December 08, 2021


Uncorked: Wineries strive to get noticed in crowded field

As the popularity of wine grows, winemakers are on a mission to stand out.

With celebrity-pitched wines on the end caps of grocery store aisles, and wine commercials airing alongside beer and spirits ads on television, the battle for recognition seems to be the next frontier in the wine industry.

There was a period of time when wineries would chase high scores from various wine industry publications to generate buzz about their brand. Consumers would flock to stores in search of these wines. The increased demand led to inflated prices, which also helped a wine get noticed.

Another avenue was to hire a winemaker with a reputation built on the achievement of monolithic, high-scoring wines. Even these tactics seemed temporary, as today there are numerous wines with triple-digit price tags on store shelves, and a waiting room filled with “rock star winemakers.”

So, how do wineries avoid blending in with the white noise?

“The wine business entered the modern age in Napa Valley in the 1970s,” said Joshua Lowell, general manager at Sullivan. “Things really started to take off in the 1990s. It’s been about the cult of a winemaker or the stardom of the owner. It was all big scores and flashiness. My goal is to be part of a new side of Napa that’s much more mature and seasoned. We want people to follow us because they believe in our vision and what we are doing.”

Single-vineyard wines give winemakers the chance to create wines that stand out. While an appellation blend is a snapshot of the entire vintage, single-vineyard wines are a thumbprint of the growing season, and can vary considerably from year to year.

With eight different single-vineyard pinot noirs, Jeff Stewart, director of winemaking and general manager at Hartford Family Winery, has wines with plenty of opportunities to stand out.

“While pinot noir was considered a niche wine years ago, it is now a wine that is more mainstream,” Stewart said. “Many producers from all over California and Oregon are producing great wines from many AVAs, which all speak to the terroir, or sense of place, that makes pinot noir so intriguing.

“We have tried to avoid being lost in the shuffle by bottling single-vineyard wines, 250 to 300 cases each, from eight different AVAs that are all distinct and unique, but also producing a Russian River Valley multi-vineyard blend that has more broad distribution,” he said. “This allows our consumer to enjoy the unique and distinct statement of a small single-vineyard bottling, or the ‘comfort’ of a true-to-place AVA blend that is consistent and reliable, depending on their mood.”

With the Stoller Group, vice president of winemaking Melissa Burr entered a space that seems to be in constant expansion, the $20 and under category. The key here is to over-deliver when it comes to quality. The solid reputations of Stoller and Chehalem – the Oregon group’s two wineries that focus on Burgundian varietals pinot noir and chardonnay mostly in the ultra premium category of $30 to $50 – might catch a consumer at first.

But, Chemistry, a collaboration between Burr and Chehalem winemaker Katie Santora, also has avoided the white noise by going pink. Specifically, a sparkling rosé, made in a unique way.

Rather than using the traditional method, where the wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle to add bubbles, Burr used carbon dioxide afterward.

“With rosé from pinot noir, we are always talking about acidity,” Burr said. “We treat the red grape like a white, and pick much earlier so we get good natural acidity. That’s part of it, the backbone of the wine, and we add CO2, so it’s not made in the traditional method. We’ve experimented with that, and have to get it real cold to dissolve as much CO2 as possible and have the wine still ferment with the yeast.

“We aim for balance, it’s not a La Croix-like sharp bubble, and maybe we let it sit on some lees to add a texture component and richness to the rosé base,” she said. “We think about style before even making the wine, we want refreshing, aromatic, fruit-driven and balance in a dry style wine.”

Sometimes, it’s an appellation’s lack of size that can be a defining trait.

In California’s Sta. Rita Hills, there’s just a sliver of land for vineyards in one of the state’s smallest AVAs. The “refrigerated sunshine” that drapes the area’s rolling hills comes to fruition by way of the frigid Pacific Ocean. Such a strikingly large influence can lead to predictable growing seasons.

While Brewer-Clifton winemaker Greg Brewer said the ocean is “the driving force behind everything we do,” its impact has provided winemakers with plenty of choices in the vineyard and the cellar.

“Pinot and chardonnay continue to evolve as the neighborhood grows,” Brewer said. “An element which is sometimes overlooked is that not only do we have a really long growing season, we also have a massive aperture of harvesting opportunity. The outcome of that circumstance is that there is a myriad of stylistic opportunities depending on the ethos and culture of any given producer.”

If they’ve managed to avoid being part of the white noise, they’re on to the next task: brand loyalty. That’s another challenge.

Tasting Notes

Ashes & Diamonds, Rouge No. 3, Napa Valley N/V ($59.99): Three vintages help soften the wine and make it approachable early. A cabernet franc-led blend, there’s blue fruit, cracked pepper, milk chocolate and vanilla flavors. Let it open up for a while, and the flavors and textures become very intriguing.

Chateau Haut-La Pereyre, Bordeaux Superieur, 2016 ($19.99): An amazing value with black currant, dark chocolate and a little dusty espresso note.

Castiglion del Bosco, Brunello di Montalcino, 2015 ($64): From an isolated site in the northwest corner of Montalcino came a classic sangiovese. Ruby red in the glass, every flavor is lifted due to the vibrant acidity of the wine. There’s plum, raspberry, sage and even a tea note.

Division-Villages, l’Avoiron Rosé of Gamay Noir, 2020 ($19.99): Intensity is the key here; watermelon, strawberry and an herbal, rosemary-like note are the flavors, but the wine is a mouthful, especially for a style that trends lean.

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at