For Love or Profit?: The best winemakers love grapes not greenbacks

Remember the weird kid on your block who loved playing in the mud? He’d emerge for lunch plastered with dark gook, smiling like a cat with the canary. When that kid grew up, he might have become a winemaker. As adults, they get their jollies digging in the dirt and obsessing over leaves, mealy worms and crop yields. We, the consumers, place winemakers on a towering celebrity pedestal, begging for autographs. Meanwhile, pretty much all they want to do is go home and play. They either do it for love or for the family business, carrying on the torch for their generation. It’s certainly not for the money. An old mantra applies to the wine business: “If you want to make a small fortune in the wine business, start with a large one.” But no matter where on earth they hone their craft, their passion creates wine worth writing about. Although I know plenty will disagree, few profit-only driven companies can maintain quality. Thankfully, the fervor still reigns in family-owned and smaller, entrepreneurial wineries.France is rife with family wine businesses. The Rothschild and Lafite families have maintained the industry dynasty for over 250 years. They built their reputation on quality wine made from quality grapes grown in their quality soil, declared so by the French government. Rarely in Bordeaux or Burgundy will you find wineries performing their craft without love and dedication. But down south in the Languedoc/Roussillon region where co-op wineries thrive, average bulk wine prevails. Although recently the wine quality has skyrocketed, outside the famous AOC designations like Corbieres and Faugeres, the majority remains sketchy.

American winemakers, impassioned by years of consumption, often open wineries late in life, like pinot noir master David Bruce or Ken & Grace Evenstad from Oregon’s Domaine Serene. After throwing a “large fortune” into the business, these aspiring wine geeks soak their soul into the juice, creating successful wineries. American winemaking families concentrating on quality have names like Seghesio, Sebastiani or Benziger. One large chink in my theory is Mondavi. They are the one profit-driven (publicly traded) company that has maintained a high-quality product, if only at the more expensive, premium wine level. But when you meet anyone from the Mondavi family, you realize why the multimillion-dollar company still produces excellent wines. They are dedicated to quality; try any of their reserve cabernet sauvignons and you’ll see what I mean.

But we have our share of American plunk. Take a gander at the shelves at grocery stores, teeming with jug wines made to sell, not worship. Although they certainly meet a need in our culture, it pains me to see them. Kinda feels like when I see an hour wait at a chain restaurant when the much better, independently owned restaurant down the street lies empty. Damn, do I hate that.

Recommended Wines

Domaine Serene 2000 Pinot Noir Evenstad Reserve
Near-perfect elegance with silky blueberry on the initial taste, then it arcs into smooth raspberry. Gorgeous. Truly amazing. Even though it’s awfully hard on the paycheck, I bought three bottles on the spot. $47. 4 stars.

Sebastiani 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County
Well-structured, with dark fruit, black pepper and bold acids. Not for the faint at heart – drink with food. $15. 3 stars.

Seghesio 2001 Zinfandel Sonoma County
Bright, gutsy and soooo damn good. Zinfandel always reminds me of what a ripe grape should taste like. Strong dark red-berry mixed with spicy black pepper follow through all the way down the throat. Buy lots. Really. $16. 4 stars.

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