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Not all small wineries are cool. Not all big wineries aren’t. Read on.

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When is a “big brand” not a big brand? Is Apple a “big brand”? Sure it is, but everyone loves it. We don’t hear complaints about Apple not being “craft” enough to satisfy the most demanding of users. Somehow, Apple has managed to be a financial behemoth while still retaining the allure of the brilliance of the garagiste creativity that the two Steves, Wozniak and Jobs, embodied.

I think about such things because for a long time I’ve thought that some critics and tastemakers celebrate “small” for the hell of it, and by the same token bash “big” because they think anything big has to be corporate junk. Well, as I just tried to point out, Apple lends the lie to such thinking. Now, I get paid by a big wine company, Jackson Family Wines, that occasionally comes under criticism from some gatekeepers who say that a big wine company can’t produce fine artisanal wine. I think you know where I stand on that. Then I read this article in The Spirits Business talking about Diageo’s contention that consumers are not necessarily rejecting spirits produced by big companies (such as Diageo) just because they’re produced by big companies! Diageo makes such spirit brands as Barterhouse, Old Blowhard [love that name] and Lost Prophet which, I suppose, their marketing people want customers to think are made in a garage by a couple of bearded wild guys who take no prisoners and insist on the most artisanal processes, which, to judge by the impression I get from the coverage of wineries, breweries and spirit producers in magazines like The Tasting Panel, is all the rage these days among Millennials who insist on “authenticity.” The designation “craft,” whatever that means, seems to imply just this sort of little guy David fighting against the gigantic monster of corporate Goliaths. What Diageo replied is this, in the words of their CFO: I don’t think Millennials are that bothered [about craft labels], but they do want authenticity. I do not see people rejecting big.”

Nor do I. Purists and ideologues might reject “big” for its own sake; consumers clearly don’t. A “big” wine company can also produce limited-quantity “artisanal” wines; what’s so intellectually indefensible about that? This raises the question of “transparency” which, alongside “authenticity,” is one of the two reigning monarchs of our marketing era. If somebody buys Old Blowhard, do they know it’s from Diageo, which also owns Smirnoff, Tanqueray, and Ketel One? I don’t know and I don’t care. What should Diageo do, put a giant skull and bones warning label on the bottle and say, “Beware, this is from Diageo”? If consumers care about such things, they can find out anything they want to know about anything in about 30 seconds using the Google machine. But most people want simply something great to drink that they can afford.

Which leaves us with the definition of “authenticity,” as used by Diageo’s CFO. What is “authenticity”? I don’t know. Do you? I like this quote from a Diageo guy who works on the spirits side: “As for what is or isn’t a ‘craft spirit’, that’s up for debate… not all small distilleries are craft, and not all craft distilleries are small.”

Amen. I’ve had awful wines made by tiny little producers. I’ve had fabulous wines made by wineries owned by giant corporations. I think this distinction between “artisanal” and everything else is a fabrication concocted by some people with agendas, and picked up by a gullible media looking for something cool to write about.

  1. Bill Stephenson says:

    The (current) no. 1 carmaker by units is Volkswagen.
    They also make what may be the most expensive, exclusive luxury sports car on the planet – the Bugatti Veyron.

    Scale means little. It’s all about maintaining quality.

    I too have had bad wines by small producers, great wines by major producers.

    My background in Craft Ale has shown up close and personal that going big has its challenges.
    A Sacramento Brewery has been growing by leaps and bounds recently but the quality (in my opinion) of the bottled product has fallen off a cliff.
    New equipment, new facilities, new brewers, and a lack of control over distribution* has led to its once fine Pale Ale being practically unrecognizable from the original draught version.

    *(All views expressed are the opinion of the author of this comment, I don’t want any risk of libel personally or for Steve.
    However, the above opinion is based on a conversation with the brewery owner)

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    Well, you can certainly put Blackbird Vineyards in the non-cool small winery category. Michael Polenske pleaded guilty to trafficking in endangered animals.

    http://www.sfchronicle.com/crime/article/Napa-vintner-pleads-guilty-to-wildlife-trafficking-6438959.php?cmpid=gsa-sfgate-result

  3. Steve,

    I struggle to reconcile your views in this post (with which I agree)

    with your comment earlier this week that
    “A wine requires some credentials in order to be measured among the elite.” This means that double-blind tasting can never result in a super-high score because the taster is, by definition, ignorant of its credentials.”

    If, as you say in this post, “most people want simply something great to drink that they can afford,” then how do you justify rating a wine more highly based on its region of origin? Why is it that, when it comes to “authenticity,” or big producer vs. small, wines or spirits should be judged by what’s in the bottle, but when it comes to geography, credentials and context matter? Is it strictly about the issue of ageability (where you’re using region as a predictor of how the wine will age)?

  4. To paraphrase the great baseball umpire, Bill Klem, who once famously said “out or safe, it ain’t nothing till I call it”.

    “Great or pissant, it ain’t nothing till I taste it blind”.

    Great wine comes in many guises from hundred case lots to 20,000 or more. So does poorly made wine. That is why blind tasting is the only way to go–and it helps to have some experience as a point of reference, but the point of reference cannot be the amount produced or the provenance or the alcohol level or the “authenticity” or any other artificial standard.

    The standard is taste.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    Quoting Jeff Leve’s The Wine Cellar Insider website:

    “The average annual production of Chateau Lafite Rothschild ranges from 15,000 to 20,000 cases of Bordeaux wine per year, depending on the vintage. . . . The cellar holds 2,200 barrels.”

    [Source: http://www.thewinecellarinsider.com/bordeaux-wine-producer-profiles/bordeaux/pauillac/lafite-rothschild/%5D

    Would anyone call Lafite a “craft” winery at that production level — handily eclipsing the vast majority of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and red Meritage producers?

    And yet it remains one of the “great” wines of the world.

    “Authenticity” comes from an unyielding commitment to quality– at whatever scale of production.

    And the fairest way for a wine critic to take the measure of a wine is by sampling it single-blind. (Double-blind is too restrictive, because context — appellation and grape variety and vintage — matters.)

  6. “The standard is taste” Tis true Charlie but that, as we know, is subjective. Do you think you and I taste Champagne, Sparkling wines, Napa Cabernet or Chenin Blanc in the same way?

  7. Wineries large and small can bot indeed make quality wine. But millenials want “craft” everything, not just wine. Let’s ask why?

    I think the desire of millennials to support small business is based on years of working for giant corporations with crafted images for crappy wages. Supporting things like food carts, craft breweries, and small family wineries is the way to build a vibrant local community. We want to shop small and shop local, not support giant corporations. No offense, I’m sure the juice tastes fine.

  8. Steve,

    Think a comparison of wine and spirits is apples and oranges – quite a few spirits allegedly have a base produced in Indiana (this was a big “scandal” – should I say “Faux Scandal!”) last year – here’s a succinct article for those interested (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/28/your-craft-whiskey-is-probably-from-a-factory-distillery-in-indiana.html).

    So, at least wineries don’t all buy their base wine from some gigantic wine clearing house and then put their own spin on it, regardless of who they are. They may produce mass quantities – but at lease it’s their own! And, in general, it’s the same with “craft brewers” and there actually is a good legal definition of “craft brewer” in the US as far as beer is concerned (just google it if you’re interested)…

    Not sure why I’m writing this! except you started your story off by speaking of Diageo and “spirits.”

  9. By cool I assume you mean good wine. A component of a wine being good is its expression of terroir, it’s sense of place. A single vineyard might express different terroir effects from end to end so the larger the batch of wine the more the terroir effect becomes the lowest common denominator effect. This is multiplied (or further diluted) by the blending process..

    By defination then a good wine cannot be produced in large volumes but a large volume of wine can taste good via a winemakera blending magic.

    This is the difference between small, single vineyard wines from small craftsmen winemakers and “artisan” wines from large wineries where the winemaker is just another employee.

    If it tastes good it may or may not be, like chocolate but if it true to its terroir it may be good wine, even with that clove taste that you didn’t expect.

  10. ‘It’s easy to buy IBM Steve’, an old stock market saying from back in the day. Any portfolio manager could easily defend in up markets and down, buying IBM, they were big and everyone knew who they were. Same is the case for ‘slamming’ big wineries, it’s easy and no one thinks twice about slamming everyone that is ‘corporate’; faceless executives counting their money and screwing down the little guy, because that’s what corporate does.

    Critics/Large Publications make waves and grab attention when they “find” something no one has heard of or decide to craft a story about a locally crowdfunded barn/winery with bearded hipsters tending humanely raised, free-ranch livestock amongst a sea of biodynamically grown grapes and vegetables, powered only by the sun, in order to make a minimally invasive wine using artisan techniques. They even hand-bottle every year using friends and family as part of their bottling crew, which of course the writer was on-site to be a part of (because it’s all about community and supporting “local”)

    And yet, nothing about this crowdfunded biodynamic winery is transparent, only the marketing of it. It’s not as though they didn’t have to go through the County of Whatever to apply for a building permit, or waste water treatment, or garbage disposal like everyone else. They don’t use vinegar and water to clean their stainless steel tanks or Simple Green to clean their crush pad. In fact, they probably put down more concrete for a 4 story building to build the pad. How much water do you think a crowdfunded biodynamic winery uses in a year? Plenty. All inconvenient and boring to the story of organic/local/small/artisan. And hand-bottling? Nothing could be more inefficient and wrought with contamination and inconsistency issues than promising friends some wine and food as compensation for their help.

    Most people don’t know and don’t care what goes on behind the scenes of both large corporate and small artisan craft winery. Only the story that was marketed matters. And that’s the “craft”…telling the story of craft, big or small.

    Ironically, Jackson Family owns (and therefore makes) Verite’ wines. The same Verite’ Winery that has numerous “perfect” scores from Parker of 100 points for wines produced in Sonoma County, not Napa. Hell, to me, a 100 point wine out of Sonoma that isn’t Pinot Noir these days is a headline!

    Tell me a story about Verite’, Steve, I’d like to hear it.

  11. John Baker says:

    Wine is an agricultural product. It’s impossible for every winery to hit a grand slam home run every year.
    A good wine maker working with good equipment and good grape sources can make even a bad year taste good. You don’t have this issue with beer and spirits.

    What I look for in a big winery is different than a small one. I expect more from a big winery, excluding really low end wine. I don’t expect to open a bottle and have it undrinkable, because it should have the resources to at least make it okay. Some small wineries just don’t have the knowledge and resources to make a great bottle. Period.

    I’ve also notices a downward shift in quality from KJ. What made KJ great is that you never really got a loser. You never got something that tasted like Golden Gate (sorry Golden Gate). In recent years, KJ seems to be benchmarking Golden Gate. That’s just how I feel. Others may still say KJ is still an outstanding product for the price. I will nod my head in agreement and think other things when they say that.

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