The usually reliable Steve Heimhoff took up this issue last week and fumbled it badly.
I’ve had awful wines made by tiny little producers. I’ve had fabulous wines made by wineries owned by giant corporations. I think this distinction between “artisanal” and everything else is a fabrication concocted by some people with agendas, and picked up by a gullible media looking for something cool to write about.
This is just nonsense.
The rap against large production wineries is not that they make bad wine. Certainty Hahn Estates, Hess, J. Lohr, Beaulieu, etc. make good wine despite their high case production. For that matter the production level for Chateau Petrus’ first wine is around 25,000 cases. That is not exactly boutique.
With modern technology, excellent wine can be made via industrial processes or in large batches and at relatively low cost.
The problem with most large producers is that they make wine according to a flavor profile that must be consistent from year to year. In some cases, this might involve a formula that is unresponsive to vintage variation and involves extensive use of chemicals and other additives to create the desired flavors and textures. Furthermore, in order to produce hundreds of thousands of cases of wine you can’t harvest from one vineyard but must source grapes from from multiple vineyards in diverse locations. All of this breaks the vital connection between the wine and a sense of place that some wine connoisseurs crave.
Moreover, when millions of dollars and shareholder profits are at stake, the product will likely be the result of carefully focused-group flavor profiles and deftly-crafted stories that support their marketing program. In any case there is little room for creativity, individual vision, or personal connection between producer and product.
It is that creativity, individual vision, personal connection and sense of place that makes artisanal products worthy of pursuit.
When is a “big brand” not a big brand? Is Apple a “big brand”? Sure it is, but everyone loves it. We don’t hear complaints about Apple not being “craft” enough to satisfy the most demanding of users. Somehow, Apple has managed to be a financial behemoth while still retaining the allure of the brilliance of the garagiste creativity that the two Steves, Wozniak and Jobs, embodied.
Well, yes. If you want your wines to be commodities like the machines we use to access the Internet then you want standardization. You want each device to be well-made but identical. There is a place for wines that are like this when you just want a simple beverage with dinner. But those of us who love wine don’t want standardized product. We find differences and particularity to be fascinating and seek that sense of discovery in the wines we drink.
Now of course not all small wineries are concerned with uniqueness and vision.Some make boring wine. But many are concerned to make something that expresses their vision and that is why we treasure their existence. Moreover, some large wineries do devote some resources to single-vineyard wines, or cuvees that provide something unique—they are distributed through their tasting room or to club members. After all, large wineries have the money to hire talented winemakers and if they are concerned enough about quality and the company is willing to provide resources to projects that don’t maximize profit, then some of their offerings might be worthy of attention. But the instances of such originality among large producers are relatively rare.
To claim there is no distinction between the “ artisanal and everybody else” is bullshit. Heimoff knows better.