The Family Business: For small wineries, passion is just as key as profit

“In water one sees one’s own face; but in wine one beholds the heart of another.” — Anonymous

To me, there’s nothing better than homemade — homemade bread, a homemade birthday card, a homemade meal. It says someone actually cared enough — was passionate enough — to sink a sliver of soul into the creation. In the world of wine, family wineries embody this feeling of authenticity. Whether first, second or fifth generation winemakers, you can practically taste the passion in each sip.

Sometimes the difference between corporate and homemade boils down to one factor: cash. Corporate wineries often focus on the profit machine, with enough resources to compete on price and volume. Smaller, family-owned wineries don’t have deep pockets, so they create demand by producing craft-made, quality-driven wines. It works.

Grant Burge, a fifth-generation winemaker in Australia’s Barossa Valley, has been in the wine business most of his life. His family arrived in Australia in 1855 and began producing fortified dessert wines like port. After noticing a shift in consumer demand to table wines (like cabernet sauvignon or shiraz) in the 1970s, Grant began focusing his attention in that arena. In 1986, Grant established a namesake winery with his wife and business partner, Helen, producing world-class shiraz. When asked about the advantages of being a family-owned winery, he refers mostly to the business challenges. Although he feels freer to concentrate on long-term vision rather than on the bottom line, the lack of corporate cash can hurt. But he stays positive and dedicated, as does his staff, most of whom have been with the family business for ten or more years. Grant also admires the efforts of two other Australian family-owned wineries: Yalumba and D’Arenburg.

Dick and Nancy Ponzi have produced wines in Oregon since 1974, when Pacific Northwest wines were far from cool. Along with other pioneers like Dick Erath from Erath Vineyards, they saw an opportunity to create excellent pinot noirs in a climate similar to France’s Burgundy. The Ponzis, along with their children Luisa, Michel and Maria, run the winery with a “philosophy of innovation, experimentation, respectful stewardship of the land and achieving consistent excellence in our wines.” And they succeed, magnificently.

It’s all for the passion of the vine. Toiling day after day doesn’t seem to hurt as much if your name is on the bottle. “Everyone thinks I’m a masochist for keeping this up,” Grant admitted. “This business is 24 hours a day.” When’s the last time you enjoyed a 24/7 job?

Recommended Wines

Grant Burge 10 Year Tawny Port (Australia) Absolutely delicious. Hot and sweet like honey on toast. Like warm raisins dipped in nuts and caramel. Comforting like a roaring fire on chilly night. Might be hard to find — ask for it at your local retailer. Sweetness = 7. $20 for 375-ml half bottle. 4 stars.

Grant Burge 2003 Miamba Shiraz Barossa Valley (Australia) Full-bodied, dark, sensuous and seductive, with no apologies to other weaklings. The gushing blackberry and cedar punch you in the face, and you like it. Sw = 2. $15. 4 stars.

Ponzi 2004 Arneis Willamette Valley (Oregon) Steely and tropical yet dry and full-bodied, like a cross between a chardonnay and a sauvignon blanc. Arneis is an up-and-coming grape that might make you a believer. Sw = 2. $20. 4 stars.

Ponzi 2003 Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (Oregon) Full of personality and peppery, like the wild girl on the cheerleading team. Ripe, lively cherries are the pom-poms. Sw = 1. $30. 4 stars.


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