at 1:18 PM

The wine may be very good due to the level of investment and expertise. But it's still a vanity project. You can also be sure this very good wine is not going to come cheap given the economics of buying into a vanity winery. The only thing that differs between one of these vanity wines and another is the name on the label. Yes, there may be some superficial differences in fruit expression and oak regime, but one vanity winery is not doing something that another hasn't done before. It remain the name on the vanity wine that differs.

When one of these producers starts making wine other than for prestige (i.e. pricing sensibly, since we know price, quality and ego are hopelessly entangled in the minds of the wealthy), the vanity term can be dropped.

Alder wrote:
10.30.09 at 1:24 PM

Thanks for the comments. I think that's a pretty cynical view, and one that suggests that any wine which is priced in the realm of "insensible" from your perspective is a vanity project.

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