Early last year, in March, I was on one of my writing trips to the Napa Valley, this time with my wife along. At the end of the third day, Sonja and I were visiting a large, rather well-known winery, our last stop of the day before heading to dinner. The woman behind the counter, who kept correcting one of her other patrons by adding “Cisco!” emphatically each time he would say “San Fran” (okay, I get it, but seriously, know your role) made to Sonja and I what seemed to be a rather bold claim. “90% of the wineries in the Napa Valley are still family-owned,” she told us, proudly implying that this one, though massive, was among them. The claim raised my eyebrows, I’ll admit, but I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to argue the point with her. Standing in a massive stone structure where I could see at least a dozen staff from where I stood, and knowing there had to be scores more, I wondered what the message, and the reality, truly was. It was later that I learned that it was a statement that would have sent Politi-fact into free fall. Indeed, a high percentage of Napa wineries are, technically, family owned. But while “Gallo” and “Trinchero” are indeed families, and storied ones in that area, it might help to contextualize such a statement by mentioning that each of these families owns several dozen wineries. In fact, tons of Napa wineries are owned by the same family, so sure, they’re a family business, but I suppose that Microsoft and WalMart are the Gates and Walton family businesses too, by that standard. It seems like sort of a low bar to have to clear.
Please don’t misunderstand. I am not opposed to drinking wines that were produced by large producers, or which are owned by families or companies with multiple holdings. I had one of the best Cabs I’ve ever had at that large winery that afternoon. Yet while the winery for which Robert Mondavi was eponymous and which helped to reestablish the Napa Valley does indeed produce some excellent wines to this day, I will admit that I don’t go out of my way to give my money to Constellation, the massive conglomerate company that purchased the famous winery now so many years ago. To me, it’s personal. I prefer to drink wines that conjure good memories, or which help me to make new ones, and I always counsel people to drink wines they can afford. In addition, if I know that the wines I’m drinking benefit an individual or a family, rather than a shareholder, well, even better. Some of what Mondavi and other such corporate wineries produce boast outstanding quality-price ratios (QPR), and I would never deny a fellow wine lover the opportunity to drink great wine that was also budget friendly. That said, much of which is produced by giant corporations who serve mostly those who worship at the alter of the bottom dollar ends up rating somewhere between sub-par and soulless when it comes to taste.
Often, when I review wines, one of my criticisms is that it tastes “mass produced.” Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this is a bit different than saying I smell TCA or taste notes of green pepper or rubber or what have you. Recently, I was asked what I meant by saying a wine tasted mass-produced, and I had to admit that mass production isn’t a flavor at all, but almost more of an impression that I get from a wine. In essence, the wine may taste almost too perfect, too balanced or too smooth. It may lack tannins, in the case of reds, or it may instead taste far too much like several other wines, failing to vary from vintage to vintage, failing to set itself apart in any way. Wine should, as a general rule, be a reflection of personality and terroir, and be indicative of the choices and abilities of the winemaker. Wine may vary vastly from vintage to vintage. When the 2005 and the 2011 vintages are all but indistinguishable, well, something is clearly amiss. So when I say something tastes mass-produced, I suppose what I really mean is that it tastes soulless.
For the same reason that I prefer to pop a cork than unscrew a cap, I value the labors of the agriculturalist vintner, the tiny producers who operate on slim profit margins, have no marketing department and no time for social media. So, too, do I deeply admire and respect the artisan winemakers who sculpt fermenting grape juice into magnificent works of art year in and year out at a rate that would make Rodin’s head spin. (It is my impression that Rodin was a notably efficacious sculptor.) The two and three-person operations that I’ve encountered all around the country, from Cuthills Vineyards in Pierce, Nebraska, to Volker Eisele, Varozza, Smith-Madrone, and many others, where the owners get up and tend to the vines before conducting your tasting, and then clean up the tasting room before washing the glasses and doing the books afterwards, these are the places I have come to love the most. These are the places where I can still encounter the romance and nostalgia that, along with masterwork quality, attracted me so strongly to wine in the first place.
It’s difficult to know sometimes just who owns whom in the world of wine and wineries. I recently wrote a review of a beautiful family owned operation in which I relayed the story of a San Francisco pioneer resurrecting one of Napa’s classic pre-prohibition wineries, only to have my editor email me an article shortly thereafter about that winery being purchased by yet another larger corporation. It saddened me, of course. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t drink wine if it isn’t being made at a winery that’s owned by a single family, but I will go as far as to say that when we know of an operation that fits into this shrinking category, and of the people whose elbow grease and sweat equity are behind the extraordinary products they make available to us, then supporting them with our patronage is a fine thing to do.