In writing articles, blogs and listening to wineries profess to be a “boutique” facility, the definition is a bit elusive. There is a connotation that a small winery produces the best wines. This is hardly true as we have all experience a small winery who may produce wines which are essentially marginal or undrinkable. I have given this some thought for several years and here is my stab at this “poltergeist topic”. I believe that the phrase “boutique winery” is now “non-meaningful” similar to a wine label stating “reserve”.
Winemakers, viticulturists, writers and the like all have a different spin on what makes a winery boutique. Similarly, all have a different idea on who and what constitutes a mass producer of wines. And can a large winery make a good wine? I would like to revert back to some basic principles for winemaking. The goal of most owners and winemakers is produce the best wine, from the best vineyards, with the best techniques of farming, with the best barrels for the varietal, aged an appropriate time in barrels and bottles before being released. Simple, right?
This is where the confusion comes in. Let’s examine each particular nuance to see where the confusion comes.
- The Best Vineyards – location, location and location is not just for real estate housing market, it is also the mantra of wine owners. Sloped hillsides, volcanic soil, loam topsoil, rocky, etc. Each provides a certain terroir for each varietal for uniqueness and taste consideration.
- The Best Techniques of Farming – Using the best skills of a highly trained viticulturist from vineyard layout be it north to south or east to west. Other considerations including trellising, organic, self-sustainable, dry farmed, etc.
- The Best Barrels for Ageing – Does one use French, Hungarian, American oak, what percentage is new vs old, which mfg of oak barrels to use, etc? Or if doing a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, is it oak, stainless steel or cement egg? Again the stated goal is to produce, for the varietal, the best finished end product.
- The Best Amount of Time in Barrels – How much time consideration is required for the wines to combine, “mate with the oak” for integration, achieve the elusive balance of acid and tame the tannins. For example for Cabernet Sauvignon, some winemakers go with 12-14 months in the barrel, while others go to 36 months and beyond.
- The Best Blending Required or Block blending, etc. — This may require to add various percentages, which a change year to year, of wine varietals in making a perfect Bordeaux. Then again for a Cabernet, they may blend all from an estate grapes from Block 1, Block 6 and Block 9 with varying percentages to form the “best in class” wine.
- The Best Amount of Time in Bottles – Again depending on varietal how much time is required to have the wine “settle down” from the trauma of wine production to release date?
I have touched only briefly from a layman’s positon as to the requirements to make the best wine possible. Just from this brief outline, many factors come into play. There is simply not a “Betty Crocker wine book” recipe. Mother Nature produces an unique grape each and every year.
So while these may be the basic pillars of great winemaking, they can be compromised further. Yes, when a winemaker or owner decides on a prescribed ROI (return on investment) or profit for the business, short cuts can be worked around these painstaking details. Short cuts, just as in general business can be done but with desired and undesired consequences.
Hopefully this background is helpful and needed to arrive at the answer of what is a boutique winery? Let’s obfuscate this even a bit further. In the past a winery was either a mass production house doing 100,000’s or even a one million cases a year in total production or small production house. Using a designation number is too simplistic, should it be 50,000, 20,000, 10,000, 5,000 or even 1,000? Where is the cutoff point? Add to this a large production winery, say 500,000 cases but they make a Cabernet Franc or Sauvignon Blanc with only 150 cases. Are they to be called a mass producer or a boutique winery? A mass production house with a boutique varietal?
So I would suggest that the word “boutique winery” is an antiquated word and its meaning diminished beyond repair. When people use “boutique” they were trying to describe a winery who is a small, quality centric and that makes a lifestyle wine. Today, the meaning is simply wrapped up in the word QUALITY, regardless of size. Steven Mirassou uses the word “authenticity” for this concept of Quality. His description is as follows “The authentic winery is one that allows for the vagaries of Mother Nature and the idiosyncrasies of the harvest to come through in the wine. The winery doesn’t try to twist the wine up by adding or taking away in order to create a wine that is just palatable, forsaking the wine’s soul for the easy pleasure of richness or color or tannin. The authentic winery operates strictly by its philosophy, which in the best cases comes through clearly in the wine. Minimal intervention, balance between wood, fruit, acid, and tannin, emphasis on varietal character all are marks of authenticity. Authentic wines are not always the easiest to enjoy because they should cause the wine drinker to think about what he or she is drinking…authentic wines are thoughtful and thought provoking. Authentic wine should not be flawed, but a flaw is often a cultural touchstone; authentic wines are rare and are not necessarily a product of the winery’s size. They are certainly a product, however, of the winemaker’s love for the grape and for the craft.” So be it Quality or Authenticity, we need to corral the meaning.
My conclusion is fairly simple to understand. A Quality, an Artisan or Authentic wine or winery minimally consists of the following:
- They produce a specific wine in a relatively small quantity, high quality and with a personal touch, independent of their overall production size.
- They are handcrafted, artisan winemakers who strive for the highest quality. There is not a “premeditated formula” but rather an existential (moment by moment) development of what is presented to them by the harvest that day from the land.
- They typically do or can do, everything themselves (or have the ability to do it all)—vineyard to blending to bottling.
- They are extremely selective in vineyard management – prune excessively and select block by block or row by row to be harvested – they are themselves micro managers, but to the consumers benefit.
- They fully extract the varietal in which their vineyard/soil is best suited. They will not produce a varietal for experimentation, club consumption or to push a sub-standard grape/harvest to turn a profit.
- It is a way of life, not a tonnage by acre or ROI—simply a lifestyle is more in keeping with their vision of winemaking – that is their motivation and desire at the core.
- Quality is their mantra at any expense from root stock to fruit to harvest to aging.
When adhering to the above, they can surely be called a “Quality Winery”, “Artisan” or “Authentic”, they produce a quality wine. If they following the above simple tenants, most will produce an exquisite and desirable wine for all to consume.
I would like to hear your thoughts and/or comments on the subject.
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