Winegrowing: April 2006 Archives

Recently got to be a fly on the wall – make that the trellis post – while a grower I know interviewed candidates to purchase his wine grapes.

With maturing Pinot Noir vines in a unique site in a name-drop appellation, he was in a good position physically. His grapes had also gone into vineyard-designated wines in a couple of recent years, so there was evidence of their quality. But he was still a local secret, because that wine was made in the appellation by a small producer. Now he would find out if his vineyard was ready for prime time.

The first prospective purchaser arrived on the stroke of 8:00 a.m. as appointed. A winemaker with his own label, he already makes wine from two other vineyards in the appellation as well as four vineyard-designated bottlings from a neighboring appellation. All are svelte, supple and delicious. He listened mostly, but occasionally asked practical, pertinent questions – the kind you would ask if you were going to be making the wine yourself in six months’ time. He was particularly respectful in asking about the local vineyardists who had planted the vineyard and were taking care of it now.

When I sensed it was time for money to come up in the conversation, I moved off a ways and studied a swale in the vineyard that ensured it stayed well-drained even through the recent weeks of daily rain. The interview ended, the winemaker departed, and soon it was time for interview number two.

This time the purchaser was more than half an hour late. A wine marketer who had recently moved out of the corporate suite, he was seeking his first grapes from this appellation. His young label had produced one Pinot Noir from another appellation, apparently to good notices. He had a lot to say about the wine industry, wine marketing, and wine sales. Much of it was interesting and amusing.

It became clear that while he was the face of his brand, others would actually make the wine (and the vineyard management decisions) behind the scenes. One clue to this was his questions about the vineyard: more about its perceived position in the local pantheon than about its practical aspects relative to wine production.

As he got the answers to his questions, it dawned on me that the very qualities of the vineyard that had intrigued the winemaker – its unusual clone and unusual location – seemed to be liabilities in the marketer’s eyes.

Yesterday the word came that it will be the winemaker, not the marketer, who gets the grapes. I’m sure both would produce good wine from the vineyard, and that the grower would be getting fair compensation either way. But I had to admit, I felt happy that the punctual, practical, down-to-earth winemaker would be the one to control the grapes’ ultimate destiny.

Certainly we need smart marketing to help make wine more affordable and accessible to more people. But when it comes to exceptional small vineyards in exceptional places, it’s good to know there are still exceptional winemakers attentive enough to find them and express their essence as wine, not product positioning.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

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