“Of the top 30 wine brands in the United States, not a single one of them grows, produces and bottles its own wines…the cold hard fact is that the juice within is just a trademark coupled with a savvy marketing plan…”The consumer doesn’t know. They think it comes from a guy who farmed his land and made it in his small barrels in his little winery. This stuff is not wine; it’s a processed food product,” counters David Moore, an owner of Moore Brothers Wine Shops, a small retail wine chain on the East Coast….Sometimes a luxury wine is born without a winery, a vineyard, and possibly even without a winemaker. These wines are made in custom crush facilities, which are basically a rent-a-winery…Things get weirder still. Sometimes wines are made by actual wineries, from their own vineyards, by their own winemakers…. but they hide behind a virtual label. This is often done when the winery in question has excess inventory that it needs to sell off. These wines are sold at steep discounts to a wholesaler who repackages the wine….”
“For those wine lovers who prefer to drink wines that are made by an actual winemaker working at a real winery, this is your moment to despair.”
“Whether you want value or authenticity is up to you. But you generally don’t get both.”
A social networking website for which I do some writing had a link to this article posted in a Talk thread entitled “When Wine Becomes Fast Food”. I’m going to withhold the name of the author because taking a shot at him, here, under MY byline, is nearly as bad a choice as his uninformed rant above. I’m sure, if you use google and are barely intrepid, you can find it. But I wish you wouldn’t. You might read it. I did and wish I hadn’t. There are only two possible outcomes to reading this thing: You get to be as irritated as I am or, even worse, you might attach some validity to it and then my job, here, becomes even more difficult.
Every so often, some…rumor, gossip, chance remark, urban myth – call it what you will – gets started about wine. This happens in every area of human knowledge but it seems to have more in the way of staying power when it comes to wine. Fifty+ years later, many people are still convinced that White Zinfandel is made from white grapes. Many people still, after 15 years, believe to their cores that sulfites cause their wine headache. Many people swallow whole the notion of the inauthenticity of either California or Oregon Pinot Noir. Many people still believe that all Italian wines are “thin”, that Australian wines are all just “fruit bombs”, that all Burgundy is “stinky” (or that all stinky wines are “tainted”), that all Spanish wines are “dirty”. If several people with retail wine experience and more remaining brain cells than I sat down and compared notes, this list could very well run on for pages.
Now…this. According to our intrepid know-it-all quoted above, ALL wines that don’t carry the words “Estate Bottled” are somehow “phony”. According to him, even some of the wines that do say this are not “authentic”. According to him, all wines that carry labels that say “produced and bottled by” are made by giant wine “factories” that crank out tasteless crap as fast as they can speed-ferment and bottle it up, with no care at all about how it tastes or whether it’s properly made. He insinuates, without actually saying it (no “cowboying up” for this fella), that drinking these wines might just be bad for your health and certainly means you will just pour any old reddish-purple liquid down your neck as long as the word “wine” appears somewhere on it.
Here’s a short Wine Economics 101 lesson: Winemaking is Expensive. Horridly expensive. If you put your wine in a barrel, even a lower-cost American one, you’re in for $600-$800, every single barrel. French ones – Allier, Limousin, Nevers, Trancais and Vosges oak – run over $1000. Each. Your fermentation tanks, for a 500 gallon one, which will give you about 2,370 bottles (or 197 cases – not enough to make a profit), will go for about $3000 to $4000 used – and you’re gonna need more than one. A crusher-destemmer, about six grand. A press, about $10,000, for one that will let you do reasonable quantities, quickly. Then, of course, some place to put all this and set up your business, the hoses and valves, specialized cleaning equipment, filters, chemicals, computers, business forms, vehicles, labels, corks, bottles, foil caps, bottling services (unless you want to buy a $60,000 bottling/corking/labeling line), boxes, literally hundreds of specialized tools that are peculiar wine winemaking, lab equipment, flow meters, analytical equipment – and that’s just to make and sell wine at all.
Sometimes vines yield more grapes than the growers intended. Sometimes, they’re better than expected but they know they can only sell so much. Do they have to just dump ’em out? Make the wine and pour it down the toilet? They have to make every buck they possibly can, usually, just to stay in business. So, they can sell it as bulk wine and make some money or they can dump it and make none. This isn’t even a choice. People like Mark McNeilly, Chris Gorman, Bob Bullock, Jim Page, and others come along and buy this wine at, in effect, sale prices. Nobody makes a stink if any other business sells excess off wholesale. But in wine, there’s always some boob who thinks this is cheating the consumer. HOW? It’s good wine, made by real winemakers for whose top-end juice you pay premium dollars. But it’s somehow invalidated because somebody else put a label on it and DROPPED the price?
Guys write steaming manure like this and then I – Your Pour Fool – get asked about it as though it were a real question. It just…makes me tired. Normally, these things don’t get started by supposedly reputable writers (the author of the above piece works for a new-ish major website), with a fair amount of cred. It’s usually something that gets started as folklore: someone with an allergy to sulfa drugs (fairly common) drinks wine and gets consistent headaches. They see the word “sulfites” on the bottle, realize that one of the effects of the sulfa allergy is headaches, and adds 1+1. The problem is that the sulfite level in wine is generally less than 20 parts per million – too low to trip the sulfa trigger. An increasing number of wineries no longer use sulfites, which help fight bacterial taint and preserve the wine, as winery hygiene continues to get better and better. But sulfites occur naturally, on grape skins. You CANNOT remove all sulfites. So, people who say, as a blanket statement, that sulfites give them headaches, probably WILL get a headache from wines with less than 5 parts per million sulfites – because now they believe they will, and belief is a powerful thing. In fact, medical science, despite trying for over eighty years, is only just now figuring out what causes wine headaches. (Thank God! I get ’em and they’re no fun.) Wine is the most complex food product on the planet, with any ol’ bottle of red containing over a thousand organic compounds, any one of which might cause your headache. But this largely-unsupported belief persists, like fungus, in maybe 80% of all in-depth conversations I have with readers and customers about the health properties of wine.
Even a couple of the members of the social networking site (an unusually smart bunch), were ready to believe the quotes above. To my delight, many – with no prompting from me – simply dismissed it out of hand. As one astute fella put it, “There’s room for both. (artisan and repackaged wines) ‘Beginner’ drinkers might start with the lesser wines and, after a while, seek out the artisan, finer wines as they figure out their tastes. In the end, that might expand both markets.” I suspect, with no proof, that the ratio of those who might believe it there is roughly the same as those who might believe it in the general population. But that 8-10% talks, seeds this idea repeatedly, infecting other novice drinkers and even some of the more credulous “serious” drinkers. Over time, this becomes one of those fungal myths. The percentage of respondents on the actual website where this pabulum appeared who were willing to buy it was far higher. So, there are now a small legion of jugheads out there, rabidly preaching the lunatic gospel of “phony” wines. (sigh…)
I’m gonna let a tiny little cat out of a tiny little bag, at this point. Here are four wines, four of this guy’s “tools of Satan”: Ghost of 413, Sinner’s Punch, Haystack Needle, IQ2. These are Washington wines; popular, widely distributed wines. In no particular order, the wines in these bottles were made by Kiona Vineyards, Syzygy Wines of Walla Walla, Goose Ridge Estate Vineyards, Olsen Estates, Columbia Winery, two small wineries on Red Mountain, Gordon Brothers Family Winery, Fox Estates in Mattawa, and two others – all small producers, all Washington businesses, all hand-made, just like Leonetti and Quilceda Creek. NONE of the wineries in Seattle or Woodinville grow a single grape on their winery property. Does that make Cadence “phony” wines? Is Chris Camarda of Andrew Will giving us “just a trademark coupled with a savvy marketing plan“? Puh-leeeeze.
Here’s the truth and it’s neither all good nor all bad: MOST wines you find that are available in great quantities are produced by blending bulk juice from sometimes many dozens of small, artisan wineries which are selling off their unused juice so they can survive. Even some of the gigantic companies of this type base their juice on purchased wines and then augment it with their own production. Yellow Tail Shiraz, the wine snot’s Nemesis Numero Uno, is made by ONE family: the Casellas, headed by Fillipo and Maria, an Italian immigrant husband and wife who moved to Australia in 1951 to find a better life. This “phony” wine producer is part of a family that has made wine in Italy since 1824 and some of whom still make fine wines there to this day. Part of every batch of Yellow Tail is the family’s own estate fruit, sourced from their 540 acres in Riverina, Griffith, Australia. Their wines are made exactly the same way Eric Dunham, Paul Golitzin of Quilceda Creek, Bob Betz, Mike Januik, Mark Ryan McNeilly, and Chris Gorman make theirs. The goals are all that’s different. The Casellas’ annual capacity is 300,000,000 liters stored at their own site, with more elsewhere. But they have repeatedly said, in interviews, that they’re trying, with every batch, in every vintage, to make the best wine they can. That’s what the parade of WA winemakers I’ve listed are trying to do: their best.
Yes, there are some huge wine factories out there. The Italian brand, Casarsa, makes an astounding volume of the inexpensive supermarket wines you see in two-liter bottles for $8. But Vini La Delizia, Casarsa’s parent company was formed in 1931 as an association of seventy Friuli-region small producers, Cantina Sociale of Casarsa. That association exists today: small wineries pooling their resources – the thousands of acres of grapes they grow and vinify – for the common good. Sound familiar? We have such things here: the Winemaker’s Studio in Carlton, Oregon, the Winemakers Loft in Prosser, the Urban Winemakers Co-operative in Boise, and a whole roster of others are fending off recessionary shortfalls by teaming up. It’s called “being realistic”. It’s called “making wine the old-fashioned way”.
“What grapes are in this blend?” I am constantly asked. If, in the case of some of the wineries this guy sneeringly calls “factories”, the wines are made in huge quantities…SO?!? I was once, while working at Esquin Wine Merchants, introduced to one of my winemaking heroes, Riccardo Cottarella, owner of Falesco in Umbria, Italy, and the world’s leading wine consultant. He and his brother Renzo and his daughter, Dominga, make brilliant wines for over 50 wineries: expensive, world-class wines that get 95+ points from Advocate and Wine Spectator and unassuming little table reds that cost six bucks. All wonderful, all worth their sticker prices. We walked through the shop, checking out his wines’ displays and chatting amiably. We stopped in front of a box of one of his personal favorites, a white wine from his own estate called, impossibly, “Est! Est! Est!” de Montsfiascone. It’s a glorious, emphatic, ridiculously-cheap blend of several white grapes…but nowhere on the bottle does it say which white grapes. So, I figured, hey, he’s right here. I’ll ask.
“Do you…ah…like this wine?” Riccardo replied.
“Oh, very much, every vintage,” I smiled.
He smiled and nodded.
“Then what do you care?” he beamed. And gave me one of those eloquent Italian shrugs.
Exactly. We have health strictures on wines that are sold in this country that are almost ridiculously rigid. Wineries are subject to inspections at any time by the state and the feds. But, more to the point, bad or tainted wines are business killers, disasters, possible death of your winery. Nobody is trying to make either bad or unclean wines. Yeah, you’ll get the occasional bottle with cork taint or some other form of spoilage but this runs between .05% and 1% of all wines sold. Wine…is…wine. If you like the flavor, the price, the quality…
“Then what do you care?”