May 10, 2017 | POSTED IN

The Case for Staying Small

File Oct 03, 10 34 53 AM (1)

Occasio makes exceptional wines in small quantities.

Jim Gordon, Wine Enthusiast Magazine, published in the July 2017 issue

In the late ‘70s, the original Stony Ridge Winery sat perched in the hills above Pleasanton. With a commanding view of the valley, it was the ideal place for a light picnic lunch and a glass of wine on a lazy spring day. The winemaker at Stony Ridge then was a freshly minted Davis graduate named Bruce Rector. Bruce was suited to the life at the small winery; there, he enjoyed the freedom to accept only the best fruit and bottle only his best wine.

But, like so many before him, Rector would leave the Livermore Valley, joining the Benziger family in establishing their Glen Ellen property. Soon after, the Stony Ridge site would be bulldozed for a development, ending a halcyon chapter in Livermore Valley wine history.

I am reminded of the early Stony Ridge days, not so much by the beautiful spring weather we have been having, but by the increasing pressure placed on me to produce more wine. We are a small winery, intent on quality at all costs. We frequently run out of wine on release, so when visitors come to our tasting room looking, perhaps, for that Best of Show Rosé, they often leave empty handed.

So why does running out of wine remind me of Bruce Rector? Like many craft winemakers, Rector believed that one of the hardest things for any winemaker was to increase production and maintain quality. He reasoned that because coastal grapes were in limited supply, and there were only so many hours in a day, something would have to give, and that something would be quality.

Rector was not alone with this assessment. The finest winemakers intentionally minimize production to assure quality. Occasio Winery belongs to this school. However, I believe the problem of increased production is not just in assuring quality fruit, but with the risk of a change of mindset from thinking about quality to thinking about cost. This is because larger production requires increased sales that, in turn, require sales channels other than the tasting room. Profits now must be shared with wholesalers, which forces the winemaker to lower costs to preserve margins.

There are many ways to reduce the cost of a wine. The simplest is with the packaging. With our rosé, for example, we could replace our hock-style bottle with a less expensive claret style. Next, we could change out our expensive corks for screw caps, and replace our foils with polymer capsules. Perhaps we might eliminate capsules altogether. Finally, we could use a less expensive label. These changeovers would save a couple dollars a bottle in packaging costs. However, studies have shown that packaging affects the wine experience; cheaper packaging reduces the overall enjoyment from the wine.

Even so, there are not enough savings from cutting packaging costs to satisfy the wholesale trade. Wholesale customers demand even lower prices. Now, the winemaker’s attention turns to lowering the cost of the fruit. Coastal fruit from Livermore Valley’s finest vineyards becomes a luxury, and is the first to go. Hand harvesting must be replaced by mechanical harvesting, and hand sorting at the winery is eliminated, or reserved only for the higher end wines. This is not a pretty picture, but is only the first thing that happens when a cost mentality takes hold.

Let us see how the cost mentality might alter how we would make our rosé. First, I would give up on harvesting the fruit for a rosé wine, and instead turn to the saignée method of production. With saignée, my primary intention would be to make a high-margin red wine. I would harvest fully ripe grapes, riper than for a traditional rosé. After stemming and crushing, I would draw off about 20 percent of the juice for my rosé, replacing the drawn off juice with water. The juice I had drawn off would become my rosé, to which I would add water before fermentation to reduce the potential alcohol to below 14 percent. I would also add acid to pep it up a bit. In this manner, I would sacrifice little of my high margin red for my rosé. Essentially, the rosé would be a bonus wine that can reach market early and pay for the grape bills. Bottom line – I would have cut the effective fruit cost for the rosé by about 70%. Many people wouldn’t know the difference anyway. But I would.

If I was driven by cost, my mind wouldn’t be satisfied just to save on my rosé. I would have to consider my Chardonnay. Chardonnay is the most expensive white wine to craft when done in a traditional Burgundian style. The fruit from the good vineyards is expensive, it requires costly French oak barrels, requires frequent hand stirring and attention, and fortnightly topping. With labor, a well-crafted Chardonnay is as expensive to produce as a red wine, yet because it is white, it doesn’t command the same margins. Thus, I would have to consider purchasing already crushed juice from the local bulk wine market. I would then do a quick fermentation of the juice in steel, and transfer it to a neutral barrel. Because the lees are removed in the transfer, there would be no need to stir the barrels.   I would then add some chemicals before bottling to enhance the mouthfeel and structure, and add some oak tea bags to give it slight, characteristic barrel notes in a hurry. Voila! I would have an acceptable Chardonnay at a quarter the price.

What about the red wines? Imagine the shortcuts I could take here. No, don’t. The thought scares me.

I don’t blame others for pursuing a cost model, but a cost approach is contrary to the principals on which our winery was founded: to seek out the finest of our heritage grapes and to use traditional winemaking techniques to recapture the terroir that our early valley was famous for. In other words, to ‘make exceptional wines in small quantities.’

So, yes, we could expand production. But the risks of beginning to think of wine as a commodity, where the cost of production is key, are too great. That is why I continue to make small amounts of wine. And though, from time to time, we sell out of a wine before its time, our wines are better for it.