"Quality is subjective. Just because a winery is small does not mean it is environmentally friendly - a large winery could be far more sustainable as a business. There are so many variables, and it is, in my opinion, a narrow mind that thinks like that."
Belinda Kemp, PhD
Senior Staff Scientist in Oenology, Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute
One of the things that surprises me most in my interactions with consumers is the rampant misconception of how wine is made. They seem perplexed when I tell them the majority of bulk products imbibed are made in facilities resembling oil refineries.
The typical wine lover is often plagued by pastoral visions of farmers with straw baskets in tow. Perfectly formed grape clusters the size of small infants are carefully plucked from the vine, as lackadaisical butterflies float by. The grapes are gently lowered into bins, where giggling family members happily foot trod in circles. The juice haphazardly dribbles into perfectly mismatched vintage bottles, where the wine magically then makes itself and emerges as beautiful juice some months later.
While I am always elated to meet eager and curious consumers who want a behind the scenes peek of the wine industry, the story I choose to share is neither straight forward nor simple. While wine is often made in small, family owned facilities, it's also produced in larger contexts too, begging the question - which is better? Is there a quality difference?
Smaller often comes with a vision of hands on, intimate attention to detail, and obviously quality. But wine importer Owen Mitchell, of Plaid Cap Imports, is not sure he agrees. "I believe that it has more to do with integrity, intention, purpose and involvement than size. For example, a chef can make amazing dishes in a cozy eight table restaurant. This same chef is equally capable in a hundred table restaurant. But if he sells the recipe to Swanson's frozen foods, you are likely to see a subtle change in the quality and end result. It is the same with wine."
Mitchell has tasted many small production wines, and in some cases has had to spit them out - not to avoid over consumption - but because they were simply not drinkable. On the flip side, he's tasted many higher production wines like Sassicaia or Chateau Margaux that have presented as just "acceptable".
Larger producers making over a hundred thousand cases, like Periquita - a favourite of Mitchell's from Portugal - consistently deliver a simple and honest wine.
"Bodegas Lustau, who bottle and sell a little over 80000 cases of sherry per year - without any compromise to quality or honesty - are spectacular!" Mitchell feels the real issue is not the volume, but the heart.
"When adding sugar makes more sense than growing quality fruit, when adding liquid oak makes more sense than a barrel program, when food colouring is the "card up your sleeve" - this is when it all goes to hell in a hand bag. There are many corporations that have stepped in and destroyed some perfectly good, and even amazing wineries, and have brought the standard of daily drinkers to an all time low. What I see is not an issue of volume, but of greed. This is what brings quality, accessible, enjoyable and well made wines out of the spotlight and puts over produced, manipulated and highly marketed wines into the general consumers glasses. Accountants and shareholders have no place in a winery."
Chris Turyk, marketing director of Unsworth Vineyards in Mill Bay, BC, feels great wine can be crafted by all sizes of producers given healthy fruit, a clean winery, hard work and a solid foundation in science. "Poor quality wine can also be made by all, whether that is due to substandard fruit, apathy, lackluster knowledge, or bad luck. Certainly, boring wine can be made by anyone when the product is seen as a commodity and the consumer seen as a bottom line."
Turyk cites Champagne as an example, where some of the largest wineries on the planet maintain consistent prices. While sommeliers favour grower Champagne, Turyk feels it is hard to knock down producers like Krug, Ruinart or Billecart-Salmon based solely on their respective production volumes.
"Nicolas Catena is another large producer that comes to mind who knocks quality out of the park. Their entry level tiers compete dollar for dollar with anything in the category and their White Stones and White Bones Chardonnays consistently punch above their class when compared to respectively farmed and crafted examples of various Montrachet crus."
Turyk feels social media has given a voice to the smallest of producers via the same medium as the commodity brands. He uses Rigour & Whimsy, a micro producer located in Okanagan Falls, British Columbia, as an example of positively impacting the power of the platforms. The clever, small producers can move the needle of an industry without having tankers of product and marketing divisions behind them.
"As Unsworth has grown from 500 cases to 10,000, I feel our wine has vastly improved. 10,000 cases is hard to describe as large production, but it still illustrates the point of allowing economies of scale to drive quality up. Whether it's access to the best vine material, adding labor to take pressure off the winemaker, larger barrel orders, having volume to justify investment in better equipment both in the vineyard and winery, more efficiencies in the winery and access to a broader range of fruit to work with. All of these have been factors that have allowed us to boost quality and growth simultaneously. If we wanted to cap our production at 2000 cases, most of these quality enhancing factors wouldn't have been realized without increasing the price of our wine many times over."
Olivier Humbrecht MW, general manager of Zind-Umbrecht in Alsace, feels that traditional and strong family oriented vineyards do not equate to all wineries being small.
He feels there is a critical size to quality that makes it more problematic to achieve excellence.
"Too small can be problematic in terms of cost and scale. Small can be measured in volume, but also in dollars. Too much work done by too few people, because hiring good staff becomes expensive, and often ends up badly done. Many very small operators end up maximizing productivity and time while neglecting quality. Very small, if well made, on the other hand, makes it sometimes easier commercially. The rarity of production helps achieve better pricing and a small producer doesn’t need to worry about travelling the world to sell a lot of volume at a bad price. That’s the case in Alsace, some very small producers, if good obviously, sell their production very well at higher prices, without much staff. That’s not a luxury bigger producers have."
Humbrecht points out that being too big has the opposite problem of being too small. While it may be easier to afford equipment, finding staff can become a real chore. He feels it often ends up in a massive loss in the value of the wines. The larger operators in Alsace have the lowest average price for their wines - controlling quality is problematic as sourcing grapes or vineyards are the biggest issues.
"The largest coop in Alsace (Bestheim) probably buys grapes from hundreds of suppliers, who mostly only think one thing: how can I get more dollars/kg at the end of the year, and therefore, how can I produce more of it? The danger of such a system is that the grape producers try to optimize cost and productivity all the while neglecting quality."
The notion of size also brings the notion of governance. Who decides what can be done or not? For a wine to qualify as Alsatian, it needs to be produced from a specific area and from specific grapes, and with specific rules of production, as designated by law. If you do not comply, you're required to label your wines as Vin de France.
"Usually, the most famous wineries in high quality regions are family operated. In regions not capable of producing higher quality wines, but producing low priced, decent wines, it is usually the opposite."
Shane Munn, winemaker at Martin's Lane in Kelowna, BC, finds himself in a unique situation - he makes wine in one of Canada's most impressive facilities, due to being owned by BC's largest conglomerate - Von Mandl brands - all the while operating as a micro producer of Riesling and Pinot Noir.
"Obviously, with our ownership, resources are available that many small producers don’t have. But then as you see with a few very monied up people coming into the valley, money doesn’t always come with wisdom, class or high aims."
Munn feels smaller does offer more options of producing wines that are distinctive and with personality. Martin's Lane provides him with a luxury of riches. Munn thinks they grow the best fruit in the Okanagan Valley, having the resources they do at their disposal. Martin's Lane handles very small batches with the utmost care - with no compromises allowed - in the same way as any small producer.
"So, while the cognitive dissonance in the industry may seem to indicate that smaller is better – I think it's more that people always like to support the small guys. On local wine lists here that’s what I often find frustrating – the focus on small producers - not all making great or even good wine. Having worked at quite a few small family owned wineries, I always aim to embrace small winery ethos."
Ross Baker, winemaker at Quail's Gate in West Kelowna, BC, feels there are a lot of small producers in the Okanagan that make exceptional wines. Like most, he believes vineyard control - ideally estate owned - is crucial to quality.
"Quails’ Gate is right in the middle of this winery size ideology. For the Okanagan, we are viewed as big to small producers and small to big producers. The true measure of quality to me, and I’m sure many wine industry people, is the vineyard. You can't make great wine from mediocre vineyard sites or practices."
Farming and controlling the outcome helps Baker make better winemaking decisions, where healthier fruit with a balanced crop leads to quality based decisions instead of issue resolving decisions. Luckily for Baker and his team, the owners share a similar philosophy on allowing him to work this way. A smaller winery may simply have more flexibility to answer to themselves on what they do with the fruit.
"By having full control vineyards (production size notwithstanding) and not being at the mercy of contract growers who don’t allow you the same level of vineyard control, we’ve already won half the battle in the quest for superior quality."
Ross Wise MW, winemaker at Black Hills Estate in Oliver, BC, feels big producers help master a regional wine expression, large in part due to their wider sourcing of fruit, which maintains consistency and gives an accurate reflection of place. He feels typicity is a bonus for large producers, and helps consumers to understand specific styles from specific regions.
"Not all fine wine consumers are engaged enough or have the time to know all of a region’s individual producers and their unique styles. I fit this bill for a few wine regions, and rely on wine expert comments around a wine's typicity to help guide my purchases."
Inversely, Wise attests that small domaines have a greater ability to bottle unique, edgy, or geeky wines. Small producers have the luxury to focus on unique aspects like small parcels of fruit, a single ferment, or a single cask or vessel. This provides small wineries the ability to appeal to purists, adventurous consumers and wine geeks. Flexibility is a huge draw, as it lends to change, experimentation and innovation, particularly key in today's market where there is an abundance of adventurous winemakers and drinkers.
"Many high volume fine wine producers put significant effort into giving consumers the impression that they are smaller than they actually are, like Bordeaux or Champagne. This points to a bias towards smaller producers in the mind of consumers. Does winery size really matter for quality? I think that depends on the experience the consumer is looking for. Large wineries have become large for a reason, and if they can achieve typicity and high quality at high volumes that is a great win. Even better if they can offer value at the same time. Typicity is a very valid wine quality parameter. Meanwhile, small wineries bring a greater range and more complexity to consumers. Complexity is equally as valid as typicity when assessing wine quality. "
As a winemaker, Wise is a proponent of the small winery approach, but as a consumer, he remains on the fence. For some regions like Hunter Valley or the Douro he purchases trusted brands and looks for typicity, which is often best delivered by larger wineries. For other regions like California or the Loire, he focuses on smaller producers with different approaches, philosophies and unique wines.
Dobrila Braunstein is a quality assurance manager for Andrew Peller and believes the definition of quality depends on the producer. She feels that most reputable producers at the very basis, believe in responsible farming, using healthy grapes and making wine free of major faults - but this also lends to the to the overlapping of what quality really means.
"The differences in defining quality start when we consider things like style of wine, average consumer profile and expectations of each brand, aromatic and taste profiles. Large producers invest a lot of human and financial resources in quality, but often that means achieving consistency, which requires a certain amount of processing. Wine style and profile is often dictated by the marketing team and market trends, in other words, there is a corporate strategy. There are established operational processes governing quality."
Braunstein feels smaller producers might define quality through the value system of their winemaker and/or owner. She warns though, that this leads to higher variability dictated by vintage, yields and creative direction. There are no hard processes in place, but a system of core values that guides the decision making vintage to vintage.
Ultimately, the notion of quality comprises myriad variables, and the answer is not entirely straight forward. Predilections tend toward better farming practices, clean fruit, and transparency providing the average consumer a good start in assessing quality, irrelevant of winery size.