When I was traveling as the host and producer of my television show, “Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert,” I filmed at a lot of wineries all over the world.
They consisted of all shapes and sizes. There were large wineries that were part of corporate ownership, medium-sized wineries that were sometimes family-owned and sometimes a part of a larger group, and smaller wineries often run by a husband, wife and a small dedicated staff. I didn’t discriminate, certainly not based on size. If I liked the wines, I said so. And if I didn’t, I moved on to the next winery.
These days, and for some time really, I’ve noticed a trend among wine writers, critics and a seemingly growing segment of the wine drinking populace. There is discrimination in the wine industry. Size matters. And, in this instance, bigger is not better.
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In this version of winemaking, larger wineries are viewed as little more than big corporations churning out huge volumes of wine motivated by profit far more than wine drinking pleasure or winemaking excellence. Meantime, the little guys in this scenario are often granted “boutique” or “artisanal” status. They make wine with a passion a so-called “corporate” winery could never understand or approximate. Their wines are better than the larger wineries by default if not by actual taste. And, if they are fortunate enough to land a high scoring review or two, these little guys can achieve cult status with all the accolades and high prices that accompany life in that rarified air.
I have long held the belief that there is something inherently flawed about this kind of thinking. I have had too many good, sometimes great, wines from larger, corporately owned wineries through the years and too many over-extracted, over-oaked and just plain poorly made wines from little guys to fully buy into the “big is bad” concept in winemaking. I reached out to a couple of well-known and well-respected contacts in the local wine scene, both of whom happen to be friends, and I found out I was not alone in my opinion.
Rod Crawford with Glazer’s Midwest, the largest wine distributor in the metro, offered these thoughts. “Corporate wineries with a commitment to quality have an advantage. They can de-classify wines into other projects that don’t make muster. They can take a longer term perspective if they choose to because they have more resources,” Crawford told me.
Aaron Fry who works for the distributor Vintegrity, and who is just one step away from becoming a master sommelier after passing his advanced sommelier exam, had this to say on the subject. “More often than not, large wineries are the ones that have been there the longest helping create a reputation for the style or region that the smaller boutique wineries enjoy the benefits from. I also think that sometimes smaller wineries get a pass just because they are smaller. I feel like they should all be held to the same standard,” Fry commented.
Now, I’m not going to denigrate any producer’s wine be they large, small or somewhere in between. That’s just not my bag. I will, however, give you one example of where a larger winery, in my humble opinion, has made better wines precisely because it is big enough to do so.
I give you Trinchero Napa Valley. Trinchero is the house Sutter home built, and the family had to sell an awful lot of sweet White Zinfandel through the years before it purchased the vineyards that yield its four outstanding Napa Valley offerings.
The company was started by Mario Trinchero, an Italian immigrant, nearly 70 years ago. Still family owned and in its third generation, Trinchero consists of more than 30 brands, the flagship of which is its Napa Valley bottlings. With a winery in the heart of the Napa Valley and more than 200 acres of Napa vineyards, Trinchero can craft wines of elegance, grace and structure.
However, just like Beringer makes a white zinfandel along with its Private Reserve cabernet sauvignon, Trinchero has a $5 bottle of Sutter Home and an $80 bottle of BRV cabernet. I don’t see anything wrong or unusual about that, We need wines that are all price points, and only larger wineries can provide that to consumers.
What’s more, thanks to the vineyards, a state-of-the-art winery and top-flight winemaking talent, all of which Trinchero’s size can support, its Napa Valley wines are excellent. Of the Mary’s Sauvignon Blanc, the Mario’s Cabernet Sauvignon, the Forte red blend, and the BRV Cabernet, my personal favorite is the Forte, That’s likely because I generally prefer blends to straight cabs, and I dearly love Bordeaux and Bordeaux-style blends, which is exactly what Forte is. Still, I would be happy to open at Mary’s, Mario’s, or BRV anytime!
For me, appreciating a good wine is much less about the size of the winery and much more about having an open mind and a willing palate.
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.