Can Small Winemakers Survive?

Can small winemakers compete in a wine market that is increasingly dominated by large producers and experiencing rapid consolidation? This is one of the questions I was asking in my recent trip to Oregon, where I visited several wineries in the Willamette Valley. Here’s what I found out.

Economies of scale in distribution do matter and so the consolidation trend is real, even in Oregon. The Erath winery, one of Oregon’s real pioneers dating back to 1972, was purchased last year by St. Michelle Wine Estates, the Washington wine giant that produces Chateau St. Michelle and Columbia Crest and that also now owns boutique Spring Valley vineyard in Walla Walla.

On the other hand, Oregon is still benefiting from the Sideways phenomenon, which has created a surge in demand for Pinot Noir, its signature wine. Some small high quality pinot-noir specialists sell out through their wine clubs or at the cellar door and are thus immune, for the time being, from distribution woes. The Pinot fad, if that’s what it is, benefits Oregon wineries and has allowed them to expand production and raise price at the same time that other winemaking areas have been in retreat. I saw many new blocks being planted in Oregon to take advantage of high demand and rising prices. It will be interesting to see what happens in a few years, when all of these vineyards begin producing. Will demand remain high? Will the supply be too great? All bets are off for small winemakers (at least those without very deep pockets – and there are some of these in Oregon) if a Pinot glut should appear.

How can small wineries compete? Wine cooperatives are one solution, although not necessarily a good one. Wine cooperatives are big business in Europe, especially France and Italy. A number of smaller vineyard owners jointly own a winemaking facility, delivering their grapes to be blended together. I have tasted some wonderful cooperative-made wine in Alto-Adige (Northern Italy), but I think this was the exception. Cooperative wines are suspect because the members are paid on the quantity of grapes they deliver to the winery rather than the quality of fruit they produce. No one has an incentive to sacrifice quantity to improve quality and the resulting wines can be hard to drink and harder to sell. They form much of the “wine lake” that the European Union is trying to eliminate.

In economic terms, the idea of sharing expensive fixed-cost facilities is sound, but the cooperative institutional structure is problematic. The Carlton Winemakers Studio (CWS) in Carlton, Oregon (in the new Yamhill-Carlton District AVA) is an attempt to get the benefits of cooperation without the negative incentive effects. I visited CWS recently and met with Jeff Lumpkin, the general manager, who is pictured here.

CWS is a 20,000 case facility that provides services to 11 individual tenant wineries (including Lazy River, Jeff’s own label). The costs of the expensive structures and equipment are shared, but each winemaker is independent and has complete control of wine production, so each has an incentive to make excellent wine. Quality rules. You can taste all of the wines in CWS’s attractive tasting room.

We were fortunate to be able to attend a wine dinner at CWS to celebrate the release of the new J.Daan Syrah (made with Columbia Valley grapes). It is a good example of what is possible at CWS. Winemaker Justin Van Zanten (pictured here with his wife Megan) makes about 600 cases of J.Daan a year at CWS, mostly Pinot Noir. His “day job” is assistant winemaker for Andrew Rich, which is also a CWS tenant. The CWS facility has helped him get a foothold in the industry and to gain some attention for his wines (Wine Advocate rated his 2003 Pinot Noir a 90). I bought the 2005 Pinot Noir for $27, a bargain price for Oregon wine of this quality.

The CWS formula clearly has benefits for small winemakers and has been successful, as far as I could tell, in achieving its goals. Jeff Lumpkin was nice enough to guide us through a tasting of a half dozen CWS-client wines and the quality is certainly there.

Is CWS a success story? Yes, I think so. But the future of this facility and the institutional model it represents is still uncertain. For one thing, it seems to be straining and the seams to accommodate the rising production of its client winemakers – will there still be a place for the small winemakers? – and I don’t think anyone knows for sure what the market for Oregon wines will look like in five years. Will bust follow boom?

And then there is the incentive problem. Although a fee-based private property rights operation like CWS avoids the negative incentive structure of the French cooperatives, there is still a natural incentive for winemakers to try to free-ride on services and facilities if they can. With luck, market conditions and private incentives will align themselves so that CWS’s excellent winemakers will continue to prosper.

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