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THE POWERHOUSES OF CALIFORNIA

THE POWERHOUSES OF CALIFORNIA

When you pull up at wineries like Mondavi, Beringer, Sutter Home and Kendal Jackson you might be aware that they are not exactly boutique producers. But you’d be shocked to find out that the four of them account for a monstrous percentage of California’s wine production.

In fact, the top 30 wineries in California are responsible for over 90% of the State’s wine production. Even more amazing, the top 3 companies produce more than 150 million cases, which is over 50% of California’s wine.

California ranks as the 4th largest wine producer in the world, coming in behind France, Italy and Spain. In the Golden State you’ll find over 3,500 bonded wineries. Together, they produced over 300 million cases of wine. This is not small potatoes.

So although there’s a wonderful artisan feel to some of these wineries, behind the tasting room doors is the most impressive corporate machine you could ever imagine. But big is not beautiful, at least for most wine lovers. People seem to prefer a small family struggling to make ends meet, dedicated to the terroir, and hand-selling their wine, one bottle at a time. That is another marketing position…even if it is true.

Although I love the small winery too, I am very much in favor of the powerhouse volume companies that drive the market. They have the funds to invest in viticultural and winemaking research, taking the quality levels to new heights. They can create taste profiles and brands that meet the modern consumer’s preferences. They can afford to advertise, which attracts new wine drinkers. Large companies can also run major promotions that add value for regular wine lovers. And when it comes to government, it’s the powerhouse corporations that lobby on behalf of the rest of the industry.

The king of California is Ernest and Julio Gallo, who weigh in at more than 80 million cases, although exact figures are elusive. It’s one of the most inspiring stories in wine, and I have great admiration for this company and what they have achieved. Only a wine snob and the uninformed would say otherwise.

It was started in a garage by the two brothers in 1933. They had a friendly bet which spurred on a competition. Ernest said he could sell wine faster than Julio produced it, but Julio thought otherwise. They grew the business at an alarming rate. Ernest was famous for saying “we don’t want most of the business, we want it all”. Today the company sells 1 in 3 bottles of California wine.  

I visited their main production facility outside Modesto in the Central valley. At one stage they owned almost half the vineyards in the State, and today they are the largest landowner in Sonoma. At the winery they make their own glass bottles, their own barrels, have their own printing operation, and a train actually comes into the highly automated warehouse to collect wine for shipment around the world. They have offices around the world, managing their own distribution.  

Much less well known is The Wine Group. If you’ve had a bottle of Corbett Canyon, Cupcake, FishEye, Franzia, Almaden and several others then you’ve contributed to their massive sales. This company seems to have a knack for figuring out exactly what consumer wants in a brand. They then use their extensive sales and marketing expertise to develop business with large retail chains. After all, the vast majority of wine is sold at retail in stores like Costco, Walmart and Safeway, which can turn a brand into an overnight success.

Constellation Brands is a global player. Their flagship in California is unquestionably Robert Mondavi, although the company is also the owner of Ravenswood, Simi, Clos du Bois, Franciscan and many others. And that’s just in California. They also own major brands elsewhere like Kim Crawford in New Zealand.

Although Constellation is a giant beverage company, they operate each winery independently and strive to offer a range of more premium wines, as well as covering the value sector. Certainly, when it comes to quality, the Napa wines from Robert Mondavi are the jewel in the crown. The quality of the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon proves that large companies can produce outstanding quality wines.

There are several more giants. Treasury is the name of the company behind Beringer, Chateau St Jean and various others in California. They also own half of Australia.

Trinchero is the company behind Sutter Home, the inventor of White Zinfandel. Today, Trinchero continues to hit home runs with brands like Menage a Trois, and the hot new varietal Moscato. Kendall- Jackson, Delicato, Bronco, Wente, J Lohr, and Francis Ford Coppola also appear on the list of major volume players. Coppola produces Rubicon, now called Inglenook, one of the top wines of Napa. It’s the volume brands that fund his pursuit of perfection at Inglenook.

The point is that although wine lovers get all wrapped up in the ultra-prestige brands that often sell for expensive prices, this is not the main market. Over 90% of all wine sold sells for under $20 a bottle. We rely on the major companies to deliver a great experience for the money. And the volume players are the ones that often do that the best. Like it or not.

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