Small versus Big: Can we really say that a winery is better than another because of its size?

Krug: Champagne, France

Azienda Agricola Paraschos: Friuli, Italy

Small versus Big: Can we really say that a winery is better than another because of its size?

This is my first post after we re-launched TheWineHub… and I wanted to write about something that matters… something that is close to my heart…

I was working on Facebook to schedule visits in Brazil for a friend of mine – Lotte Karolina Gabrovits – when I got this feedback: ” If you are looking for the real Brazilian terroir and true stories you will find them, as usual in the wine world, in the small wineries.” This gave me the perfect reason to write about something meaningful.

Does size really matter? Are “real terroir” and “true stories” only a privilege of small wineries?

Most of my time is dedicated to wine. This includes the grueling studies of the Master of Wine (MW) program, judging in wine competitions, and visiting hundreds of vineyards and wineries. These visits vary from families growing grapes in their backyard for personal/friends consumption to the largest producer of a region (or even a country). So, the pictures above were not included by coincidence: A big (and very famous) Champagne producer – Krug – and a very small producer of “natural wines” in Friuli – Paraschos. They are the starting point, the building blocks of this theory of mine that it’s much more about “who they are/what they do” than “how big (or small) they are”.

Besides personal pleasure, my main goal when visiting a wine region is (not necessarily in order of importance):

  • Find the best wines for my own business
  • Report the best experiences to fellow #winelover-s (the wines themselves, and/or the visits to the vineyards, wineries, etc)
  • Learn about their viticultural and enological practices for my MW studies.

I try, to the best of my possibilities, to include “small and big producers on the same trip as amazing experiences can be found in both. You just need to know who they are…

To prove my point, I’ll talk about some of my experiences during my visits in Europe this year: Big, small, big, small, big, small… ad eternum…

Albert Bichot: Burgundy, France

Albert Bichot (big): I had the opportunity to visit them during a MW trip in March and I was truly impressed with some of their wines. The visits to the vineyards and cellars were both educational and entertaining. Since 1350, the Bichot family has made Burgundy its home, but the family only became attached to vines and wines during the 19th century. In 1831, Bernard Bichot founded a merchant house bearing his name in Monthélie, south of Beaune. At the end of the 19th century, his grandson Albert Bichot, brought new impulsion to the business and established the headquarters in Beaune. The family heritage has been perpetuated from father to son since then. Each “sub‐region” corresponds to a “Domaine”, with owned vineyards but also standalone structure dedicated to wines of the area, including viticulture and vinification teams and facilities (equipment, cellars). Today, the House owns 100 hectares (245 acres) of vineyards in Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune and Côte Chalonnaise. “Big” is good!


Domaine O’Vineyards: Languedoc, France

Domaine O’Vineyards (small): Ryan O’Connell is a fellow #winelover. During Vinisud, Andre Ribeirinho and I had a chance to pay a short visit and finally get to know his family’s winery in the Languedoc (a few miles north of Carcassonne). By coincidence, it was Ryan’s last day there as he was moving to the US to work in California. What a lovely afternoon/evening it was… We visited the winery and talked about the winemaking process while we were tasting very good wines from the tank and barrels. After that, we walked in the vineyards and talked about what they were doing to grow better grapes. After that, we tasted wines in a cozy living room and had a lovely dinner with his family. “Small” is good!

Real Companhia Velha: Douro Valley, Portugal

Real Companhia Velha (big): In 2006 they celebrated 250 years of existence and uninterrupted activity on behalf of the Porto Wine trade. During the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles 2012 in Guimarães earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit them. We started with a walk through the vineyards from the top of hill, all the way down to the Douro river. The views were amazing (as you can see on the picture above). Every corner of our path offered breathtaking views of this amazing valley. When we got to their tasting room by the river, we had the opportunity to taste some of their amazing wines. “Big” is good

Quinta do Pôpa: Douro Valley, Portugal

Quinta do Pôpa (small): “Every man has a dream, and the dream of Zeca do Pôpa was to own a vineyard in one of the best locations in the oldest recognized wine region of the world.” I met Zeca’s son – Stéphane Pôpa – for the first time in Celorico da Beira in 2010. Stéphane, who was born in France, is passionate about his wines and also very active in social media as I am, so the connection between the two of us was very natural. We met a few times, but it was not until May this year that I had the chance to visit his winery in the Douro. I had the chance to see all the work (and money) they are putting into the vineyard/winery. Their Tinta Roriz (see picture above) has been one of my favorite reds of the region, and has an amazing quality/price ratio. “Small” is good!

Quinta do Noval (big): Andre Ribeirinho and I visited Noval in May. I’m trying to find words here to describe our experience, but I will simply use what Christian Seely (their Manager Director) had to say: “The name Quinta do Noval evokes for me above all a place. A magical place, a historic place. A piece of the earth capable of producing wines that are among the world’s greatest. The wines of Quinta do Noval express the greatness of this terroir, of this majestic landscape. They evoke also the centuries of history that have been necessary for these wonderful wines to exist.”   Not much more to say about one of the most amazing wineries/vineyards that I have visited in my life… “Big” is good!

Seymann: Weinviertel, Austria

 

Weingut Seymann (small): Nancy Lee Seymann was my friend on Facebook. When she heard I was going to Austria in July, she invited me to visit her winery in Karlsdorf. She grew up in California and is now in charge of marketing as well as creating special food and wine events. Her son Laurin is studying enology and actively works in the vineyards and cellar. Her husband Harald has been cultivating the “Treasure in Pulkau Valley” in Western Weinviertel, which he inherited with his brother Alexander from his father. The Seymanns see their role as winemakers to be catalysts for the birth of wines with outstanding personality. Seymann´s wines whisper secrets about the single vineyards from which they evolve and of the winemaker´s love, understanding and connection to these vineyards. “Small” is good!

Tsantali Winery: Mount Athos, Greece

Tsantali Winery (big): I had the opportunity to visit Greece for the first time in June. Ted Lelekas (a good friend and fellow #winelover from Greece) organized a trip for a few male #winelovers and we were able to visit Mount Athos. The place is not only truly amazing, but the wines made at the Saint Panteleimon cloister by Tsantali are impressive.  The vineyards of the Metoxi (Domain) of Chromitsa, property of the St. Panteleimon monastery, extend across an area of 80 hectares and are cultivated by Tsantali using organic methods. The benevolent climatic and geographic parameters enable organic farming without problems. The relatively dry climate, sandy soil and strict isolation of the vineyards from other cultivations offer an excellent basis for organic farming. The results are lower yields of grapes, which make for more concentrated, complex wines. “Big” is good!

Chrisohoou: Naoussa, Greece

Chrisohoou Winery (small): The “ESTATE CHRISOCHOOU” is a family winery in Naoussa (“the city of wine and vineyards”) built in a very traditional style. Their vineyards are located in the south-eastern slopes of mountain “Vermion”at an altitude of 250 meters, in the region Strantza Naoussas. These conditions are perfect for the production of light Xinomavro wines (only 12.5% alcohol as you can see on the label), with a good structure and with a tomato leaf note that is so characteristic of the grape. Xinomavro as its best! During our visit we had the opportunity to have a fantastic traditional dinner with the owners: Kimis and Betty Chrisohoou. “Small” is good!

Hugel & Fils: Alsace, France

Hugel & Fils (big): Etienne Hugel (picture) is a great #winelover. I know him for a few years now. Every time I have an opportunity, I love to go to Riquewihr to get a taste of his amazing wines and chat about modern life (social media for example) or the amazing history of his family. The first traces of his family in Alsace date back to the XVth century. Some two centuries later, Hans Ulrich Hugel settled in Riquewihr, which had been devastated by the terrible Thirty Years War. In 1639, he was made a freeman of the city and soon took charge of the very powerful Corporation of Winegrowers. In 1672, his son built a fine house in the Rue des Cordiers. The family crest was carved over the front door, and is company’s logo still used today! How much better does it get? A conversation that starts on the XVth century and goes all the way to apps, facebook, twitter… while we taste his great wines… “Big” is good!

Spiegelberg Winery: Somló, Hungary

Spiegelberg Winery (small): It’s amazing how Istvan Spiegelberg and I have been able to communicate over the years without speaking each others’ language. Of course, we always had help from people around us that spoke both languages (Hungarian and English), but somehow we have a connection that goes beyond the translated words. Istvan was kind enough to come to our #winelover’s hangout in Eisenstadt, but he had one condition: that I reciprocated the favor and went to Somló to taste some of his new wines. How could I say no to a guy who wears the #winelover’s badge on his hat all the time? And have I mentioned that his wines are amazing? I think that Magnus Reuterdahl can back me up on this, as we both had the opportunity on that day to visit a winery on the slopes of an extinct volcano… and to taste delicious wines that screamed “Somló”. “Small” is good!

Blandy’s Madeira: Madeira Island, Portugal

Blandy’s Madeira (big): During the FTLOP trip in June this year I had the opportunity to visit these beautiful cellars (Chris Blandy himself – picture – was our “tour guide”) with Roy Hersh, Mario Ferreira, and a group of #winelovers.  The Blandys are unique in being the only family of all the original founders of the Madeira wine trade to still own and manage their own original wine company. The family has played a leading role in the development of Madeira wine throughout its long history. Members of the family continue to live in Madeira, maintaining a tradition that goes back to 1811. And just to be clear: The company is not only about history… they are making fantastic wines. “Big” is good!

Artisan Wines: Halbturn, Austria

Artisan Wines (small): Franz Schneider is a Boku-trained enologist with a Master in Quality viticulture and Marketing. Experience acquired working at Azienda Agricola Luciano Sandrone/Barolo, research center Geisenheim/Germany, Klein Constantia Estate/South Africa and some estates in Austria. Franz thoughts on AW: “Artisan Wines is my brand new wine label. The Artisan Wines are handmade, rare, unique and carbon free! Our mid term aim is to apply an energy management system and implement natural protection activities in the organizational-technical field to get the most resource-saving wine producer in our area.” I had the chance to taste his wines this last July and I was more than impressed… I felt in love with them! “Small” is good!

What is the conclusion? This “small x big” dichotomy is purely ideological. I don’t think it exists “per se” as many people present it and I don’t choose wines or wineries for their political, ideological, religious, and philosophical beliefs. I LOVE wine above all and all these other things are secondary to me. Sometimes “small” can offer an extra pleasure that “big” can’t. However, in many cases, the opposite also holds true. In other words, they both – small and big – can offer unique experiences: Size shouldn’t matter to a real #winelover.

Cheers,

Luiz Alberto, #winelover

21 Responses to Small versus Big: Can we really say that a winery is better than another because of its size?

  1. Jason Lewis August 21, 2012 at 2:57 pm #

    This has always been an illogical distinction for me. It’s never been (for me) a matter of “Big vs. Small,” but of access to great grapes (first and foremost), and a talented winemaker who won’t screw it up! If the “big” winery has access to excellent grapes, their wines can, should, and will be outstanding (think Hugel); on the other hand, if you have a big winery dedicated to making plonk — well, that’s what they’ll make (think of the California wines from Almadén or Paul Masson as examples).

    There is one area in which being big is more difficult, and again we look to California for the illustration. I would suggest it is far more difficult to produce tens of thousands of cases of outstanding “reserve quality” Cabernet Sauvignon than merely a few hundred cases. That is, to produce a small lot of great wine from one’s own vineyard (presuming excellence in site, clone, climate, etc.) — think Screaming Eagle, Grace, etc. — is much easier than making a wine like Joseph Phelps Insignia or Beringer Private Reserve (both made in the thousands of cases) and maintaining that extremely high level of quality.

    But on an objective basis,”Is big better than small, or is small better than big?” is an irrelevant question: size doesn’t matter.

    • Luiz August 22, 2012 at 4:09 pm #

      Jason, thanks for the support. You use very good examples to help with my point. Cheers!

  2. Bernard Kenner August 21, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    If I can quote directly from an article I recently wrote:
    “I have never met a winemaker or an importer who did not think his wine was unique, delicious and a good value, even though (to be truthful) not all are. Furthermore, just because a wine is “industrial” does not make it bad or well priced, and for that matter, just because a wine is “handmade” does not make it excellent. Even if a wine is good it does not guarantee that importers and consumers will flock to your door, since there is so much wine available from around the world, and as we are seeing not nearly enough mouths to drink it all. Look at the glut of wine from Australia as an example, some good, some bad, and some indifferent.”

    Big producers have the funds to be very modern in the lab and production, which may or may not steal away terroir, and small producers may not be able to always be able to control quality. As you said (though only describing winners,) size is not important, but the integrety of the grower/ producer is. I know you were being kind, but I’m sure there were some less than stellar places you visited, but did not mention, for obvious reasons.

    • Luiz August 22, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

      Bernard, I have a tendency (a good one I hope) of only talk about the good things I find in our world (and they are mostly exclusively wine-related subjects). Unless something really drastic happens, you will never see me posting a bad article about a wine or a winery. That’s the way I believe I can most contribute to my fellow #winelover-s… Cheers!!

  3. Clark Smith August 21, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

    I disagree with the apologist position. This question has every relevance. And it has nothing to do with quality, which has become really very high at all levels.

    I had an interesting conversation with Randall Graham on this topic last week. He said that it appears to him that there is no economic viability for a winery today unless you are either above 500,000 cases or less than 10,000. You either need to be able to feed national distribution or be small enough to sell direct. With 250,000 wines out there in the U.S. market, there is no longer any middle ground.

    Now to be nationally distributed, you have to make safe wine styles. The expected Merlot, the expected Chardonnay. The broad market has no patience with interesting wine. This is how 2% of those 250,000 labels are made, and they comprise 95% of the volume sold.

    If you are among the 98% of wineries on the D list, selling tiny quantities in your tasting room and on the net, it’s just the opposite. You must excell at a unique product. Diversity is key. Distinctive wines of place which would never find a place at Safeway, Dean and Deluca, or Outback Steakhouse, but WILL get a Manhattanite couple into their Prius to visit Lehigh Valley, PA and taste great Gruner Veltliner and Zweigelt. It’s an entirely different business.

    So if you want predictable, dependable wine for your table and the convenience of local retail, big is better. If you want the wine to show you something you’ve never seen before, something exciting, something close to nature, small is better. This is why many large corporate operations have a small winery within the big winery, and that’s where you’ll often find the best of both worlds, but still struggling with the overcrowded marketplace.

    • Luiz August 23, 2012 at 10:54 am #

      Clark, thanks for taking the time. You know how much I respect your immense knowledge about wine… and again, you are making good points. However, my article is about trying to prove that not only small wineries are good (as I as told when trying to schedule visits for a friend in Brazil). I’m not talking only about the wine itself, but also about the experience one will find when visiting a winery (small or big). By the way, I look forward to reading your new book “Postmodern Winemaking”. When is it due? Cheers!

      • Clark Smith August 23, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

        Luiz, thanks for the book mention. It’s to be released by UC Press next Spring. I’m pretty excited about the opportunity to delve more thoughtfully into the benefits and challenges Modern Science has ushered into winemaking. Both are making wine more competently than ever before, leading to a vast proliferation and the schism we are discussing. I bring up the causes of sameness in retail wines from big wineries because that is often attributed incorrectly to wine technology, while it’s really market forces that are to blame.

        In terms of wine tourism, no small winery can teach the basics to large numbers the way large wineries (and here I mean over 100,000 cases) like Mondavi, Sterling ,and the Benziger estate are set up for – quite wonderful, really. Still, I prefer the personal one-on-one. I’ve always found it fascinating that every winery is its own distinct, one-of-a-kind little world. That goes for Edmunds-St. John and it goes for Gallo.

  4. Stefan Michel August 21, 2012 at 6:11 pm #

    Is a restaurant with 100 tables better than one with 6? Size is not a suitable indication of quality. But from my experience its a lot easier in small winerys to talk with the people really involved. Especially if you are a normal customer. I really appreciate this in smaller winerys its a very important point in developing my own personal story with every wine I buy – drink – and sell.

    • bill marsano August 21, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

      All due respect to Clark and Randall, but before we write off every winery between 10 thousand cases and half a million, oughtn’t we hear from some of those wineries first about their viability? Also, SMALL may be a winery that is overstressed financially, overworked physically, inadequately equipped and frankly desperate. Or it may mean focused on quality, uninterested in fashion, working within its means and content to do its best for as long as it can. BIG, on the other hand, can mean a soulless, bland, unadventurous place where the definition of quality is the number of boxes out the door. Or it could mean a financially stable place that gets the best from secure, well-paid, well-treated employees who are encouraged to keep making the best wine possible. So size ALONE is meaningless, and your question above is based on size ALONE. Some people are insistent in their belief that small is best. Lest year or the year before the beverage director of a too-swanky NYC restaurant allowed himself to be quoted in print as saying, to a general audience, that people should “buy wines from smaller, family-run vineyards because they care more about developing a great-tasting wine rather than making money. And as a result, these small-producer wines will generally be cheaper.” This seems to me to be a situation not found in nature, let alone the marketplace.

      Worship of Smallness for its own sake is part of the Higher Nonsense dedicated to the “romance” and “art” of wine. This stuff breeds wine snots, repels new wine drinkers and in general damages wine by making it exclusive and exclusionary.

      • Clark Smith August 22, 2012 at 6:39 am #

        Bill is correct on all counts. I’d go so far as to say that every winery I’ve ever been in (many thousands over 40 years), large and small, has all of those aspects (focus on quality, under-capitalization, overwork, stretched resources, occasional soullessness, dedication to quality.

        But none of these affect the goal of the winery. This is determined by size alone.

        The subtext in Bill’s comment is that quality is related to competence. That’s not as true as it was thirty years ago, because everybody’s a lot more competent today. What’s more important now is the winery’s focus. In today’s marketplace, which has a hundred times as many products as it did thirty years ago, style goals are necessarily very different for broad market suppliers than for the Mom and Pop.

        While Randall’s supposed No Man’s Land between 10K and 500K was, of course, a conceit for dramatic effect, in general, large and small wineries are constrained by their economics to be focused on entirely different, even opposite goals. Big wineries have to be centrists in style and efficiently deliver their carefully honed price points, benefitting as they do from economies of scale. Small wineries can’t afford to compete in this arena, and are no good at it. Instead, they give us, at premium pricing, an imponderable diversity of eclectic wines of place.

        Effectively, large and small wineries are in different businesses. They deliver different products to completely disparate markets. They really have nothing in common.

      • Luiz August 28, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

        Bill, thanks for taking the time. I agree with you as I also want more people enjoying and drinking wine. To be a #winelover is to be part of a community… The more the merrier! By the way, sorry for my late reply.

    • Luiz August 25, 2012 at 11:50 am #

      Stefan, this is a great comparison. And you are right… As a “normal person” it may be harder to be able to connect to the key people of a large winery. When one is part of the industry, he/she tends to forget that those doors may not open to everyone… Cheers!

  5. Sharon Parsons August 21, 2012 at 10:55 pm #

    This is a good question, which always leads to more questions. I am sure you will get lots of good questions from this article.

    • Ignacio Sanz Maestre (@Nachete67) August 24, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

      I think that the size of the winery doesn´t produce the wine of more quality or better, The bigger ones have more ways or resources to obtain it but not for it they obtain it.
      With regard to the production, sale, distribution and reputation of brand evidently the size of the winery is important

  6. Anders Öhman August 29, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

    Great piece!
    I’m constantly been impressed by big scale producers and how they can deliver great quality in volumes over time as well as affordable wines and high quality wines with great expression. A few great examples are Freixenet, Gonzales Byass and Bodegas el Coto.

    • L.Alberto-TheWineHub (@thewinehub) September 6, 2012 at 5:10 am #

      Sharon, Ignacio and Anders: Thanks for taking the time! I’ll keep visiting both small and big wineries and I’ll report my findings. Cheers!

  7. solveig tange September 6, 2012 at 5:23 am #

    nice discussion. thanks. let’s priviledge taste rather than prejudice based just on size. cheers Solveig, Champagne

  8. Buzz Vieau September 6, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    In any event is is nice to read about wineries in other parts of the world. I am a Wine Tour Company in Napa CA. Great article. My hope is to travel to other countries and visit wineries.

    Buzz Vieau

  9. Wine By Design September 10, 2012 at 11:33 am #

    SIZE has nothing to do with it… it’s all about the wine. A bigger winery does not produce better wine than a smaller winery or vise versa. Wines are like people, they all have different characteristics and personalities… sometimes you meet some you LOVE and other times you meet some you don’t care for as much or are not drawn to. As long as the love and the science are equally balanced in the making of the wine, that is all that matters!

    So, dont over analyse, be open minded and not jaded by marketing as that is all to often what gets in the way! Open a bottle of anything that peaks your interest and enjoy and always try something new!! vdonald@winebydesign.ca

  10. Bernrd Kenner February 11, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

    I haven’t looked at this thread in many months, but was noodling around and found it again. To quote the punch line of an old joke, ” its not the size of the wand, but the magic of the user,” the same goes for winemakers and corporate or family structure of the winery. It has more to do with the personality, integrety and vision of the people than number of cases produced. And, as far as “regular” consumer contact with the wineries, I know things have changed over the years, but over forty years ago, as a “regular” person, I met and had detailed conversatations with Charles Fournier, head winemaker for Gold Seal (large producer at the time) as well as Konstantin Frank (small producer at the time) on a visit to the Finger Lakes. If the people want to make contact and engage, they will. Friendly and open people are the same, regardless of the size of the company. And most wine people, I’ve found are good people.

    I

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