Production Winemaking

Winemaking is often referred to in the trade as production. That’s just the right word for it as the vast majority of the world’s wine is a product. An industrial product — beverage alcohol as they call it.

Big wineries are stuck with reproducing a replica of the same wine every year as that’s what the mass market wants. They are the equivalent of national restaurant chains whose customers want a dish to be exactly the same no matter what city they are in. Small wineries can make wines that reflect vineyard, vintage and variety, which means that they will be different every year. Obviously this is not always good, but in the hands of a skilled winemaker is always interesting. The choice is between consistency or individuality.

Large production winemakers are very technically skilled. It is not easy to make thousands, if not millions, of cases of wine that, vintage in and vintage out, is indistinguishable to their customers. Consistency is to be valued more than anything once you have a winning formula. When producing beverage alcohol be that wine, vodka, gin or whatever the last thing you want is for anyone to be able to discern any difference from batch to batch. To be able to accomplish this takes amazing technical skill and can’t be done by just anybody. These winemakers are true professionals.

On the other end of the spectrum are the small artisan winemakers. Their craft more resembles a fine woodworker making one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture. While these pieces may not be perfect, as they let the natural grain of the wood define the character of the piece, they have more natural beauty and individuality than furniture turned out in a factory. It’s because of their individuality that these artisan products sell at higher prices than those rolling off of the assembly line.

Artisan winemaking is expressed in the same way. When you taste a vintage you are tasting something that can never be repeated. Each vintage for an artisan winery is a unique expression of what Mother Nature has created. Each is an experience and an expression never to be repeated. But that’s the beauty of it isn’t it?

However, faults are still faults. While production wines become boring due to their palate dulling consistency, all too often consumers shy away from artisan wines due to the jarring faults apparent in too many of them. Winemaking faults are not terroir. Small wineries have something to learn from the technical proficiency of their big brothers. A fine woodworker possesses amazing technical proficiency with the tools and raw materials of his trade. The same should be true of artisan winemakers.

If your goal as an artisan winemaker is to treasure terroir and Mother Nature you need to be committed acquiring the technical skills necessary to make natural wines. It is a great challenge to make wines using indigenous yeasts and forsaking the chemicals and technology employed by the big wineries to make their standardized products. The risks are high and there is more pressure than ever on the winemaker’s skills as there is no “magic pill” to be used if things go wrong — and go wrong they will.

A fine wood craftsman will consign a piece she is working on to the junk pile behind her workshop if she makes a mistake beyond repair. Too many artisan winemakers bottle up their mistakes and sell them citing their natural winemaking practices as reason enough to buy them as if the word natural itself is justification to forgive all.

The artisan winemaker is revered in Europe. Some of our greatest importers have made a career out of bringing their wines to American consumers. The lists of these importers are filled with amazing values from such producers. It’s easy to find wonderful, naturally made wines from Europe in the under $30 price category. Rarely do I find winemaking faults in these wines. The same is not true for such wines produced in the New World. Not only are they more expensive, but they are often not as well made.

Young American sommeliers seeking naturally produced wines are often criticized for their Euro-centric wine lists. However, I can empathize with their position. When the customer doesn’t like a wine it’s the sommelier that’s face-to-face with them, not the winemaker. They need reliable wines at affordable price points to meet today’s more casual, bistro-style of dining.

We need to stop selling the winemaking and start selling the wine inside the bottle. I want to be inspired by the wine, not the winemaking.