Do families make better wines? It's a romantic notion and one that mom-and-pop producers – many of whom like to peddle the notion that they're in a David-and-Goliath battle with Grape Giants shilling nothing but soulless plonk – would like us to swallow. I can't count the number of labels out there touting their "family wine estate" status. But hold on. What's special about that? Families have always dominated the wine industry. They always will; I'll bet my family cellar on it.
As I write this, a group of prominent producers has been gathering in Toronto for a snazzy tasting event. They call themselves the Primum Familiae Vini – the Leading Wine Families – a European-based fraternity of 11 that includes such hallowed names as Antinori of Italy, Vega Sicilia and Torres of Spain, Château Mouton Rothschild, Famille Perrin and Joseph Drouhin of France and Egon Muller Scharzhof of Germany. Their cachet with the reverent wine flock has spawned similar fraternities elsewhere, including the 12-member Australia's First Families of Wine and New Zealand's Family of Twelve.
The implied message: Family companies must band together against the ever-expanding dominance of faceless corporations. Sorry, but I'm not buying. There's been some industry consolidation of late, yes, but wine remains a remarkably decentralized business. It's a far cry from, say, smartphones or automobiles, or beer or soft drinks, where a handful of behemoths truly holds the puppet strings and can afford six-figure Super Bowl spots. There are literally tens of thousands of family producers that make most of what we drink.
There's a simple reason why that will always be the case. Families are usually in the game for the long haul, willing to put in a lifetime of hard work to hand down a legacy to their children and to live the pastoral dream.
In wine, such patience is particularly critical. You plant a vineyard, versus easy-peasy barley, and it takes three years for vines to bear first fruit, many more to yield the sort of concentrated grapes that go into great bottles. And vines demand a lot of pruning labour. It's financial suicide to plant chardonnay one year and turn around the next to replace it with, say, pinot grigio merely because bean counters in the executive suite insist you've got to jump on a hot consumer trend.
Tellingly, Foster's, the Australian beer giant, chose to spin off its premium wine holdings, including Penfolds and Beringer, in 2011 into an independent company, Treasury Wine Estates, in part because profit-thirsty beer investors could not come to terms with their precious capital basking luxuriously in $1,000 French oak barrels for years.
"Big drinks conglomerates that have been so successful in the beer and spirits categories sometimes prove themselves poor-equipped to succeed in the wine market," says Mike Veseth, professor emeritus of International Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., and the author of Wine Wars and Extreme Wine. "One reason may be that beer's production cycle aligns pretty well with the short-term thinking that some big corporations tend to adopt, always worrying about next quarter's earnings."
Wine simply demands a far horizon view, he says. "That's one reason why family- and privately owned firms are more successful in wine than in most other industries. They are more able to think and invest for the long term."
Besides, Veseth adds, some family-owned enterprises (think E & J Gallo and Jackson Family Estates in California, which own dozens of brands globally) have morphed into Goliaths, securing economies of scale and exerting huge influence with store and restaurant buyers. "So, there is consolidation in the marketplace, but some family-owned wineries are the driving force," he said.
Do families make better wine? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. One thing's certain. They make a lot of wine, like the good selections below.
Drouhin-Vaudon Mont de Milieu Chablis 2013 (France)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $49.95
Drouhin's premier cru Mont de Milieu is what Chablis fans brake for. Lively chardonnay it is, but it comes with a leesy depth that suggests fino sherry, smoke and yeast, with seductive texture and a long finish. Versatile at the table, it's almost better enjoyed on its own. Available in Ontario.
Henry of Pelham Estate Riesling 2012 (Ontario)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
Off-dry and smartly balanced, this light white from the Speck family, at just 11.5-per-cent alcohol, might be flatteringly confused with good German riesling. Drippy peach and tinned apricot flavours mingle with zesty lime and the slightest hint of petrol. Brilliant for smoked trout pâté, cheeses or moderately spicy fare. Through www.henryofpelham.com.
Gradis'ciutta Pinot Grigio 2013 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
The Princic family doesn't do the sort of industrial, super-light pinot grigio that seems to flow out of northern Italy from a pipeline. Though light, the 2013 displays pleasant flesh, which carries nuances of green apple and spice, pulled in tight by satisfyingly bitter tension. Try it with light seafood dishes. Available in Ontario.
Quails' Gate Dry Riesling 2014 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.79 plus tax in B.C.
Light, rounded and smooth in the middle, this brilliant riesling, from mature 29-year-old vines tended by the Stewart family, shows pronounced peach, green apple, lime and honeysuckle notes set against just the right level of acidity. Awesome for pork chops, simply prepared shellfish or as an aperitif. The 2014 vintage is just starting to hit shelves in the West. Also available direct through www.quailsgate.com.
Brigaldara Valpolicella 2013 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
The Cesari family seems to have played a happy trick here. This medium-bodied red sports the concentration of a turbo-charged ripasso, yet at a lower-end Valpolicella price. Supple, with sweet cherry in the middle, it's poised and precise, with a hint of shoe polish and a trace of astringent tannins. Perfect for medium-weight red-meat dishes such as grilled veal chops or roast pork, even sausages or meaty pizza. Available in Ontario.
M. Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Côtes du Roussillon Villages 2013 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95
The Chapoutier family lives among the vines that surround and run up famed Hermitage Hill in the northern Rhône valley. And while their familiar braille-dotted labels are associated with that place, this big-value red comes from further south and west in France. A blend of grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and carignan, it's juicy, chewy and spicy, with notes of lively berries, baking spices and licorice. Introduce it to braised lamb shanks on a bed of saucy lentils. $15.69 plus tax in B.C., $16.95 in Que.