For small family wineries, the Central Coast is the new Napa/Sonoma

I was reading this article from New Zealand in which this “pioneer of Marlborough wine says that the corporate-dominated New Zealand industry is making it harder for family-owned wine businesses like his to survive.” It immediately brought to mind the comment, which you hear frequently, that the largest wine companies also are crowding out smaller, family-owned wineries in America, including here in California.

This plaint (not complaint: a very different word) has long roiled California’s waters. I heard it nearly 25 years ago when I started writing about wine. It still makes the rounds today, when giant companies like Constellation, The Wine Group, Bronco, Gallo, Treasury, Trinchero, Diageo and Ste. Michelle account for the lion’s share of every bottle of wine sold in America.

I know for a fact that it’s hard for the small family winery to compete. They have trouble getting into the distribution system, that most conservative bastion of the industry. Government, both state and Federal, continues to block the free interstate direct shipping of wine. Their mom-and-pop staffs are over-burdened and barely able to keep their heads above water. They depend on those two most undependable factors, word-of-mouth and customer loyalty, either or both of which may disappear at any moment. And they are frequently overlooked by the critical media, in a way that’s unfair, but inevitable.

Still, for all their travails, the small family winery never has gone away in California, and as far as I can tell, is nowhere near being an endangered species. I continue to be impressed all the time by the number of new brands I discover almost everyday, and by the passion and tenacity with which these often-young proprietors tackle the challenges.

I’m thinking of such producers as Ian Brand (Le P’tit Paysan, La Marea), Sabrine Rodems (Scratch), Matt Villard (MCV), Brian Brown (ONX), Eric Lauman (Cambiata), David Galzignato (Jada), Daniel Daou (Daou), Aaron Jackson (Aaron) and so many others. All have stared the marketplace straight in the eye and decided they can do something different, and better, than anyone else. If you think about it, that’s an insane attitude. Almost everything that can be done in California wine is being done, and even if you can find a niche no one else is exploring, there’s no guarantee you can sell the resulting product. In fact, there’s every indication you can’t. (See paragraph 3, above.) Yet despite the odds, these young winemakers are giving it a go.

You notice that all them are from the Central Coast. That’s no coincidence, in my opinion. It’s too expensive to start up a business in Napa and Sonoma, but from Monterey down through Paso Robles, the price of admission isn’t as high. (Who needs another 94 point Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon anyway? There’s already too much.) The exciting thing is that these winemakers are ready to take risks and try new things. The template in Napa-Sonoma is largely closed. In the Central Coast, it’s wide open, and these adventurous winemakers know it. They have the spirit of experimentalism that Napa Valley had 40 years ago. The Central Coast is the new frontier in California, and I can’t wait to see the fantastic wines from the small family wineries that will be coming out from there.


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