Myth of the Family Winery:Is there another Agenda?
Yesterday I read a very interesting report (December 2009) from the Marine Institute (Alcohol Industry Watchdog) entitled: “The Myth of the Family Winery: Global Corporations behind California Wine”. Even as a passionate wine enthusiast I would have to agree or at least acknowledge that many of the statements in the report are accurate.
- As an example, a very high percentage of production of wine from California is controlled by a small number of global organizations (won’t list them here… you can easily identify them in the report).
- I must also acknowledge that these same organizations do in fact fund lobbyists across the nation (and I assume abroad as well) to try and keep the status quo from changing. This of course is also done by powerful organizations across all types of business as a way to support continued growth and profitability – not perhaps humane, fair or reasonable, but still legal.
- Again I have to agree that these large corporations are not only wine focused, but are usually also well invested in beer and spirits.
So where do I differ with the report?
As with any facts, the key is in understanding the background and the numbers to the degree that one has an accurate picture by which to evaluate. In this case, the facts are presented from one point of view; that is, from that of an “Alcohol Industry Watchdog”.
So my humble perspective:
- Yes… alcohol in general is controlled by a few very large corporations. This is true today and it was true at the turn of the century in America, one reason why wine was included within Prohibition. In both instances the main focus is and was on profitability. However, wine is produced also by hundreds of dedicated grape growers and winemakers who have a passion for their craft and who are firm believer’s as am I that wine is and should be a part of your everyday life – not as a beverage with which to binge, but as an integral part of a healthy diet. Yes… there are huge conglomerates in the wine industry, but there are dozens and dozens of family run wineries that are under constant financial pressure due to the economy and the difficulty of getting their product to the consumer under the current 3-tiered system. These are very hard working individuals and families who are not wealthy, take great pride in their work, and also provide employment, pay taxes, and produce a quality product.
- Yes … these very large corporations do fund lobbyists .. but not fully as the report suggests. While these large corporations own the majority of production, they are also distributors of the product. High volume production in any industry requires tiered distribution to support the large volumes that must flow from producer to consumer. Small producers are often shut out of distribution since there isn’t sufficient volume to interest the large volume distributors. So yes there is large scale funding and lobbyists, but not to support direct shipments or alter 3-tiered distribution. One of the issues before Prohibition was the fact that the producters (yes.. again very large scale corporations) controlled the flow of alcohol, often putting pressure at the retail level to the point of exclusivity as a way to stymie the competition. The system put in place after Prohibition (3-tiered system) was engineered to avoid this from happening again. However, over the last 70 years since the repeal in 1933 the situation has changed whereby distribution is now the controller not the producer. I will leave it up to the reader to determine which is better.
In reality, the United States has been debating the role of wine since the mid 19th Century when Nicolas Longworth worked to make wine a part of daily life (keep in mind drinking water at the time was very hazardous to your health with the alternative mostly distilled liquour) and Samual Carey, a strong advocate of temperance, insisted wine was no different than any other alcohol.
As with many aspects of life, the “truth” for the majority of people likely lies in between.
QUICK UPDATE: According to Linda Reiff, executive director of Napa Valley Vintners, “The strength of the family business is evident in Napa Valley — 95 percent of our appellation’s wineries are family owned. And, yes, 70 percent produce less than 10,000 cases annually and 60 percent less than 5,000 cases annually.”
For more on Napa Valley, its wineries, and the last 10 years, read “Wine Tales of the Decade”.wine