This piece originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Wine Business Monthly
Winemakers constantly debate the balance between art and technology. This is more than just the difference between Old World and New World wine production - it’s a fundamental question that every winery needs to address.
I remember visiting local wine fairs in France with my dad, tasting and buying wine by the case. He explained to me the concepts of “terroir” and “millesime”; how each plot of land could produce a distinct wine because of the ground composition, and how each year’s climate made a wine taste different. We would store those cases in our underground cellar and drink them as time passed, which might be weeks, months, or even years. I accepted it as fact that the same wine could taste better some years than others.
To my surprise when moving to the USA, I discovered an entirely different reality. In the ‘New World’, in wine like many consumer products, ‘brand’ is at the forefront, and consumers expect a consistent tasting experience year after year, and in any location. Someone drinking a Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay from 2010 would demand the same taste in 2016, regardless of the weather or the origins of the grapes. The majority of the consumer’s perspective in the USA is very straightforward: “I buy it, I taste it, I like it, I buy it again, I like it, I buy it again....” Most consumers drink these wines within hours or days of purchase, so they count on a predictable flavor.
And winemakers rely on various techniques to control the variables and meet this consumer demand for consistency of quality. It is undeniable that technology has an important part to play in today’s business of winemaking. Throughout the winemaking process, many decisions are made, which each require some risk or innovation.
In the vineyard, do we harvest our own grapes to control quality or source them from different regions in order to work with different profiles?
During fermentation what strains of yeasts, bacteria and enzymes do we use, or how much adjustment to pH and alcohol is advisable? How about decisions regarding saignee, skin contact, pump-overs, micro-oxygenation?
During blending, should different varietals be mixed from within the winery estate or from wines purchased on the bulk market?
During aging, use oak barrels with various toast profiles and origines, or replicate the maturation process with oak alternatives and using micro-oxygenation. How about de-alcoholization?
The appetite for technology adoption in any given winery reflects, at the macro level, that country’s culture and its (old vs new world) approach by producers and consumers. On the micro level, the willingness to innovate reflects the brand and culture of each individual winery. Some wineries trade on being cutting edge and challenging the status quo, while others position themselves as artisanal brands and offer a consumer experience to match this.
There is no right or wrong answer - each winery has to understand its own brand positioning and product strategy. My many years on the road working with wineries of all sizes showed me that these choices reflect the winery’s organizational structure, employee profile and team culture (personality, values and internal hierarchy), investment in winemaking tools, website content, the color of the label, the weight of the bottle, the use of a specific closure, etc.
In the end, the challenge for winemakers, and wineries as a whole, is to remain true to their vision without missing opportunities to innovate. I believe no winery can afford to remain fully artisanal; if the taste profile can vary from year to year, the overall quality of the wine has to remain constant in order to maintain success in a market where the spots on the shelves are highly prized. Some wineries remain partially artisanal in the winemaking process and message but offer a sophisticated customer experience supported by technology, like an online wine club and social media communications.
Whether organizations decide to embrace or resist change, the fact is that the democratization of technology is happening in front of us. When my kids’ PlayStation has more computing power than the early moon launches, we are only a couple of years away from talking to our fridge and having it tell us what to cook - or having our winemaking tank talking to us ...
The point is that democratized technology is cheaper and more accessible for a business of any size. Winery owners, winemakers and wine marketers must now decide their positioning on technology and innovation.
Where do you stand...:
To make an informed choice on technology, winemakers need to:
The point for wineries to note is that their options to apply technology to a range of uses - both winemaking and general business - have really opened up in a short amount of time, all participants should be aware of this, and should decide where they stand.
About Wine Grenade
Wine Grenade is wine maturation, redefined. This blog will keep you up to date with our business and provide some thoughtful commentary on the art of winemaking.