Wine Ink column: Washington winemaker Charles Smith makes sale to Constellation Brands
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
2014 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel — A couple of weeks back, I wrote about zinfandel. A California reader wrote back to say that I had missed an opportunity to mention Paul Draper, whom he described as “arguably the person who brought zinfandel into the prominence of a fine wine.” Reader also noted that I had failed to mention that some of California’s finest zins are products of Amador and El Dorado Counties. He is right on both counts. So to assuage my sins, I sat down at the Houston airport between flights and had this fine bottle of Ridge zin for breakfast. Wish you were here!
News came from the Great Northwest in mid-October that Washington winemaker Charles Smith had sold five brands from his eponymous company to Constellation Brands, one of the biggest wine companies on Earth.
The sale price for the Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Eve Chardonnay, Boom Boom Syrah, Velvet Devil Merlot and Chateau Smith Cabernet Sauvignon brands was reported to be $120 million. All together, the labels currently produce around 500,00 cases of wine each year, with prices per bottle in the $12 to $15 range.
The sale will make Constellation the second-largest supplier of Washington state wines, behind Chateau Ste. Michelle. Smith will remain involved as a consulting winemaker regarding the brands and keeps ownership of a number of his other wines, including the K-Vintners.
It is not simply a nice payday for Smith, but it is also a very green validation of the amazing work he has accomplished in his relatively short and meteoric career in the wine business. While it is easy to look at the zeros and think about how lucrative the wine industry can be, the story reminded me once again of just how much work — and how many people — it takes to make a successful wine brand.
THE BUSINESS OF WINE
Wine is a business of people. Some wear suits and work on computers, while others wear dungarees and work with clippers.
From the very beginning, before a piece of property becomes a vineyard, before a building becomes a winery, there are financial transactions and contracts to be signed. Bankers, brokers, lenders and lawyers are all a part of the process before a single shovel is turned. Once an owner takes title, architects, land planners, horticulturists and winemakers come up with designs and drawings and dreams.
And the real work begins after the vines are planted. Sorting equipment, fermentation tanks and barrels must be purchased and brought to the winery that has taken shape in the image of the architects’ drawings. Someone needs to bend, weld and rivet the steel in those stainless tanks. Someone else grows the trees that are harvested and sent to a cooperage to be turned into vessels for aging the wine. And someone drives all that stuff to the winery. Of course, let’s not forget the middlemen. There are middlemen for everything.
Then consider the hard-working people who manage the vineyards throughout the year. They do the backbreaking work of clearing the brush from the steep hillsides or tilling the valley floors so the grapes can be planted and, eventually, harvested. They sort the grapes and keep the winemaking facilities beyond spotless. They are the heart and soul of nearly every bottle of wine that is made.
And, of course, there are the winemakers themselves. If a bottle of wine were a Hollywood film, the winemaker would be the director. He or she must select the right grapes for the right sites, ensure that they are grown properly and picked at the perfect time. They must make the final blending decisions and oversee the final edit: the aging. And don’t think for a minute that the devil is not in each and every detail.
Bottle to table
Once the wine is made, there are bottles to be bought, labels to be affixed and corks to be put in place. The labels are the product of designers who labor for ways to visually define the wine and make it attractive for buyers. The cork is harvested from trees, much of them found on generations-old farms in Portugal.
Finally, the wine has to be sold. A network of distributors and representatives work with your wine shop and restaurant sommeliers to sell the wine and get it on the shelves or on the wine list so you can make a decision amongst which of the hundreds of wines offered, you wish to buy.
“Let’s drink to the hard-working people. … Let’s drink to the salt of the earth,” a young Mick Jagger sang on the final cut from 1968’s “Beggars Banquet” album. It is a refrain that often comes to mind when I think about all of the hard-working people who are somehow involved in getting the liquid into my glass. How many people have a hand, in some way, shape or form, in turning the fruit of the vines into wine?
Congratulations to Mr. Smith, his partners, associates, employees and everyone who played a part in making his wines. After all, it ain’t easy.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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