Welcome to WineBoy! Previously I wrote about a discussion I had with my father, the subject of which was the French method of classification. I concluded by explaining how the French hierarchy of wine is corrupted. The central reason for this being that it was permanently established for Médoc and Graves in 1855, with the rest of Bordeaux to follow, and changing it now has become near impossible. That was a tough concept for me to wrap my head around. I thought, “If the flaws of the system are so obvious, then why haven’t people pushed for change?”
Well first of all, the flaws aren’t so obvious. Politics tends to cloud peoples judgement, and in this case it’s done just that. The chateaux on top, whether they merit their place or not, will not give up their titles. Just as well, they’ve done an excellent job fooling the general public into believing that they continue to be on top based on quality of wine. This is not to say that all Chateaux no longer deserve their ranking; as the system did originally rely heavily on terroir, there is a valid basis for the general rule. Most of the problem is in holding back new wineries. For the most part though, these titles, such as Premiere Grand Cru Classé, have become little more than price indicators. Caliber of wine has become a whole other story completely.
Simply put, the result of French classification was mass confusion. Note though, something positive did come from this. As new wineries came about, and wanted recognition for the quality of their wines, they broke apart from the system. These unclassified wineries were called “garage wineries,” named literally after the garages in which they were started. A pioneer of this movement in the Bordeaux region was Chateau Valendraud, the first winery I visited on my tour. The significance of such stand-alone wineries is that they could make a name for themselves, regardless of the system.
The logic behind that comes from marketing strategy. The majority of Bordeaux sales depend on classification. A wine called Grand Cru specifically will sell better than one called simply Bordeaux. On the other hand, supply and demand dictates the sales of garage wineries. While a large Chateau must depend on négociants and the bulk of foreign market, a small-production winery can rely on focused and local sales and marketing. Careful not to misunderstand, this is not how it began. Originally, these wineries were launched by Robert Parker and international press, with export sales pushing their success; the result being the ability to stand alone. The difference between French wine country and Napa Valley, is that Napa adopted that idea whole-heartedly.
Garage wineries began popping up all over Napa; soon they were called “boutique wineries.” Personally, I understand the small winery approach much better, as I am a co-proprietor of one. Our strategy was to build up our name on our own, from the ground up. But we were hardly the first ones to do it; almost every Napa vineyard has taken on this approach, one based solely on the reputation derived from the quality of wine. So I’d say Napa’s got the right idea.
With that, I’ll end my brief lesson in wine marketing. Next time, as promised, I’ll start going into some of the specific Bordeaux wineries, beginning with the one I mentioned earlier, Chateau Valendraud. I’ll comment on their wines specifically, but I’m also hoping to give a better idea of how a small production winery really functions.
Thanks for Reading!