Is it Possible to Remain Friends in the Wine Industry?

Although I have been doing this blog thing for about two and a half years, I have been “into“ wine for quite a bit longer. As a result, I have visited plenty of wine regions in this country and in Europe. One statement that has really stood out over all those visits is:

“What sets our region apart from other regions, is that we really have a sense of collaboration here. We are all friends and we realize that a ‘rising tide raises all ships’—when one of us succeeds, we all benefit. That is why we are always helping each other out.”

Here’s a little quiz: Where was I when I heard this comment?

A. Dry Creek Valley; B. Napa Valley; C. Paso Robles; D. Willamette Valley

The answer?

A., C., and D.

By and large, I have found that people who get into the wine business are a pretty friendly lot and that the industry attracts, perhaps above all else, people who would refer to themselves as “a people person”. More often than not, I find people in the wine industry to be extremely friendly and open.wine-stain1-3

I have been to Dry Creek and Paso exactly once each and the Willamette Valley twice, but during each of the four visits I heard a variation of the above quote at least once. There were stories about sharing tractors, fermentors, barrels, and labor—expressing the notion of coöperation repeatedly. Each time it was said, interestingly, the speaker presented it as if their region were unique in this way.

On the other hand, I have been to Napa countless times, but I have never heard anything resembling that sentiment. Perhaps there are pockets of collaboration, but it does not seem to be a dominating ethos (at least one that is spoken of publicly, as far as I can tell). Yes, it is possible that I am in the wrong here (if this were a research paper that I was reading or grading, I would be screaming “Where is the proof?”), but I would wager that I am not.

So what is the explanation?

First, I thought it might be a question of longevity—emerging regions seem to have a ‘circle the wagons’ mentality—that all winemakers need to band together in order to survive.

The more established wine regions, however, have already gone through their period of collaboration and once the region gains “experience” there is perhaps a reduced need to rely on one’s neighbor. It is impossible to say when a particular wine region becomes “recognized” as such, and the date that a region is granted appellation status is not necessarily an indication of “recognition”, but it is a precise date that can be used for comparison.

The problem? Napa received AVA status in 1981, Dry Creek Valley and Paso Robles in 1983, and the Willamette in 1984: not much difference there.

Second, I thought that perhaps it was due to the influx of corporate ownership of wineries—over time, larger entities buy up property and labels. Although I do not have any hard statistics to support this notion, I have heard on many occasions how Napa has more of a “corporate feel” as some winery owners have sold to larger, more corporate (and less personal) wine conglomerates.

The problem? Napa claims that of the region’s 400+ wineries, 95%  are family owned, which is precisely the same figure in Dry Creek Valley.

Third, could it just simply be a case of money? As a region becomes more established and competition becomes more intense, could it simply be the desire to maximize profits that inhibits collaboration? Again, I have no hard data to support this contention, but it is difficult to deny that there has been a significant amount of cash that has flowed into Napa in the past few decades. Can money influence to alter a sense of community of friendship?

In the end, it could be a combination of all three: less established regions with lower levels of corporate ownership and a lesser emphasis on maximizing profits might be more likely to engage in more “friendly” practices.

Or there could be a far more simple explanation: a subtext to the comment above:

“We are not Napa. We are all friends here!”

So as these other regions grow, and perhaps become more prestigious, are they destined for the same fate that has befallen Napa? Will they become, in effect, victims of their own success? Or will they be able to maintain collaboration, a feeling of friendship, that they all proudly display today?

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About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
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22 Responses to Is it Possible to Remain Friends in the Wine Industry?

  1. talkavino says:

    I think there are only 3 regions in the wine world which have unquestionable prominence and statute: Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa. Those three regions “made it” – the water is as high as it can be, and it is not subsiding. Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa vintners don’t need to reach out to the wording of “community” and “friendship” when they present themselves. But at the same time, I think this will work like this more for the bigger wineries, which can sustain themselves with resources. Smaller, family run business in those regions will probably still allude to “friendship” in one or the other form if you will actually dig deeper on this specific question. Or not… 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hmmm. I have been thinking about this a while. My first thought was (wait for it) Champagne. Come on, Champagne has earned a spot in the upper echelon, there is no doubt. Second, what about your Rioja? At least on par with Napa? Tuscany? Piedmont? I am no Italian cheerleader, but those two regions? And what about Oliver’s Mosel? The Rhône? OK, all of that aside, I agree that it might be more of a question of the size of the individual winery more than any of the other factors I mentioned here, but it did strike me as odd that so many regions stated this as a characteristic, while others did not….

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  2. When I read your quiz, I knew Paso would be in the answer. People in the wine industry here are amazingly friendly and helpful. Being an east coaster, we have to “get use to it” when we travel there for our winery. East Coasters aren’t exactly know for trusting people or being the most friendly. But here’s a perfect example of Paso friendliness; this July, while at a winery known for their Cab Franc, we found out they source their fruit from the same place as we do. Upon telling them we source from the same vineyard, just a few rows over, the owner/vintner talked to us over an hour and a half(including past closing time) and told us how he goes about making his wine. He told us the acid levels,, Brix,levels, and his oak management plan- he shared all of that with us – a winery, selling the same wine varietal, from the same vineyard. We learned so much, and are so grateful! And hopefully, one day, we can pay that forward! It doesn’t get more friendly than that.

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    • Ha! Your description of us East Coasters is a quintessential description from a West Coaster! I lived in Marin for for years and it took me a long while to adapt to the West Coast mindset: I used my car horn (and certain finger) far too often, but gradually adapted the more laid back style: just in time to move back east.

      Your story about the wine maker is great–us East Coasters just don’t understand this approach, particularly from “competitors”!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Here in the very backwards, yet at last wonderfully experimental Languedoc Roussillon, the small producers are very open and sharing – proud of what they’re creating after decades of volume production. A world away from the wineries you’re talking about but it does suggest the newer and less established producers will band together.

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    • That is so great to hear! I almost included my experiences in Champagne and Burgundy (primarily), where there seems to be little collaboration. Why? Perhaps it is due to the centuries of history, family tradition, etc. Who knows? Glad to hear the Languedoc is more collaborative!

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  4. It’s a difficult topic, I believe. There is a bunch of corporate ownership in Stellenbosch, but that has not necessarily stopped the winemakers from cooperating. On the other hand in Germany (I know, I always talk about Germany), where family-owned wineries are still the norm, cooperation seems to keep increasing, from top-rated wineries down: I was at a small, slowly up and coming winery the other day and the owner told me that one of the region’s superstar winemakers with tons of international following was going to stop by next weekend to try their wines because they had met in the past…on the other hand, more established regions like the Rheingau, with bigger and more likely corporate holdings, seems to have less of that cooperative feeling.

    I think Anatoli might have a point here: The more regions have made it, the less the need for cooperation. Since a bunch of German regions either had huge quality problems in the past, cooperation among younger winemakers has increased. In the Mosel, which has arguably a lot more renommee, it might be the hardship of winemaking, plus the closeness of all these villages and the fact that some learned their trades from others seem to have kept a spirit of camaraderie alive…in Le Marche, the winemaker we visited and stayed with organized a whole day’s tour for us so we could visit other estates as well. Can you imagine?

    In the end, it’s all about people. Some people are more open than others. There are folks in every region that aren’t interested in cooperation, and folks that are…probably not region-specific.

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    • I love that u talk about Germany! I know less (a lot) about S. Africa, but your point (like the previous comments) is a good one: perhaps the key here is the size of the wineries in question.

      Upir last comment, about the particular people involved, might be the key…

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  5. Hey…believe it or not, a ‘Napa for Normal People’ does exist, if you’re willing to look for it…see my previous binNotes post on the topic it if you care to learn more – but small artisan wineries and wine makers do exist in the shadows of the Napa elites, sharing a distinct spirit of collaboration, and friendship :). Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I thought the answer was B. Knowing the collaborative force Robert Mondavi was for NV & how many of the family owned wineries work & help each other I was surprised the correct answer isn’t at least “all of the above.” This topic came up in conversations this past weekend among some of is Texans re: Texas wine. TX winemakers don’t seem to understand if one winery does well it helps all TX wineries. Don’t see much collaboration here. Thank you your article & good food for thought. Cheers!

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    • Thanks for the comment–I agree that perhaps at one point, Napa had that collaborative vibe, but it seems to have lost that (at least in my experience) and I wonder why that is? Your Texas comment is also an interesting one–a similar scenario seems to be unfolding here in PA.

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  7. aFrankAngle says:

    Interesting thoughts …. and on a related note, of the regions I’ve visited, Napa is my least favorite … thus would chose to return to others.

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  8. My first thought when I read your post was: Mondavi. Have you read “The House of Mondavi”? It’s a full canvas of family and friend backstabbing and treachery.

    I hope you’ll be encouraged to hear this . . . I do hear winemakers in Virginia talk about cooperation and collaboration more than not. Virginia has been getting a lot of favorable press the last couple of years, though. I hope their collaborative efforts won’t go out the window once (if) they have “a moment”.

    Maybe the little guys do stick together . . . safety in numbers?

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  9. This is interesting, as my expected answer to the little quiz was “None of the above!” My experience with US wineries is quite competitive and not cooperative. This may be because we aren’t always talking to the actual owners, but moreso the front-end people. In Tasmania, thought, we’ve found all the vintners to be extremely friendly towards eachother and making recommendations to us to visit so-and-so. Maybe because they’re we’re actually talking to the owners…

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    • I thought about trying to incorporate European regions that I have visited, but they did not seem to fit in at all…. I agree that most non-Americans see us as hyper-competitive, and that is likely deserved, but there are some regions that really embrace the collective…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Lynn Millar says:

    Fascinating post and discussion. I only know wineries as a casual visitor – and am full of opinions about tasting room treatment. What I find interesting is that ‘educated’ San Franciscans (including general news media) think there is only a Napa wine region unaware of the riches of Sonoma. If you were to name a Sonoma winery they would think/assume it was in Napa. Inferiority complex? Oh yes. But I’m happy the traffic is up another valley than all over our valleys, plains and coast.

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