Celebrate Independents: The scrappy independent winery lives on

Note: Next week across the country, we’re celebrating Independent’s Week. Make July 1-7 a time to honor the independent decision-making ability in each of us by supporting independent businesses. Cherish the vision of passionate winemakers across the United States by buying local wine or choosing California labels that reflect guts and vision in the bottle. Find out more about Independent’s Week at www.amiba.net.

As Americans, we cannot escape large corporations. It seems a gloomy certainty that all we know will end up consolidated, monopolized and homogenized to appeal to the widest range of taste. And the increasingly corporate, hegemonic wine business is certainly no exception. We see countless marketing-produced labels on the store shelves, wines not reflecting heritage or a sense of personality, but we increasingly don’t care. According to Wine Business Monthly, roughly 60 percent of total wine sales — in 2005 that equaled 171 million cases — in the U.S. come from labels owned or marketed by the three leading wine corporations: Constellation Brands, E.J. Gallo, and The Wine Group. Brands like Gallo’s Ecco Domani, Constellation’s Alice White, and Wine Group’s Santa Margherita have introduced value-priced international and domestic wine to the U.S. market, and we’ve insatiably consumed them like cheap beer at a frat party. Not that the wine is bad; it tastes fine, but it lacks individuality, romance and soul. And it doesn’t benefit anyone’s family or community — the sales flow to a financial balance sheet, and a corporate board of primarily white males gets really happy. Whoopie.

However, the average consumer wins. This consolidation allows us to drink wine for less than the cost of two Happy Meals, presents a large stable of choices, and helps us choose by placing cute animals on the labels (Constellation brings us 3 Blind Moose and Monkey Bay). The wines are decent enough to please everyone and most people are happy drinking them. But, as Rob Sinskey of Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa puts it, “Corporate wine can lack a definitive point of view.”

By being more nimble and inspired, smaller wineries are free “to focus on a winemaker’s strength, style and beliefs,” as Axel Schug of Schug Carneros Estate Winery in Sonoma reflected a couple years back. Bonny Doon Winery in Santa Cruz continually experiments with funky varietals and blends, and with creative marketing — it was one of the first California wineries to embrace the screwtop. Gundlach Bundschu, perhaps cashing in on the animal theme, releases a fantastic wine called Bearitage; and Ridge, in a stylistically different approach to winemaking, markets its beautiful wines by location rather than varietal. Many of these businesses cannot afford not to take risks, even if it’s a strain on their bottom line. Sure, everyone likes to make money, but as Robert Mondavi learned after the company went public, the requirement of making huge profits often stifles the ability to be creative, even with infinite resources at its disposal.

Still others compete with a constant quest for quality. Oregon producers — many of which are still family-owned, like Ponzi, Domaine Serene and Sokol Blosser, compete on their wine merits alone. My favorite independents in California are (in no particular order): Gundlach Bundschu, Duckhorn, Murphy Goode, Seghesio, EOS, McManis, Ridge, Merry Edwards, Sinskey, Hanna and Rosenblum. All their wines have different styles representing the winemakers’ tastes. Like them or not, they’re true to their souls.

These are precisely the independent businesses that are threatened by the corporate giants, who have more resources to scream “Buy me!” in the wine aisle. And it is perhaps up to the consumer to make his/her wishes known at the cash register. Together, we can all keep the spirited, independent wine minds in business.

SHARING IS CARING

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