Saturday, March 27, 2010

Garage Sized Wineries Helping or Hurting The Wine Industry?

The wine industry is a funny thing. Two parts agriculture and one part science, mixed with a dash of artistry just for finesse. Any winery you walk into will pretty much fall into this recipe, within normal limits.

This past weekend I took some good friends, my wife, and my son out on a wine tour to Red Mountain and Prosser. We visited everything from a sprawling 200,000 case winery down to a 500 case winery, and everything in between.

I can tell you that some of the wineries were wonderful, and some were lacking. But, I don’t talk about that. What I can tell you is that the topic did come up about “garage” wineries destroying the wine industry.

It does make sense. Hundreds of people in our region have gotten into the wine business seemingly overnight. Some have done it through their background in Chemistry, Biology, Geology, or Bacteriology. A few I know have come at the industry from a restaurant past. Some have come at it as a grape growing farmer.

As a new business owner, stepping out on the entrepreneurial cliff, we all have to start somewhere. It only makes sense that we need to start within our means, which sometimes includes the kitchen table or the garage. In other words, we can’t all just go out and buy multi-million dollar winemaking facilities.

The real problem is “Cult” wineries in my opinion. When I can buy a bottle of wine from a world class winemaker for $15 or turn around and buy a pretty substandard bottle for $45 just because it is from some “special” 500 case winery I think that’s a con job.

The truth is sub 500 case wineries have higher expenses per bottle. They are also under trained, and under experienced. They may have a mystique about them. Heck, some I know are absolutely fabulous! Dumas Station, Garrison Creek, Hightower, and Kontos Cellars are some that come to mind immediately. But, these guys all learned the craft over the years, or hired consultants to teach them.

Core to the issue is that it takes experience and talent to produce good wine. It takes practice, which requires volume and years. If you only make 10 barrels of wine each year, your level of practice isn’t nearly the same as a wine maker that makes thousands of barrels. 500 case wineries are rarely good from bottle to bottle because of this. They also don’t have the knowledge or experience.

In parting, I want to give a little story. A famous artist was asked to paint a swan by a rich lady. The artist charged 10 million dollars. After several years the lady returned and asked the artist for her swan. The artist took out a piece of paper and quickly drew the most gorgeous swan she’d ever seen in three minutes. The lady said, “I paid you millions for this and it took you 3 minutes?” The artist replied “It took me 30 years. You only saw the last 3 minutes.”

The moral of the story is that big or small, the artistry and skill that go into making wine isn’t quick and easy. Those who would like you to believe it is aren’t telling the truth. An expensive wine from just any small vintner isn’t to be trusted. However, some of the greatest wines of all time are made in small garages.

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