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Dan Berger On Wine: Small vineyards and wine masterpieces

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Oct. 23, 2020 series
  • Updated

Large vineyards generally produce lots of wines that have uniform — but rarely distinctive — characteristics.

Within each large vineyard, however, there may be small blocks that produce more distinctive and interesting wines. But such wines often are made in scant amounts. The original Grace Family Winery, one of the most iconic Cabernet producers in the Napa Valley, was originally just one acre and always made classic Cabernets.

Winemakers love having access to high-quality fruit from small, expressive vineyards that allow for production of more distinctive wines. Such individualistic fruit allows them to create one-of-a-kind masterpieces.

By being judicious, they can harvest carefully, sort grapes (almost berry by berry), discard atypical lots, and treat small amounts of wine with the ultimate care necessary to produce classic wines.

Often such wines cost a lot more. But they’re not for everyone.

Tiny appellations often produce distinctive wines that display unique characteristics from year to year, and thus appeal to specialty buyers who adore such levels of uniqueness and quality. The differences between wines from single vineyards of successive years reflect the vagaries of different climate conditions.

One of the smallest appellations in the wine world is the tiny La Romanée vineyard. It measures barely 2 acres and produces one of the finest red Burgundies in France. Year after year, devotees of La Romanée wines revel in their reflection of what nature presented.

Dozens of other infinitesimal vineyard sites could easily make more distinctive and potentially classic wines, but do not for reasons that are far more mundane. Many such wines are hamstrung by marketing issues, winery logistics, or a failure to respect history. For reasons such as those, the production of tiny plots of land usually end up as part of ordinary blends.

Some of the finest Rieslings in the world are vineyard designates in Germany. A blended wine from one German producer could sell for $20 to $30, but a vineyard-designate from the same producer could be $80 to $100. Or more.

From a profitability point of view, many small vineyards don’t always prove to be a windfall. It depends on which variety is planted and how it will be perceived in the marketplace – and how much the wines can command. The costs associated with such gems are often extremely high.

Recent experimentation with Pinot Noirs, especially how certain PN clones work in sub-sub regions, have been all the rage with winemakers. Not only do we see vineyards named on labels, but perhaps even a second descriptor defining a unique element, occasionally referring to a limited number of vines.

Decades ago, a Sonoma County grower told me, with tears in his eyes, that he finally decided to remove a beloved but very old 6-acre Carignane vineyard. It was so old he had no idea when it was planted, probably before 1900.

Old vines often produce tiny amounts of fruit. And though small production is associated with distinctive characteristics, most of the time such fruit is expensive to grow.

As with that old Carignane vineyard, some varieties make a wine that cannot fetch enough in the market to make it viable. At some point, profit supersedes emotion, leading to removal of cherished old vines.

The old grower said that even if he sold his Carignane grapes every year (not a guarantee), some years he couldn’t even cover his farming costs. “You can sell a bottle of Zin for twice as much as a bottle of Carignane,” he noted.

Economics often rule in the wine game in brutal ways.

One of my saddest moments in this business came about 1988. I learned that an ancient block of sensational Petite Sirah vines off Larkmead Lane in Calistoga had been bulldozed. The grower whined that he was getting just 2 tons per acre of fruit off that vineyard.

It meant nothing to him that his Petite Sirah grapes had made the finest red wine of that variety I had ever tasted. But the second tragedy was that the Petite Sirah grower burned up the vines, not bothering to save even one stick of the genetic stock!

In 1992, on my first of numerous visits to Australia, a McLaren Vale winemaker drove me to what he said was unquestionably the best Shiraz vineyard in all of Australia.

As we drove up a residential street, toward the end of the block he pointed to his left and said, “See that yellow house? That’s the best Shiraz vineyard in this country. I guess you can make more money with houses and you can with wine.” There were no vines in sight.

Thus I give a lot of credit to Robert Mondavi and the winery’s current owners, Constellation Brands, for the vision they had in honoring Napa Valley history and one historic block of old Sauvignon Blanc vines, ignoring greater profits and protecting some of the valley’s heritage.

It is a tale worth telling.

Watch now: Helicopters fight Mondavi Fire in the hills west of Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville

At least four helicopters and additional aircraft fought off the flames west of Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville Thursday. The fire was contained at five acres.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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