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How Do They Do It? Meet the People Who Make $500 Wines, $10 Wines, and Everything in Between

Millions of gallons come in, millions of cases go out; catering to every kind of wine drinker is no easy feat
Photo by: Mark Weinberg

Posted: Dec 20, 2012 10:30am ET

By Ben O'Donnell

"Do you think it is more difficult to produce 5,000 bottles of La Mouline or 3.5 million bottles of Côtes du Rhône?" Philippe Guigal had flipped the script on me during a recent interview to pose a query of his own.

It's kind of a trick question: The Guigal Côte-Rôtie La Mouline is a $500 bottle of wine. The reputation of the house is staked on this wine and its two single-vineyard sisters.

That is, among those lucky enough to sample them. But to most people who drink the brand, "Guigal" means a $10 Côtes du Rhône, and it has to be tasty at every party or Tuesday dinner or they'll choose something else. "Someone interested in Côtes du Rhône will want a very reliable Côtes du Rhône every year," Guigal said. In each vintage, he continued, "we start from nothing" and blend up to 800 different lots of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, all fermenting and aging in different sizes of tanks and barrels for different lengths of time, to get that final ($10) product. Compared to that, La Mouline practically makes itself.

Wine writers find special pleasure in leading our readers to undiscovered little oases where dwell small families dutifully laboring over a few thousand cases of beautiful wines rarely before tasted by man. A big winery, by contrast, is really a factory. But visit a place of some scale—the Guigal facility in Ampuis covers 6 acres of equipment—where the $500 wine is made by the same hand and palate as the $10 wine, and you can't help but admire that craft and realize there's a story behind these wines, too. How do you oversee millions, or even tens of millions, of bottles, for every kind of wine drinker, year in and year out, without losing your grip on consistency and quality?

I asked that of four guys whose wines you undoubtedly know: They are, in addition to Guigal in the Rhône, Corey Beck, Bob Bertheu and Peter Gago, head winemakers at Francis Ford Coppola in California, Chateau Ste.-Michelle in Washington and Penfolds in Australia, respectively.

To get a sense of the scope of their jobs, consider some of the numbers. There are 18 different cuvées at Guigal, 43 at Coppola, 45 at Penfolds and 52 at Ste.-Michelle ("at last count"). Guigal works with 130 different growers in the Northern Rhône alone, plus scores more in the Southern Rhône, in nine appellations; Beck with over 150 growers in 10 appellations; Gago with 300-plus growers in 14 appellations; and Bertheu with 40 growers in five appellations. Bertheu and Gago both have tanks as large as 75,000 gallons—roughly 380,000 bottles' worth of wine. Wine prices at all four wineries start at around $10, peaking at $600 for the iconic Penfolds Grange.

Some larger producers get press-shy about case numbers, but Bertheu shared that Ste.-Michelle releases 2.8 million per year, from a Riesling in the $10 range to one at $200 per 375 ml. bottle, the botrytized, late-harvest Eroica he makes with German vintner Ernst Loosen. Bertheu crushes at two different facilities, together holding exactly 82,574 barrels and 475 stainless-steel tanks. They are four hours' drive apart.

This all starts, of course, in the vineyards. The winemakers agree it's important to have boots on the ground in all the regions they ply. Paso Robles is not exactly a neighbor to Lake County, nor is Côte-Rôtie to Châteauneuf. When your grapes come from appellations like those—and virtually all of them in between—you may spend as much time behind the wheel as behind a glass some weeks.

"I have a viticulturist in every AVA," explained Bertheu. "They're my eyes and ears on a daily basis out in the vineyards. They can always alert me to problems." Still, he continued, "When I do my rounds for harvest, I go out with the viticulturists to the blocks, and that comprises about two-thirds of my time."  Having the winemakers on hand as an advisor takes some of the guesswork out of the grower's job. "Anything that comes up we are right there to say, all right, we've got rain coming in a week—guess what, we are picking in four days. Line up your crews and away we go," said Beck.

At Coppola, Beck sits down with every grower to taste the finished wine to which their grapes contributed, showing charts that display, for example, how that grower's grapes' phenolic levels compared to the others in the blend. Beck gives his growers scorecards, but he listens to their feedback as well. "I don't feel like the grower should deliver their last load of grapes in October, and then the winery doesn't see them again until August."

While managing growers and making consistent entry-level blends are critical to their businesses, these winemakers all also make estate wines and single-vineyard selections—reflections of land and vintage that are wholly their own. So I polled the guys on a perennial favorite point of debate among enophiles: purity of terroir or balance of blend? The answer is an emphatic "both." As Gago reframed it: "A virtuoso performance by a single instrument, a string-section, or the entire orchestra?"

In Part 2, I'll explain what happens when the waves of grapes hits the winery each harvest.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.

Paul M Hummel
Chicago, IL USA —  December 20, 2012 12:32pm ET
A really good reminder of the complexity of wine making and buying.
And we love Guigal
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  December 20, 2012 2:11pm ET
Blending is an unappreciated art. Every winemaker is a blender to some extent. Even in a single vineyard, the winemaker is constantly asking "Is the wine better with or without this barrel?" Writ large, as with the $10 Côtes-du-Rhône or $10 Riesling, the object is consistency and the highest quality possible. A taste for what works best is what connects all these well-respected producers.
David Allen
Lufkin,Texas ,USA —  December 24, 2012 10:30am ET
Love Guigal. But have collected more Chapoutier Wines. Have only drank a few of Guigal's Single Vintages but have collected pretty good amount of single vintage Reds of Chapoutier Red and White. But Guigal is the equal of Chapoutier so still have Guigal's Wine have not drunk any Guigal wine in months. Have drunk a Colgin Syrah 2005 that was brilliant on a US take, highly recomended .

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