Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A story nobody tells

I love this story: A longtime grapegrower decides to stop selling their grapes to a winery because they're not getting enough to make ends meet. So they go into the winemaking business and start bottling it themselves.

I have written this story in various publications. It has all the elements foodies love: Farmers fighting to keep their farm. Little guy getting out from under the heel of big company. A wine with a sense of place, made from grapes nurtured by committed owners.

Whenever I get a whiff of this story, I try the wine. It's like boy-meets-girl, they fall in love, end happily ever after. I never get tired of it.

At ZAP last weekend, I finally realized that the other side of the story is far more common (boy meets girl, they divorce and fight over custody). A grapegrower stops selling their grapes and makes their own wine -- except their wine is nowhere near as good as it was when handled by an outsider. And there's no market for it because nobody's heard of it, and who wants an obscure $25 wine that's not any good?

There's a subset of this story, which I think particularly applies to Zinfandel. Pioneers like Kent Rosenblum crisscrossed the state, finding particular vineyards in previously unheralded areas (Contra Costa County, Mendocino County) where the grapes were so spectacular that they became great single-vineyard wines. So because a great single-vineyard wine can come from anywhere, vineyard owners tend to think any vineyard can produce a great single-vineyard wine.

Unfortunately, that's a logical fallacy that is responsible for one disappointing Zin after another. I have lost track of the number of times I've heard a small Zinfandel grower say, "We used to sell our grapes to Ravenswood, but now we're making our own wine." If Ravenswood winemaker Joel Peterson didn't think it was worth making a single-vineyard wine from, the vineyard owners should have listened. Very often, grapes that make a nice element in a blended wine aren't that interesting on their own.

Think about it this way -- Petit Verdot, a Bordeaux varietal, is in some of the world's most expensive and best wines. But when was the last time you had a good Petit Verdot?

There's also the problem of winemaking. Even if their names aren't known, never underestimate the skills and training of the winemaking team at a place like Gallo. If a grapegrower can actually line up an established, superb winemaker for its grapes, fine. But often they just get a neighboring winery's winemaker (or assistant winemaker) to do it. Just because somebody makes wine at small wineries doesn't mean he's going to have the talent of the big boys. They might get lucky, or they might not.

There's a reason nobody ever tells this side of the story. It's sad. And it's not a solution to the farmer's original problem. If Constellation or Gallo isn't paying enough money for grapes, and they're not good enough to make a single-vineyard wine from, then what?

My best advice is to shop the grapes around to a different large winery, preferably one in the area. After successfully turning themselves from grapegrowers into a winery, Michael-David Winery started 7 Deadly Zins in part to help their neighbors in Lodi sell their grapes, and that's now one of the most popular Zinfandels in the country. If you have blending grapes, find somebody to blend them.

I'm sorry to write a depressing post. But after ZAP, I feel guilty for all the times I've written the happy version of this story, because I (as one tiny part of the wine media) probably helped play some tiny role in convincing some grapegrowers that they should strike out on their own as wineries. It's akin to a sportswriter suddenly realizing that high-school basketball players are not studying because they're sure they're going to make it to the NBA.

Some grapegrowers DO make it as wineries, and I will continue to celebrate them. But please keep in mind that for every one that does, there are dozens sitting quietly behind tables at trade shows like ZAP, hoping somebody will spot the hidden brilliance in their wine that they themselves see.


  1. I know at least a couple of very passionate winegrape growers who produce excellent grapes, but sub-par wines from those same grapes. I'm always saying it's even harder to sell wine than to make it.

    It is very sad when you're a custom-crush winery operator looking at the same full bulk wine tank month after month knowing the grower owner is just racking up increasing costs on a wine that may never sell.

  2. Excellent post Blake. Thanks for bringing this issue into the light. I don't think it's discussed enough and given the economic times that we're in, it's an important subject that should be getting more attention.

  3. Nicely done, Blake. The stories the media chooses to tell are sometimes as important as the stories themselves. Keen observation.