Tag Archives: craft wine

Craft wine: Does it exist? Can it exist?

craft wineCraft wine shouldn’t be about the size of the winery, but about the quality of its products. Otherwise, what’s the point?

The news that a group in Oregon has started a craft wine association raises a question that has been discussed in wine for years: Does craft wine exist? Is it even possible?

The Craft Wine Association thinks so, and has established strict requirements for craft wine based on the size of the winery. But is that enough? Or is craft wine more complicated than that? Or is it a good idea but one with little relationship to reality?

There’s no doubt that the word craft makes consumers turn somersaults, as the craft beer business has demonstrated. But that doesn’t necessarily mean craft is a legitimate term; witness how many members of the craft brewers association are billion dollar companies that make millions of bottles of beer. Or the many lawsuits filed against craft distillers whose business model – buying their product from a corporate distiller – isn’t very crafty.

In fact, as noted here before, the word craft and its derivatives, like hand-crafted and artisan, have little meaning in terms of wine production. For one thing, no one one has yet invented a machine that can make wine. For another, despite the welter of laws regulating wine, beer, and spirits in the U.S., there aren’t any that define the term craft and its derivatives.

That’s why Delicato, the sixth-biggest producer in the U.S., can make a brand called HandCraft Wines without the slightest tinge of guilt. Or that Target can sell California Roots, “carefully crafted with premium, California-grown grapes,” even though the wine is made by Trinchero, the fourth biggest producer in the U.S.

In other words, a form of greenwashing, where a company makes claims for its products that make it sound wonderful and natural – and which is perfectly legal – but where the claims are disingenuous at best. And why not? Do we expect Big Wine, Big Beer, Big Spirits, and their retailers to tell us just how corporate their production practices really are? How much inventory would that move?

Hence attempts by groups like the Craft Wine Association to remedy the problem. The catch, though, is that size isn’t the issue. Quality is. Bigger does not necessarily mean worse or more evil, and smaller does not always translate into manna from heaven. According to the Craft Wine Association’s size rules, Ridge – perhaps the best quality producer in the country – isn’t eligible to join. And neither is Randall Grahm’s Bonny Doon, which is about as crafty as a U.S. winery gets. Both are much too big, even though they aren’t big at all compared to Big Wine.

On the other hand, almost every tiny regional producer that has ever made me gag – and there have been hundreds – can join. How will that solve anything?

The point here is not to flambé the craft wine group for trying to do the right thing. Rather, it’s to point out that the doing the right thing is more difficult than it seems. Tom Wark wrote a couple of years ago that there may not be a way to “describe a small, hands-on, privately owned, high-quality oriented winery.” And I don’t know that anything has changed since then, despite everyone’s best intentions.

The catch – and I find myself writing this more and more these days – is that the wine business, big and small, has sold itself for years as wonderful and natural, and that most consumers buy into that. Factory farms are for pigs and chickens, not wine. There is still a sense, even among sophisticated wine drinkers, that winemaking remains a solitary effort – the winemaker in the barrel room, swishing wine in the glass, a studied look on his or her face. That most of the wine we drink is made in industrial plants to specific formulas isn’t how we understand wine. And until that changes, nothing else will.

Winebits 399: Wine packaging, craft wine, vinho verde

wine packaging

? Stack those bottles: The Wine Curmudgeon rarely gets to offer advice to big-time financial reporters, but Charles Passy at the MarketWatch website should check out this post about wine packaging. Or this one. Consumers aren’t much interested in wine that comes in containers that aren’t 750-milliliter bottles. That should temper his enthusiasm for something called XO G wines, four 187-milliliter bottles that come stacked on top of each other. He waxes poetic about the packaging, even though there has traditionally been little interest in this kind of bottle. Interestingly, Passy says it doesn’t matter that XO G can best be described as “not horribly offensive,” since wine drinkers will buy the product because the packaging is clever. I wonder: Would he have written that sentence about any other consumer packaged good, advising us to buy not horribly offensive ketchup because the bottle was cute?

? Do grapes matter? A Tennessee craft spirits producer whose motto is “booze for badasses” will expand into wine, so perhaps they should read Friday’s post about craft wine. It’s one thing to buy grain to make whiskey; it’s something completely different to buy grapes from California to make wine in Tennessee (to say nothing of the difference in production techniques). As the line gets blurred between craft products, expect to see more of this happen. How successful these endeavors will be will depend on whether the companies are serious about it, or whether they see it as as nothing more than marketing. In which case they’ll be stuck with a lot of unsold Tennessee chardonnay made with California grapes.

? Lots of green wine: Vinho verde, the cheap and simple and often satisfying Portuguese wine, sold more than one-half million cases in the U.S. last year, an amazing total for a product with no marketing, little brand recognition, and limited distribution. The story doesn’t seem to know why this is happening, though it does make an effort to include premiumization in the explanation even though most vinho verde costs less than $10. That people are buying vinho verde because it isn’t expensive, tastes slightly different from white wine at that price, and is fun to drink has apparently escaped them.

The craft wine dilemma

craft wine dilemma
Which is craft wine and which isn’t?

How do you describe a wine that isn’t made by a multi-national and that doesn’t sell millions of cases? Is craft wine the proper description? And, if it is, how do you prevent the multi-national from describing its product the same way?

That’s the craft wine dilemma, as producers try to find terms to separate their wine from mass-produced grocery store plonk — even if their wine isn’t all that different.

There is no legal definition of craft wine, and borrowing the term from beer doesn’t help. Craft beer, which is assumed to be made by small, independent producers, is driving what little growth there is in the beer business, but craft beer includes Shiner and its 6 million cases and Boston Beer’s Sam Adams and its $2.9 billion in sales. Both belong to the Brewers Association craft beer trade group, demonstrating how empty the term is. Consider (and allowing for a 24-can case of beer vs. a 12-bottle case of wine) that Shiner would be tied for 12th on Wine Business Monthly’s top 30 U.S. producers list, just ahead of Bogle, and Boston Beer would be among the top three or four biggest wine companies in the country by sales.

The Brewers Association trade group guidelines don’t help much either, offering lots of PR speak (“Craft brewers tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy”) and little else. Also complicating matters: The rash of lawsuits over the past year from disgruntled consumers suing craft brewers and distillers because their craft products don’t seem to be that much different from the products made by multi-nationals, save for higher prices. No wonder there was such a spirited discussion on Tom Wark’s Fermentation blog this summer about the subject, looking for the best way to describe what Wark calls wine made by a “small, hands-on, privately owned, high-quality oriented winery.”

The craft wine dilemma reminds me of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” If an 8 million case producer like Delicato Family Winery uses the term hand-crafted for some of its wine, does hand-crafted have any meaning? On the other hand, can a producer that mostly fits Wark’s definition be called a craft winery if its idea of quality is to make an overoaked fruit bomb designed to get 98 points and cost $100?

Establishing legal (or even trade group-agreed) definitions for craft and similar terms is the obvious solution, but most of the wine business will burn down the blog and carry me off with pitchforks for suggesting it. Still, given that some plaintiffs have won their craft definition lawsuits, maybe that idea is worth considering. Otherwise, it will be a long time before anyone solves the craft wine dilemma.