Large or small, making wine these days is still an art.
As a little guy in the world of winemaking, Greg La Follette has lived through it all — long nights harvesting in the fields, hunkering over a wine barrel for days, spending countless hours with his hands wrapped around a punch-down stick. He even lost his home to foreclosure a few years ago while pursuing his dream of owning and operating his own signature winery.
After more than two decades working as what La Follette calls “a consulting winemaker” for some of the biggest brands in the business — Kendall-Jackson, Beaulieu Vineyards, Flowers Vineyard & Winery (now owned by Agustin Huneeus) — the winemaker finally put his signature on his own small wine operation in Sebastopol, California, three years ago, where he now turns out about 3,500 cases of vineyard-designated pinot noir and chardonnay each year. Although the going has sometimes been tough, La Follette has resisted the temptation to sell out to one of the world’s large wine conglomerates. Effective in their efforts to dominate U.S. wine consumption, corporate entities such as Constellation Brands, Diageo, Gallo, Bronco, The Wine Group, and others now distribute as much as 50 percent of American wine.
“To see winemakers on the side of the road with a sign reading ‘Will work for chardonnay’ just kills me,” La Follette says in jest. “But it’s coming to that, as there are fewer small brands out there.” In fact, that is only partially true. While distribution channels and government regulation that prevents free direct interstate shipping of wine make it harder for newcomers to be successful, the wine industry overall is growing rapidly. Forty years ago there were fewer than 440 wineries operating in the U.S., according to Wine Institute numbers. Today there are more than 8,800 bonded/licensed wineries and almost half of them (3,754) are based in California. Moreover, any company, large or small, involved in winemaking today “must be prepared to go through some personal and financial pain,” says La Follette, quoting the familiar joke that the fastest way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a large one.
That is certainly how Jose and Gloria Ferrer, owners of the multimillion-dollar Freixenet wine empire of Barcelona, Spain, got into the U.S. game. However, it took more than a vast fortune to bring their dream of cultivating California grapes to fruition. “Their story reads like a fairy tale involving passion, death, and ultimately survival,” explains Eva Bertran, vice president of marketing for Sonoma, California-based Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards.