Do a quick search of online sellers who specialize in artisanal wines, and one of the promises they make is a commitment to work with “small, family-owned wineries”. There is an implicit assumption that smallholders are more ethical, more craft-oriented and better for the environment than their big counterparts.
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the wine market functions.
Against industrial farming
At the turn of this century, American publishing exploded with exposés of industrial farming. The first of these books, Fast Food Nation (2001) by Eric Schlosser, opened a window into a world of slaughterhouse horror, exploited workers, and junk food. Next came Morgan Spurlock’s film Super Size Me (2004), where Spurlock ate nothing but McDonalds for a month and documented its atrocious impact on his body.
The most powerful critique of all, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), documented how industrial production of food in the US was leading to disease, a reliance on petroleum and unfathomable cruelty to animals.
Almost nothing did as much to ruin the reputation of Big Agriculture as Pollan’s book, which also inspired a steady stream of books and documentaries exposing how industrial farming destroys not just human health, but also the environment.
On top of that, the past decade has seen the environmental outlook darken, prompting consumers to care even more about how their food is produced. Those who could afford to do so began to reject industrial food, heading instead to farmer’s markets to buy from small, family farms.
But this binary model of massive industrial production versus small farm production is a feature of US agriculture. It doesn’t apply to wine.
Wine is diverse
The difference between wine grapes and most food crops is that wine grapes can be both a commodity and a luxury crop. Wine has a deep heritage, but it’s also a trendy modern hobby. For many people, it’s a low margin business, but for others it’s an enterprise that brings in millions of dollars.
Wine can be many different things, and this diversity is reflected in the makeup of the industry. In wine, shareholder-driven corporations are the outliers, rather than the norm. While their power over supermarket shelves is undisputed, there are so many other business types that the David and Goliath model isn’t a true reflection of how the wine market functions.
If you were to visit some of the bigger cooperatives of Europe, for example, you’d typically see drab headquarters surrounded by an industrial-looking tank farm. Such cooperatives aren’t soulless corporations, however, but social enterprises that provide a livelihood for hundreds of grape growers. Many of them, particularly in Italy, were founded at a time when economic conditions were so bad, people were emigrating. Co-ops kept people on the land and rural areas alive. Today, their in-house viticulturists are helping the grape growers farm more sustainably. Should they be dismissed as industrial producers — or appreciated as anchors of their rural communities?
Or what about the many vanity projects, owned by magnates who made their money in other industries, who have called in expensive consultants to create water recycling systems, and soil regeneration and species renewal programs? While people might baulk at supporting millionaires, there’s no doubt that their money buys excellent land stewardship. Then there are the medium-to-large companies — from both the Old and New World, many family-owned — that are partnering with universities to do research into better land and water use.
The hard truth about state-of-the-art sustainability systems is that they’re expensive, and it’s generally wealthier wineries that can afford them.
On the other side, there are still small, family-owned vineyards and wineries that are a long way from the bucolic ideal; struggling vignerons, whose lands are blighted from excess chemical use, because they need the yields. Or whose lack of manpower means that family members are exploited. Small can be beautiful — but it can be dysfunctional and ugly, too.
How do you know?
While there are plenty of small wineries that fit the ideal, size and structure alone tell you almost nothing about whether a winery is environmentally and socially ethical or not. Certifications aren’t perfect, but they’re the most reliable way of judging.
The beauty of wine is its diversity — and that includes the many different types of wineries that produce it.