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11.04.2005

Slow Wine and Scary Shadows

scary_shadow.jpgThanks to Andy over at Spittoon for pointing out an interesting article by Michel Smith over at Slow Food, on wine, terroir, and the increasing numbers of small vintners around the globe. It's a great article that I agree with 98%. I'm sure I'm going to get into trouble by spending a couple of minutes here on the two percent that I take issue with, but hey, that's why I have a blog and not a magazine that y'all pay for every month.

One of the great things about the article is that it points out the growing proliferation of small, quality producers of wine in both the New World and the Old, where many folks are reviving "old terroir" -- vineyard plots that have been neglected for years, or carefully establishing new ventures on good soil. Smith also is one of the few writers who play with this supposed dichotomy of big-production "international style" and hand-crafted "terroir wines" that points out that all signs point to the fact that these smaller, high-quality wines are not only NOT in danger of extinction at the hands of some monolithic evil force of "Coca-Cola style wines" but are in fact multiplying and gaining strength by an attempt to avoid, protest, or even just differentiate against that supposed enemy.

My issue with the piece, and with all such arguments that pit these small winemakers against this force of internationalization, is the the insistence that this threat of mass-production exists at all.

Smith asks at the beginning of his piece "So then, international wine or signature wine, how should today's winemaker react? And should he opt for mass-produced or hand-produced? What are wine lovers of the future going to go for?" This question is easy to throw out there as a way of constructing a polarized argument, but stop and think for a moment -- do you REALLY think that any winemaker actually ever asks themselves this question? I submit that this is a ridiculous and contrived dichotomy, one that manufactures a dilemma where none exists. Why? Because people make this choice, I would argue, without even thinking about it. You're either someone who works in winegrowing or winemaking with an orientation towards crafting to the best of your ability and means something authentic, or your someone for whom the economics of the business is more important. Which isn't to say that you can't be both -- indeed, most winemakers and winegrowers are -- but I'd suggest that there comes a point, or many points more likely, where you have to make a choice between quality/authenticity/smallness and economics/scalability/efficiency/etc. Some people will go one direction most of the time, while other people will go the other direction most of the time.

These two different orientations don't represent the Light Side and Dark Side of the force, they simply represent two equally valid and equally necessary aspects of reality. The market demands larger production, less expensive wines, just as it does the artisan wines. Both must exist and should exist because the wine consuming public couldn't grow and sustain itself without them. If all we had were the small production wines of the world, then wine would be even more of an inaccessible product than it is right now.

So while Smith and so many others have gotten right their portrait and celebration of the beauty, truth, and passion that can only be expressed in the equation of one hand, one vine, one barrel at a time, they have also conjured fearsome specters that send people running scared unnecessarily.

Comments (15)

Iris wrote:
11.05.05 at 12:34 AM

Thank you once again, Alder, for hinting out this article. I read it carefully (having spent 2 days at Montpellier at the "Salon aux origines du goût" organised by SlowFood France has made me even more sensible for the subject). And I agree totally with your commentary: we make the choice "without thinking" - at least it's how it happened in my case - if we have "the choice".

But for many sons (and daughters) of winegrowers, who would like to become winemakers, it's not always easy to see the choice. Instruction, legislation and official help orientates them more towards marketing arguments, you are told that you have to consider "consumers tastes" and international concurrency, if you want to earn your livelihood. And for that it is helpful "to be known" - It is very satisfactory to grow beautiful grapes on your own land, transform them into unique wines which reflect the climate and the terroir every year, but somebody should know that you do it and be interested by it, otherwise - even with a small production, you'll have a lot of exceptional bottles to drink yourself in your cellar - and as we have to put on adverts in France:"l'abus d'alcool est dangereux - à boire avec modération!".

11.05.05 at 10:32 AM

This is a good point. The big producers create more demand which, as it moves up market, goes to the smaller producers. It has been this way for a long time with the larger negociants.

It is often argued that Starbucks would put all the mom and pop coffee shops out of business, but they also grew the market.

Doug wrote:
11.05.05 at 8:10 PM

Interesting read, thank you for recommending it – as always cheers to your passion!

Dave Brookes wrote:
11.05.05 at 10:47 PM

Interesting read indeed...Randall Grahm wrote a piece in 'The World of Fine Wine' about the International Wine Style which is worth having a look at also.....as is Patrick Matthews book 'Real Wine'.

Cheers

Dave

Jack wrote:
11.06.05 at 10:22 AM

Sometimes we forget that we live in Northern California where most of the restaurants we (you and I) dine at have wine lists that have mostly small-producer wines, not industrial. But the rest of the US, except for the exceptional restaurants, have wine lists that are composed of mostly or 100% industrial wines. (Just visit any chain restaurant (or big hotel chain), even in SF!) Imagine for whites being able to only drink mass-produced California chardonnays.

How many winemakers do you know who are making the wine they want to make, rather than wine the market wants or wine the winemaker/owner thinks the market wants? How many tasting rooms try to have every varietal under the sun, at all price points, no matter how boring or insipid these "extra" wines are? Or what about the big Sonoma Country producer who was making both an oaked and an unoaked sauvignon blanc; but stop making the unoaked one as it didn't sell as well - their oaked one has 15.8% alcohol!

Sadly, many (most?) of the smallest wineries can't make the wines they want because they don't have the marketing savvy to reach the people who would want that wine. Instead they have to make big, bold wines, with bonus extraction to score the big scores from the US wine publications. These wines are more and more focused on "peaking" in a few years rather than in a few decades. And they (often due to financial considerations) have to release their wines way before they're ready to drink. It's sad, but after living in Wine Country for six years, I have gotten the impression that most here are not really trying to express the terroir of the soil in their wines, or make interesting wines at all.

Alder wrote:
11.06.05 at 10:37 AM

Jack,

One thing I think that your argument overlooks is that for the most part the rest of the country ISN'T REALLY COMPLAINING about the wine they get. While you (or I) may be horrified at the prospect of only being able to drink Turning Leaf Chardonnay in the middle of Nebraska, most of the people there don't know what they're missing.

It's really the wine drinking elite who bemoan all of this industrial wine, yet the irony is that they're not drinking it and they don't have to.

I think there's not as cut and dry a line between the wine that a winemaker or winery "want's to make" and the wine that sells. I can give you plenty of examples of wineries who make unprofitable wines because they want to, and plenty of examples of small wineries who are perfectly happy and comitted to making great wines that ALSO happen to be what the market is looking for.

Winemaking as a business and as a craft doesn't take place in a vacuum where winemakers always have a blue-sky choice about what they want to make (unless you're a millionaire making wine in your garage). They are always also in business (it's a CRAFT, remember, not an ART), and some aspects of the decision about what wine to make will always be a business decision too. Even if it is only how much money to spend on the grapes. I disagree completely that most or even many of the smallest wineries can't make the wines they want. They will either do so if they want, regardless of their marketing prowess or the demand in the marketplace, or they will want to make wines that sell.

The market realities of having to release wines before they're ready to drink and making wines designed to be drunk sooner rather than later is a reality that isn't going away and will only get more pronounced as the wine drinking public swells. But I ask you -- what is the problem with that? For those of us who know better, we can simply cellar those which are released too early, and I believe there will always be wineries that will be making wines to age rather than peak early, it's just our job to find them and patronize them.

After all, you have to remember that we are the wine drinking MINORITY in this country, and the market will always be steered by the majority.

11.06.05 at 12:04 PM

Thanks Alder to open this debate.
From my very French point of view, I think (not to say hope) that indusrial wines not only will permit new wine drinkers to evolve into real wines but also that, in neglecting its very origin, more and more people (and not only in Old Europe) will take more attention on what's the most important : Terroir. I can actually verify this each time I go to the States (I just came back) especially with origin grapes like Zinfandel.
Cheers,
Jean-Marc

Karen wrote:
11.06.05 at 8:36 PM

Alder, Alder...

You brought an audible laugh out of me from your comment regarding people in the middle of Nebraska! Of course, you are accurate, as I believe I have indicated to you...from my perspective.

I read through a portion of Michel Smith's article, but found it to be self-redundant!

There most certainly will always be large and small production wine producers. Additionally, I'm guessing this has somewhat been the case throughout history. Why would it change now?

I agree with you that most of the country isn't complaining about the wine they have at their dispense. On a recent trip to a well-known warehouse retailer I observed an acquaintance buying large quantities of an industrial wine. I was cringing inside. Those of us who do care, but perhaps need more experience, seek out guidance from people like you and your readers. It is then, that we can make more exciting choices and suggestions at our local liquor retailers.

Even the local Nebraskan winemakers are passionate about their craft. I definitely don't think they question what wine drinkers of the future are going to want. They produce what Nebraska soil and climate will allow for, which I believe is fairly limited. Many of the local wines I've tasted are fairly sweet, but there have been a few that I thought were very nice...for this region. I've also had wines from Temeculah, California that were equally as sweet. So...it seems to be all about choices, and thankfully, here, we can make our own!

Based on the enormous quantity of small winemakers in this country alone...I don't think this large/small production ratio will detrimentally change in our lifetime.
Karen

Mark wrote:
11.07.05 at 9:34 AM

And a slightly different comment and rant. What is an "industrial wine" or a large production even. I just watched hand sorting and individual fermentation bins being handled at 4 wineries. Kosta Browne, Eric Kent, Robert Mondavi and Rosenblum. All making hand crafted wines with a lot of care. Now, I know, we're not talking about Woodbridge here, but size of the company isn't an indicator of quality of product. A "BIG" producer can make beautiful wines. A "small" producer can too. And they both can make plonk. Generalizations about globalization and industrilization are worthless. Wine makers strive to cut down on bottle variation so bottle to bottle there is consistancy. Does anyone really think all wines will taste the same? Step away fromt he soapbox slowly and put the bottle down.

Caveat - I work for Mondavi, so feel free to ignore this as some self servinf shill (it's not, but what else can I say?)

Malcolm wrote:
11.09.05 at 5:52 AM

I live in the UK and work for a wine importer that deals with both "big" brands and small producers. As such my perspective is a little different on small producers.
The British wine trade is probably the most competitive in the World and the lack of large scale home grown production means that the retail side of things is much more international than in most countries.
If you visit any supermarket in the UK you will find several hundred wines from around the world (varying in price from £3.99 or so up to around £25.00) - you might find two or three English wines among them.
The reason is pretty straightforward - most producers in the UK are too small to get a listing with any of the large retailers even if their wine is of the right quality. If you cannot produce several thousand cases of any one wine then you need not bother applying.
This means that the vast majority of small producers (from anywhere in the world) are confined to specialist wine merchants. As they are so small they cannot justify the costs of marketing their product effectively at wine shows or to the trade. They are therefore in a chicken and egg situation if they wish to grow the business or become better known. Many also lack the basic business skills to market their wine effectively - I see at least one or two propositions from producers around the world per week that are simply shambolic in presentation.
English producers thus either sell through specialists (an endangered species in the UK) or from the Cellar Door.
It is also very easy to forget that the people who like small, interesting complex wines are a very small minority - on cable TV here we have a channel "Wine TV" - it has the smallest recorded audience of any channel in the UK.
Having said that the UK wine market is slowly moving upmarket with more consumers wishing to learn more about winemaking, different grape varieties and terroir. However the average price of a bottle in the UK is still less than £6.00 and is consumed within two hours of purchase.
Most large producers that I can think of produce wines at different price points across their range - think Penfold Grange as an extreme example -to capitalise on consumers moving upmarket.
Large does not always mean poor quality and small does not mean good - lets face it some small producers are small because they produce bloody awful wine (although I am happy to agree that some big producers make bloody awful wine too!).

Jack wrote:
11.09.05 at 9:57 PM

More thoughts on this subject:

I feel that most (but not all) big producers goal is to have their wines taste the same, year in, year out. They want their wines to appeal to the largest number of people who drink wine - you know, those buying Two Buck Chuck, Yellowtail and KJ Chard VR. They also want it in the consumers hands moments after its been bottled.

Most of the country isn't complaining about PINK TASTELESS TOMATOES that they keep finding in every fast food burger and big grocery chain in the country. (It's so funny/terribly sad that when tomatoes are in season and taste wonderful, the fast food companies refuse to use them, as it would alter the flavor of their food - even though in a positive way!)

So, we're really talking about two groups here, Wine Drinkers and Wine Lovers. I still/hope think the latter want interesting wines. (Do I score a few more incoherence pts?)

malcolm wrote:
11.10.05 at 3:37 AM

Actually Jack I would agree and disagree. Big wine companies at the very bottom end certainly prefer consistency (and lets remember that a lot of these wines come from areas with little difference from year to year in vintages so consistency is not so hard to attain).
But above this level producers generally try to maintain a consistent style of wine but accept vintage differences - it gives them something to write about on the back label.
You also seem to be a bit simplistic about big producers range marketing - as Mark, the Mondavi employee, mentioned above most "big" producers also produce "small" wines.
The reasons are numerous:
1) The winemaker wants to (at least one winemaker I know makes a sparkling shiraz because "it was fun and we wanted to see if we could").
2) The profit margin generally gets better the better the wine quality.
3) There is a marketing benefit to producing icon wines - the theory is that the "aura" of quality inherent in Penfold Grange flows down into the lesser wines (I am not a fan of this idea myself - Penfold Bin whatever tastes no better to me because the last glass of Grange I tasted was sublime).
4) Producing wine across a spread of price points allows business to maximise sales opportunities.

On the subject of wine drinkers v wine lovers my experience from working consumer shows over the last few years would be that the people who attend these shows (and I have worked at everything from the "bottom end" to fine wine shows) are interested in learning more, and, if you have the time to take them through an entire range can appreciate the differences. Frankly, I find it more satisfying explaining to someone who happily admits to knowing nothing just why a single quinta vintage port costs three times as much as a basic ruby (and have them appreciate the qualitative difference) than spending 10 minutes talking to a wine anorak about the terroir of Vargellas.
Now plainly the people who attend these shows are generally interested in wine or they would not be there (wine drinkers who are proto wine lovers perhaps) but I think most wine drinkers would be interested in learning more. They may well prefer Two Buck Chuck to Montrachet but surely that is their choice (and their wine habit is a bloody sight cheaper than mine). By the way I tried Two Buck Chuck at the London Wine Fair this year and it was not as awful as I expected (it is not sold in the UK).

Please do not think I am anti-garagiste but I simply think that the argument that big producers = bad and small producers = good does not really hold water.

Of course we have not really defined what we mean by "big" producers yet.....

Malcolm wrote:
11.10.05 at 4:39 AM

And while I am thinking about it we have not really discussed pricing in this context.

We have all tasted really nice wine and have then been told its £30 a bottle - which has prompted a rapid reassessment to "nice wine but not £30 nice, or nice wine if someone else is paying".

I would suggest that most small wine makers would struggle to make anything at the £5 or £6 level that compare with the mass producers. And when they can that is great but kind of academic - what is the point knowing there is some guy in Sonoma producing 300 cases of phenomenal wine at £5 a bottle when I am in London and cannot buy it?

Which kind of brings us back to small producers struggling to get distribution....

Aidan Maconachy wrote:
11.10.05 at 4:17 PM

Very interesting post - ty all. Vinography is one of the best sources around for up-to-date info!

Wine for the People wrote:
11.13.05 at 6:26 PM

Actually, all wine _is_ industrial. Vinegar is the "natural" product - you just _have to_ intervene in the wine production process, whatever your philosophy may be. Large scale modern wine production actually allows for a very genuine product, reflecting the grape composition better than if using obsolete technologies. Ancient approach means _less_ control. How is that advantegous? I think that all this 'artisan wine' philosophy is just a bunch of snobbish b/s.

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