Does size matter? It’s an ongoing debate that perhaps has more critical underpinnings than it’s application to things vinous, but even the world of wine isn’t immune to the argument.
I hear it all the time. Overhear it more aptly. At trade events, between aisles in wine shops, in online wine forums, and often with an air of pontification: “I only like wines from small producers. They’re more honest, more artisan. The large producers aren’t craftsmen, they produce generic wine.” To this let me offer a resounding: “Hooey!”
There is nothing wrong with enjoying wines from small producers. I cherish many wines made in small quantity myself. However, I often hear these assertions made not positively in favor of the aforementioned, but negatively toward the wines of large producers.
For instance, someone remarked to me recently that “smaller Brunello producers closer to Montalcino are the true producers and that the larger producers in the southern part of the zone don’t make great Brunello.” Although he didn’t mention it, the implication was clear. The reason they don’t is because they can’t due to their size.
The producers he cited bottle about 5,000 cases of Brunello per year on average. Small enough, but his assertion that larger producers can’t make great wine is simply false. Most sane wine lovers the world over will not debate the relative quality of Bordeaux. Fair assertion yes? Let’s consider the average annual case production of the five First Growths.
First Growth Average Case Production
Latour: 18,000 cases
Lafite: 25,000 cases
Mouton: 20,000 cases
Margaux: 13,000 cases
Haut Brion: 12,000 cases
Would the French consider these wines not artisan, not of great quality? Most wine lovers would still argue today that these estates originally set the standard for wine quality the world over and continue to do so. Is it no coincidence that French winemakers are paid to consult from Italy to the US to South America? But back to Brunello…..
I hear often that Antinori and Castello Banfi are too large to devote the attention required to make great wine. I’m not sure if it’s jealousy, insecurity or simply stupidity that’s surfacing with these remarks, but they’re clearly misplaced. Of course these companies are large. Of course they make lots of wine. They own lots of land! The scale on which they produce excellent wine is impressive enough. However, how vast is that scale?
Antinori produces almost 100,000 cases of wine per year. That’s restricted to wines that fall under the “Antinori” label alone and includes all wines at every price point. However, consider these numbers:
Tignanello: 30,000 cases
Solaia: 7,000 cases
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a negative review for Tignanello. Are all of those reviewers, myself included by the way, somehow out of our heads? The production here is not much greater in volume than Lafite or Mouton, and there is no “second label” of Tignanello. Solaia is one of the most sought after wines in the world. Not in Italy, in the world. Yet it’s production is barely 50% of many of the First Growths. Antinori not artisan?
People often lose track of the undercurrent. Wine is a business and it needs to be profitable. For Antinori to take the artisan, craftsmen, detail oriented approach in making Solaia – the strict grape selection, the extended aging that mandates a longer time to market, the newest most expensive barrels, it takes other product to generate revenue to allow those decisions to happen. Wineries need cash flow, no matter how romantic it may seem to think otherwise.
|~ Ask the Japanese if Size Matters: 16″ Guns aboard the USS New Jersey ~|
Castello Banfi is the largest producer of Brunello in Italy. No one comes close to their annual case production. Or do they? Many who favor smaller production wines champion Castello Banfi as the poster child for mass produced Brunello. Yet their estate Brunello consistently receives scores of 90+ and is widely available and affordable. Is this a bad thing? And like Antinori, Castello Banfi has the ability to devote minute attention to crafting some exceptional wines. Marinate……..
Castello Banfi US Imports
Estate Brunello: 14,000 cases
Poggio Alle Mura: 300 cases
Poggio All’Oro: 200 cases
Summus: 500 cases
The estate Brunello is large for sure, but it’s directly comparable to the five First Growths and worldwide production mirrors the aforementioned Tignanello. The contrast becomes stark when comparing the production numbers for the single vineyard Poggio Alle Mura and the Riserva Poggio All’Oro – a wine which is routinely considered among the best Brunello in Italy. When adding Summus to the mix, the three wines combined have case production far less than many of Napa Valleys “Cult/Boutique” Cabernets. Wines, which by the way, typically cost 2-3 times what the Castello Banfi wines command. But where does Castello Banfi stack among other Brunello’s imported to the US?
Brunello Imports to the US
Altesino Montosoli: 2,500 cases
Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova: 4,480 cases
Poggio Antico Altero: 1,100 cases
Antinori Pian delle Vigne: 12,000 cases
Fuligni: 2,080 cases
Castelgiocondo: 12,000 cases
|~ Small, Medium, & Large Barrels at Le Ragnaie, Montalcino ~|
So what is large then? Consider….
Random US Producers
Robert Mondavi: 350,000 cases
Stag’s Leap: 130,000 cases
Chateau St. Michelle: 2,000,000 cases
Although these numbers are large, I doubt anyone would have issue with the quality of Mondavi’s Reserve Cabernet, or Stag’s Leap Cask 23 and the way that wine turned the French upside down. Nor do I think people would quarrel much with what Chateau St. Michelle has meant to Washington State.
So if you haven’t guessed by now, I’d argue that size doesn’t matter. The devil is in the details, the proof is in the bottle. Wine is supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be enjoyed with family and friends at the table. It’s supposed to bring people together and slow life down. I support wineries that are both small and large. If they have one thing in common, it’s that they’re all run by good people. That’s what matters. That, is the true shibboleth.
In vino veritas…..
November 22, 2013