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Myth busting: Big doesn’t equate to average; small doesn’t mean great



Brother Laube has a good column in the Nov. 30 Wine Spectator on the humungous crop size of the 2012 vintage in California. Not only was it at the time the biggest ever, but, according to Jim, for Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 “hit the jackpot.” That certainly accords with my reviews of 2012 Cabs, although there are many I didn’t taste because I left my old job last March just as they were starting to come in.

What I take from Jim’s column is the irony of large production with high quality, which theoretically is difficult, if not impossible. But it isn’t unknown. Both 2005 and 2007 were excellent Cabernet vintages in California, and both were good-sized harvests: 2005, in particular, was the highest ever until 2012 came along. Nor can we conclude that a low-producing vintage is necessarily a good one. The notoriously chilly 2011 harvest, so reviled by so many critics, was only average-sized, by modern standards.

I’ve long been puzzled by the mutually-reinforcing stereotypes that (a) high production compromises quality and (b) low production tends to equate with high quality. I’ve never believed that. It sounds good, but falls apart in the face of the evidence. The great First Growth chateaux of Bordeaux routinely produce in very high quantities, let’s say the tens of thousands of cases annually, and I’ve never heard anyone complain about them because of that fact. Why does a 40,000-case First Growth get away with it, when a 40,000-case California winery is assumed by the critics to be a mass producer?

Let’s face it, here in California there’s a real prejudice against high-production wines. What does “high production” mean? Well, it’s relative, but some California wines produced in miniscule quantities are loved by the critics who seek out what Jim Laube calls “newer, smaller producers, garagiste operations making a few thousand cases a year…”. I sometimes think there’s a critic’s mindset whereby they assume that a small garagiste winery must be making super-duper wines because it’s, well, small, and the owner does it all by himself. Blind tasting would, of course, reduce such automatic assumptions to rubble, but blind tasting is, alas, rare in the critical world, where critical assumptions are often borne out by experience because the assumer allows no contradicting information in.

If you think about it, there’s no logical reason why a tiny production wine should have any advantages over a large production wine. Why should it? Just because someone has a two acre estate vineyard doesn’t tell you anything about terroir, vineyard practices, barrel regimes or anything else. In fact, a tiny garage operation might have poor, old equipment. On the other hand, a large vineyard, properly managed, with sufficient finances, can produce great wines, especially if the vineyard manager and winemaker focus on individual blocks within the vineyard. The famous Tokalon Vineyard, for instance, contains 550 acres, and is routinely cited as one of the world’s greatest sources of Bordeaux varieties.

So consider this the start of a new category on this blog: Myth Busting. Have any you’d care to share? Let me know!

  1. Steve,

    I’d start by saying that there’s a difference between a high yielding vintage in the vineyard, and a high production wine. You have to be cautious not to mix the two together.

    As far as high yields in the vineyard go, I think much depends on how you get the yields, what the weather is like, etc. Speaking only of Pinot, I know that if 2011 hadn’t been a smaller vintage, it is unlikely we would have ripened much of anything. — Both 2012 and 2013 were large yields in virtually all of our California Pinot vineyards. But in 2012 we had large berries and there was an excessive amount of juice per skin in the fermentation tank (so we did a great deal of bleed offs). In 2013 there were simply more berries, not larger berries, and much less was required in the way of of bleed offs. All “bigs” are not created equal.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  2. Steve,

    This might be hard to admit, given your current gig, but the support for smaller brands also gratifies the ego.

    Consider the Eric Rippert (!) thinks that the Big Mac is a perfect hamburger:

    But what makes YOU feel better about yourself? Supporting McDonald’s or buying a hand-crafted burger (with locally sourced meat and fresh produce) from a local entrepreneur? The latter, obviously.

    Wine is no different.

    We vote not because an individual vote matters (it never has, in all American history), but because it feels good to say “I vote.” Global wine behemoths might make delicious wine, but it feels good to say “I support small wineries.”

  3. Blake Gray says:

    David: Wow, bitterly cynical six days before election day. If you don’t vote, you leave the decisions in the hands of those who do.

    I’m voting. You can say it’s to make myself feel good, but you’re not going to talk me out of it.

    On your other point, I’m kind of jazzed when I can write a blog post about Mateus. Everybody and their sister can write about the small winery down the block.

  4. Adam, you’re correct, I did conflate big vineyard and high production. They’re sort of equivalent, in that the critics love the tiny little estate vineyards as much as they love the garagistes.

  5. I’ll bite, as I am equally puzzled by stereo-types that believe (a) machine harvesting compromises quality and (b) hand-picking tends to equate with high quality. It sounds reasonable, but falls apart in the face of evidence. Many classified châteaux still harvest by machine and produce superior quality.

  6. Bob Henry says:


    A little history lesson here on how one vote can matter:

    But more importantly, one vote matters all the time — in our U.S. Supreme Court’s commonplace 5 to 4 decisions.


    I enjoyed your Mateus blog. Brought back fond memories of being a “starving student” in college on a tight budget, just getting exposed to wine.


    Joe Heitz had no aversion to machine harvesting, as he stated in Bob Benson’s interview book titled “Great Winemakers of California.”

    (See this article on contemporary adoption:

    ~~ Bob

  7. Dear David White, actually, the Jackson Family Wines portfolio contains many small, estate-driven brands: Champ de Reves, Maggie Hawk, Mt. Brave, Lokoya, Cardinale, Verite and Gran Moraine, for starters. Keep in mind that Kendall-Jackson is but one winery in the collection.

  8. doug wilder says:


    Having been in the wine business for nearly a quarter century, I bought Lokoya and Verite for clients in the late 1990s and understood exactly what they were meant to be – examples of terroir-focused small estates, jewels in the crown of JFW. I imagine not much has changed in the 10 years since I tasted them last.

  9. Bob: You missed my point. Never in American history has an election for a national office (or a governor’s seat) come down to one, single vote. All the examples in your link drive home that point. What happened in Florida in 2000 drives home the point — it came down to 537 votes, not one.

    We vote because of what it says about us and how it gratifies our ego. In 2008, everyone felt good about supporting Obama.

    Steve: I understand that the Jackson Family Wines portfolio includes small brands. I enjoy many of their wines. But Jackson Family Wines isn’t a 300-case operation. It’s one of the 10 largest wine companies in the country.

  10. Doug Wilder: You’re quite right They remain small- terroir-based elite wineries.

  11. Bob Henry says:


    I tacitly got your point regarding the popular vote for national office or governor.

    But more important is the Electoral College vote — which trumps the popular vote when electing our president and vice president.

    Quoting the website I cited:

    “In 1800 – Thomas Jefferson was elected President by ONE VOTE in the House of Representatives after a TIE in the electoral college.”

    “In 1824 – Andrew Jackson won the presidential popular vote but lost by ONE VOTE in the House of Representatives to John Quincy Adams after an electoral college DEAD-LOCK.”

    ~~ Bob

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