Kris Kato in the Barrel room at Jackson Family winery / Photo by Nic Coury
Countless pages, podcasts and programs have been devoted to the romantic sagas of iconoclastic vintners who make boutique bottlings from tiny, hand-tended blocks in dramatically challenging vineyards. But the vast majority of wine lovers cannot find or afford those wines, especially those just starting out on their wine discovery journey.
Instead, neophytes and veterans alike seek enjoyment from wines that are made in much larger batches, from tens of thousands to more than one million cases each vintage. These bottles dominate the shelves of grocery stores and restaurant lists nationwide, retailing from about $25 down to less than $10 apiece.
Elitists regularly rail against such affordable and accessible offerings—as happens in every craft that equates being small with being special. There are certainly examples of brands that cut corners in ways that aren’t friendly to the palate, to transparency or to the environment, which happens on both ends of the quantity spectrum. But many of these big brands exhibit a captivating degree of consistent quality, and that’s thanks to the real people working just as diligently as their small-batch brethren to create wines of substance and style.
These winemakers might serve the most critical role in American wine: producing bottles that can be enjoyed every day, introducing new wine consumers to the market and educating the next generation who come up through their ranks. They’re also on the leading edge of innovation, with the expansive budgets and expendable batches required to test new technologies, develop their own and share their research with everyone else.
“Big winery wines often get a bad rap—you never get to see the people behind the brand, so they just become faceless,” says Beth Liston, who makes an extensive lineup of roughly $10-a-bottle wines for E. & J. Gallo’s Dark Horse Winery. “But there’s myself and a large team of winemakers and wine growers that go into getting every bottle to the market.”
Raised in Santa Maria among the small wineries on California’s Central Coast, Liston only expected to stay with Gallo for two years, not wanting to be classified as a large-winery winemaker. “That was 15-plus years ago,” she says. “Obviously, my perspective changed.”
Consistency is Key
The biggest initial difference you find in approaching winemakers from bigger brands is that inquiries are vetted by the marketing department, whereas smaller winemakers simply pick up the phone. But once that hurdle is jumped, these vintners sound exactly like the single-block fanatics, talking constantly of vineyard visits, of picking on taste, of fermenting in barrels— just lots and lots of vineyards and tastes and barrels.
“It’s counterintuitive, but our scale allows us to focus on winemaking,” says Brenden Wood, who’s in charge of J. Lohr’s 30 different red wines, including the one million-case Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon. “We really get to spend time tasting out in the vineyard, as opposed to worrying about if the hydraulics on the forklift are working right.”
Wood is equipped with reams of data and tools to do so, from proprietary yeast strains to daily reports on tannin, phenolic and nutritional levels. “We can get really detailed and dorky,” says Wood, a Bay Area native who started making beer while still in high school and came to J. Lohr in 2004. “If we want a fermentation that goes really quick to get more color early, we can do it that way. Or if we want to slow it down, we can be really picky about those fermentation kinetics.”
Despite the available tech, tradition often prevails. “Some of these technologies are really old-school,” says Wood, who’s run aging trials with oak staves, chips and liquids—adjuncts that would save lots of money if they produced similar wines. “We haven’t found any other way that’s better than making it in barrels,” he says.
Yes, that’s right: Even J. Lohr’s biggest batches are barrel-fermented. And the same can be said for the Chardonnay at Cupcake Vineyards, which is the largest brand in the United States in the $8 to $11 category. “We have more efficiencies, but it is the same process—just at a larger scale,” says Jessica Tomei, who’s in charge of Cupcake as the vice president for winemaking at The Wine Group, but also made small batch wine from Chile “on a shoestring budget” earlier in her career. “It’s still agriculture. We’re subjected to weather, drought, smoke—all the different things that are thrown at us during the season.”