Artisanal products seem to be the “in thing” right now. Everything from cheeses to jams to coffee are included under this category. Apparently, all the cool kids are buying artisanal products. What does this mean, really, and how does it apply to consumer choices around wine? I rarely buy into bandwagon persuasion, and this whole artisanal culture has me entertaining a number of ideas.
As a result, I have been playing with the idea that many people subscribe to the notion that “small is beautiful and better” when it comes to choosing wines from smaller producers over giant wineries. Is this true?
It could be argued that smaller producers are more likely to “take care” of both their vineyards and wine as compared to larger ones. Why? Well, it stands to reason that smaller producers have more of an investment on their hands than larger producers, and thus, there is a larger risk involved with growing grapes and making wine. One could argue that they take more care (and have more interest in) their vines and grapes, or if a small producer is sourcing, then they are actively seeking out and utilizing farmers who they feel they can trust to provide good quality grapes. My experience is that smaller wineries want to make sure that “things are right”.
So, where does this “artisanal” word fit in?
Most small producers claim to be “artisan”. This opens up an entirely new set of questions to examine. I say “most” because I can confidently say that “most” of the small wineries I have visited have used this word to describe themselves.
First, let us get some definitions clear. Artisanal, according to www.dictionary.com, is defined as:
Clearly, many, if not most, smaller wine producers are making distinctive products and in small batches. Does it need to be stated that large producers do just the opposite? No, of course not. However, the next question remains at what point does a winery move from artisan status into, well, non-artisan status? Furthermore, does this mean that the quality of the wine changes?
Does one draw the line as soon as a producer gets big enough to have to stop hand-picking their grapes? Does one draw the line at 15,000 cases per year? Can we even call all small wineries or producers artisanal?
I will argue that smaller is beautiful, and that quality, from my personal experience, has been higher from small case production wineries as compared to corporate giants. I can smell and taste the differences. Does this mean that “big” is “ugly”? No, not necessarily. However, big producers, in my mind, lack the kind of in-depth quality that I want out of wines. Will I never drink wine from big producers like Yellow Tail? No. However, I try not to because I know that I can spend a few more dollars and buy better, local wine. Am I implying that giant wine-making companies make less-than-beautiful-wine? Sometimes, yes.
Karen MacNeil, in The Wine Bible, states:
In the past, a wine couldn’t help but taste like the grapes from which it came. That is not true today. Advanced technology allows winemakers and viticulturalists to act like plastic surgeons, changing the wine’s acidity, making it taste bigger than it really is, altering the impression of tannin, adjusting the amount of alcohol; even the wine’s basic flavor–its very soul–can be modified. This can be good for jug wines–their deficiencies can be mollified with the right technological help. [...] Winemakers who muck around too much with the integrity of a grape end up making overworked wines that taste muddled. Wise, talented winemakers on the other hand are like wise, talented chefs. (pp. 50)
I will entertain the idea that there is a correlation between the size of a winery and how much quality their wines might have. Surely, there are small wineries out there who muddle with their wines and modify the life out of overly-high yields. As such, I suppose this whole idea that “artisanal means better quality” boils down to a matter of reputation, perception, and belief.
Recently, I had a down-to-earth conversation with Luke Whittall, of Wine Country BC, on this very topic. Here is a transcript of parts of our conversation.
The Demystified Vine: Do you subscribe to the notion that “small is beautiful” when it comes to choosing wines from smaller producers over larger ones? How does the word “artisanal” effect perception of quality?
Luke: I think quality is entirely dependent on expectations. If what you like from a beer is predictability and consistency, and your favourite beers are Bud, Miller, and Coors, then a large scale production brewery for you is going to make quality beer. If you are into micro brews, and single malt scotches, then smaller producers are going to be higher quality, although the consistency may vary from year to year. And that’s okay. Quality doesn’t have to equal consistency, but for some people, that’s a huge deal. It depends on where you are in the continuum.
TDV: So, what does the word artisanal mean within the wine industry today? And then how does that effect perception of quality?
Luke: I would say that artisanal — truly artisanal wines — are wines that have a focus from the winemaker. They are directed by the winemaker to such a degree that the wines have a kind of uniqueness based on the winemaker’s vision or the terroir (although sometimes the weather isn’t the same from year to year especially for an artisanal winery). Artisanal wines are the artistic wish for the winemaker for that year. A commercial winery could say that they are artisanal, but really, when you’re making wine in such huge volumes, that homogeneity of the product is going to be less perceivably unique as a wine because of its homogeneity, than would a small batch of 500 cases from a more independent artisanal winery. Not only that, but the sales goals and marketing strategies are going to be vastly different based on the winemaker’s desires from a small winery as compared to a corporate directive that’s not from a single person.
TDV: Do you think that large producers can make beautiful wine?
Luke: Yes. It depends on your expectations. The only metaphor that I can use is music. Corporations can make music, for example, pop music that is consumable by the largest number of people who will find it pleasing and will offend the least amount of people. On the other hand, the smaller producers will create more interesting music that will challenge your notions of what music is. Every now and then it’s nice to hear a song that you’ve never heard before, that is effectively unpredictable. The likelihood is that this will upset you, but this difference can be good. Remove the metaphor, and it shows that the people who want that predictability in a wine, that is fine for them. Then there are those who are open to experiencing aromas that they’ve never smelled before. These challenges make them think. If you’re looking for a challenge to change your perception on something that is beautiful, go to an artisanal winery.
I am left with drawing the conclusion that it boils down to personal preferences. The word “artisanal” only really effects one’s perception of quality if they care enough about a product being made by hand and of high quality.
Additionally, I am left with even more questions surrounding how wineries are using the term “artisanal” to make sales pitches. Maybe I should look more into this…