Bias against large producers

Recently, I was listening to an interview with Chris Carpenter the winemaker of some of the Jackson Family Wine properties in Napa, labels like Mt. Brave, Cardinale, Lokoya, etc.  (It is the most recent episode of the Inside Winemaking Podcast hosted by Jim Duane of Seavey Vineyards for any who are curious) He has experience with some of California's top vineyards, a thorough understanding of winemaking and tradition, as well as that classic down-to-earth craftsman way of talking. I have total respect for him and the work that he does.

And yet, I find myself less interested in his wines simply because it is all part of the Jackson Family bubble. And funny enough, it sounds to me that Jackson Family is one of the best large wine companies because they allow their brands to have a decent amount of autonomy. So I don't really have much of a criticism of what they make, yet I find myself biased against them. 

I wanted to post this here to see what you all think. Is it reasonable and/or healthy for our industry for us to be biased against large brands like Jackson Family wines, even if they can produce solid wines, which are sometimes at better prices due to the economy of scale? 

My best defense of my prejudice is that I work for a small business myself and think that small businesses help to spur creativity and can lead to better outcomes for workers (fully recognizing that some small businesses also screw over workers). It is also easier to sell a wine with a good story like "a husband and wife team who sold everything and took a chance by planting..." as opposed to "Jackson Family made investments in key land and produced high-quality wines from there."

Anyone have any opinions about this? Is it reasonable for me to prioritize small producers?

  • Classed Bordeaux are large producers. Same thing with the best houses of Champagne. There is not necessarily a quality correlation with Size of the Winery. That means this is a moral decision, and therefore a personal one. 

  • I agree, though I think it is worth noting that it looks to me that many in our industry are shifting to small producers, and many of those classic wines (as wonderful as they are), are getting new competition through developments like the grower champagne movement. And Bordeaux, while still having high demand from many consumers, doesn't seem to be connecting with young wine drinkers. Perhaps Bordeaux will get cool again, but for now it doesn't get as much attention as it probably deserves. 

    I agree that there's not a quality correlation with winery size. I guess my question should be reframed as: Is the trend toward small producers a positive step in for our industry that should be supported? Or is it simply the pendulum shifting to the other side before returning to an embrace of big name brands. 

  • I think this is a fascinating question to grapple with, both as a wine buying professional and as a wine consumer. We are assuredly at a point in time where lots of people have a similar inclination as you do, a preference for wine (and many other products) made by smaller companies or even individuals. Given that you work for a small business, I don't think there's anything wrong with supporting other small businesses for the most part.

    Where it gets a bit sticky to me is when people in our line of work are interested in small production wines not simply because they represent a chance to support an individual for whom that support might mean a lot more than a few cases of wine matter to JFW (or whomever), but when those choices are made because we're more interested in showing off that we know more than our guests or customers. Obviously, there's a way to turn people on to cool, hard-to-find wines that isn't too self-aggrandizing, but that can be a fine line, and when your wine list or store shelves are full of unfamiliar wines, that can alienate some of your potential audience.

    It's something I try to keep in mind as a buyer, finding a balance between small producers here in the PNW that I want to support and want the chance to connect my guests to, while also having enough more established (and sometimes larger) wineries represented for those who want to drink something they're familiar with.

    There are a lot of potential answers to this question, and where you land probably depends a lot on location and the intent behind the business, but I do think it's important for all of us to be at least passingly familiar with many of the larger brands, because they will be the wines that the vast majority of our guests or customers know and use as a reference point. If you really want to hear more of my thoughts on this matter, check out this podcast episode.

  • Ultimately for me it comes down to the quality of the wine, the price point, and how it will be received by my customer base.  The main reason I tend to prefer smaller producers comes down to farming practices.  It is much easier for someone producing 1,000 cases a year to farm organically or sustainably than a producer who's putting out 100,000.  That's what's most important to me at the end of the day.

  • I think that a healthy percentage of the growing disparity comes down to QPR in relation to production size. If we take Burgundy for example, the main reason it is expensive is scarcity, thus harder to find, thus we as human beings tend to feel more special when popping that bottle of Montrachet. Bordeaux and Champagne are interesting areas to look at through this lens, because production size has a unique correlation to price or brand image in the consumer's mind, and often the smaller producers are touted as fine and economical alternatives to the larger ones. 

    But I get what Justus means. There is an instinct embedded in so many of us who love wine that covets "once in a lifetime" experiences, and the hunt for these experiences becomes the driving force in our personal tasting and palate evolution. The argument is not without merit. The idea that to have a well-informed and educated palate, one must taste the blue-chip, flag waving standard bearers of each style, region, and country rings true.

    The fact is that the vast majority of non-professionals simply don't think this way. They spend their $10, $20, $30, or $100, and expect quality for their money, and don't care if it comes from a guy with a cellar under his house farming grapes his grandfather's way, or a massive scale commercial brand trying to make a product that seems uniquely impervious to vintage variation.

    I suppose in the end what I'm saying is customers don't ask me very often for small production wines. Or large production wines for that matter, they ask for suggestions by grape, place, flavor, style, hell even "do you have any wines with a dog on the label?". 

  • My opinion at least with the Jackson Family wines portfolio is to think of them more as stewards.  They have a portfolio that covers box store wines all the way up to your highly rated wines that Chris Carpenter lays his hands on. Chris Carpenter as a winemaker in my opinion is one of the single most gifted and talented people in the wine industry.  Him being part of the Jackson Family wines gives him access to some of the best resources and vineyards on the planet.  This does not go for all large volume wine companies but everyone I have spoke with including some of  the smaller family owned wine makers have a great deal of respect for what Jackson Family wines do for the industry and respect that at least with respect to their high end wines they are not purely driven off of profit as compared to just making some damn good wine.  

    As far as a good story goes it may not be a husband and wife team that sold everything and took a chance, but instead you get to say one of the most storied wine makers in Napa Valley producing wine at the Cardinale, Lokoya and more than a dozen other vineyards in Napa are vinified with his supervision.  He is a true artist, the conductor of the Napa Valley youth orchestra, and that artistry can be seen in his wine making.  Where Cardinale can be seen as the true climax of the entire symphony of Napa fruit, Lakoya is the solo highlighting the truest expression of Cabernet Sauvignon. 

    Anyways maybe I am a little biased because I love these wines so much and have done several wine dinners featuring their wines and other wines from the Spire Collection.

  • To echo what others have said, we have all dealt with this conundrum in one way or another when buying both personally and professionally. There are larger producers that make legit wines year in/out. I personally don't buy them because I've had a number of the major labels and have easy access to them working in a restaurant. I typically go for labels I am not familiar with when I am enjoying something at home. I don't think it would benefit any buyer to ignore major labels because they are major labels because there is a calling for it. Why not leverage that winery's marketing to keep the lights on? The labels that I am concerned with are the ones that go from cult following to bought by a major player who bottles under that label but buys fruit where ever it can. I feel that is when a label goes from interesting new wine to "produced in a wine factory".

  • I used to think the same way, but while visiting the Willamette earlier this year I walked into Gran Moraine- great people; their words were Jackson Family provides the funding that any winery desires, yet allows the family and winemakers to have control over their winery and production. 

    In my opinion, I still ‘prioritize’ family-owned estates, but I wouldn’t overlook a wine simply because the winery is owned by a large company. 

  • Jackson/Spire are leading examples of what the big guys should be doing. They support the communities they buy into, the somm industry as a whole and maintain some of the best vineyards in the world. Their prices are beyond fair and the wines are crazy consistent with availability. I drink and sell their cool-aid hard. 

  • It's an important question and an interesting discussion to have.  As a large scale producer (though not near the scale of Gallo), I know from experience that many eschew our products based entirely off production volume, not production quality.  And that makes me sad, because our value priced line (Baron Herzog) has one of the best varietal line ups of any brand, and consistently one of the best Chenin Blancs produced in California.  People walk away from it unless actively searching for Kosher wine because of a) shelf placement and b) price.  Our set up also makes it possible to produce very small run, "artisanal-style" wines (less than 150 cases) all the way up to lines like Jeunesse and Baron Herzog.  The same attention is given to each lot. 

    In terms of prioritizing small producers?  Do small producers have more opportunity to experiment and take changes, or is that a luxury afforded to those with enough volume to lose volume?  Is there space on your list for both?  Will your guests appreciate the diversity?

    Fred Swan recently wrote about this:

  • Great topic. I think what you are referring to (commenting on others notes here) are the large "Commercial" producers. The "Gallo's" of the wine world for instance. For me it's simple. Is the wine good or not. I love specialty, small producers, but the reality is very few of my guests will know them. Having those are fun to hand sell and very much the fun in our jobs. But a wine list is for the guest. Not the Sommelier. You need a few names guests recognize. Feel comfortable with. If you're not tasting the Commercial wines, you are out of touch with what your guest drinks. Yes, you have to know what Apothic, Yellow Tail and entry level Gallo wines taste like. If you're not tasting them, you're not in touch with what your guests drink. That said, I also taste blind to take any preconceived notion about a wine out of play. Example; If I need a new chardonnay by the glass. I will get samples of 5 or 6 different ones in my price range that I need. Taste them blind and pick the best. You'll be surprised at the winners. Wine lists need balance. That balance is specific to each restaurant true. But be good to your guests. Never make them feel isolated. So yes, I love the Jackson Family of wines. Honestly, at all levels.

  • It's correct to support responsible producers. What does responsible mean? It means that they farm using regenerative agricultural practices, make wines with as few additives as possible, and provide consumers with an appropriately priced, quality wine. Do most large producers follow these tenets of responsibility? The answer's simple: Not unless the market persuades them to. The big guys just follow the money, and money doesn't have anything to do with ethics. If you're struggling to sell small production wines in your shop or restaurant because your guests are timid and you respond by buying more mainstream (and therefore less responsibly produced) wines, you're part of the problem. The goal of education (which I assume is why we're all on GuildSomm) is to give us, the "experts", the ability to make the guest feel safe, like they're in good hands, even if they are trying something new and different. If you're having issues providing your guests with that feeling it's definitely not the fault of the wines or their producers, it's you and your staff. Just like quality farming takes more work, so does quality wine stewardship. It's our obligation to represent the producers who are NOT motivated by money, but are instead motivated by their love for wine, or for the earth, or for the piece of ground they've lived on their entire lives, or for making something delicious AND ethically produced, or for cultural preservation through ampelographical experimentation. This answer to your question is so simple and the issue here is so incredibly important. By supporting not necessarily small, but necessarily responsible producers we could maybe, just maybe see the wine industry (and the rest of the agricultural industry with it if consumer trends in food change, too) affect the planet positively. The earth's dying y'all! Bye!