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.