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Vine Talk: The new world of wineries without borders

Updated: 2010-05-07 09:43

Vine Talk: The new world of wineries without borders

Vineyards at Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina are seen in this undated handout photo.[Agencies]

NEW YORK - Jerry Douglas has grand plans for Biltmore Estate, which is already one of the most visited wineries in the United States.

"The world is our vineyard in a lot of ways," the senior vice president of wine operations tells me in a gentle drawl that suggests the American South.

"We want to have a more global perspective from a marketing standpoint and a production standpoint."

Biltmore is not alone. For a growing number of American wine companies, it's not so much about selling what grows in their vineyards (if, in fact, they have their own vineyards) but developing or expanding a brand that connects with consumers.

New York-based Oriel Wines sells more than two dozen "artisanal" wines from eight countries under the Oriel label, giving them names like "Iconic" and "Midnight Rambler" and "Femme Fatale" and emphasizing their individuality by putting the names of their winemakers on the labels. Priced from $15 to $75, I have found some of them to be exceptional.

In California, winemaker John Buechsenstein and several partners "were absolutely smitten with a varietal, namely sauvignon blanc," as Buechsenstein explains it. So they built a business around the grape, called it Sauvignon Republic and found superb examples from New Zealand, South Africa and California's Russian River Valley. They sold seven vintages until the company became a victim of the recession late last year.

California-based Cupcake Vineyards, created two and a half years ago by Underdog Wine Merchants, offers wines from California's Central Coast, an especially good 2009 Washington state dry riesling, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, a malbec from Argentina and sparkling wine from France's Loire Valley. All are priced at $14-$16.

Except for some grapes from California vineyards it owns, Cupcake purchases the rest of its fruit from growers in various regions.

Its winemaker, Adam Richardson, supervises production at local wineries, followed by bottling under the Cupcake label.

How should people think of the brand? Nicolas Tucker, Cupcake's marketing director, invokes the image of, well, a cupcake.

"I think of Cupcake as being a reward that makes you feel good," he says. "Just the very word - cupcake - activates something inside you that makes you smile."

A bit corny, perhaps, but it's a simple message that seems to resonate; Cupcake sold 300,000 cases of wine last year.

Back at Biltmore Estate, Jerry Douglas wants to convey a feeling as well. Instead of emphasizing terroir, or a sense of place, he says his wines are about "a gracious, welcoming spirit and good hospitality."

That's understandable given Biltmore's setting and its history. One might easily assume that the estate is a focal point for wine lovers in the Napa or Sonoma Valleys, those meccas of California wine tourism.

But Biltmore is in the mountains of western North Carolina. The winery is on the grounds of a 252-room estate that bills itself as the largest house in America, built in the 1890s by George Vanderbilt as a retreat from New York City.

Today, Biltmore is a leading tourist destination in its own right, and the winery draws more than one million visitors a year, many going home with a bottle or two of chardonnay, merlot, cabernet or other wines from among more than 40 offered.

Biltmore will produce 107,000 cases of wine this year. Although it grows grapes on 95 acres in North Carolina, those vineyards produce only about 15 percent or so of its needs.

So the company has relied increasingly on California to meet demand. It buys grapes from California growers and then bottles the wines at the estate in North Carolina, selling them there and in 18 other states under the broad "American" wine appellation. A limited number of "reserve" wines are bottled in California.

Wherever they are from, the wines are labeled "Biltmore Estate," which has become a powerful brand and one that Douglas believes can be used to market wines from around the world.

He talks of having Biltmore "contenders" from France and Germany, Spain and Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina.

"If you're shopping the French section," he says, "I'd like to have a competitor or two so I have a shot at it."

In a market that responds to a grand old house or even a cupcake, the world may indeed be their vineyard for these wineries without borders.