It would be interesting to know how many new wineries start out by making and bottling their wines in somebody else's winery. My guess is maybe one-third of all new wineries, based on a cursory survey of the fresh labels I've tasted in the past couple of years.
That's actually smart. If vineyard owners want to sell fewer grapes and start making them into their own wines, they can rent space in existing wineries. Dedicated custom-crush operations, which specialize in making other people's wines, have been popping up everywhere.
You don't even need a vineyard to get into this business, just enough cash to buy some grapes and pay someone to crank out the wine for you. "Virtual wineries," they're called.
Purists may scoff, but this is not actually a bad thing. Off the top of my head, I can think of several highly respected wineries that started out this way. For example, the Penner-Ash and Tony Soter wineries in Oregon made their first few vintages at the Carlton Winemakers Studio, which set itself up expressly to provide a shared home for upstart winemakers.
Add another one to the list, across the Pacific. RedHeads Studio, in Australia's McLaren Vale, is the brainchild of Justin Lane, whose business card identifies him as "Wine Geek." In 2003 he acquired a building that housed a failed curry restaurant named RedHeads and installed a few rainwater tubs to ferment the wines in. The idea was to give himself someplace to make the wines he could not in his day job, as a staff winemaker for a big winery. To amortize the costs, he got some of his buddies at other wineries plus a few doctors and garage winemakers to join in and make their own wines.
"We set it up like a club," he said during a visit to San Francisco, "where we could all get together and make the kinds of wines we couldn't in our day jobs."
There, Lane can crank up the rock music on the stereo and play pinball while his own Viottolo wines ferment and age. It's exactly what he envisioned in 2003 when he presented the idea to the English wine merchant for whom he was consulting as a flying winemaker in France and Italy. The merchant, who dealt primarily in lower to moderately priced wines, saw the potential for adding some higher grade juice to his portfolio, and convinced his board to go along with the idea.
But then RedHeads took off on a different direction. After the winery was up and running, the merchant casually asked Lane just how he was planning to pay for it. "I hadn't thought of that," Lane admits sheepishly. "But I had an idea."
In 2003 and 2004, Australia was swimming in excess wine and grapes. He started buying from desperate growers and made a $10 wine called Yard Dog. It's a fresh, vibrant style red blend. That turned out to be the tail wagging the dog. From a start of 450 cases in the 2004 vintage, RedHeads is aiming for 25,000 cases this year, most of it Yard Dog, and has outgrown the studio. Lane got together with wine marketing guru Simon West (who consults for Mollydooker, among other clients) to make the inexpensive wines, which carry a bronze sticker that says "RedHeads." Higher priced wines, the ones from Viottolo and his buddies, have silver or gold stickers. Yard Dog, a blend of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, now must be made at a custom-crush facility, having outgrown the curry house.
The higher-end wines are more pedal to the metal. The portfolio includes an Amarone-style Shiraz and a Grenache made with cryoextraction instead of crushing. "We want to be cutting edge," Lane laughed. "We're like the punk rockers who were blazing a new trail in the 1980s. We think we can do that with wine."
Derek Jensen — Calgary, AB — February 21, 2008 10:03am ET
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