The Evolving State of Winemaking – From Vineyard to Virtual Winery

GrapevineStill wallowing in the pandemic, I’ve resorted to reprising several columns. Herewith, one of my personal favorites.

Wine is, in its most elemental form, an agricultural product. To make a decent wine you must be a decent farmer. This axiom has been generally true since the beginning of winemaking, nearly 6,000 years ago. Of course, as with many products, there are exceptions, which is the focus of this week’s column.

In the last 30 years, the winemaking industry has been turned upside down, through modern technology and techniques plus modern entrepreneurs. These influences have infiltrated every level of wine production.

Many wine consumers believe that the process for making wine is similar for all wines. The supposition is that grapes are gently handpicked at the epitome of ripeness, carefully sorted for rotting grapes, leaves and insects and then lovingly crushed, fermented, aged and bottled, all under the watchful eye of a master winemaker.

Although this process does occur in many wineries, it as a far cry from the vast quantity of wines sold in the United States. For the most part, winemaking is big business. Over 80 percent of wines produced and sold in the United States come from about 2 percent of the number of producers.

This is the current state of winemaking in the United States. There are several modern-day business models being practiced, some subtly different from each other, others radically different from centuries-old winemaking.

  1. Full-spectrum wineries. This is the traditional model still flourishing around the world – but in diminishing numbers. Entrepreneurs invest in farmland, then plant and tend grapevines and harvest the crop each year. They also invest capital in an all-encompassing winery operation, replete with pressing equipment, fermenting containers, storage and aging barrels or tanks and a bottling line. This operation typically requires a significant capital investment.

But what if you have the passion but not the cash? There are several means by which to pursue your ambition.

  1. Buy the grapes but control the wine production. There are many farmers who find immense satisfaction in purchasing high-quality farmland and planting and growing their own grapevines. And there are no shortages of entrepreneurs who would rather stain their hands with grape juice rather than sully them with vineyard soil. By outsourcing grape production, these winemakers are able to focus on producing the final product rather than the raw material. And the capital commitment, along with the annual operating costs, can be far less than for a full spectrum winemaker.     
  1. The alchemists. These entrepreneurs are interested in producing their own individual expression of a wine, without the burdensome cost and time commitment of growing grapes or producing fermented grape juice. They will outsource grape production and then contract with a cooperative wine-processing facility to crush and ferment their purchased grapes. No sullied or stained hands, and a minimal capital investment. Their primary investment is in barrels and warehouse space. They blend purchased grape juice in their own barrels and then store and age the wine, as they deem appropriate to achieve a desired end product. An outsourced mobile bottling and labeling line completes the cycle.
  2. The hobbyists − or the cash-strapped. These entrepreneurs have created what I’ve dubbed the virtual winery. Every phase of the winemaking process is outsourced, typically to a vertically integrated processing plant. A virtual winery “owner” contracts with these firms to purchase certain grapes, process them and place the virtual winery’s label on the bottle. No capital costs, a negotiated annual operating cost, clean hands and the ultimate gratification: your own wine to market. It is estimated there are over 1,500 virtual wineries in the United States alone.

The idyllic image many of us have as we sip a glass of wine is a small winery with rows of owned vineyards surrounding a red-barn winery building, guarded by a frolicking dog and ebullient owner. The truth in many instances is a carefully created marketing campaign of sensual images and illusory labels.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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