Wall Street Journal wine columnist Lettie Teague recently posed the question “Can You Judge a Wine by the Size of the Winery?” Her answer was “no”, and when I’ve come across comments on the Internet about this article, most people seem to think her answer is obviously true. I want to push back against this conventional “wisdom”. I think the question is ambiguous and once we get clear on what is being asked the answer is “yes , at least most of the time, you can judge a wine by the size of the winery”.
The article is behind the WSJ’s paywall but I will briefly summarize it. Teague claims that “wine snobs” think “big is bad; small is good”. According to “wine snobs”, wine made by large wine companies “must surely be the work of a machine and a marketing team and not a sensitive and caring family.” But this is not true according to Teague:
There are many good, even world-famous wines made by big wineries and some real dreck turned out in tiny amounts by winemakers who are a one-man or -woman show.
I’m not sure who the “wine snobs” are she is referring to but I know lots of sharp, well-informed, wine lovers with strongly held opinions about what’s good and bad, and I’ve never heard any of them say that all small batch wines are good and all large production wines are bad. Her entire article is based on a classic strawman argument. (A strawman argument is a logical fallacy in which someone misrepresents an opponents argument to make it easier to attack.)
So we’re not off to a very good start here.
When she asks “Can You Judge a Wine by the Size of the Winery?” what sort of judgment does she have in mind? Are we judging how delicious the wine is, how consistent, original, or distinctive? Are we looking at price/quality ratio, story, social impact?
She never clearly articulates what standards of judgment she has in mind but her examples are telling:
Kim Crawford is the bestselling New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in the U.S.; the winery produces some 1.5 million cases a year. It’s consistent and affordable–about $14 a bottle–and well made. It’s also easily found in wine shops and grocery stores. I have friends who swear by the brand. And as the venerable English wine writer Hugh Johnson observed in his book “On Wine,” “To give pleasure to a huge numbers is itself a virtue.”
Well. No doubt. Kim Crawford makes consistent, affordable wines. Is that what the column is about? Can you judge the consistency and affordability of a wine by the size of the winery? Indeed you can. The whole raison d’etre of big wineries is consistency and affordability. That is what they are designed to deliver and they do it rather well. 90% of what you find on the supermarket bottom shelf is consistent and affordable if you stick to the best global producers of which Kim Crawford is surely one.
But everyone knows this. It’s not in the least controversial.
Her second example is the Burgundy negociant Louis Jadot. Of Jadot’s winemaker Frédéric Barnier she writes:
Mr. Barnier works closely with hundreds of small growers all over Burgundy to produce wines like his village Meursault and Pouilly Fuisse, to ensure both quality and consistency. Indeed, when I purchased a bottle of the 2014 Louis Jadot Pouilly-Fuissé from a wine merchant last week, the salesperson said, “Jadot is a very consistent producer.”
There’s that word again—”consistency”. Apparently that is what this column is about. And again she’s right. Big wine makes consistent wine.
But those “wine snobs” she despises don’t care so much about consistency, at least that’s not the primary standard for quality. They look for vineyard expression, winemaker’s vision, distinctiveness, originality, complexity, mystery and all the other elements that constitute a worthwhile aesthetic experience. Will you find them in wines made by wine conglomerates?
The answer turns out to be complicated. There isn’t anything about a large annual case production that precludes a winery putting aside their best barrels for special bottlings that provide transcendent experiences. Many wineries do just that—Mondavi comes to mind. They occasionally still make wines that impress despite corporate ownership.
But the larger point is that all the economic incentives work against large wineries taking the time and care to produce wines of genuine quality that are distinctive.
So indeed you can judge a winery by its size. Large wineries tend to produce consistent, affordable wines without distinction. Small wineries have little going for them unless they produce wines of quality and distinctiveness. So they have the incentive to do so, although if the talent or terroir is wanting it will remain an aspiration.
Of course at the end of the day it’s what’s in the bottle that counts. But knowing the motivation behind the bottle is central to grasping quality and the size of the winery tells you a lot about what their motivations are.
Here’s a hint. If it’s a small winery the motivation is likely not exclusively to make money, since for the vast number of small wineries in the U.S. profit is only an occasional luxury. (And yes, there are exceptions to that as well)
I guess it’s not surprising that a column in the Wall Street Journal is urging us to drink corporate wine.