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Drinking Out Loud

Smaller Really Is Better

But not for the reason you might think

Matt Kramer
Posted: January 17, 2012

It takes about three hours to drive east from San Francisco to the oddly named hamlet of Oregon House in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. As winegrowing locations go, it's pretty remote. The hills are rugged, and so too are some of the denizens, who are known to grow a highly lucrative crop other than grapes.

I've been to Oregon House several times, because it's the location of one of California's most improbable wine producers, Renaissance Vineyard and Winery. Created by the Fellowship of Friends, a Bay Area religious (philosophical really) order, Renaissance once nurtured 365 acres of vines on terraced hillsides.

Today, Renaissance is slowly exiting from wine, with the majority of those vines having been uprooted and replaced with olive trees or simply nothing at all. Its wines vary in quality, but at their best—notably Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah—they are magnificent: austere, detailed and discernibly minerally, likely thanks to the granitic soil.

But it wasn't for Renaissance that I recently spent three hours driving to Oregon House. Rather it was for Clos Saron, the creation of Renaissance's longtime winemaker, Gideon Beinstock. No longer involved with either Renaissance or its parental Fellowship of Friends, Mr. Beinstock, 58, has privately nurtured his own miniature winery and vineyard, named after his wife, Saron.

I revisited Clos Saron, which I've seen before, because I like to be reminded of what's happening below the glossy surface of what might be called "commercial" wine. Perhaps inevitably, the public impression of American wine is about scale. We read about (and see on the shelves) the wines of seemingly ever-larger and ever-expanding California and Washington wineries that appear to dominate the wine landscape.

A casual observer could be forgiven for concluding that these commercial juggernauts are American wine. Yet nothing could be further from the 21st-century truth. Subtly, it's the miniature likes of Clos Saron that are increasingly, if quietly, reshaping America's vision of fine wine.

Look at Oregon wines for example. Nearly everybody who likes wine now knows—as they assuredly did not 20 years ago—that Oregon produces fine wines, particularly Pinot Noir. So, name a really big Oregon winery. You can't, because none exists. The great majority of Oregon's 400-plus wineries produce fewer than 3,000 cases a year, with many issuing half that amount or less.

California's Clos Saron, for its part, issues just 600 cases a year, with that minuscule production divided among seven different wines, including a superb rosé, several red blends, an outstanding Syrah and the winery's signature Pinot Noir crafted from minuscule yields (as low as one-third ton per acre) from non-grafted vines.

Wineries such as these no longer constitute a sideline to the American wine industry. Their numbers (and local influence) have grown to such an extent that they now are the American wine industry. After all, what size wineries do you think exist in the 50 states that now produce wine? With a handful of exceptions, nearly all of the wineries in Virginia, New Mexico, Arizona, Ohio, New York, Idaho, Colorado and other states are of artisanal size.

These small, local wineries are slowly but certainly reshaping what American wine lovers expect in and from their wine experience. For example, American wine drinkers increasingly are expecting to drink local. They expect to see their local production on their local restaurant wine lists. They expect to either be able to visit their wineries or be able (or even have to) order directly from them. Not least, they expect to experience something different.

This last point is key. Today, if you want to experience a wine that is at all different from anything that might be understood as "mainstream," you have to drink "small." Put simply, big wineries are all about predictability.

I've written about this phenomenon before, suggesting that today's wine landscape is divided between what I call "wines of fear" and "wines of conviction." True, small wineries can be fearful and make their wines accordingly. But mostly they don't, while big wineries almost invariably do. They have too much to lose, after all. In fairness, they're reaching for the broadest possible market. And you know what that means.

"Small producers are the ones showing us the way to a greater wine goodness."

Take Clos Saron, for example. Mr. Beinstock decided recently to forswear (or nearly so) the use of sulfites in his wines. This means that although he does apply sulfur to his grapevines (the last application typically a month before harvest), he uses no sulfites (which are various forms of sulfur) in the winemaking process, either during fermentation or barrel aging or before bottling.

This is radical stuff. Personally, I'm not entirely persuaded that it's wise, as a judicious use of sulfites ensures that wines do not suffer microbiological spoilage. But Mr. Beinstock, after decades of winemaking, has concluded that sulfites prevent a wine from reaching its fullest expression.

"A wine with no sulfites has a greater dimensionality. Sulfites do clean things up," he noted. "But they also slow the evolution of the wine, both short-term and long-term. And it does add something to the wine. You can taste it. It's hard to describe, but I find it a kind of dirty taste, somewhat earthy, somewhat sweet, like dirty burnt sugar that's vaguely medicinal."

Lest you think Mr. Beinstock an unswerving ideologue, he notes that starting with the 2011 vintage, two of his wines—his Tickled Pink rosé and a dry white blend called Carte Blanche—will each see a very small addition of sulfites before bottling, a minuscule 10 parts per million. (A conventional low-sulfite addition before bottling would be four to six times as much.)

Why is he doing this? "Well, there is always the possibility of spoilage, and while I've discovered that, with additional bottle aging the so-called spoilage does disappear—it's hard to believe, I know, but I've seen it for myself—the fact is that these are wines meant to be drunk young and not aged.

Also, I don't want people to experience unclean wines," he added. "To make sulfite-free wines requires scrupulous cleanliness at every stage in the winemaking. It's not easy. But I think it's worth the effort."

When pressed, Mr. Beinstock conceded that he himself cannot taste in his finished wine a sulfite level of 10 ppm. When asked why then doesn't he employ this modest prophylactic addition to his other wines, he said, "Maybe I will. I need to see over time."

Tasting Clos Saron's singular—and singularly fine—wines and talking with Mr. Beinstock reminded me yet again why smaller is better. Do I concur with his ultra-hands-off approach to sulfites? Actually, I don't. It seems an unnecessary risk. (I felt the same way when talking with winegrower Frank Cornelissen in Sicily, who also eschews sulfites.)

But I may well be wrong, and the likes of Messrs. Beinstock and Cornelissen nothing less than visionary. More important, small producers such as these—and many who are far more conventional in their winemaking—are the ones showing us the way to a greater wine goodness. They reveal to us new winegrowing locales or the particularities of tiny vineyard sites that have something to say.

It's the small producers who show us not only what can be done, but what might be done—and done better. Size does matter—and it turns out that smaller is indeed better.

Stacey Lukas
Kansas City, Missouri —  January 17, 2012 7:45pm ET
Hi Matt, isn't King Estate a 'really big' Oregon winery?
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  January 17, 2012 8:54pm ET
Hi Stacey,

Certainly King Estate, along with Willamette Valley Vineyards, are two of Oregon's largest wineries. When I last checked they were around 100,000 cases, give or take.

While that's not small, such a (round) figure puts them merely in the mid-size winery level in, say, Napa Valley. By today's "commercial" standards, these are not big wineries.

More to the point,they don't project (or define) the Oregon wine culture the way, for example, Chateau Ste. Michelle/Columbia Crest does in Washington State.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  January 18, 2012 7:25am ET
I personally try to purchase most of my wines from smaller producers -- I like helping the little guy or gal and I agree that the more hands on approach required at this level produces more interesting wines. But... I am not sure I would hold Clos Saron as an example of "smaller is better". I;ve had a number of Clos Saron wines over the years (as well as from Donkey and Goat -- another "natural" winery a bit closer to you in Berkely) and I can well understand why their model is not applied by most wineries (large and small). While some of the wines can be good or even very good in an interesting sort of way, there is a lot of variability as others can be flawed and/or funky. By delving into this sort of winemaking, you are really selling to a limited number of American consumers who like the funk.
Todd Wielar
Chapel Hill, NC —  January 18, 2012 9:22am ET
I vehemently disagree with such pronouncements of certain types of wineries being "better". It reeks of the elitism and snobbery that has, for generations, kept younger consumers from exploring wine. What one enjoys is, above all else, a matter of personal preference. No doubt, wines made in the fashion of Saron are different, but to pronounce them "better" doesn't do any service to the wine industry. As a retailer, I encourage customers to explore all types of wines and educate them on the options out there. But I feel strongly it is none of my business to try and dictate to them what they should be drinking. Matt, would you similarly tell people that eating organic foods is better? Becoming a Vegan is the way to go? (Flip-side) Genetically modified vegetables are harmless and delicious?

Please stick to educating people on the types of wines out there. Evaluate individual wines on their merits and rate them accordingly. Broad, sweeping declarations of "better" and "best" don't help consumers or the industry.
Ray Ondrejech
San Luis Obispo, CA —  January 18, 2012 10:37am ET
Big or small... Hmmmm... Well, I usually recommend people drink the cheapest juice they like on a regular basis. I certainly enjoy a fine Napa Cab or a quality Red Burgundy once in a while, but we can all spend way too much money on this stuff. I don't know that I would say the size of a winery should be the discriminator, nor its use of sulphites.
James Gunter
Texas —  January 18, 2012 11:48am ET
Wines of Fear, Wines of Conviction, great description. Having spent a career in wholesale, these terms work for me.
Nathaniel Roberge
Pasco, Washington —  January 18, 2012 1:02pm ET
I would say that magazines such as wine spectator are equally culpable of defining Washington state wine as the large wineries themselves. There is one very important thing you didn't mention throughout your article, and that's price. What are large wineries telling us, that there's actually a large market for wine under $15?
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  January 18, 2012 10:36pm ET
Matt refers to a well-observed business phenomenon: start out small and become successful through a new/interesting idea, and as you grow bigger, you grow closer to the mainstream b/c you have too much to lose by staying eccentric. By growing bigger and approaching your maximum market penetration, you look at cost efficiencies and at uniformity which can make it more difficult to differentiate your product ... thereby opening the door for the next guy to come in with a new product idea...

If we can define better as interesting and stimulating, then totally agree with Matt, but you still need to do your homework: not all small wineries have the know-how or resources to make a wine worth the the typically higher prices.
Bernard Kruithof
San Antonio, Texas —  January 23, 2012 6:30pm ET
ONLY A FOOL WOULD ARGUE that smaller isn't better. After all depth, character and quality go hand in hand with CONTROL of every aspect in the wine making and grape growing process. And the longer the winemaker or owner has experience the better the result. We true winaholics know that Burgundy has the greatest and smallest production wines that are the best of the best and that the aspect they cannot control (THE WEATHER) is the only thing that keeps them from having the greatest in every vintage. Only those spending $500 or more per bottle truly know this and if you haven't you don't know. If you haven't had the great Burgundy wines then you can't and shouldn't really argue the issue or even comment. Burgundy vineyards are small, compact and esoteric in land, space and particular climate. (aka Terrior) Every aspect is controlled, grapes clusters are hand picked and selected and dried with cloth when desired. No large winery or operation could ever concern itself with every detail of the art of wine and the ones that try are the ones we see in bankruptcy court.
Julius Strid
Winlock, WA USA —  January 23, 2012 9:54pm ET
As a home winemaker I absolutely agree with Mr. Beinstock. Sulfites are not nessary. The most important ingredient in wine is the fruit. First I make sure I get quality fruit, and handle it and my equipment carefully. Then I ferment without using sulfites in the wine. I let the naturally occuring critters participate initially and then they are overwhelmed by the alcohol and the cultured yeast takes over. I have proven to myself that the result is unique more interesting wines. Sure, I have to pour out sometimes, but usually it is because of a mistake I made, not because I didn't use sulfites. Sulfites aren't necessary since wine itself is a pretty good preservative. That said, wine should be treated as the perishable commodity that it is.

Then there is the not to be dismissed side benefit -- no headaches! (maybe that is a primary benefit)
Kc Tucker
Escondido, CA USA —  January 23, 2012 10:13pm ET
One could also argue that Smaller can be Beginner and therefore not good, as I have often seen as a buyer.

Jim Kern
Holiday Wine Cellar
North San Diego County, CA

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