Mike Dunne, the long-time wine writer for the Sacramento Bee, has written an outstanding, if a bit schizophrenic, article (Reg. Required) on the dichotomies that exist between the large wine brands and companies that appear to be taking over the industry and the small, artisan winemakers who are proliferating today in the industry. The article has so many interesting points and characters in it I just have to comment on a number of thoughts it provides.
Discussing the practice of one winery controlling, owning and marketing an number of brands, such as Gallo and Constellation, Dunn writes: "Gallo, for example, sold an estimated 75 million cases of wine in 2003, more than any other corporation, according to tracking by the trade magazine Wine Business Monthly. Constellation sold 66 million cases, Bronco 10 million."
Dunn Then asks the following questions:
"Is the industry heading toward monopolization by a few massive players?"
The answer is that the industry as a whole is not heading toward monopolization. However, the big players have monopolized the shelf space at grocery stores, convenience stores, drug stores and most other retail outlets where commoditiztion and low pricing is the focus. Even at progressive.quality-oriented grocery stores you see BIG corporate wineries ruling upwards of 40% of the shelf space with their various brands. This IS a bad thing IF you believe the wine is a special product capable of inspiring us with its reflection of the diversity of people and places.
"Will the desire for profits prompt corporations to expand production of more popular wines such as chardonnay and merlot while cutting back or even eliminating styles currently out of vogue, such as chenin blanc and semillon?
Clearly the answer to this question is "YES". However, it is possible for a large corporate winery to choose to capture and popularize the "Chenin Blanc" market. This in turns opens the doors for artisan producers to produce quality examples of the varietal for an audience of consumers that did not exist prior to the big boy building the market for what would be a formerly moribund varietal.
Will CEOs who acquire a winery with a revered and limited wine be able to resist the temptation to enlarge production and compromise quality?
Is the modern California wine trade, built as much on visage as palate, at risk of losing personality and identity, or at least a key marketing tool, as corporate suits succeed the little ol’ winemaker?
Dunne is really asking, "will the modern, marketing-driven wine industry shut out the artisan winemaker and their access to the consumer?"
No. At the risk of tossing around a cliche, wine is indeed an art..or can be. And there will always be artists willing to take up the brush.
From these questions, Dunne jumps to the question that hard core wine lovers think about, writing: "When it comes to the potential corporate impact on wine styles, however, industry insiders and observers are more nervous. They fret that popularly priced wines – $10 and less – where the giants of the industry are competing most fiercely, are being reduced to one of a kind, with little variation in flavor and structure from one brand to another.
This is essentially the contention set down in the movie "Mondovino" that argued corporate winemaking was ripping the soul from wine. There is no soul ripping going on. However, it is true that finding a uniquely flavored, complex wine at $8 is something of a chore. But let’s remember, few people buying $8 wines really want to take up that chore. They want an $8 bottle of wine that has fruit flavor and alcohol in it.
But then there are those who argue that blandness has entered the high-end, artisan area of the market. Dunne quotes one of America’s greatest wine writers, Bob Thompson, who retired from writing about 8 years ago or so. Bob argues,
"My overall sense is that marketing has taken over, and as a result you get all this machine-tooled stuff meant to get a high score from one of two sources, and nothing else matters. There’s not as much character in wines today. There’s still some individuality in a handful of wines, but overall there’s less of it."
Again, this is an opinion best expressed recently by Jonathon Nossiter in "Mondovino". There is a consistency of style at the high end today, particularly among Cabernets from Napa, Shiraz from Australia, from Bordeaux garagistes and even among many New World Pinot Producers. However, Thompson and others aren’t taking into account the impressive increase in small artisan producers that has occurred of late and the really unique wines they have brought to market.
Dunne gets to this points:
"Almost to a person, however, they(industry types) are encouraged by another thread running through the industry. While the growing visibility and power of the nation’s largest wine companies are generating most of today’s wine-news headlines, a significant though largely unrecognized parallel development is under way – the proliferation of small, family-owned wineries."
Dunne underlines his analysis by getting a quote from one of California’s most savvy wine industry analysts, Vic Motto: "The number of small wineries is exploding. It’s more than doubled the past 10 years. Over the past four years, despite the state’s slow economy, the number of wineries has grown 24 percent, and that growth has been driven by small wineries."
Dunne let’s Randal Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon Vineyards (and other labels) sum up the point: "There is a dichotomy between artisanal winemaking and corporate winemaking. One is calculated, profit-driven and largely a marketing exercise. One is an expression of a personal aesthetic. Megabrands live in their own world. Small artisanal brands live in a totally different universe, and we don’t communicate at all. They have the money, we have the soil."
Dunne finishes up with his own comment:
"In looking at the names on wine shelves and wine lists, it’s just difficult to tell who is who sometimes."
This final statement from Dunne is certainly true. And it is where wine journalist (and dare I say bloggers) come in. It strikes me that if you are going to write about wine, in any form, the best service you can provide is to point consumers to those wines they may not come across on the grocery store shelf; wines that might take a little searching. This is how writers can help assure that corporate, same-tasting wines don’t overtake the industry and the shelves.