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‘Grand Cru’ and the Use of Quality Terms in the United States

Recently, I read an interesting article discussing the use of the term ‘Grand Cru’ by a United States winemaker. (See Much Ado About a Wine Marketing Designation.) The story reflects the use of the term ‘Grand Cru’ by Sea Smoke Cellars of Santa Barbara, California.  After receiving a review in 2008 from Wine Spectator writer James Laube that dubbed the winery as one of the “grand cru” properties in Santa Barbara, the winery used the term ‘Grand Cru’ on ” all of its 2009 releases.” (Id.) ‘Grand Cru’ is a term used by French wine producers and “is a rating for established vineyards, and is highly regulated as part of French wine law. The term is most closely associated with Burgundy, where it may be used on a few dozen highly regarded, high-quality vineyard parcels.” (Id.) In order to receive such a rating in France, the wine product and vineyard are continually subjected to quality control and strict regulations.

In the United States, we do not have a system that grants vineyards the title of ‘Grand Cru’ or the equivalent. “[Q]uality terms are not as regulated as they are in Europe. Most terms that imply quality, such as ‘reserve,’ are marketing terms here. They are not checked or approved by a regulatory body.” (Id.) It is interesting to consider the use of the term ‘Grand Cru’ by a non-French winery under conditions that are not as highly regulated. In the United States, using the term ‘Grand Cru’ can certainly be a marketing tactic. (See Sea Smoke Declares Own Vineyards ‘Grand Cru’ on the Label.) However, while the French may possess a strong regulatory system that awards vineyards with the prestigious title of the ‘Grand Cru’ term, is the use of this term by the French also not a form of marketing—especially to the American market?

More appropriately keyed to On Reserve readership, however, are the interesting legal implications of this term. Whereas ‘Grand Cru’ is not a legally-protected wine name (or a quality wine produced in a specified region, as outlined in the Agreement Between the United States of America and the European Community on Trade in Wine), it is still a wine term that indicates quality, standards, and regional regulation. Should the wine term ‘Grand Cru’ be protected in an analogous fashion to non-generic wines, and thus strictly reserved for wines bottled in the corresponding wine region by vineyards awarded this title? Alternatively, should the term be extended to other wine regions and allowed for marketing tactics, such we see with Sea Smoke?

For more information on wine or alcohol law, federal law, or labeling and advertising, please contact Lindsey Zahn.

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is for general information purposes only, is not intended to constitute legal advice, and no attorney-client relationship results. Please consult your own attorney for legal advice.

Lindsey A. Zahn


Lindsey is the founder and author of On Reserve: A Wine Law Blog. She is an alcohol beverage and food attorney and is admitted to the New York State Bar.

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • gdfo November 7, 2011, 12:21 PM

    I do not think the term Grand Cru should be protected for the European wine community, particularly the French. I do think it is just a quick and bad marketing idea that someone thought up.

    It is also a way to capitalize on one review that may or may not hold true from vintage to vintage. But it is also a mistake to spend too much time and print space on it. It is free publicity that way.

    How does the wine taste? How long will it last? How much does it cost? How much was bottled and is available? These are the important questions.

  • Doug November 7, 2011, 1:10 PM

    If you’ve had Sea Smoke you would agree that they are aptly qualified to apply Grand Cru to their label. Though it is a pure marketing strategy, they are able to back it up. If Kendall-Jackson starts slapping GC on their labels then we need to say oh hell no. I suppose their should be some standard to which the label is applied, but how that is regulated is beyond the BS in California Wine Politics.

  • Rick Bakas November 7, 2011, 1:16 PM

    Thanks for posting this article. It’s a subject that needs delving into.

    The comment from gdfo above touches on both sides of the debate, but I want to hear more from that person.

    Not sure I agree that first point about how ‘Grand Cru’ shouldn’t be protected for the European wine producers or that it’s a quick and bad marketing idea. The French laws seem to evolve out of regulation to have a reliable standard that’s been developed over decades, even centuries.

    It is spot on to say it’s a way to capitalize on one review. Here in the states it seems we’ll do anything or say anything to move product. While Sea Smoke is maturing as a brand over time, their credibility comes into question when liberally using a term that takes other vineyards decades to earn.

    The motivation for the French to use ‘Grand Cru’ is different than the U.S. producers who use ‘Grand Cru’ IMO.

    As a side note, Grand Cru is mostly associated with a vineyard in France, not a producer. If anyone outside France is going to use the term, they should be calibrated to an identical standard of regulation so as not to confuse the consumer.

  • Donn Rutkoff November 7, 2011, 1:39 PM

    I believe that only 3 appellations in France codify Grand Cru: Burgundy, Champagne, and Alsace. Not Bordeaux, which is certainly the biggest dog in the yard. Not the Loire. Not Rhone, which uses “Village” or village name, and vineyard names without any modifier, and Beaujolais, which technically is Burgundy, but they use Cru as a land identifier for a village. Right? Now in Burgundy, the vineyard name and its status is the key to their whole system. Took what, 700 years to develop. In Alsace and Champagne, it is an important term but not the crux of their whole system which use Reserve and vintages and wine type (dry, dessert, etc.) in their system. And you don’t see other French wineries trumpeting Grand Cru, out of respect. (Except of course for the all minor Bordeaux names that mean nothing, like St. Emilion, which changes its system more often than Italy changes governments.)

    The rest of the wine world respects the right of those appellations to use certain terms. So. I am of the mind that American wineries shouldn’t annoint themselves as Grand Cru, anymore than French shouldn’t annoint themselves. And guess what? They don’t. The winery doesn’t self annoint with the Grand Cru. The neighbors and the regulatory boards do. Why not, Seasmoke, go and create grading within the appellation by organising a regulatory organization. Else, you seem to be patting yourself on the back and risk spraining your wrist.

    Imagine if BV George Latour or Screaming Eagle or Randy Dunn were to put out a bottle labeled First Growth:1855, or Premier Cru Classe? A bit ostentatious, eh?

    And if Domaine Chandon were to issue their top cuvee as Grand Cru Champagne grapes??? There is nothing illegal, right, since Champagne is a type of grape, right? Oy vey. Anybody in Carneros, Santa Lucia, or Mornington Peninsula or care to name their vineyard “Le Mesnil”? Would Angelo Gaja bottle something called M’edoc or Midoc d’ Bolgheri?

    Lack of respect. My opinion. And I don’t think too many other S Barbara or Monterey – Santa Lucia Hlnd. wineries have sent telegrams of congratulation to Seasmoke on being classified by the French.

  • fhreed November 8, 2011, 9:40 AM

    While we’re being particular, Seasmoke is in the City of Lompoc, 50 miles northwest of the city of Santa Barbara. Both are in Santa Barbara County.

  • MacDaddy Marc November 8, 2011, 2:47 PM

    I think this article should be considered for this discussion http://enobytes.com/2011/10/18/california-grand-cru/ .
    Mr. B makes a good point. This statement by gdfo makes absolutely no sense “I do not think the term Grand Cru should be protected for the European wine community, particularly the French” although I am far from being a francophile the designation is earned. I imagine gdfo is happy to wear a Rolex bought on the street in NYC. After all if it keeps good time what does it matter who’s name is on the face.
    That is until it is passed down to a relative who already has too many watches and they walk into a pawn shop with it.
    If one of my friends said they were coming over with a Grand Cru Pinot Noir and I worked all day in the kitchen to prepare a meal to pair with the wine I would not be totally disappointed when it was revealed to be Sea Smoke, however the menu might have been different if I was told the truth in the beginning. Oh yeah you might notice the date on Enobytes article is quite a bit earlier than the article you reference to.

  • Mark Buckley November 9, 2011, 9:26 AM

    I agree with Donn on this. France is a quagmire of classifications that you have to be a Sommelier to understand what you are drinking. They have dumbed down some of their brands for the export market so that it says Pinot Noir and even Burgundy, but Bordeaux can be perplexing at times. The real issue is why Sea Smoke needed to change anything? They have created a cult following and didn’t need to “Annoint” themselves as the “California Grand Cru” especially from Lompoc! You won’t see Kosta Brown or William Seleym or even Patz & Hall giving themselves such Grandiose a title. They show quality, year after year. Even in Burgundy there have been shifts with Beaujolais not being able to use the “Burgundy” moniker any longer. France and California are very different markets. The French don’t even market wine the same way we do. I think Sea Smoke crossed the line and perhaps they will see a backlash in sales, but bottom line: People like to drink good wine. People with Money won’t care what it says on the label. They will know the reputation whether or not they agree with the labeling or not. The French may not like it, but it would take years to fight for the term “Grand Cru”. Will be interesting to see how it plays out, but this just seems like a poor marketing stunt that will probably not hurt them, but amongst their neighbors will not be forgotten.

  • Lindsey A. Zahn Lindsey A. Zahn November 9, 2011, 12:11 PM


    Thank you for providing the Enobytes link. You are correct; that is a strong article and on point with this topic.

  • Christina H. November 22, 2011, 4:07 PM

    Excellent, succinct article with pertinent questions. Well done!

  • Van Jones January 16, 2012, 5:11 PM

    I don’t believe the term Grand Cru should be restricted in its use. Though the term definitely means exceptional quality in France, it is used throughout France and is not restricted to any one geographical designation. You can find its use most famously in Burgundy, but it is also used in Roussillon, in particular Banyuls Grand Cru and in the 51 Grand Cru climat of Alsace. If the Grand Cru designation were somehow finitely restricted by the French, they might be able to make a case for its singular use. But because it seems to be available to all the regional regulatory bodies who want to make the designation, then its not a strict designation and should not be limited to the French.

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