Another Independent Family Winery Goes Corporate

pahlmeyerConsolidation within the wine industry continued apace this week as the highly-regarded Napa producer Pahlmeyer was sold to wine behemoth E.J.Gallo. These sales of small, iconic family-owned wineries are understandable—the owners want to retire and cash in and companies like Gallo have the resources to make very attractive offers. But I’m always sad when I hear about them.

Of course Gallo, itself a family owned business, can make good wine if they want to. The question is whether they will want to, or will cost-cutting, profit taking and corporate-style decision making take its toll eventually. Someone should do research on the effects of corporate takeovers on wine quality. My guess is that wine quality suffers. Here’s why.

When “big wine”  buys a valuable brand like Pahlmeyer, money flows out. That’s money that cannot be used to make wine. How does “big wine” make that money back? Reducing costs by consolidating employees and production facilities, raising prices, blending in wine from cheaper grapes, using cheaper barrels—none of that is designed to improve wine quality.

But in addition, something less tangible but even more important is lost. Successful, independent family wine businesses such as Pahlmeyer represent vision, hard work, risk taking and a personal investment in wine quality—it’s their baby, their life’s work, and compromising on quality is a painful choice because the family’s identity is bound up with the wine. A wine conglomerate doesn’t have the same personal investment in quality. Gallo has lots of brands. If one isn’t successful, others will be. This is a business decision, not a labor of love. That lack of personal investment makes it easy to cut corners should the need arise.

It’s that personal investment in quality that attracts me to a winery and its products. All things being equal, the product of a labor of love will always have an edge over a bottom line baby. Pahlmeyer wines were never my first choice but I’ve enjoyed them when I’ve had the opportunity to taste them. I no longer feel the same urgency to taste them again.

7 comments

  1. I am hoping Merry Edwards wines keep their style and quality. J was acquired by E&J Gallo in 2015, yet their 2017 Russian River Pinot Noir was just awarded Sweepstakes winner as the best red wine in all of Sonoma County at the 2019 Sonoma County Harvest Fair. I’ve been a happy wine club member at J for over a decade and I would disagree quality has suffered post Gallo purchase.

  2. I love your work, Dwight. It is so provocative and rich for me. I’m so grateful that you do it.

    I’ve been meaning to ask you a question for some time now. It does not emerge specifically from this piece, but from your book and my encounters with your work generally.

    . . .

    I understand that food and wine can express sensibilities and nuances. And I also understand that they can name specific moments in natural and social history as well as specific places. These things alone give it an enormous power to narrate our lives and to comment upon our social relationships.

    But I am wondering if food and/or wine can also express negation and contradiction in a Hegelian (or, say, Marcusean) sense. This is something, for instance, that Edvard Munch’s The Screen conveys unmistakably in so many ways: screaming and absence/ inadequacy/contradiction are inextricable.

    But can a meal or dish (or a wine) identify a wrong or some other chasm between essence and appearance? As it stands, I don’t see support for this capacity in your book, but I am wondering if you could comment upon this directly. Do you believe that food has this power?

    As I see it, figuring this out is an important part of specifying and delimiting food’s narrative capacities.

    Thanks so much for what you do.

    1. Hi Chuck,
      Thank you for the kind words. You ask a great question. The short answer to your question is that paradox is fundamental to high quality wines–they exhibit features that contradict and fall outside the conventional categories we use to conceptualize wine. My recent column at Three Quarks on pathos also deals with the question of how wine expresses inadequacy. With regard to food, with our increasing ability to manipulate ingredients at the molecular level chefs are able to play with the concepts of essence and appearance. I’m in the process of thinking these issues through in a more systematic way but I’m still working on the conceptual framework for it.
      However, I’m not sure that my view is Hegelian. I’m more inclined to see differences as always disrupting notions of essence–more Deleuzian than Hegelian.

      1. Thanks so much for the comments, Dwight. I really appreciate it.

        I understand that these are huge questions and that you’re working through them in other contexts, but I have a follow up question for you, if you have a moment:

        With respect to wine, is the central contradiction between our experience of it and our concepts for it?

        Or can wine also narrate and bear contradictions itself (like a novel)?

        I know that these are big issues and that my vocabulary is probably not as precise it should be, but I would be thrilled to get your thoughts if you have a moment.

  3. My question when a family winery is bought by a big corporate winery is, “In 10 years, will they winery be making better or worse wine? Will they be making more or less cases?”

    Sadly, it is almost always more cases of worse wine.

    Can anyone give me an opposing example?

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