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What makes a winery important?

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A fellow named Jeremy Ball, whom I met at last March’s World of Pinot Noir (his company, Bottle Branding, was the official videographer), sent me this YouTube, in which Yours Truly makes a brief appearance.

I watched it, and then later, as I was walking Gus, I found myself thinking of something Francis Ford Coppola told me a few weeks ago, that in his humble opinion a winery can be considered great and important only if it’s been around for at least 50 years, and been making great wine all that time. (Of course, he was talking about his resurrection of the Inglenook brand.)

When I watched the video I saw lots of producers who make great wine–Paul Lato, for example–but their careers have been relatively brief in California. Then Brian Talley showed up, and I remembered that it was a younger Brian, blonde, handsome and sun-tanned, who picked me up at the San Luis Obispo airport 22 or 23 years ago for one of my first forays outside the Bay Area as a newbie wine writer. I was visiting his Talley Vineyards, already acquiring a high reputation at that point as the premier Pinot Noir producer along that stretch of the Central Coast.

It occurs to me that, by any reasonable definition, you’d have to call Talley an important winery, even though it doesn’t meet Mr. Coppola’s 50-year standard. Well, few wineries in California do, and even those that are that old might fail to meet the standard of importance for other reasons.

So here’s what I think a winery needs to be considered important. I’ll stick to Pinot Noir producers for now.

1. It should be “old” by the relative standards of both California in general and its region. Thus, for example, it’s impossible for (say) a Santa Lucia Highlands winery to be anywhere near as old as a Napa Valley winery. But it can be a S.L.H. veteran by local standards. Pisoni Vineyards, whose launch was only in 1998 but whose plantation, by Gary Pisoni, dates to 1982, meets that condition.

2. All during its existence it has to have been producing wines universally acknowledged as great. By this parameter, there are several important Pinot Noir producers in California: Rochioli, Williams Selyem, Joseph Swan, among a few others.

3. It should have led, and continue to lead, in terms of individuality of style and consistent expression of its terroir. Here, one thinks automatically of a winery like Calera, which has had its reputational ups and downs over the decades, but always has hewed tightly to its style–a balanced, earthy Pinot that’s now returning to fashion.

4. The wines should be ageworthy, although this of course is relative. All of the above wines are easily capable of more than a decade in a good cellar, providing the wine was sound to begin with.

Importance, or greatness, of reputation isn’t easy to achieve, nor should it be. Nowadays, there are wineries that attempt to buy reputational importance through a variety of manipulations: a significant investment of money upfront, association with famous names, pricing based on hubris, the buzz of the media. But no such winery should be called important by any self-respecting writer with any sense of history. Importance, greatness, call it what you will, can only be achieved the old-fashioned way: through the four parameters I outlined above.

  1. Steve:

    I generally agree with your parameters. What is interesting, however, is that all of them require exposure to the larger world. There needs to be a critical mass of people…retailers, distributors, restaurateurs, wine writers, talking about the greatness of the brand before that greatness can be bestowed. This is particularly difficult for wineries in less well-known and appreciated appellations. I wonder how many “great” brands exist out there that we don’t know much about?

  2. Careful, Steve H – don’t tip you hand too far here; “…a balanced, earthy Pinot that’s now returning to fashion“? For many this style of Pinot has always been the archetype. When you start talking about “fashion” you bring up issues of personal preference, whim, and kingmaking – the very antitheses of objective evaluation.

    Steve M has a good point: greatness is a consensus. I would argue that Coppola’s comment about 50 years is a necessary condition. It’s not enough for a single generation of retailers, distributors, restaurateurs, wine writers, collectors, investors, and casual consumers to call a brand great – this acknowledgement has to be borne out over several generations. By this standard, SLH Pinot may be fashionable, but it is not yet great.

  3. What will be interesting to see is who responds to this – and how long they have been a part of the industry (-:

    I agree with some of the parameters set forth by Steve H, and I also agree with Steve M. that wineries should not be ‘penalized’ if their region is not ‘popular’ . . . Therefore, you may have a ‘great winery’ from a corner of Italy that is not that well known, for instance . . .

    And are we dealing with wineries only, or with winemakers and/or vineyards as well? What happens when you have a certain winery and you have a change in winemaking – and perhaps a change in winemaking style? Or what about the plethora of winemakers who work with a variety of vineyards such as Ojai, or SQN, or Brewer Clifton, or Siduir/Novy?

    One other point to consider – styles change, as do winemaker philosophies. So there is something to be said for ‘consistency’, but there’s also something to be said for perhaps the realization that personal winemaker styles change – and subsequent wines will reflect this. Both Ojai and Copain come to mind with this.

    Just thought I’d throw out more food for thought on the subject.

    Cheers!

  4. I generally agree with your outline Steve, however curious if there may be a few exceptions for aspects such as longevity or as you say “old?” I agree it’s relative to the region as you mention, if not, then it could potentially be viewed as region elitist.

    What tenure parameters would you place on a young AVA like Happy Canyon?

    Also, if a winemaker is sourcing fruit from a well established vineyard such as Solomon Hills or Bien Nacido, would you makes allowances for age if all other criteria were covered?

  5. PAWineGuy says:

    How would Harlan be rated using this criteria? Sometimes “hubris” is required to push the limits of conventional wisdom.

  6. Well, I note the points you are making, but I think that it’s too narrow. What about trail blazers, like Kosta Browne? Their style of Pinot Noir rose on the market, and now they are among the “important” wineries is the business, although the style was different, and they had not been around for a great while. I think there is something to be said for being a trail-blazer. While the points you make are valid, there are other aspects of the wine industry to be considered.

  7. Star-vino, I don’t consider Kosta Browne important. They’re culty, yes, and a lot of people desire to own their wines. But that doesn’t mean they have historical relevance or staying power. By the same token you’d have to call Marcassin important, and then that slippery slope leads straight down.

  8. In the end i believe importance has to do with a vineyard. this is what expresses the importance of the vintage, or the variability of one growing season over the next in its local region. When you taste a wine from different producers but from the same significant/important vineyard you can see the differece in the styles of each winerey, but in the end the vineyard site screams through. the sight is what shows us this vintage to vintage variation which is the single most important expression of the vineyard.
    “Important”, I believe, is looking at the same sight over a long strech of time through the syles of different houses to make a decision about the vintage and how each of the house handles those year to year variabilities.
    However there are many important vineyard in california, some only winemakers have had the chance to track, some havent even been planted, others have produced enough grapes and attained well known importance so that all can look at, and finnally some have become so important that many producers position themselves to take a shot of helping the vineyard express its vintage.

  9. Steve maybe i´m missing something but how is Marcassin not important?

    To me wineries like Marcassin are the ones who truly make California.

    I would agree that it needs time to be consider “old” but are you really saying that it is not important?

  10. Dear jpvazquez, well, “important” is open to interpretation. If you think Marcassin is important, fine. I don’t. I just think they’re famous for being unobtainable.

  11. Peter troilo says:

    Steve,
    Well thought out. I’m not sure some are understanding the difference between “important” and “valued” but the distinction is clear. Marcassin, Kosta Brown, Harlan, Screaming Eagle, etc are “valued” but cannot be considered “important” Their relatively short histories in the business and lack of track record (if you will) deem them players but still rookies in the field. Their brands are made famous by inflated wine reviews and miniscule production levels that drive demand and prices to disgusting levels. Money is extraordinarily powerful in the wine industry. As the old saying goes, if you want to make a million, start with two. Mr. Mirassou adds a very compelling point regarding the discussion among wholesalers, retailers, etc. Ultimately, the decision is in the hands of the retailer as to which wines can reach the consumer and which wineries can become “important”. Perhaps in the rapidly changing landscape of the wine industry, wineries might shift their focus as to how they’re perceived by retailers (and restaurants) because in the end, those are the final voices the consumer hears.

  12. John Roberts says:

    I wonder if wine is like a painting, that speaks an ineffable truth that is heard by generations and can be understood as objective in a world limited by varying perceptions? How many over the years has had to appreciate and hold smitten th great Marcassins that have been produced and consumed? Or a LaLa or DRC for that matter? Who or what can pronounce something worthy, or maybe it’s only history? I’m too young, was Inglenook known as great during its day? Today, I’d consider a whole lot of wine good but the great hasn’t changed substantially over the years. Maybe I answered my own question, I don’t know. Does it have to do with place? Probably, since most good wine does in the first place. Haha. And a great has got to be good first, to even get into the door. There they wait their turn and after some time, they may one by one be great, or collectively become great by virtue of age.

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