Recently FineWinesnMore, which markets and distributes wine, hosted a dinner for a small group of wine lovers. Wines were paired with elegantly-plated dishes, each vintage received a little introduction, tasting notes were exchanged, preferences were aired, the conversation flowed, and everybody had a jolly good time.
I would have possibly flagged this down as yet another typical wine evening, had Craig W. Wedge, senior vice-president of FineWinesnMore not started talking about his company's policy of importing only from family-owned wineries. Vineyards and grapes receive a special attention in family-owned wineries, he said. “To me, this is what wine is all about,” he said. “Made generation after generation by people who understand the pain of business and who care for earth, the soil, the grapes.” When he thinks I am reacting with some amusement as he waxes on about the “labour of love” and the “soul of wine”, he quips: “Very fluffy, I know, but that's where I come from.”
Actually, it's not fluffy at all. The entry of corporate houses and big multinational players in the wine industry has sparked a fierce debate about their impact on wine. The issue is about individualistic terroir-driven wines, shaped by the micro-environment and traditional wine-making practices, giving way to mass-marketed wines that have an ‘international' and ipso facto unvaried character. Some of our best wines are made by big corporate houses — of that there is no doubt. But it is just as true that many are manipulated in a way that makes them smoother and much easier on the palate (usually by making them more fruit forward and less tannic). A similar debate rages in the food industry. Are fast food and restaurant chains, which churn out popular foods (the formula here is usually more salt, more spice, more sweet, more fat) destroying or subsuming traditional cuisines and their subtle regional variations?
The homogeneity of any product is a cause for anxiety, but it engenders a certain romance. Haven't we all delighted in the discovery of an unknown but ‘authentic' family-run restaurant in an alley or by-lane? (I used to patronise one such hidden gem while I was in college — a Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall in Pondicherry that sadly no longer exists.) Similarly, the pleasures of stumbling on a lovely single-estate boutique wine, preferably one made in such small quantities that it has to be bought off the family at the cellar door, far outweighs the first acquaintance with a high-end product from Jacob's Creek, Wolf Blass, or some other mega player.
A caveat here. Family-run wineries are not necessarily small. For instance, Yalumba, that wonderful family-owned estate in South Australia's Barossa Valley is an industrial-sized operation that has almost five per cent of the country's market share. Not surprisingly, the portfolio of FineWinesnMore has more than a fair share of medium-sized players. Yes, the lean and appealing Chardonnay (Tenuta Il Borro Lanelle Toscana Bianco) was made on a family estate, but it was grown on a massive Tuscan vineyard owned by the Italian fashion house Ferragamo. Incidentally, it was the best wine served over dinner.
There was a Rose, a Shiraz and a Cabernet Sauvignon as well — the last two much too young, and all three much too easy. A meal of bronzed scallops, herb-crusted tuna and a lovely cheese course deserved a somewhat better and more challenging selection from Wedge's portfolio. But you can't fault it for being uninteresting. For instance, the off-dry Rose, made (unusually) from Nebbiolo, was the very first vintage of a Piedmont winery. And the Chilean Cab was an Arboleda, the winery that made news for entering into a partnership with the Robert Mondavi family.
Economies of scale result in supermarkets, duty-free lounges and most wine stores stocking products that are made by big or medium-sized players. This is why you really need to travel in a country to savour those made by small independent winemakers, those that have been, generation after generation, running in the family. I can almost hear Wedge saying, ‘Alternatively, you could try those in my portfolio.'