Five Keys to the Grower-Winemaker Relationship

Five Keys to the Grower-Winemaker Relationship

There’s a certain romance that’s unavoidable when it comes to wine, even for experienced professionals. The magic of an estate winery, where grapegrowing and winemaking are handled under one roof, or perhaps by only one person, has an undeniable allure. Yet this is not how much of the wine industry has functioned historically. We typically use the French term négociant when discussing the system that grew out of the collapse of feudalism and the decline of European monarchies. In it, the basis for the power inequality between négociant and grower had to do with the cost of producing wine, the relatively low price it could command in a nascent international market, and the uncertainties of the harvest on a small plot of land. Think of the great houses of Champagne, or the control that a few families exert over Burgundy.

In the modern US industry, in the realm of fine wine, the dynamic is inverted; the value added on the part of the winemaker is high. And yet the cost of purchasing land and planting it to vine is also prohibitive in many top growing regions. In some such as Napa Valley, there simply isn't new land to plant.

This range of factors has made the estate winery model a hard one to attain in the United States, especially for those who are newer to the industry. Where vineyard land in the Walla Walla, Willamette, and Napa Valleys was once affordable for a young and aspiring winemaker, that’s rarely the case today. As such, the relationship between grapegrower and winemaker is critical for the success of the American wine industry, even if the specifics are rarely discussed. More than that, the emerging model owes relatively little to the traditional hierarchy of the négociant system and is instead built upon a foundation of collaboration. This article explores that relationship, focusing on established growing regions in California, Washington, and Oregon.

Key #1: Starting the Relationship Right

The starting point for any new winery is identifying grape sources. Nina Buty, owner of Buty Winery in Walla Walla, Washington, faced that challenge when she and her then-husband Caleb Foster were founding the winery. “When we sat down in 1999 and planned out what we wanted Buty to be, we talked about varietal blending,” Buty explains. “We talked about blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, as well as a vineyard-designated Chardonnay. We knew which vineyards we wanted to work with, because Caleb had made wines as the assistant winemaker at [fellow Walla Walla winery] Woodward Canyon with Connor Lee Vineyard grapes and Champoux Vineyard grapes, two of the key vineyards we started with.”

A new vineyard source might also be a more casual affair. Kerry Shiels is the winemaker at Cote Bonneville in the Yakima Valley, where her family farms the highly regarded DuBrul Vineyard. While all of the Cote Bonneville wine is sourced from that vineyard, the family sells almost two-thirds of their production to other wineries, giving her a view from both sides. “When winemakers first approach us, no one says, ‘I want so many acres.’ They say, ‘I’m looking for this many tons and this kind of wine stylistically.’”

It’s not always that easy, of course: certain vineyards, or blocks within vineyards, are in high demand. In fact, the struggle for access to specific fruit can sometimes be a point of pride. Morgan Lee of Two Vintners, based in Woodinville, Washington, named a recent Syrah release “Waiting List” to commemorate the years he spent on, well, the waiting list to get access to Syrah from the Yakima Valley’s acclaimed Boushey Vineyard.

In the best cases, both grapegrower and winemaker will see the partnership as an investment. That kind of commitment can pay significant dividends, as longtime Napa Valley grapegrower Tom Gamble attests. “As winemakers in the 1960s started making some critically acclaimed vintages, and the Judgment of Paris brought us more attention, the quality and innovations in the winery led to some really good vintages,” he explains, “but there hadn’t been enough money to replant and improve vineyards until then, when winemakers got more money for their wine. A lot of them started paying the growers more, saying, ‘As you replant, let’s put in some more infrastructure,’ starting with trellising systems so we could have more consistent vintages.”

Yet there is a tension inherent in the relationship: growers obviously want to get the best price for as many grapes as they can grow and sell, while winemakers would like to keep costs down and get the highest quality possible. Nonetheless, the consistent theme from the growers and winemakers interviewed was that they recognize the need to build lasting, healthy relationships—because wine is inherently a product that rewards long-term thinking.

Key #2: Collaborating in the Vineyard

For grapegrowing companies, maintaining the relationship with buyers rivals the importance of maintaining the vineyard. Lacey Lybeck is the vineyard manager for Washington-based Sagemoor Vineyards, farming over 1,100 acres throughout the Columbia Valley. For her, the start of the growing season involves examining the past. “We start by looking at the previous year with each of our clients: assessing what went well [and] what challenges they had in the cellar and tasting the wines they’ve made. . . . It shows us what was really successful, and what we want to improve upon.”

The next step is understanding the winemaker’s desired crop yields and finished wine style. Lybeck elaborates, “Through early pruning, we’re able to establish our crop potential to their desired crop level. Some want to be at three tons per acre, while others want to be at four tons per acre in the same block, perhaps because their wine has a different price point, so they need a lower fruit cost. It can also depend on style. If they’re going for a more elegant style, that can be driven by yield, not just about when they pick the grapes.” Or as Shiels explains, “When you start from the winery side, the question you ask is what is the quantity of production I’m aiming for, and that’s the case for most of our vineyard customers.”

Those who have spent decades in the industry have seen changes on all sides. Gamble’s family has farmed in the Napa Valley for nearly a century, turning to viticulture in the 1970s. Now, they work with over a dozen clients in addition to producing wine under the Gamble Family Vineyards label. “When I was a kid, and even a young man, the contracts were very simple,” Gamble says. “The winemakers would never show up at the vineyard, even into the 1980s. You would have their technical parameters, and they would say, ‘Give us a call when you have the sugars.’ Every winemaker now has their own perception of how to interpret the vineyard, and they will walk the vines during the ripening season, particularly after veraison.”

Decisions on yield and how to achieve it are crucial, but so too are decisions about trellising and canopy management. And these decisions lead to one of the crucial tensions in the relationship: who exactly calls the shots. “Some people come to our vineyards with winemaking experience from other growing regions in the world,” says Lybeck. “They want VSP [Vertical Shoot Positioning] Cabernet Sauvignon at two tons per acre. They have very specific requests which might not fit the site, so we try to have them out, have them walk the rows, and explain how those parameters might challenge us. For example, true VSP in Washington will have sunburn issues, so we show them what we do and why we do it, and come up with a plan.”

Managing the vineyard during the growing season is usually left to the grower, although input from the winemaker is incorporated and valued. Lybeck, whose company publishes a tremendous wealth of technical data, still likes to interact with her customers in person. “I love it when winemakers come to the vineyard so we can walk the rows together and both be able to see what leafing or crop removal will look like.”

That kind of face-to-face interaction helps foster the long-term relationships that both parties cherish. In certain cases, that can even lead the grower to plant specific varieties or clones for a winery. “With some of our properties, we’ve even decided the clonal material,” says Buty. “Connor Lee planted a specific clone of Chardonnay for us in 2004, and Phinny Hill has planted two different Syrah clones with the particular spacing and trellising we wanted.”

Key #3: Calling the Pick

The decision of when to pick is perhaps the most important decision of the year. While we might assume that vineyards are swarming with winemakers near harvest time, technological innovations have allowed for the rapid dissemination of information. Besides releasing grape data on their website daily, Lybeck and Sagemoor rely on smartphones to communicate with their buyers. “As we get deep into the season, we take and send lots of pictures of the vines and clusters,” Lybeck says. “Near harvest, some winemakers are really hands-on and want to visit the vineyard every day, but others have different responsibilities and might be managing a tasting room or out selling wine in other states.” Shiels echoed that sentiment, noting, “I had one winemaker tell me he just follows what we do on Facebook to know when he needs to come in and start tasting the fruit.”

When working with a number of buyers, growers have to be prepared for a wide range of decisions on harvesting. As Gamble explains, “The winemakers . . . call the pick, because their interpretation of what you’re growing is slightly different than everyone else’s. That’s the cool part of having many buyers in one vineyard: they all have a different perspective of how to interpret that grape you’re growing.” The logistics can be challenging, however. Gamble elaborates, “We ask for 72 hours’ notice if possible so we can get the pick scheduled, though you can usually get it dialed in when you get more familiar with a buyer. If it’s a compressed growing season it can be more challenging, because seemingly everyone wants to pick at the same time.”

Key #4: Contracts vs. Handshakes

The actual economic exchange tends to fall into one of two broad camps. Grapes can be purchased per ton, ensuring that winemakers will get the exact quantity of fruit they need in order to make their desired amount of wine. This is often the starting point for any grower-winemaker relationship. But complications can arise. Growers may be incentivized to push yields to a higher level, possibly diminishing quality or, at minimum, changing the style of the resulting wine. Winemakers might not be as invested in the vineyard or might even pull out of an agreement midway through the growing season, leaving the grower to search for a new buyer late in the game.

Acreage contracts, on the other hand, function more like the estate model often envisioned. Here, wineries pay growers based on the total acreage from which grapes are sourced, regardless of yield. As a result, growers are more willing to follow winemaker instructions regarding watering, green harvesting, leaf removal, and the like, as they’re protected economically against lower yields. That said, specialized viticulture is more labor intensive and can drive prices up. Sometimes, a hybrid arrangement emerges, as in the case of DuBrul Vineyard. “All of the rows are allocated,” says Shiels, “even when that winery is on a tonnage contract.”

Perspectives are also divided when it comes to vineyard-designated labeling. Celebrating the vineyard and the grower is a priority for plenty of winemakers. For Buty, it’s an artistic decision. “There’s a lot of aesthetic appreciation in vineyard designations. If you’re creating a 2D piece of art, having a limited palate can make things more interesting.” Shiels is more pragmatic. “If you have a good grower and a good site, it makes sense to purchase that fruit, to seek it out, and that’s what vineyard designation should be about.” She continues, “Unfortunately, there are producers who will put a vineyard designation on a wine to take advantage of the bias people have toward those wines.”

Ultimately, trust is critical. As California winemaker David Ramey puts it, “I don’t really agree to 14-page, lawyer-written contacts. All my best relationships with growers are handshake deals, or a 1-page memorandum at most.” It’s part of an atmosphere of collaboration that Ramey describes as fundamental to the industry, saying, “The relationship between growers and winemakers has become more collaborative over the four decades since I started, as wine has grown in value and as the emphasis on single vineyards has taken hold.”

Key #5: Ending a Relationship

While none of the winemakers or growers I spoke to had any juicy stories of anguish and heartbreak, all admitted that there are times when a relationship has to end. For Lybeck, it’s a regular part of business. “There are winemakers that will be in a block for one year to three years, and will come to us and will say, ‘I’m having a challenge with this block; it’s not fitting my style.’ They might want to change blocks or not buy fruit from us anymore, while others might want more early-ripening or safer blocks.” Other times, winemakers who have relied on purchased fruit are able to start vineyards of their own. Lybeck notes, “I definitely keep an eye out whenever a client of ours plants a new vineyard!”

Existing customers at Sagemoor Vineyards are given the first opportunity to purchase newly available fruit. “Usually, they will take it pretty quickly,” says Lybeck. “From there, we have a list of those who have inquired about those rows, so we go to them first, or we put it on our newsletter.” Shiels knows that quality is the best insurance against a lost sale. “People sometimes bail on fruit in July, so we have to ensure that everything we grow is up to our standards so that we can either turn around and sell it to someone else or vinify it ourselves.”

Closing Thoughts

America’s winemaking industry is still young, and for the foreseeable future, many winemakers will continue relying on dedicated grapegrowing operations to produce high-quality wines, and grapegrowers will need to remain flexible and responsive to changes in market trends and wine styles. When it comes together, it can form something just as beautiful as that romantic ideal of an estate winery atop some sunny hill. In Buty’s words, “I look at wine in general as relationship in a bottle. It’s less about giving credit and more about a full expression of the summation of all these relationships: the people who have farmed land for decades, the people who work with the vines every day, the winemaking team, our distributors, and the people at the table drinking it.”

  • Some additional thoughts that occurred to me as I was interviewing people for this piece and doing some general research:

    - There's been a shift to grape-focused agriculture companies throughout the West Coast. Tom Gamble and his family's operation are a great example of this, where they pivoted from a range of agricultural and pastoral pursuits to focus on just grapes in the 1970s. As Tom told me, in his lifetime he's seen Napa Valley transition from a place of mixed agriculture to a valley almost entirely focused on viticulture. That means that in many cases, with many plots of land, there simply isn't a huge accumulation of lived experience with grape growing, so more experimentation and measurement is necessary to close that knowledge gap.

    - It's also created a fascinating (to me, at least) conversation about how vineyard owners and managers make decisions about which varieties and clones to plant. In earlier decades, choices were often extremely limited, and much less was known about how to match clones and specific regions or sites. This is evident with Chardonnay in the Willamette Valley, Riesling in Washington, and many other examples. Figuring out these awkward matches and rectifying them is one of the great projects for West Coast viticulture over the next few decades, even if it's much less sexy than planting a new vineyard.

    - There's something more to be said about the explosion of vineyard-designate wine in the broader wine world, especially in newer regions. It's a mixed bag to be sure, but I do think it's something that buyers and sommeliers need to be attuned to: when someone brings you a wine from a single vineyard you've never heard of, do some research and ask some questions.