Growers Evaluate Each Other's Labors
A certain amount of tension is built into the relationship between grapegrowers and the winemakers who buy their grapes. They both want to maximize the money to be made from their collaboration. Most of the time they both want to maximize the quality of the wine they are making together, too. But these goals don’t always line up.
Winemakers are notorious for asking growers to hang their fruit longer for riper flavors and show their obedience by dropping fruit to lower their yields. This has to be agonizing for growers, especially in the traditional arrangement where wineries pay them by the ton.
If these measures lead to higher quality or more popular styles of wine, that should boost revenues for the wineries. But what does it do for the growers?
Michael David’s approach
How are growers compensated for improving the quality parameters of their fruit, and who decides how well they have succeeded? In some cases, they get to help the wineries evaluate the quality of their own grapes and those of other vineyards.
One case in point is what the Michael David Winery in Lodi, Calif., does each year with its growers. I participated in a tasting at the winery April 23, when all growers who supplied Michael David with Petite Sirah grapes in 2013 were invited to join the winemaking team for a blind tasting of 39 vineyard lots now aging in neutral barrels. Tastings of other varietals took place on other days.
Michael David winemaker Kevin Phillips said the Petite Sirah lots represented 3,429 tons sourced from about 30 growers (some contributing multiple lots). The lion’s share came from Lodi, but 123 tons were from Lake County, 74 tons from Napa and a sprinkling from elsewhere.
The wines were presented blind, and attendees were asked to rate them from 1 to 10 points on four parameters: color, nose, taste and body. Petite Sirah, of course, is well known for its deep color and dense tannins that make it a great blending component in Zinfandel and other reds. “We put it in pretty much everything we make except Chardonnay,” Phillips said.
It was a relatively easy tasting to go through in spite of the massive tannins and the inky stains that appeared on my hands, score sheets, teeth and lips. More is more with Petite Sirah, especially
as a blender, so I gave the most points to the most dramatic lots. The samples ranged from relatively light in color and floral in aroma to nearly black in color and dense with tannins and boysenberry flavors.
Everyone surrendered their score sheets after the tasting to be tabulated by winery staff. Each then received the “answer sheet” identifying the lots by grower, appellation and block, if any.
Comparing against competitors
So growers in this case had the opportunity to compare wines made from their own fruit with those from fellow grapegrowers. I assume many were proud of their performances. A few were probably ticked off to realize they supplied the grapes for the leanest, most herbaceous wines.
In early May the winery invited all its growers to a dinner where the top-rated lot for each of five grape types was singled out and poured blind before dinner. Then the winery awarded 3-liter etched bottles to the top five growers, and other prizes to all growers scoring in the top 10%.
Phillips said the winery also awarded bonuses based on the scores and other factors. In 2012 Michael David paid $500,000 in bonuses to growers, and in 2011—when the farming was especially tough—it spread $1.5 million in bonuses among all the growers.
I think it’s an enlightened way to do business: putting everything literally on the table for both sides to evaluate takes most of the BS potential out of the process. The growers are forced to think about the quality of their fruit as the winemaker does: in the glass. And the winemaker is forced to concede that a grower’s fruit might be excellent despite vineyard practices if it does well in the tally.
This kind of evaluation puts growers and winemakers on more equal footing—and both pointing in the right direction, toward increased quality in grapes and wine. By the way, if you’d like to see the score tally, you can’t. Michael David may like to educate its growers, but not its competitors.