Vineyard vs winemaking

19 March, 2018

What is the most important component of a wine brand? What makes it what it is, or, put another way, what can it not do without?

Is it the person behind it – the winemaker or proprietor? Or is it the land and vineyards where the grapes are grown? Or is it something else, something more nebulous or intangible?

For most of us, most of the time, these are almost philosophical questions, most likely to be discussed, perhaps, in the more thoughtful seminars of an MBA course. But there comes a time in any brand’s life when they take on an altogether more serious, more urgent cast.

Take, for example, the fate of one of my favourite brands of recent years, California’s Varner. Run by the eponymous brothers Bob and Jim, this specialist in cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir had made a name for itself with the magnificent wines the brothers made from a cluster of plots in Spring Ridge high up in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Their journey had not been an easy one. The brothers developed the vines from scratch, starting way back in 1980 clearing the land by hand, and funding their work by starting up a wine import business. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that they would produce a wine from the vineyards. But they were soon among the leading lights in the state’s movement towards more balanced, Burgundian-influenced wines.

Then, in 2013, just as the brothers were reaping the rewards of widespread critical acclaim and ever-improving sales, their world was pulled out from under them. While the Santa Cruz Mountain vineyards they had built were entirely associated in their customers’ minds with the Varners, the brothers weren’t in fact the owners. That was the Neely family. Believing they’d make a better return on the land themselves, the Neelys gave the Varners a year’s notice, allowing them a final vintage using the vines in 2014.

It’s a sad story, and one the Varners have largely kept to themselves. They have instead switched their focus to new sites in the Los Alamos Valley near Santa Barbara, while the Neely family has taken on a winemaker to make wines from their land in Santa Cruz. Not having tasted the products of either venture, it’s hard for me to say which will be more in keeping with the Varner wines I’ve known and loved for years. Will the brothers’ winemaking talent be the key thing, or the vineyard sites they developed? It’s the closest thing you can get to a controlled experiment about the age-old debate: which is more important, the winemaker or the terroir?

Similar issues arise, for different (and even sadder) reasons, in the case of another of my favourite brands, Greek producer Hatzidakis. In this instance it’s the tragic early passing (aged 50) of the founder and driving force behind the Santorini brand, Haridimos Hatzidakis, in summer last year, that has brought such questions to light. Hatzidakis was such a singular, talented individual – and the brand he built was so tied to his distinctive ways of working and the idiosyncratic brilliance of his Assyrtiko wines – that it’s hard to imagine the brand without him. His daughter, Stella, and family have a daunting task ahead. But like Mathieu (son of Marcel) Lapierre and the various children and grandchildren who followed the Veneto’s late, great Giuseppe Quintarelli, they have the chance to prove that the most important elements of a great wine brand are love and commitment.

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