When a winery loses a “driver” vineyard, or changes grape sources, it’s bound to change the quality of the wine.
Yesterday’s blog touched on wineries that used to buy a small portion of the Scarecrow Cabernet grapes, which is but one small and recent example. Early on, Duckhorn bought Cabernet from Spottswoode and, later, Merlot from Paloma for its wines. There's no doubt that each vineyard contributed to the wines’ quality. Pride also used to source Paloma Merlot, but no longer does.
For years, Caymus sold all of its grapes, but then became a winery and gradually utilized its entire vineyard. Screaming Eagle used only a tiny portion of its grapes and sold most to other Napa wineries. But it won’t anymore.
There are also instances where a winery can grow in volume without sacrificing quality. Scarecrow, with 25 acres, could expand volume from 1,500 cases to 4,000, or more and still make great wine. Ditto for Screaming Eagle. Say there are roughly 60 acres of potential vineyard land at Screaming Eagle and most of it, now being replanted, should be ideally suited to either make more Cabernet of a similar caliber, or better, or perhaps a little different cuvée (such as a Merlot-Cabernet blend, or Merlot-Cabernet Franc blend). With 60 acres, Screaming Eagle could produce as much as 7,000 to 9,000 cases, if all the vines were in full production. I’m sure the plan is to gradually increase volume while maintaining quality.
The formula to estimate how much wine can be made from a property goes like this: You multiply acres by 3 tons per acre (or higher for some grapes) and figure on 60 cases per ton. That formula is one yardstick that’s been used for years. So wineries that have the natural resources can increase volume and maintain quality, but usually, when a wine brand grows, quality suffers because the growth comes from different and often lesser-quality vineyards.
The other day in one of our blind tastings we came across a value-oriented label that we used to love. But lately the wines haven’t been as exciting, but the price has remained the same, about $10 a bottle, so we looked up the case figures.
In 2000 the winery made 1,300 cases, and received an 86-point rating. The next year volume rose to 8,300 cases, and earned 84 points. By 2003 case production hit 70,000, with a 74-point rating, followed by a drop in volume to 58,000 cases and an 84-point rating. In 2005, volume hit 76,000 cases (76 points) and in 2006, 102,000 (77 points).
While wineries such as Scarecrow or Screaming Eagle can thrive on tight supply-demand lines so long as quality remains high, most brands need to grow in volume, and maintaining quality is far more challenging.
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — February 21, 2008 4:39pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — February 21, 2008 4:55pm ET
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