How Small is Small Production?

As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of small producers. Sometimes called boutique wineries, micro-wineries, or garagistes, these small wineries often don’t even have their own vineyards, but merely purchase grapes in smaller quantities from highly reputable sources.

Wine is a domain rife with romanticism, and there’s a certain sensibility out there (I admit to wholly embracing it myself) that small is beautiful — tiny operations generally yield more interesting, higher quality wines than larger operations. Implicit in this sensibility lies a supposition (usually, but not always true) that smaller wineries can and do put more care and attention into their winemaking than the larger wineries can afford to. Like all generalizations or stereotypes, there is definitely some truth to this.

But such thinking inevitably begs the question that a reader named Jill sent to me a week or two ago:

Just wondering…what level of case production do you think qualifies a wine as ‘mass produced’ versus ‘limited production’? I know it’s not a cut and dry thing, and factors such as how a wine is made and not just quantity dictate this. But as a general rule, do you have a figure in mind?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was a very interesting question.

My first reaction was to throw out a number of cases at which I though small production ended, and large production began. But the more I thought about it, the more arbitrary that number was, and the less qualified I felt at being able to answer the question.

Ultimately, I think I AM unqualified to answer the question, as I’ve never been a professional winemaker. I think that if I’d had experience making wine commercially, I might have a sense for just how much wine — how many tons of grapes, how many barrels, how many different varieties of wine — finally pushes an operation from artisan to industrial.

I certainly know that the answer is not “a number.” The answer is really a sensibility, a connection between the people making the wine (or any food product, for that matter), the raw materials, and the finished product. When we designate a product as artisan made, or small production, we imply a thread of attention, care, intent, and vision that runs through the process as well as manifests in our perception (real or imagined) of the final product. It IS possible to taste this care (though a far deeper and more tangential argument around terroir might explore what this care actually tastes like).

So how does one ensure that the final product is imbued with the quality that only the highest amount of personal attention and responsibility can ensure? The answer with wine, frustratingly, is many different ways. It is easy to see that at 200 to 500 cases, two to four people can shepherd a wine with the lavish attention capable of yielding an excellent product. But what about 8 people and 2000 cases? 16 people and 6000 cases? And certainly technology helps increase the ratio of cases to people, whether it’s a forklift or a pneumatic press.

Part of the answer to this question also needs to be a redefinition of the (often pejorative) term “mass produced.” The use of that phrase, and the sensibility behind it is often more what I call “knee-jerk romanticism” than real sense. Case in point? Some of the undisputed top wines of the world — the great houses of Bordeaux that ALL the critics agree are some of the finest wines ever made — are made in quantities exceeding 30,000 cases. So what then is mass produced, when you exceed 100,000 cases?

Welcome to relativism, where there are no concrete answers, only just “it depends.” Perhaps those of my readers who are actually winemakers can offer criteria for when a wine no longer can be thought of as small production. Is it when you don’t have the time, energy, or people to do hand punchdowns of every open-top fermenter? Is it when you can’t have someone physically pick up, inspect, and sort every individual cluster of grapes? Is it when you have to buy corks by the ton instead of the barrel?

In the end, I don’t really have much of an answer other than in reflection upon what I see of the independent small winemakers I know. It seems that with an entry level facility or a custom crush outfit; the help of a partner or close friends; and a lot of sweat and energy and skill, it’s possible for one winemaker to make about 6000 cases of wine and say confidently that he or she really crafted every bit of it from start to finish. Much bigger than that, and it seems like it is harder to make that claim.

But what if you had two experienced winemakers working side by side?

You see? I think it’s really an impossible question to answer fully, except to say that, in the end, small production is an aesthetic — a point of view that is ultimately subjective, and in the eye of the beholder. Or the glass of the drinker, as the case may be.