Artisan has become the latest wine buzzword in California, as hundreds of new boutique wineries crop up each year to challenge established brands. Today's more sophisticated wine consumers, who once favoured big names, are now turning their attention to higher-end, smaller-production labels. Not wanting to miss out on the boutique bonanza, larger-production California wineries are giving their tried-and-true brands a new image. Some are updating labels for a more upscale, handcrafted look, while others are reducing production, making wine in smaller lots or upgrading vineyard sourcing.
"Many of the big producers have perceived that it's not necessarily good to be thought of as a big, national brand," says industry analyst Jon Fredrikson, of California's Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, "so they have been trying to create a reputation that gives them a somewhat smaller image. There's this crazy thing in the wine business where we're always seeking out the latest hot new label, and that runs contrary to marketing big brands."
Kendall-Jackson's Vintner's Reserve is perhaps California's most dramatic example of a big-brand image makeover. At January's Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, the US wine industry's most important annual trade conference, Fredrikson presented K-J with winery of the year honours for its reinvention of the iconic Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay. After converting the wine's sourcing to 100 per cent company-owned vineyards - a huge undertaking for a 2-million case brand - and taking a 5 per cent price increase, K-J reaped a stunning 650,000-case sales increase. Starting with the 2004 vintage, Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay labels reflect the change with a "Jackson Estates Grown" designation.
According to K-J wine master Randy Ullom, the decision to upgrade the Chardonnay's grape sourcing came about after years of pressure to lower the wine's price - something the company did not want to do. Instead, K-J decided to improve its quality. "It was a surprise to the industry that we would take our lead wine and take it to estates-grown," Ullom says. "It wasn't an inexpensive step - we had to write off a lot of grape contracts - but it turned out to be very smart strategic move."
The winery also upgraded the Vintner's Reserve packaging for a higher-end look, switching from the flange-top bottle it had used for a dozen years to a heavier, more traditional bottle. Winemaking practices, however, remain unchanged.
"We've always made the wine in small lots," Ullom says. "We don't consider ourselves a large winery in any way, shape or form. Everything that we do is done in the artisan way."
St Francis Vineyard & Winery: art vs industry
Another Sonoma winery that has taken significant steps toward a more artisan approach is St Francis Vineyard & Winery. "We were at a crossroads at a very challenging, competitive time in our industry," recalls president Christopher Silva, who joined the winery in 2003. "We had just completed a new, state-of-the-art winemaking facility to be utilised by what we believe is a winemaking team of tremendous talent, with access to some of the very best grapes in the world. Do we make more wine or better wine?" Silva chose to increase quality and decrease production from 200,000 cases per year.
St Francis now produces the majority of its own grapes, and has become more particular about the fruit it buys from growers. Winemaker Tom Mackey decides when to pick, based not only on degrees Brix, but on colour, sweetness, texture, flavour and aroma. On the crush pad, Mackey's team inspects every bin of grapes in search of defects, and fruit that fails to meet the team's standards is rejected.
In the cellar, St Francis switched from American oak barrels to French and eastern European oak for all wines except Zinfandel. Mackey likes the cedar-tobacco-leather characteristics that American oak brings to that variety.
According to Silva, the move away from "volume winemaking" has led to a better image for the winery, as well as increased sales. "People can taste when quality is in the bottle," he says. "Our Old Vines Zinfandel, Sonoma County Chardonnay and Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon are now either on allocation or sold out in every US state. This is entirely quality related and driven by word of mouth as we don't spend a great deal on advertising." In the battle between art and industry, Silva adds, "art always wins".
Dry Creek Vineyard: new team, new vision
When Kim Stare Wallace and Don Wallace took over Dry Creek Vineyard from Kim's father, David Stare, who founded the Sonoma County winery in 1972, they took a hard look at the business and decided that it was time to revitalise the brand.
"Five years ago, my husband and I realised that, if we were going to continue to thrive in the wine market, the winery needed to change," says Kim. "We didn't want to try to compete with some of the producers that were moving toward more generic appellations. We wanted to bring the winery to a new level and leave our stamp on it."
The most radical change has been converting Dry Creek Vineyard's Chardonnay sourcing from the larger Sonoma County appellation to exclusively Dry Creek Valley. "The wine wasn't distinctive enough, so we tore apart the programme and rebuilt it," she says. Production was slashed from 25,000-30,000 cases per year to about half that amount. The winery invested in its own Russian River vineyards and discontinued contracts with growers in other parts of the county. "It was a very costly, long-term endeavour," Wallace says, "and a very important one."
Dry Creek Vineyard also switched from Sonoma County appellation fruit to 100 per cent Dry Creek Valley grapes for its Bordeaux varietal wines and cut its overall 100,000 case production by 25-30 per cent. In 2003, Wallace brought in a new winemaking team, headed by former Chalk Hill Vineyard winemaker Bill Knuttel.
The next step was to discontinue the winery's reserve line. "It just became obvious that the whole reserve concept and that nomenclature had become meaningless," Wallace says, "so we made the decision to focus on small lot - meaning about 500 cases - single-vineyard bottlings."
In addition to buying new fermenters for the small-lot wines, the winery made a substantial investment in new equipment, including a new bottling line, labeller and French oak barrels. New labels featuring a fresh take on the winery's traditional sailboat theme completed the makeover.
Wallace says she has noticed an increase in wine sales since Dry Creek embarked on its artisan path. "We've just had our best month ever," she says. "People - especially in the trade - are starting to wake up and pay attention to the winery again. It's given us an opportunity to reintroduce our wines and talk about our vision to our distributors and the trade, and the response has been wonderful. It's been really important for our distributors around the world to hear that my husband and I are committed to this."
Franciscan Oakville Estate: new look for a new image
Over in the Napa Valley, one of California's pioneer wineries has changed its look. With a 200,000-case annual production, most people don't consider Franciscan a boutique winery. The brand's new label, introduced in early 2007, was designed to change that perception with an illustration of a hand-operated wine press.
"In consumer testing, the new package was preferred by a ratio of two to one," says Lee Nordlund, senior estate manager for Franciscan Oakville Estate. "They felt that the clean, upscale look and the image of the hand press really tell the story of Franciscan's small-lot winemaking tradition." The new packaging was launched with the release of the winery's 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon. Franciscan's Chardonnay, Merlot, Magnificat and Cuvée Sauvage will follow suit this spring. It's too soon to tell if the package is lifting sales, but Nordlund has heard "very favourable" reactions during recent sales calls.
Franciscan has also refined its approach in the cellar and vineyard. "Small-lot winemaking has long been part of Franciscan's tradition," says director of winemaking Janet Myers.
"However, we're taking it further . Our tank sizes range from 3,150l to 13,500l, which means that every vineyard block is assigned its own tank, appropriately sized. We've been able to add small fermenters in the winery to increase our ability to keep the blocks separate and give more flexibility during harvest.
In terms of barrel selection, we are always re-evaluating our coopers to fine-tune our barrel choices."
In 2000, the winery began to redevelop a portion of its vineyards each year to better match clones and rootstocks to soil and climate conditions. "We're just starting to reap the rewards with our 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2004 Merlot, and current 2005 Chardonnay," Nordlund says.
Tina Caputo is managing editor of California-based wine trade magazine Wines & Vines.
Wine Institute of California Annual Tasting 2007
Where: Lindley Hall, Elverton Street, London SW1P
When: March 13, 10.30am-5.30pm
The latest Benchmark Wines will be unveiled at the Wine Institute of California's annual trade tasting on March 13 - and OLN can reveal that Hahn Estates in Monterey, represented by Patriarche, will be among those representing California's £5-10 wine s as part of the Benchmark Wines Project.
"Now we've done it for the fourth time there are some very consistent results, and they are the most consistent winery to date," says California Wine Institute director John McLaren. Hahn's brands are Hahn Estate and Cycles Gladiator.
Among other highlights at the tasting, Jackson Wine Estates will be unveiling new packaging for its Pepi range, made mainly from Italian grape varieties. It will also be previewing Cambria, a family-owned estate in the Santa Maria Valley, as well as introducing Sonoma-based Matanzas Creek Winery. Gallo has repackaged its Gallo Family Vineyards range, and the new look - set to hit stores in April - will be on show at the tasting. World Wine Agencies will unveil Jewel Winery's entry-level Sacramento Trail brand (rrp £4.99). PLB will be launching a £5+ brand, Blackburn & James, sourced from the EOS winery in Paso Robles, with a Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to retail at £6.99. HwCg's independent-focused wing, HwCg Specialist, is releasing high-end Lodi varietal brand Christine Andrew, from Ironstone Vineyards, priced at £7-10 . And Brown-Forman is launching an unoaked Shiraz into its Fetzer Valley Oaks range (£6.49).
New image wineries at a glance
Kendall-Jackson Vineyard & Winery
Location: Santa Rosa, Sonoma County
UK distributor (K-J is its own importer): John E Fells & Sons, 01442 870900
St Francis Winery & Vineyards
Location: Santa Rosa, Sonoma County
UK importer: Hatch Mansfield, 01753 621126
Dry Creek Vineyard
Location: Healdsburg, Sonoma County
UK importer: Bibendum, 0207 449 4100
Franciscan Oakville Estate
Location: Rutherford, Napa Valley
UK importer: Cellar Door, 01483 690088 (England & Wales); Forth Wines, 01577 866001 (Scotland)