Environmentally conscious. Craft-made. Boutique. All wonky words and phrases uttered by suited-up public relations clones with one goal in mind -- to sell wine. In our disconnected and ungrounded country, we yearn for anything that sings authenticity or relieves us from the guilt of supporting the corporate machine. Capitalism, the bedrock of America, has become commercialism, trading art for mass production and money.
But how far will you go to reconnect with that warm, genuine feeling? Would you pay $10 more for a bottle of wine that benefits a family-owned business? Or a winery that farms its land mindful of future generations? Or would you rather save that 10 bucks and buy from a company baby-sitting its bottom line? I uncovered all these scenarios during a recent trip to Sonoma Valley, tasting good wines from completely different winemaking philosophies. And different prices.
Geyser Peak, dating back to 1880, sells 125,000 cases of its popular $11 sauvignon blanc annually. And that's only one selection in its portfolio. This corporately owned winery maintains low costs with long-term vineyard leases and churns out product like rabbits make babies – the sauvignon blanc travels from vine to table in less than five months, twice as fast as others. As I walked through the mechanized, sterilized winery, I felt suspended in Brave New World, with the grapes the means to a utopian end. Admittedly, the wine tastes OK, just a bit uninspired.
Compare this large winery to another one, Louis M. Martini. I hadn't tried its wines since 2002, when the Gallo family bought it from the Martinis. It might sound like propaganda, but the staff effusively believes that Gallo's professionalism and cash infusion ushered new life into the waning brand. The winery remains family-operated – managed by third-generation winemaker Mike Martini, who still accesses the 600 acres of vineyards, including possibly the best and oldest one in Sonoma County, Monte Rosso. Before Gallo, Martini sold many of these choice grapes. Now, to produce their 275,000 annual cases (up from 110,000), they keep most of them. I found the wines quite tasty and well-crafted, despite the winery's size.
Leaving the valley for the winding roads and steep hillsides of the Sonoma Coast, I found Joan and Walt Flowers and their namesake winery, producing breathtaking, cult-status pinot noirs and chardonnays. The ultra-modern winery drives up the cost of Flowers wines, but the price doesn't scare away groupies. Tom Hinde, president and CEO, runs this new breed of family-owned California wineries: birthed and proudly coddled by second-career wine enthusiasts. But, unlike many other passionate couples who settled in Sonoma or Napa, the Flowerses gambled and set up on the rocky, cold, unpredictable Sonoma Coast. Farming organically and employing some interesting biodynamic principals, they continue to be cutting-edge.
Quivira, owned by millionaires Pete and Terri Kight, who purchased the winery from founders Holly and Henry Wendt in 2006, takes biodynamics even further. Demeter-certified (think organic to the nth degree), Quivira is shepherded by a tirelessly passionate advocate of the land, winemaker Steven Canter. The delicious wines smack of quality and dedication to healthy land.
Could I tell the difference between wines made from biodynamically farmed grapes and those chemically enhanced? Probably not, but it's widely acknowledged that limiting the application of herbicides and pesticides sustains dirt's well-being. Would knowing that make you spend an extra Hamilton for a bottle of Quivira? They hope so.
These wineries, like all others out there, vie for your attention and money. So next time you purchase a bottle, consider the source. What's $10 among friends?
Louis M. Martini 2005 Napa Cabernet HS, S, T. $25. Four stars. 1/2
Quivira 2007 Sauvignon Blanc Fig Tree Vineyard Dry Creek Valley SW, HS, S. $18. Four stars. 1/2
Gundlach Bundschu 2006 Gewurztraminer Sonoma Valley HS, S. $25. Four stars. 1/2
Flowers 2005 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast SW, HS, S, T. $44. Four stars.
Sweet (SW), Hypersensitive (HS), Sensitive (S), and Tolerant (T). Find out your tasting profile at budometer.com.