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David vs. Goliath 

Is marketing defining what we drink?

Every day, we hear about small, local businesses dying beneath the dagger of behemoth chains. Called the "category killers," these chains offer lower prices for similar merchandise found at the local stores. But does this dilemma pass over into the wine realm? Definitely yes. But wine differs from Wal-Mart items in that each bottle, each year is completely unique. It's difficult to carbon copy an organic product, so consistency becomes the goal. Larger corporate-driven wineries such as Fetzer, Mondavi and Gallo use huge tanks to produce millions of cases each year; whereas family wineries usually make less than 25,000 cases. Cara Hane, winemaker at Fetzer vineyards for the last two years, admits that bigger tanks mean less control of the wine, but being a corporate winemaker "allows you to focus on true winemaking; all you do is taste and blend."

But they blend to please everyone. Huge wineries -- with their high overhead -- concentrate on profits, and winemaking is often born of market research of consumer tastes. The "corporate" winemaker rarely gets to explore. "Corporate wine can lack a definitive point of view," says Rob Sinskey of Robert Sinskey Vineyards, a small winery in Napa. Axel Schug of Schug Carneros Estate Winery agrees. Without corporate pressure, "[smaller wineries] can focus on a winemaker's strength, style and beliefs," Schug says.

But there's nothing wrong with profits, until they eat into consumers' choices. In most states, the corporate behemoths work with the wholesaler system to command a lion's share of shelf space and wholesalers' attention. Frequently, smaller guys get left out in the cold, especially at grocery chains, which normally service national accounts from their corporate headquarters. Next time you're at a grocery chain, notice how many Gallo, Beringer, Mondavi, Trinchero, Fetzer and Kendall Jackson wines are stocked. It's eerie.

But what about prices? Grape quality mostly contributes to the price differentials. Small wineries, with a few exceptions, maintain grape quality by tending their own vineyards or by purchasing from small growers. The Big Boys, such as Fetzer (who makes 3.8 million cases a year), rely mostly on large grape growers with whom they have good relationships, but Fetzer cannot truly oversee the quality. So often they have to sacrifice quality for lower price. "To bring the price down, a winemaker has to use less expensive fruit. That's the biggest compromise." The true talent lies in the blending process. Hane, who has also worked at smaller wineries such as Jekel and Trefethen, makes inexpensive white wines and finds it "more of a challenge to create good wines for under $10." By contrast, bottle prices for small and family wineries tend to be $15 or more.

But I've always harped that judging wine by its price is foolish. Larger wineries do produce consistently excellent wines, such as Gallo's Rancho Zabaco Zinfandels. But smaller wineries tend to be more interesting and complex. There are exceptions to every rule, such as Trinchero's higher-end Cabernets, but it all depends on your taste and budget, and the occasion.

So when you're hankering for the family-crafted wine from California, visit your local wine shop and support the little guy on this end. No matter where you buy, you'll be supporting winemakers who tend their grapes with love, no matter where they work.

Recommended Wines

2000 Chardonnay Schug Carneros Estate Winery ($20) : Beautifully smooth and creamy. This wine finishes clean and citrusy. It has tropical aromas and flavors to match. Amazing with seafood in cream sauce.

2000 Pinot Noir Carneros Robery Sinskey Vineyards ($26) 1/2: Fruit forward with strawberry and tobacco lingering briefly on the tongue. Expertly smooth with nice, balanced acidity to go with the fruitiness. One of the better Pinots I've had in a long time.

2001 Fetzer Echo Ridge Johannisberg Riesling ($8) 1/2: Slightly sweet and honeyed with apricot shining through. Refreshing style that's perfect with spicy food. A great value.

Taylor Eason is a regionally based wino who studied the juice in France and Italy. Comments? E-mail corkscrew @creativeloafing.com.

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