Wrestling with Promiscuity and Monogamy through Artisanry in the Battle against Commoditization in Wine


As Paul Mabray at VinTank has told us, brand loyalty is at risk because millenials will pursue infinite experimentation. Paul has labelled this scenario as "promiscuity". It is a world in which no brand can survive.

Others say that the market will settle down around the traditional commodity brands. The largest wineries can make very good products at a much lower cost than that of the smallest wineries making the best wines. The quality is not the same, but those differences are closing over time when winemakers simply decide to compete on cost. For the sake of contrast, let's call this strategy "monogamy". This latter scenario is one in which a few surviving winemakers will dictate the taste of the mass market.

Between these two crazy extremes, thousands of independent winemakers define their own paths. What should artisans do to outflank the million-case-per-year-factories of commoditization that would otherwise swallow them whole? At Hannah Nicole Vineyards (Brentwood, California), independent winemakers pursue higher quality at a pace that sets their brand apart from the mass-produced norm. They have carefully and consistently improved each of their Bordeaux components, now to a level of excellence where all of these components are confidently poured in their tasting room. HNV even sells Petit Verdot in 750ml. Traditional wisdom frowns upon this practice.

A few weeks ago, Hannah Nicole CEO Neil Cohn and winemaker John Sotelo guided me through a barrel tasting of each of the components in their cellar. This exercise left me with a very good feeling about the next few vintages that are in progress. I've tasted many Petit Verdot, but few are good enough to rise to the top of a label's marquee. This one was the finest PV that I've ever found. When a winery can do this, they have set the stage for reliable word-of-mouth. They can focus on making great wine, rather than shouting their message out (old school).

Patrick Bowen at Fat Grape Wines on Treasure Island (San Francisco, California) also makes a 100 percent Petit Verdot in a 750ml format, from a source vineyard that he has chosen in Lodi. One of the things that is most striking about Fat Grape, is that they produce all of their wine without added sulfites, which very distinctly helps you to get to know the flavor of the wine. They exhibit and sell all of the Bordeaux blending components in this format.

Others winemakers will just as logically improve the blending components associated with the southern Rhone, northern Italy, Navarra, and Rioja, or almost anywhere else in the world where the art of blending is on a par with the art of original cultivation and breeding. Tobe Weatherly Sheldon, at her Sheldon Winery in Santa Rosa, California recently reviewed their portfolio in a private presentation to me. She introduced me to their Graciano, which they have released in a 750ml format. Graciano helps Tempranillo and Garnacha (the spanish name for Grenache) to age longer, the benefit of which is revealed in the deeper production of more of the innate aromas and flavors that generally do not express themselves so well in the jovens and crianzas. Presumably, This Graciano demonstrates its charm and power when it is sampled on its own, and gives the aficionado a clear idea of what a happy marriage it lends unto more of the royal blends.

Jeff Stai, at Twisted Oak Winery in Calaveras County (California), reports that they are also about to release a 100% Graciano, which already graces the blends in their Iberian style wines.

Clearly, winemakers are awakening our senses to the unique aesthetic appeal of their terroir and their craft through this deconstructionist approach. Let's hope that their product differentiation strategy stems the tide of commoditization and the race to the bottom. Promiscuity is quite another matter, but we'll grapple more with that later.

What are you doing about this enormous issue? Tell me about it.