Jamie Goode: Is it possible to scale and still make interesting wine?

By , 2 April 2024



One of SA’s bigger wine brands…

In business, there are many economies of scale. But often, scaling up can mean a significant change in product quality. Take craft beer versus big beer. Several years ago I became really interested in beer, and started tasting lots of different ones, and even went to visit breweries. I started a beer blog at one stage, but it never really caught on. But while I was following beer quite closely there was a common and rather depressing narrative.

We were all excited by craft beer, and the small breweries that were making it. Suddenly there were all these interesting beers emerging, and not only big hoppy IPAs, but even new takes on stouts and pilsners, as well as sours, saison-style brews and myriad pale ales. But big beer wanted a slice of the action, so one by one the craft breweries sold to bigger brewers. The thing about beer is that it is scalable. It is made in batches, and as long as the fairly readily available ingredients were kept the same, then it would have been possible to keep more-or-less to the flavour of the small craft brewery’s offerings. But when brewing is taking place at a much bigger scale, a small saving in ingredient cost means a lot on the bottom line. So the bean counters usually won out, the shareholders were happy, and the beers gradually didn’t taste as good as they used to. Of course, beer flavour isn’t exactly fixed, but there’s no reason why great beer can’t be made at scale. Economics usually wins with big companies, though, and so usually it isn’t.

With wine things are a bit different. When a winery wants to expand in size, which often happens after it has been purchased by a big company, there are two obstacles in place. The first is the same as confronts craft breweries scaling up: the greediness of the big company. The second is that wine isn’t scalable in the same way that beer or spirits are. Its quality is intrinsically linked to the quality of the grapes that are harvested, and no amount of trickery in the winery can turn bad grapes into great wine.

I’m not anti-big-wine-company. It really helps a wine country’s reputation when its big companies are making good wine, and I can think of some large companies whose wines I tend to like because they source from better vineyards and manipulate less in the winery, and some whose wines I’ll avoid because of the poor sourcing and the overt manipulation (alternative oak products and lots of grape juice concentrate at the blending stage). But it’s hard to make interesting wine at a significant scale.

But we aren’t talking about winery size here, but rather whether scaling up can ever work. It’s in the middle ground where we tend to have examples of this to hand. I remember visiting Ravenswood in Sonoma when I was first getting into wine. Joel Petersen had a great reputation for his single-site Zinfandels. But he sold to Constellation who scaled things up and now we have Ravenswood Zinfandel in the supermarket, a rather disappointing wine in my opinion that bears little resemblance to the wines that made Joel famous. There are many stories like this.

The problem is that wine quality is so tightly bound to grape quality that it’s very hard to scale up. Famously, though, some of the top Médoc growths have grown by buying neighbouring vineyards and appending them to theirs. They just need to have the same appellation, and this is perfectly legal. But the market keeps a close tab on performance of top Bordeaux wines, and the fact that just about every châteaux declassifies wine from some of their own vineyard blocks shows that they are serious about pursuing the peak of performance (the market rewards this disproportionately) and if they do buy neighbouring vineyards, they will only buy very good ones.

For big wine companies buying famous smaller brands, the temptation to stretch production by adding new, lesser vineyard sources is almost always too strong, and it’s rare to see such a transaction resulting in larger volumes of equivalent quality wine, however skilled the technicians are in the vineyard and winery. Yes, access to fancier winemaking kit and more highly qualified winemakers should be an advantage, but it’s that annoying link between grape quality and wine quality that often gets in the way.

It needs to be said though, that while scaling up is a perilous journey for interesting wine, being small doesn’t mean you are good, and scaling down isn’t always a route to improved wine quality. What we are talking about here is starting off with a small winery making excellent wine, and then growing it. There are natural limits to growth. A winemaker making two barrels of home brew in the corner of a larger winery owned by their employee clearly needs to grow their operation if they want to make a living from it. It’s a question of how far this can be grown and still be excellent.

Let’s think of some practical examples. Chris and Andrea Mullineux have grown quite a bit with the help of a significant investor, but if anything their wines have got better. That’s because part of the investment was about securing vineyard sources and then replanting and adapting these, improving quality. A new cellar has also helped the pursuit of excellence. This is good growth. But we can also think of a scenario that would be bad growth. Imaging if rather than the current investor, a large global drinks company had come along and bought Mullineux, contracted Andrea and Chris to stay for three years, but then had been pumping up volumes, buying in grapes from all over the place, bringing their own people in, taking a techno approach in the winery and completely changing the wines. This is bad growth.

There are also sizes of operation that work in wine and those that don’t. One of the dangers of organic growth is that it drags producers into a dead zone that doesn’t work organically. A small operation with, say, 10 hectares of vineyards that can be managed by two people, is a scale that can work if the wines are good and sell for a certain price. But add another five hectares, or another 10, and it can take the operation into an uncomfortable space where they are inefficient because they have to hire people but don’t have any economies of scale. For growth to work, perhaps they need to jump to 30 or 40 hectares in one go, and then they can have the employees (including someone good at selling wine) that they need for the market to work for them.

It is possible to make good wine at scale, and the wine world needs good big companies. But there are very real perils associated with scaling up.

  • Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.


5 comment(s)

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    Dieter Gugelmann | 4 April 2024

    I’ve been following Chocolate Block for years. I remember very well the small quantities but the very good quality in the early years.
    Unfortunately, the wine is now produced in such large quantities that grapes have to be bought in from everywhere. As a result, the quality has dropped significantly, the price the price in Switzerland also fell. At the beginning the bottle was at R 640.00 and today it only costs R 470.00.
    It’s a shame that a very good product has lost quality just because of greed for profit. But whatever, Boekenhoutskloof is making a lot of cash!

      Tim James | 8 April 2024

      Dieter, I think you are entirely incorrect in most respects. I’m probably one of very few people that has recently done an entire vertical tasting of Chocolate Block (when last did you?). I’ll give a link to my report at the end. Quite the reverse of what you say, the sourcing of the wine is much tighter now than it was, and has proudly declared a WO Swartland origin since 2016, plenty of the grapes coming from Boekenhoutskloof-owned and -manged vineyards, and it has a dedicated winery. (Compare that with Seriously Old Dirt, for example – made in smaller volumes and indeed come from all over the place – WO Western Cape – to be pulled together at a co-op. Though you wouldn’t guess that from the marketing or the rah-rah of its loud enthusiasts.) As to the Swiss prices you mention for Chocolate Block – you would have perhaps noted the the rand has declined in relation to European currencies and that might be a factor. But, also, I have just consulted Wine Searcher, which gives a price of R619 for the 2020 at a Swiss retailer. Again, I think your research is lacking.

      Here’s the link to my article, in case you’re interested. https://winemag.co.za/wine/opinion/tim-james-twenty-years-of-the-chocolate-block/

    Donald Griffiths | 3 April 2024

    Chocolate Block deserves a mention. Has an almost cult like following amongst certain wine lovers in the UK and probably just satisfies the quality and volume holy grail.

    Greg Sherwood | 3 April 2024

    I like to point to Mike Ratcliffe and the Seriously Old Dirt “brand” that I have followed since its maiden 2012 vintage. If I am not mistaken, off cuts from Series C and M went into making a very decent “second wine” at around 12,000 bottles to begin with. This has been transformed into a 200,000+ bottle production, obviously with additional sourcing of fruit, and the product is actually very very good for circa R240 a bottle. It does exactly what it should… give the drinking a small, luxurious insight into what it would be like to drink a R1450-R2000 bottle of Series M or C. As you say Jamie, scaling up IS possible but not easy. We all know Mike Ratcliffe is obsessed with South Africa having a volume, quality, scalable wine brand. After years of no one grasping the nettle, except perhaps Meerlust Rubicon and Rupert & Rothschild Classique, he decided to try and do it himself … and I think he is doing a sterling job to be honest. Seriously Old Dirt is delicious, age worthy (easily 10 years) and affordable with great packaging. It is possible to do… but quality in the bottle has to be paramount.

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