Numbers Games

(Originally published May 2007)

Hanes catches a lot of grief because he doesn’t note where he buys the wines he reviews. As if the review needs even more words. Besides the fact that he doesn’t want to seem to favor some retail stores over others when they both carry the same wine, a lot of the wines reviewed are wholesale samples and thus Hanes may not even know where they are sold. You ever think of that, man? It’s not Hanes’s fault all the time. Just most. But this brings to mind an interesting aspect of wine reviewing and the resultant search for the wines by a reader. Or two. You both know who you are. This is how production numbers vary among wines and why some wines are insanely easy to find while others couldn’t be uncovered by Sherlock Holmes. The topic also ties into last month’s screed because contemporary winemaking techniques do have an effect on production numbers, particularly in terms of creating a homogeneous product in larger quantities (that is, avoiding too much variation among the bottles sold).

Millions and millions of gallons of wine are produced worldwide each year. Really, like millions. It’s crazy! The United States has gone hillbilly nuts over wine, with over 16 million cases of wine sold every three months as per a recent Wine Business article. Almost $1.2 billion in sales every three months. That’s big business. And a lot of product. And a lot of products to choose among. Lots and lots of competition, consolidation, new product entry, scales of economy, marketing, counter-insurgency and drunken end consumers. Sweet.

One of the interesting things about the article was pointing out how difficult it is for a “small” producer to make an impact on the market. “Small” in terms of how the industry sees itself is like a 10,000 case production. Such a brand doesn’t have the sheer quantity of product to create an impression in the collective public consciousness. If that’s “small,” then what’s “large?” Large is like Yellowtail from Australia. Like eight million cases of Yellowtail wine gets sold each year, it’s the first brand to sell more than a million cases in a single month. The maker of Yellowtail (technically, [yellow tail]®), Casella, says this on their website: “The winery is now capable of crushing 120,000 tonnes of grapes during one vintage. This is backed up by three bottling lines capable of a combined output of over 30,000 bottles per hour, and with two more lines planned, the winery will be capable of bottling over 65,000 bottles per hour.” That’s over 5,400 cases per hour. In 2-3 hours they create more than a “small brand” would in a year. In yo face, mofo.

Another behemoth, E&J Gallo, has a global brand portfolio of over 45 wines and sells over 75 million cases in the United States per year. Their brands include Gallo Family Vineyards, Barefoot Cellars, Rancho Zabaco, Dancing Bull, Ecco Domani, Louis Martini, Mirassou, Napa Valley Vineyards, Anapamu, Indigo Hills, Turning Leaf, Red Bicyclette, Black Swan and Carlo Rossi among others. Now, if anyone wants to find these wines there’s not really a problem. They are everywhere. But, hey, there’s also no sense in reviewing these wines since they really aren’t reviewable. As noted last month, it’s a “category mistake” — there’s too many different types of products being called “wine” these days that bear little resemblance to each other beyond a common ancestry as grapes prior to fermentation. It would be kind of silly to review cans of Pepsi, there’s no point (unless one writes for The Onion or something). There’s a level of production where the liquid has to be homogenized to the point where it’s going to lose the individual character worth describing in a wine tasting note.

At the other end of the spectrum you get fancy expensive producers who boast on their label that only 230 cases were produced or something like that. Hell, Casella can crank that out in 24 minutes. But the assumption is that the wine has been shepherded into existence with both a farmer’s love for the earth and a winemaker’s careful desire to let the wine speak for itself. Sometimes true, sometimes not so. But that’s not the topic this month, it’s how production numbers vary and make wines harder to find. Say there’s 1,000 cases of a boutique winery’s Syrah made in 2006. All of it gets sold in the U.S. For argument’s sake let’s say it’s divided equally among the states. That’s 20 cases per state. Not a lot at all for a country of 301 million people (even discounting those below the legal drinking age and people who are too lame to drink booze). 1,000 cases sounds like a lot at first but it’s really insignificant. And the chances of any isolated one of us getting our mitts on a bottle is like between zero and zero.

It’s interesting to see how much wine the prestigious and expensive Bordeaux “First Growth” Château Latour produces. Their website says they average around 220,000 bottles per vintage, or 18,333 cases. This for a wine the 2003 vintage of which sells for around $900 to $1,300 per bottle. Now at a little under 20,000 cases you can probably find some. But can you afford it! In terms of production numbers and price, is Latour a product or a boutique wine? Italy’s producer Cavalleri makes about 200,000 bottles of sparkling Franciacorta a year — brand or artisanal producer? Spain’s famed Vega Sicilia produces around 200,000 bottles per year among their three different labels. Also from Spain, Bodega Virgen Blanca produces 200,000 bottles annually of their Viña Sardasol Crianza. Do these numbers mean the wines are made the same way as Vega Sicilia’s wines?

The point here is that interesting wines can be made in numbers including tens of thousands of cases annually. Maybe even hundreds of thousands. But at some mysterious, ineffable point the center can no longer hold. Depending on factors from the environment to grape type to winemaking style the production number can vary incredibly in terms of how much can be made with the wine remaining potentially interesting. There’s no automatic merit in making only 140 cases or in making 14,000 cases, either can appeal or blow equally. What’s important is that there’s a much better chance of you getting a hold of a bottle when it’s 14,000 cases.

Which circuitously brings us back to what Hanes was trying to say in the first place. There’s no usefully practical way of noting where the wines reviewed were purchased because there’s no way he is also going to dig for the production number of the wine and provide that too. If the review says bought at Store X and they only got a case, they can’t get anymore and Hanes bought the last bottle, there’s no use in knowing where the bottle was purchased. After all, this is why Hanes created the internet. So his readers could use it to search for wines that sound interesting.

Fate and free samples will ensure that some wines reviewed herein are of a large enough production number to be locatable. They may not always be the best nor worst, expensive nor inexpensive. But that’s not the goal. The goal is to drink as much wine as humanly possible and live.

As a side note, this is also a large part of why ye olde The Hanes Wine Review remains free. Sure, the information can be useful. But most of the time it can’t be useful. Because you’ll never be able to find the damn wine! People who charge for their opinions should be mindful of this fact. Either the wines discussed would have to be of a large enough production so as to not be describing the unattainable. Or one would have to admit explicitly that there’s a somewhat impractical aspect to one’s endeavor because it might as well be fictional for all the real world effect it will have as a form of recommendation. After all, as we all know, wine reviewing is just something to do until the Yankees game comes on.