The Name Game

By / Wine + Drinks / November 18th, 2013 / 2

Imagine that you own a few hundred acres of vineyards in Napa Valley. There’s a hill on your property, and on top of the hill is a grand château that was built in the 1880s. Your wines are pretty well regarded. For example, the Wine Spectator has called them the “rarest and most-esteemed wines ever produced in California.” James Laube, the California wine expert, dubbed your land “one of wine’s crown jewels.” And to pitch in as winemaker, you’ve just nabbed the estate director from Château Margaux.

So far, so good, you say. I like what I hear, you say. And you would be correct. However, you have just one problem: the name on the bottle. There’s only one name that you want for your winery. And that name is the one name you can’t have.

It’s a peculiar dilemma — what some of my friends call a First World problem. Who is the poor soul facing this awful predicament? As it happens, it is someone you know. It’s the situation that the film director Francis Ford Coppola has faced for the last 30 years.

The naming of wineries is a complex business. “The winery’s name should capture the imagination and connect with the customers it wants to reach,” wrote design expert Leif Miltenberger in his analysis of winery names in British Columbia recently. The name of the winery is the first opportunity that a bottle has to seize the consumer’s attention. However, it is more than just a branding tool — it is also the soul of the winery and the key to understanding its aspirations. Some old-timers may say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I say that if one winery is named Jackass Ranch and another is named Opus One, meaningful conclusions may be drawn about the contents of the bottle.

There are many different types of names for a winery. In his analysis, Miltenberger identified 17 categories of wine names, including “musical references,” “astronomy” and “obscura.” However, to convenience the readers of Tidings, I have created a simpler classification system that I believe will stand the test of time and result in my name being remembered with that of Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy. In the Sullivan System, there are only three types of winery names: 1) family names, 2) names taken from the land and 3) dumb names.

Using a family name is the classic way to name a winery. From the widow Clicquot to the brothers Gallo, many of the most iconic wineries take their name from a powerful family or a visionary owner. It emphasizes a winemaking tradition and the winemaker himself, rather than a particular place. It also creates a lasting legacy, a point of family pride that seems a powerful motivator for wine entrepreneurs. When I asked Moray Tawse, the founder of Tawse Winery in Ontario, why he chose to use his family name, he replied simply that it was because he was “putting his soul into this project.” What it a difficult decision? “No.” Were there any other names in contention? “No.”

On the other hand, naming a winery for its location also has a long pedigree. Château Latour was named for an ancient tower built on the estate. And Lafite is the Gascon word for a small hill, presumably the place where that château stands today. Using geography to name a winery suggests that the estate has placed more emphasis on terroir. When I asked Harald Thiel, the founder of Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery, how it got its name, he replied, “The name ‘Hidden Bench’ derives its origin and raison d’être from the location of the winery, which is the Beamsville Bench sub-appellation. The ‘Hidden’ component of the name comes from the fact that our location is somewhat off the beaten path … We believe that the focus of any ultra premium winery should be its vineyards and the grapes they produce.”

For some winemakers, getting the right name is more like finding a totem that binds them to the land. Flat Rock Cellars in Jordan, Ontario, got its name straight out of the earth. The founder, Ed Madronich, was replanting his vineyard soon after purchase and dug up “massive pieces of flat limestone.” “The name naturally evolved from there,” Jillian Nero at Flat Rock told me. “The natural limestone bed beneath the vineyard plays a very significant role in our winemaking, and [the limestone’s] characteristics are evident in all our wines.”


My favourite story about names taken from the land is from Burrowing Owl Estate Winery in British Columbia. When founder Jim Wyse was looking to name his vineyard, his eye happened to fall upon a commemorative sign across the street. One side detailed the plight of the burrowing owl, which had vanished from the region, and the other side described the threatened western rattlesnake. “With the sign as inspiration and without any regard whatsoever for future marketing implications, we picked the burrowing owl name for the vineyard. The poor western rattlesnake really did not stand a chance,” Wyse says. “Midge and I joined the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC on the spot and have been members and active supporters since November of 1993. All of the funds collected for our wine tastings are turned over to this society without deduction.”

The third category in my taxonomy is Dumb Names. I use the word dumb not in the sense of stupid (although Chile’s “Sassy Bitch Wines” is not exactly T. S. Eliot), but in the sense of unspeaking. While Organized Crime Winery (Beamsville, Ontario) and Megalomaniac Wines (Vineland, Ontario) have snappy names, great design and lovely product, their names tell you less about the contents of the bottle then they do about their owner’s sense of whimsy. And I can’t drink a sense of whimsy.

Of course, many of the more eccentric names for wineries have nothing to do with whimsy and everything to do with money. In an age of extensive market research, the name of the winery is an exercise in branding. “Naming is also something that you want to get right the first time rather than have to go through a costly renaming process down the road,” Miltenberger writes. And while clearing his throat and pointing at himself, “It’s a decision that should be researched, tested and, ultimately, guided by a professional who can employ a creative, disciplined and strategic approach.” Thus, a few years ago, the somewhat awkwardly named Scherzinger Vineyards in BC was having trouble with sales, but after renaming themselves “Dirty Laundry Vineyards,” their wine started selling briskly.

Changing your name is risky business, but sometimes it can pay off. Which brings us back to the man with the unfortunate dilemma, Francis Ford Coppola. In 1975, using the profits from The Godfathers I and II, he purchased a part of the famed Inglenook estate.

Founded in the 1880s by Finnish multi-millionaire Gustave Niebaum, Inglenook was a piece of history. For 85 years, it was a family winery producing perhaps the greatest wines in California — bottles of outstanding longevity and power that garnered gold medals and ratings of 100 points. However, the winery was sold to a corporation in 1964, and over the next decade, the property was balkanized, and the Inglenook brand was run into the ground by using it to market low-quality jug wine.

Originally, it was just the mansion on the property that Coppola was interested in. “I never tried to get into the wine business. I just bought a house and there were vineyards on it,” he told me when I met him for lunch. However, when he realized that he had purchased a world-class vineyard, he began production. Over the next decades, he struggled to obtain the rest of the original Inglenook property, using the proceeds from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to buy one choice parcel.

However, one thing eluded him: the Inglenook name. It was owned by the corporation the Wine Group. So Coppola first called the winery Niebaum-Coppola (a nod to the Bordeaux tradition of merging the name of the historical and current owner, like Lafite Rothschild). In 2006, he rechristened the winery Rubicon Estate, naming the winery after its fabulous flagship wine, Rubicon. However, what he really wanted was Inglenook. He wanted the history.

In 2011, Coppola finally came to terms with the Wine Group and purchased the Inglenook name. Coppola couldn’t disclose the amount involved, but it was clear from the way he spoke that it was not cheap. “It’s so unreal to me to have Inglenook — the end of a 30-year process,” he said in a low voice to no one in particular. “I’m so proud of Inglenook.” I sat watching him point the bottles on the table so that he could see the labels, like a parent positioning himself to gaze on all his children. And I thought to myself, “How much money would I pay for a name?”



Matthew Sullivan lives in Toronto. Besides writing about wine, he is a lawyer practicing public law, which helps pay the bar tab. His weekly wine column for Precedent Magazine can be found at

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