Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thoughts from a winery tour

Last week, I took a winery tour with my wife's family. We all hopped on a wagon that weaved throughout the vineyard. As the tour went on, we sampled the wines that were produced from those very vines. As the proprietor of the winery gave the tour, it was a wonderful view into the inner workings of a winery. I left the tour fully impressed by wine economics. Here are some of the highlights:

Wine Costs and Wine Varieties

For this particular winery, it costs $3200 per acre to maintain the vineyard. That's the same number regardless of whether the acre produces a ton of grapes or ten tons of grapes. The winery is in Michigan where some varieties do well, but others (notably southern European varieties) do not. In other words, nature limits the selection of grapes, which limits the selection of wines at this winery.

To mitigate this limitation, wineries in this region have been working with a breeding program at Cornell University that is trying to mimic the flavor characteristics of the European varieties while instilling heartiness of the American varieties. They do this by breeding American grapes with European grapes, and they have had some success. On our tour, we tasted an American Traminer wine from the winery that tasted just like the popular European wine Gewurztraminer.

The proprietor told us that his ability to used the heartier grape allowed him to profitably sell wine at a price of $12 for Traminer versus $16 or $17 for Gewurztraminer.

Blending: Why do it?

Throughout the tour, the proprietor mentioned the practice of blending where the decision is made to mix the wines from various grapes to create a new, blended wine. He told us that there were three reasons to blend: to cover up "sins," to achieve great quality, and to achieve consistency.

Covering Sins. According to the proprietor, they try to not blend to cover a bad taste very often, but you have to do what you can with what you have. That makes sense, but the other two reasons were more interesting motives to blend.

Making Great Wine. Our tour guide told us that blending is where the vintner (wine maker) can demonstrate his talent. Any fool can make wine: Just crush up some grapes and dump some yeast on it. But, excellent wine can be made from the right blend of different wines.

At this stage in the tour, we had our chance to try the winery's Meritage variety. There's no Meritage grape, but there is a Meritage Association in California that certifies the use of the term to denote premium, quality, blended American wines made from grapes of the Bordeaux variety. Basically, Meritage is an organized effort of American wineries to compete with European Bordeaux wines. To have a Meritage variety, the vintner must blend from Bordeaux grapes, and of course, pay dues to the Meritage Association.

The proprietor also described how his Meritage-labeled wine was different every year. To make this credible to the consumer, the winery offers a different vintage every year. In other words, Meritage 2001 is a different wine than Meritage 2002. The proprietor told us that making different vintage wines is nice because he can use the Meritage variety to do the absolute best that he can with the grapes he has that year. He enjoys the freedom to express his wine-making creativity. It's his opportunity to make great wine.

Blending for Consistency. This particular winery has a blended wine called Capriccio, which is a less-bitter-than-most red wine. Because this blend has been popular for its flavor characteristics in the past, the proprietor wants to maintain that flavor as best he can. So, he blends the wines to have the same flavor every year. Even if he could modify the wine to have what he thought was a better flavor, he doesn't. With this blend, he wants to be consistent. After all, he gets to have his creative fun with the Meritage label.

There were plenty of other memorable moments from the winery tour, but those could be the fodder for another post. If you have a chance to take a tour of a winery, do it. Not only is it interesting, but as our tour guide said, "wine is a social lubricant." So, you're sure to have a good time.

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