It's All or Nothing
By James Laube, senior editor
It has come to this: all-or-nothing wines with no margin for error. The pursuit of the perfect wine is preceded by the quest for the perfect grape, which grows in a precise locale ideally suited to its needs. Grapevines are nourished by soil, rain and sun, and winemakers hover over the ripening clusters like doting parents. Specific viticultural instructions go right down to the grape-cluster counts. Harvests are timed by the day and hour. When you charge upward of $50 for a bottle of wine, it had better be a damned fine wine.
Now more than ever, the focus is on the grape crop loads. Winemakers who want to make ultrarich, superconcentrated wines look to minimal crop loads as essential to their success, because the fewer grapes there are per vine, the more flavorful they tend to be.
Most winemakers order and pay for their grapes by the ton, and in most California vineyards, 4 tons per acre is the norm. But in some instances, where vintners want to dictate particular viticultural details to achieve their goals, they make special arrangements and pay handsomely for them. That led John Kongsgaard and Fritz Hatton to lease a portion of Lee Hudson's highly regarded Hudson Vineyard in Carneros as the source for their wine, Arietta.
Their tiny, direct-mail-only wine company seems like little more than an eccentric hobby for two wine freaks, until you look at the players, the numbers and what's driving this deal. The two produced 290 cases in 1996 and 650 cases in 1997, retailing the wines at $50 a bottle. At that level, they stand to gross about $390,000, with a cushy profit margin.
Kongsgaard is a well-known Napa Valley winemaker. He was born and raised in Napa, worked for several wineries while in college and then spent 13 harvests at Newton Vineyard, crafting some brilliant Chardonnays and sturdy Cabernets and Merlots.
In 1996 he started his own company, Kongsgaard Wines, using a family-owned 7-acre Chardonnay vineyard. That same year he joined Luna Vineyards as winemaker and partner, directing that winery's efforts with Merlot, Pinot Gris and Sangiovese.
Kongsgaard and Hatton, the former director of Christie's North American wine department, have been friends for years, bonded by their love of music and wine.
Arietta is inspired by their desire to make a great wine in the style of Château Cheval-Blanc, one of Bordeaux's most distinctive wines. This St.-Emilion is a blend of mostly Cabernet Franc (about two-thirds) with Merlot (about a third) and a tiny amount of Malbec. Arietta is a similar blend.
The two men leased a 2.4-acre portion of Hudson Vineyard and paid $10,000 per year per acre--or $24,000 last year--for some 6 tons of grapes. The cost per ton was roughly $4,000, expensive grapes by any measure. The price per acre goes to $11,000 this year. What's perhaps most striking about this arrangement is that Hudson--whose other clients have included such luminaries as Helen Turley, David Ramey, Tony Soter and Steve Kistler--gets paid regardless of grape quality. And Kongsgaard and Hatton write the check, even if they can't make wine to their standards. (Hudson also sells them Merlot grown nearby, but on a more conventional per-ton basis.)
While Kongsgaard considers this site perfect for Cabernet Franc, Franc is a notoriously prodigious vine and needs to have its growth checked; Hudson thinned it four times in 1998. Though Hudson says he's never had a "rotten, blown-out crop," the lateness of the 1998 vintage came perilously close to disaster. In late October, nighttime temperatures were in the 30s and the vines had begun to defoliate. But the grapes finally did ripen, and Kongsgaard believes the 1998 will be good enough to release. But if it doesn't turn out well, there will be no Arietta.
"There's no point if it's not great," says Kongsgaard. Which is why there are many high-priced, tiny-production wines out there. Winemakers know that if they get their grapes just right, they can make extraordinary wines that a few wine lovers are willing to buy.
It's an all-or-nothing wine world, with no margin for error. All eyes are on the grapes.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube, in a column also appearing in the May 31 issue of Wine Spectator. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
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