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Cheers to the big wineries


Got my copy of Wine Business Monthly’s (WBM) Feb. 2012 ish at the recent Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers conference, and a keeper it is! That publication’s lists (Top 30 Wine Companies and Hot Small Brands) are must reads in the industry. Everytime I’m writing an article or a blog post and need to know how big a major winery is, or how it’s ranked in size (is Gallo still #1? Constellation?), I have to spend valuable minutes Googling it, hoping to come up with WBM’s most recent list. Now that I have the actual magazine, it’s staying right near my desk, where I can find it anytime I want.

It’s not surprising that the biggest U.S. wine companies sell affordable wine: Gallo, The Wine Group, Constellation, Treasury, Trinchero, Bronco, Ste. Michelle, Diageo, Jackson Family and DFV [rounding out the top 10 of the Top 30]. Most if not all of these companies also produce expensive wine, but expensive wine doesn’t pay the bills. It’s the mega-palettes of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, other varietals (Hello, Moscato!) and blends that dominate supermarket shelves and sell like hotcakes at family-style chain restaurants that keep these companies running.

I’ve always had admiration for a big wine company that can put out Best Buys year after year at production levels that make them easy to find in most U.S. states and territories. That’s the broad base of the pyramid upon which the pointy little top–which includes all cult the wines–rests. I’ve also long thought that, if you’re a big wine company, like that, you’d probably also want to take some of your money and invest it in prestige products. Why? Just because you can. I think every winemaker at big wine companies would like to try his or her hand at producing a luxury wine. It’s just human nature to have a talent and want to express it at the highest level possible. But how can you know what that level is, unless you try it?

That’s why I’ve had the greatest admiration for Jackson Family Wines. It’s certainly not Verite or Cardinale that landed them on WBM’s Top 30 list. It’s Kendall-Jackson. But the Jackson Family allows–no, that’s not the right word, encourages its winemakers at smaller wineries it owns to make the best wines they possibly can, and that includes Randy Ullom, who, while overseeing production of the multi-million-case Vintners Reserve program, also works his magic at the highest levels at K-J’s Highlands Estates wines. When a winemaker at a big company has the opportunity to craft small-production, artisanal wines, he can only get better at producing the mass sellers.

Same with DFV, which is the Indelicato family’s newish umbrella name for their various brands. I’ve given more Best Buys to Bota Box than you can shake a stick at. Ditto with Gnarly Head, and the Twisted wines that have come my way, while fewer in number, have impressed me. I bet their new HandCraft  wines (line priced at $13 retail) are going to be big sellers, too, because this is a company that knows how to sell wine. But the Indelicatos also own Black Stallion, a Napa Valley Cabernet and Chardonnay producer, and those wines give plenty of bang for the buck.

Such an interesting industry, our wine one. So multi-faceted and complex, just like a great wine should be. Sure, I love tasting the “cult wines,” but while the inexpensive ones may not have the same excitement level, I can tell you that every time I review one, and realize it qualifies (under Wine Enthusiast’s guidelines) for a Best Buy or Editor’s Choice, it makes me happy.

  1. Steve: “[I]t qualifies. . . for a Best Buy or Editor’s Choice, it makes me happy.”

    It makes me and all those who buy, open, and taste them happy too; haven’t read a wine critic yet who enjoys ‘dising’ a wine.

  2. One of the reasons that I also admire such companies is that by making affordable wines that are consistent in high quality and made in large enough quantities so that they can reach most wine consumers is that it gives the wine consumer a chance to step up from the entry-level wines. When you can get a very good everyday wine for around $6, it tends to encourage the wine consumer to take a few more chances and try something a little different, a little better — and another wine convert is made. I’d also add Columbia Crest and Ch. Ste. Michelle to the list as large companies who put out large volumes of very good QPR wines. I’ve helped introduce a good number of folks to better wines at affordable prices with some of their offerings, as well as the wines from the Indelicatos.

  3. bill wertzberger says:

    Good: agree that DFV does a great job on low end wines. I think they’re the best at it.
    Bad: but at least you didn’t spell it palate

  4. With all due respect-these wines don’t matter. Their quality is generally irrelevant. They care far more about packaging, marketing, and distribution pressure than quality. They are certainly ok with allowing their winemakers to make “the best wine possible”, but that doesn’t really add up to anything. The reality is they’re given a budget and general style parameters to create the “best wine possible”. as long as you dictate that style and budget, you can’t make the best wine possible. Further, the people that buy these wines don’t care about reviews. These reviews are important for marketing to get them into the retail pipeline. After that, leverage, bullying, packaging get you much further than whatever is in that bottle.

  5. Coincidence this topic at this time. I’m visiting with my Dad who turned 95 today. He buys a Gallo product, a Cabernet…Dancing Bull, gets it for less than $4 a bottle. It’s something I would never buy, just because of the name and the label. But I thoroughly enjoyed it with dinner last night and am astonished at its purity of character, balance, distinct varietal character and pleasing finish. It’s different than the $200 bottle I brought him as a gift, but looking at the two wines from a winemaker’s standpoint a $4 wine of that quality in that quanity is a much harder thing to achieve. It’s the superior achievement in winemaking. Small batches of high quality wine are the easiest things to achieve.

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