Big Isn't All Bad

'Small is Beautiful' ia a widely-held belief, while 'Big Wine' is demonised. Robert Joseph wonders whether this is fair.

Image by Alessio Zaccaria on Unsplash
Image by Alessio Zaccaria on Unsplash

There’s a fairly crucial difference between Victorian melodrama, superhero movies and old westerns on the one hand, and great literature on the other. In the former, the villains actually or metaphorically wear black hats to define them as the irredeemably bad guys.

Today, that same model has been introduced into our increasingly fractured landscape, with people on one side of the divide not only booing and hissing at everything politicians with whom they disagree may do or say, but also at anyone else who has had the temerity to express the ‘wrong’ views on any particular topic.

The wine world is fortunately a fairly friendly place, but I’m increasingly seeing one target of black hat demonisation: ‘Big Wine’. If Gallo, Constellation and The Wine Group et al were to be eradicated by a vinous superhero, the world would, it seems, instantly be transformed into a far better place. The term, deliberately echoing ‘Big Pharma’ and ‘Big Ag’ was coined before the pandemic, which is somewhat to its disadvantage. The vaccines may indeed have been invented by brilliantly clever individual scientists, but, without the infrastructure created by the pharmaceutical giants, countless numbers of people would have perished across the planet. 

That’s not to say that, beyond this and a long list of other medical breakthroughs from which its critics almost certainly benefit, Big Pharma is a white hat-wearing hero. These are big corporations that, like emperors and presidents, often behave at the very least questionably, and sometimes downright badly. But they do not personify evil. 

What about Big Ag?

Big Ag, the manufacturers of the industrial pesticides and fertilisers that have given us DDT, growth hormones in beef and antibiotic-packed chicken and fish, are also responsible for doubling agricultural yields over the last 50 years and, over the last two decades, contributing to some 50m fewer children under five suffering from stunted growth - a key indicator of malnutrition. It is far easier for a comfortably-off European or American to pontificate about switching from industrial to organic agriculture - and the dangers of GM - from the comfort of their centrally-heated metropolitan home than for an NGO worker in the third world looking to get rice into children’s stomachs today.

Plagues of locusts can devastate entire regions in a terrifyingly short time.The pesticides used to combat them have been wasteful and damaging to the environment, but at least they’ve been effective against the insects. Now, thankfully, there’s an environmentally-friendly, publicly-funded biopesticide alternative called Green Muscle that appears to work well. But, like the vaccines, for it to be widely used, it needs promotion and distribution. Two companies have been involved since the outset, but more will be needed. Big Ag to the rescue?

So, what about wine? When one of my favourite winemakers and people, Randall Grahm set out to produce a new range of ‘truly original’ wines from Rhone varietals in California, after a lifetime’s experience of rowing his own boat, he knew he needed help. As he told the Wine Spectator, the project would be “essentially impossible for me to undertake entirely by myself”. So, he teamed up with Gallo. Having access to “some of their resources”, he said “enabled a number of things that would not have happened nearly as quickly or perhaps ever.” Was he supping with the devil? Or making a pragmatic decision to the benefit both of his business and the people who get to drink his wine.

Big Families

Over the decades, Gallo has certainly worn a black hat on occasion - as Ellen Hawkes recounted in her book ‘Blood & Wine’. The behaviour of some the company’s salesmen in the early days was heavy-handed to say the least.

But, if you ask around in the Californian industry, you’ll find many winemakers and viticulturists with no connection to Gallo who applaud the Modesto giant’s contribution to research and the surprisingly ‘green’ approach it has taken to its own vineyards, including efforts dedicated to biodiversity.

If Gallo has hidden these beneath a bushel, Jackson Family, another big family-owned producer and the largest in Sonoma, has noisily led by example to promote sustainability. It is committed to halving its carbon emissions by 2030 and becoming CO2-positive within the following two decades without any carbon offsets.

In 2019, Jackson Family joined forces with Torres one of Europe’s biggest and most influential wineries to launch International Wineries for Climate Action with the aim of “galvanising action within the global community to mitigate and reversing the impacts of climate change by decarbonising the industry” over the same timescale. This is the kind of ambitious initiative that would be beyond the reach of any small estate, or even collection of estates.

Another sizeable family-owned company, Castel, has, like Gallo, been reticent about its environmental efforts but, behind the scenes, it was introducing sustainable viticulture in France at a time when few others were even talking about it. (And I say this as a critic who hasn’t often been particularly enthusiastic about the wines produced in those vineyards.)

But Big Wine has done something else over the decades for which it deserves credit - also involving wines I don’t often want to drink myself. Ask countless middle aged wine drinkers how they began and they’ll mention a brand like Mateus, Riunite, Sutter Home, Blue Nun, or Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy. Their children and grandchildren are more likely to name Barefoot, Yellow Tail, Cupcake or 19 Crimes, but the story is the same: immediately appealing wines that have won over people who might have chosen a different beverage.

Some who were introduced to these wines will have progressed to discover ‘finer’ fare. Others may still be enjoying wines at this level. But, whatever the liquid in their glass, they’re all contributing to the wine industry. 

And yes, of course the bigger companies take up space on shelves that might be occupied by smaller ones, just as big-budget movies get to play in cinemas more easily than art-house efforts. But sometimes big studios do support independent productions, and Randall Grahm is pleased to be working with Gallo. 

Businesses and people rarely wear black or white hats, and there are very, very few supervillains or superheroes. That’s what makes the real world real.

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