Seattle Wine Blog

This blog is dedicated to commentary on all aspects of wine, especially short entries to help you find the best wines without the usual hype and spin. These are my frank, independent opinions, usually based on tasting wine at a public event, off the shelf or at the winery. "All creative acts must arise out of a specific soil and flicker with a spirit of place" -D.H. Lawrence

Friday, September 22, 2006

Winery Styles

In my wine peregrinations, I've noticed how strongly my expectations are affected by the setting and style of a winery. Of course, you can't tell a book by its cover, but you can make a guess - airport book, academic tome, easy reading, serious fiction, etc,. It seems to me there are maybe a dozen or so types of wineries, for example, the small ones in light industrial areas of Seattle, the ones in Quonset huts at the Walla Walla airport, the ones with really big parking lots in Napa.

What motivates winemakers and winery owners? For some it is the art of winemaking, the hands on, the smell of the must, the peace and beauty of the vineyard and wine country. Others are driven by the desire to make the best, to gain notoriety, status and prestige, to show off, to say look at me, "I'm the greatest." Some are competitive, some perfectionistic, some laid back, some hip or cool, some, dare I say it, modest. And, of course, lurking in the background is money whether they want to show it, make it, or just make ends meet.

Like it or not the style of a winery signifies what it is trying to do and ultimately becomes part of its marketing plan, even if unintentionally, and even if it doesn't have a marketing plan. For example, L'Ecole #41's schoolhouse signifies a relaxed but serious winery. Domaine Serene's chateau signifies pretensions. Fall Line's warehouse winery signifies serious winemaking. What are the types of wineries?

Here are some that come to mind. Tourist wineries, "fun" wineries, "Mom & Pop" wineries, Boeing Wine Club wineries, Walla Walla Airport wineries, Seattle & Woodinville warehouse wineries, corporate wineries, wine factories, pretentious wineries, "Cult" wineries, "Family" wineries, and "Rich Man's Hobby" wineries. Well obviously these "types" overlap. Either a "garage " winery or a Rich Man's Hobby can become a "cult" winery. Sometimes it's hard to tell if there is any difference between a corporate winery and a tourist winery. Sometimes there is a progression from, say, a Walla Walla Airport winery to a tourist destination winery which may ultimately be bought out the likes of Vincor, Deageo or Constellation, becoming corporate, or becoming a "cult" winery. So there really aren't any pure types here.

Nevertheless, style often suggests a certain type of winery which affects our expectations about the wine. Let's take a moment to think about each type of winery. The hallmark of a tourist winery is a tasting room (not all wineries have tasting rooms) with lots of wine related items for sale and a big parking lot. Tourist wineries can be off-putting or fun depending on how over the top they are and how good the wine is. Although almost every winery on Highway 29 in Napa is a tourist winery, Franciscan, Merryvalle, and Robert Mondavi come to mind. At least two of these are owned by large corporations. Tourist appeal makes sense for the wineries since tasting rooms tend to be very profitable and usually benefits the consumer through easy access to the wine. "Fun" wineries are a variation on the tourist theme. Bonny Doon and Charles Mitchell immediately come to mind. Both Randy Grahm and Charles Mitchell are quite serious about their wine, but they have developed a marketing and winemaking style that is easy, fun, casual and amusing.

These days a winery can be started on a shoestring. Apprentice yourself to an established winemaker, make a few barrels of your own wine, get your very own Quonset hut or warehouse space and Mom & Pop are off and running. To me Lost Mountain Winery on the Olympic Peninsula is the ultimate Mom & Pop winery. Chinook winery definitely has this style even though it now has a fairly large production. The same is true for Barnard Griffin. It is impossible to list all the wineries at the Walla Walla airport, but, Buty, Syzygy, and Cougar Crest come to mind. There are so many wineries started by Boeing Wine Club members, so I'll just mention two - Cadence and Willis Hall. Heck, Gary Figgins started Leonetti as a mom & pop operation.

Perhaps the opposite of a mom & pop is the wine factory. There are lots of them in Australia, in France and Italy, too. Here in the U.S., of course, Gallo is the flag bearer for this type. While most of these wines lack character, their overall quality has improved tremendously over the past twenty-five years thanks to technology. Recently, it has become more and more difficult to recognize a corporate winery. Even small wineries that look like they are owned and run by the winemaker and local staff may be owned by Chalone or Vincor.

Pretense may or may not go with quality. While Far Niente, for example, has all the trappings of wealth and elegance (a guarded electric gate, a flight of wine in crystal glasses), the wine is not that exceptional in my opinion. The Napa Valley is strewn with rich men's hobbies. These owners, have chosen wine as their second act in life for various reasons- the wine lifestyle, showing off, competitiveness, the desire to make the best wine possible. Shafer and Harlan are two examples where people who have already made a lot of money are investing it in making outstanding wine. So these are family wineries. "Family" winery became a fad several years ago, so everyone became a "family" winery.

Then there are those wineries you never get to see, the ones that are never open to the public. Perhaps this is for the best since the focus is on the wine, but I like visiting wineries. If a winery is never open to the public, it becomes difficult to taste their wine and decide if you like it. Of course, the scarcity does add to the mystery and mystique of a cult wine. These wineries usually have mailing lists which are even more profitable without the tasting room costs. Visiting wineries is fun and you can taste the wine yourself at the source. What have your experiences been with wineries?


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