As I wander the wine aisles of the supermarkets here in Missoula, I note a huge difference in variety and labels on the shelves. I pulled a few off the shelves the other day and read some of the back labels to discover that they were actually produced by some of the big wine producers out of California. I’ve known for years that Kendell Jackson, for example, produced a wide number of Chardonnays,”Vintners Reserve”, “Private Reserve”, ” XYZ Estate Chardonnay”, etc., some vintage and some not. Now I find that we have entirely different labels for some of the big producers. This got me to wondering about the differences in craft wines and production wines and what were the differences between the single estate wines like Woodside, Bonny Doon or Amity Vineyards (Oregon) and the small lot or single vineyard labels of the big producers. In addition what impact does being a craft wine produced by a single winemaker and one produced in a factory setting have on ultimate quality and even price. In Peter Moon’s book “Virgile’s Vineyard”, he commented in one passage about how amazed he was at the difference between Virgile’s hand bottled Merlot and the Merlot that virgile had bottled by the local wine co-op (Negotiant) when all the grapes came from the same plot, were harvested at the same time and Virgile did his own pressing, fermentation and transferring into aging vats. What made the difference and why?
Beyond that curiosity I wonder about where blending comes into the mix and whether the blending occurs before the pressing or after fermentation. My final unknown — what does the injection of a Negotiant (wine agent) play in this whole puzzle. We know that Negotiants all over the world buy up wine from small vineyards, private label them and even blend some to wholesale in vats to wine factories. So what impact does that have on wine quality and price? Okay so now I have what I need to hit the books and see if I can make sense of these questions and corollaries. I finished the research and sadly most of my initial questions remain unanswered or simply don’t fit into this article as I had hoped, but I did find plenty to write about.
1970 began the oenological revolution in the United States. Prior to that there were pockets of small wineries around the country, but the big producers like Gallo, Taylor and Mondovi controlled most of the production in California and the East Coast. They bought up vast quantities of grapes from a load of small vineyards, bought up the terroir around Napa and Sonoma and pushed out wine by the gallon (literally). I remember summer vacations on the Oregon coast where we consumed Gallo Hearty Burgundy from gallon jugs and thought it was pretty decent stuff. About this same time Wineries like Preston, St Michelle and Willamette started up and began showing the American wine drinkers that there were wines outside gallon jugs and they were different and better. If we fast forward forty years or so we find that the 1970 small wineries have become production wineries just like the Gallo, Taylor and Mondovi of old. Conversely the 1970 big producers have seen the value of small batch production and have moved in the other direction. So what makes the difference and how do we distinguish between production producers and small batch winemakers? Many answers come to mind, but I’ll draw a line at twenty-five hundred (2,500) bottle lot of a single wine in a year to create a benchmark. I’ll add in a unique label (name), the control mechanism of one master winemaker, carefully sourced grapes and care in blending. Anything falling within those parameters I consider a craft wine. Note that being a craft wine doesn’t by definition make it better or even good for that matter, it is just crafted within the parameters of my definition.
You will note that nothing in the detail talks about facilities where they make the wine. For centuries in other part of the world and even in America on a limited basis, winemakers have been producing craft wines using shared facilities (co-ops or rented facilities and equipment. Even today Naked Wines has a wine production facility in Kenwood, California where most of the wines they distribute in the United States get processed. This may include crushing, fermented, aged and bottling or any combination of the above. The wines however still constitute craft wines as the process is controlled by individual winemakers, many of which also grow some or all of their own grapes or at lease control the sourcing. Least importantly the wine ships under the winemakers label not that of a producer or Negotiant. Accordingly craft wines are about raw material quality, production control and refinement of blends and maturation. Distribution is not an issue in defining a craft wine
Most of what we see in the market comes from big wineries or larger than Craft producers who make thousands and thousands of gallons at a time and produce for consistent character. These wineries may produce grapes in their own vineyards, but also purchase large quantities from a wide range of different vineyards and mix them to produce a the same wine (character and taste) year after year. Even the special labels (reserve, etc.) coming from these wineries produce consistent character and flavor year after year for the most part. That said many of the “Big” actually produce some of the better wines under labels like: Opus, Dominus, Insignia etc. These are true craft wines and generally come from a master winemaker (notice the small “m” It is not a title but connotes control over the process from beginning to end) who is responsible for the grape selection and quality control of the particular wine. Even some of the bigger producers “single vineyard” wines can be considered craft wines. Many wines we see in supermarkets do not display a production year. This only means that they have been (may have been) made from grapes or juices grown in different years. This technique plays a role in developing a consistent character and taste in production wines, but it can also be used by a craft producer to illicit a specialness in a craft wine and requires just as much care and technique as producing a vintage wine.
I see the distinguishing characteristic of what I consider craft wines as the variability of the wines character and taste changes between different vintages. After all we do know that weather conditions impact the sugar content in grapes at various times of the year and when they get picked and processed play a big role. Why do we care about all this? I am not sure I do, personally, but it makes wine drinking an adventure and not just beverage consumption. It keeps me coming back to try new and different wines and comparing different winemakers creations of seemingly identical varietals or blends. Referring back to my post on blending, it enables me to try to guess what other grape variety a wine maker might be using to produce their unique version of a Varietal.
In the final analysis wine consumption is all about what you want it to be. On an intimate evening a unique craft wine will likely fit the bill, but for the company BarBQ it seems unlikely that Dominus or Opus would be on the wine list. I’ve found a lot of really nice craft blends that I can buy on line that compare in price (shopping carefully) to the production wines and really fit the bill for the larger gathering. Frankly new and young winemakers sell their wine cheaper than they should for the quality, but I guess it is part of building a brand. In the mean time we can impress the crowds with something unique, that looks and tastes unique and different from what they are used to and at the same time not break the bank. What a deal!
I love wine and I especially love being able to try new ones and not be beholding to the same taste every time I open a bottle. I love that today, Chardonnay doesn’t all taste Oaky and Buttery, but more like a nice French Chablis, and that we now have wines from all over the world to try. I love Oregon Pinot Noir and that the ones I get from New Zealand and Australia provide a unique comparison. I love that all Reds are no longer created equal and that we now can experience many different great wines from Argentina, Chile, Spain and other parts of the world. This is what the Craft wine evolution brings to us, choice and opportunity.
Aahhh, Robert – have you tried Gentleman Jack? I happened to receive several minis the year it was introduced – quite tasty!
As always, your post is informative and thoughtful. Thank you for all your research!
I know the Gentleman well.
Another great post, Robert! It had not occurred to me until reading this, but you are absolutely correct – as some little producers have gotten more popular, they have shifted to a large production format, while traditional large producers are launching craft, or at least pseudo-craft labels. That explains why some of the boutique wineries I used to enjoy have seemed more homogenized in recent years, as they strive for that year-over-year consistency. Yet one of the appeals of wine for me is to explore the yearly variations in vintages. If you want consistency with every bottle you open, drink Jack Daniels!
I eagerly await your sequels to this subject!
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Kent, you are right about consistency — I have never found a production wine that I loved enough to go back to it on a regular basis, and I can’t afford Dominus on a day to day basis. By the way I don’t drink Jack either if I have a choice, a much prefer some of the smokier small batch Burbons that change from batch to batch.