Firefly carries mostly small producers by conscious choice. In part, we want to be different and give our customers interesting choices instead of the same-old, same-old ubiquitous brands. There are a lot of good wines in this world! But there are other reasons why we focus on the “little guys.”
Is mass production a good thing?
It’s amazing to know the amounts some wine producers kick out. It hardly seems physically possible, sometimes. Do an internet search of a big brand’s production and you’ll be stunned. I won’t name names, but a certain brand from “down under” went from 112K cases in 2001 to 7.5 million by 2005, according to my research. While some credit the brand with bringing Aussie wine to the rest of the world, others think it threw the rest of the Aussie wine industry under the bus.
According to Oregon Wine Press, “One ton of grapes produces a little more than two barrels of wine, each of which contains about 60 gallons. One barrel of wine is about 25 cases, and 25 cases are equal to 300 750-milliliter bottles. In the end, if all goes well and there are no significant losses from grape to bottle, one ton of grapes should yield about 600 bottles of wine.” So when wineries get up into the hundreds of thousands, or even millions of cases, imagine the volume of grapes it takes.
Certainly some of the largest producers are contracting with many growers at once in order to achieve the high output. But are the growers being held to any standards? would be my first question. My next question would be, what is the winemaker doing to produce such high consistency across a “single vintage?” (I put that in quotes, since the vintage on that scale is likely being harvested in multiple locations and/or terroirs and possibly not all at the same time, depending upon the ripeness stage in a particular location.) Is the winemaker using additives to “correct” any “flaws” in his or her product in order to achieve the expected result?
There are many winemakers who feel that it is an adulteration of the wine to use additives and that those who do use them must not know what they’re doing–i.e. poor viticulture or poor wine-making resulting in a need for additives to make a marketable product. There are also many wine makers who shy away from additives because the risk is that it starts to create a more homogeneous flavor among their wines, and they don’t want them to all start to taste alike.
There is a grape concentrate product called Mega Purple (and there are various others) being used in today’s wine making in order to”bolster or enhance sensory attributes such as color, taste and mouth feel, ” according to Wikipedia. It isn’t completely clear how these products are produced, but the Wikipedia entry speculates it could be by “vacuum distillation, fractional distillation, and solvent extraction. ”
Solvent extraction? What does that mean, hexane or something?
Apparently virtually every low-end wine in California is being enhanced with these kinds of additives. See this article for more in-depth discussion on that topic. https://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=features&content=51033
Here is an interesting personal observation that could possibly be related…On many occasions since we opened our shop last May, various customers have told us they cannot tolerate red wine anymore (migraines, diarrhea) and some even have serious life threatening reactions to some wines and not others (anaphylactic reaction.) I have no idea if additives are to blame, but I find it extremely disconcerting that something that has been produced and consumed for centuries (even under pesticide use for decades) is now causing terrible adverse reactions. I sure hope wine does not become “the next wheat,” with people fearing “frankenwines.” Imagine what it could do to restaurant fine dining… “Is the sauce wine-free?” or “Is there wine in the soup?”
In trying to help our customers, I have pointed them to certain wines we have that are labeled organic or that I know are using minimal chemical interventions in the vineyard or in the wine-making (reduced or no added sulfites, for example.) These wines have largely been European ones, and so far I have gotten good feedback as to no ill effects.
Which brings me to Europe…
I would estimate our shop carries about 75% European wines. As it happens Collin and I happen to prefer the styles of Europe, so that is a strong influencing factor. But it’s also common knowledge that Europe is way ahead of us when it comes to banning or reducing pesticides and other chemicals which affect animal, plant, insect, human and planet health. Many wineries are using organic methods, biodynamic methods, dry farming or other sustainable measures. Vineyard workers have historically had more health issues (like cancers) than workers in other agricultural endeavors, given the frequent hands-on nature of the work, so vineyard owners know it’s not only in their workers’ best interests to reduce exposure to chemicals, it’s in their own health and economic interests as well.
This is another reason we seek out small, family producers rather than mass producers–we would rather minimize exposure ourselves. And while I can’t say definitively whether or not European producers use additives like Mega Purple, because I have not researched it, I can say that in Europe there is a lot of history and tradition behind the production, and pride in the particular characteristic flavors and qualities terroir brings to their wines. Like winemakers in the US who attribute the use of Mega Purple to ineptness, essentially, I would think that the European wine tradition would preclude it as well. Also, if they were to use such enhancers, the distinctive character might be lost, and then the wine would not be what it once was, or what people expect it to be in terms of what terroir contributes.
In the new world, as wine making is maturing, there is more and more attention being given to terroir, which is a hopeful sign for the future. In the U.S. we have designations known as AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) which are distinguished by geographical features (in other words, terroir.) In cool-climate Wisconsin, believe it or not, there are 3 AVA’s.
But what about price?
Globalization and mass production certainly have made wine more accessible to the average person in terms of price. In a way, it is a positive thing, since it has probably caused more people to be interested in wine, and over time as their palates evolve they may move away from the ubiquitous, mass produced brands and become curious beyond common straight varietals like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
However, as I said at the beginning, there is so much good wine out there. A lot of it is not what most wine consumers would call expensive, rather it is very affordable. It may not be “Two Buck Chuck” cheap, but you can get a good Pinot Noir from France in our shop for about $13, that has all the class, quality, and cachet of an old world wine because it is an old world wine.
In addition, I believe you get more value for your money when you decide to spend a little more on a bottle. The difference between a wine you get at the big box store for 3 for $18 and my $13 French Pinot Noir is likely to be huge in terms of quality (and maybe even in terms of hangover–I can tell you personally even a veteran wine consumer like me can’t tolerate the Two Buck Chucks of this world, the next day is usually awful.)
Lastly, in the U.S., many communities are now accustomed to the notion of paying more at the farmers’ market in order to support sustainable agriculture and farm families. When you support the wine industry through smaller producers, maybe you are paying a little more, but you may also be supporting sustainability and way of life that is starting to disappear. It might be a little better in a “farm to table” or “who’s your farmer” sense, even if that farm or farmer happens to be halfway across the globe.