Everyone loves a success story. We root for the underdog to win the World Series, cheer for the good guy in movies and adore the little train engine that could.
Same goes for winemakers, growers and producers. In an age of consolidation (and massive wine and spirits conglomerates like Diageo, Brown-Forman and Constellation Brands snapping up labels as voraciously as Pac-Man) we admire anyone who swims against the current and remains fiercely independent. And you know who ultimately benefits, right? That’s right: Wine drinkers everywhere.
Wines from smaller operations typically haven’t been engineered for mass appeal like some of the large multinationals. These wines haven’t been "focus-grouped."
But small and "boutiquey" isn’t synonymous with obscure and pricey. We’ve heard about $500 bottles of Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate and other cult "garage" wines, but obviously can’t afford those, much less find them. There are plenty of smaller wine operations that are attainable, affordable and stand out in a crowd. Here are a few family-run vineyards worth admiring.
CHATEAU JULIEN, MONTEREY COUNTY, CALIF.
Bob and Patty Brower have owned and operated the winery since 1982, and the entire production process still takes place on their 16-acre estate. The East Coast transplants quickly saw that the area was well-suited to chardonnay and merlot production, and their first release of both varieties came in 1985. Their Private Reserve merlot is highly sought by collectors for its impeccable quality and ageworthiness. Each of the reserve wines ages for 2 1 /2 years in new French oak. Only 3,600 bottles are made each year. The Browers could charge a lot more, but cap the price at $36 per bottle. I’m buying one and plan to cellar it for about 10 years to see how the wine evolves.
MacROSTIE WINERY AND VINEYARDS, SONOMA, CALIF.
Steve MacRostie is not an absentee owner. He’s worked as a winemaker his entire career, and lives and works in Sonoma producing his terrific Carneros-centric wines. The cool climate of the region is ideal for pinot noir, chardonnay, merlot and syrah production. His newest project is at Wildcat Mountain, an area in the highlands of western Carneros, and recent tastes of the 2003 chardonnay are terrific. Because of the fog and cool weather of the area, fruit yields are very low (less than a ton per acre), which concentrates flavors (apricot, pear, vanilla). Only 2,400 bottles are available at $30 each.
WILLAMETTE VALLEY VINEYARDS, TURNER, ORE.
We appreciate anyone producing wines outside California, since those wines garner most of the attention domestically. Truth is, Willamette Valley Vineyards founder and president Jim Bernau produces flat-out flavorful Burgundian-inspired wines that speak to the coastal Oregon terroir. Bernau and his wife, Cathy, purchased an old plum orchard in the early ’80s and immediately planted pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay.
All of their vineyards are certified Salmon Safe and LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), meaning natural fertilizers and pesticides are employed to reduce the impact on the environment. All this babying of the vines translates to solid wines. During a recent tasting, the 2002 pinot noir ($18) showed nice juicy cherry impressions, and the 2004 pinot gris ($15) exhibited lively fruit in a crisp style. The pinot gris tastes like a slice of Alsace. The winery has expanded over the years, but its growth was organic, not through acquisition of labels.
Finally, consider familyrun operations in town that you appreciate: Dry cleaners, coffeehouses, restaurants. The experience is typically warmer, fuller, richer. Same goes for wine.