Small Family Wineries: Fantastic to Drink, Tough to Get Your Hands On
Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 7:37PM
truthinjuice in Bryant Family, Cabernet Sauvignon, Guild Fine Meats, Harlan Estate, Merlot, Neal Rosenthal, Nichelini Family Winery, Robert Parker, Scarecrow, Screaming Eagle, Small Family Wineries, Wine Recommendations, Wine Spectator, Winestyr

In the time that I have been writing about wine, I have made no secret of the fact that I have a tremendous affinity for small family estate wineries. I believe these wines are the truest representation of what wine should be. They are crafted without the influence of corporate oversight, by those who make wine as a labor of love above all else. The proprietors of small family estate wineries are out in the vineyards almost every day, closely monitoring the growth and development of the grapes. They are either directly involved in the harvest of the grapes, or are judicious overseers in the process. They know their land, they know their craft, and their wines are their passion. As anyone who regularly drinks small production, craft wines can tell you, this passion is reflected in their taste. There is a singularity, and a uniqueness that is found in these wines. They are not just simply another wine in the supermarket aisle.

Unfortunately, finding small production, craft wines in the supermarket aisle is a seemingly impossible task. These wines rarely see distribution, and are not often found in mass market retail outlets. The majority of the wines that you will encounter in a supermarket, or other mass market retail outlets will come from one of the country's major wine firms (e.g., Gallo, Constellation, The Wine Group, Trinchero, Treasury)Philip Howard, of Michigan State University, has done a wonderful job profiling the effect that these major wine firms have had on wine consumption habits in the United States. Wine Folly recently made the point that one in every four wines is a Gallo brand wine, and that small production wine purchases are the exception rather than the norm. 

Part of the reason that most small production wines don't make it to consumers is because they lack the production volume to secure widespread distribution, or in some cases, any distribution at all. Even boutique retail shops are unable to obtain the vast majority of the country's small family wines, because they lack distribution. When a winery is making only 500 cases (6,000 bottles) of wine a year, it is tough for its wines to garner national exposure, simply because of the basic premise of supply and demand. For many small family estate wines, there simply isn't enough wine to go around. For some small production wines that are fortunate enough to receive positive reviews from critics such as Robert Parker, or the Wine Spectator, the tenets of supply and demand work in their favor. Wines such as Scarecrow, Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, and Bryant Family are examples of small production American wines that have developed cult followings due to positive critical reviews, despite the fact that most make less than 1,000 cases per year. Collectors chase these "trophy" bottles, gleefully paying more than $500 per bottle, so that they can stock their cellars with 95+ point rareities.

However, what about those wines that aren't fortunate enough to make it into the pages of Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, or The Wine Spectator? Does it mean they aren't worth consuming? While there is no denying that these publications do an amirable job of providing tremendously broad coverage of the spectrum of wines available to consumers, the sheer volume of wineries that exist on a national basis dictates that providing complete coverage of the world's wineries is a physical impossibility. The New York Times reported that at the end of 2013, there were 3,839 wineries in California alone. To put that number in perspective, that means that in order to provide a review of all of California's wineries in 2013, a critic would have had to visit more than 10 wineries a day, every day of the year. It's a staggering task, and for many small production wineries, it means that although their wines are of exceptionally high quality, the vast majority of consumers don't know about them.

Introducing consumers to craft wines is not an easy task. Importers have staked their reptutations on building portfolios dedicated to small family estate wines, natural wines, small production wines - you name it. However, these wines remain part of a distinct subculture. They are revered by wine enthusiasts, and ignored by the masses. Something like Gallo's Apothic Red, which can be readily found on a case stack display in the local supermarket, will always have more universal cache than a Pinot Noir from Switzerland that can only be found in a boutique wine shop. Neal Rosenthal has developed a cult following for his importation of small production, terroir driven wines from Italy, France, Switzerland, and Spain, but to those who are not wine enthusiasts, he is just another name. 

Interestingly, while there are importers such as Rosenthal, who have focused on bringing imported craft wines to the attention of the American consumer, until recently, there has been virtually no avenue through which American consumers could gain access to the thousands of small family estate wines that are produced in this country, but do not enjoy widespread distribution. A few months ago, I was thrilled to discover, an online wine website, dedicated to bringing mainstream attention to American craft wines. While at first glance, Winestyr may seem like just another online wine website, its mission is truly revolutionary. By providing these small family estate wineries with an online platform through which to distribute their wines, Winestyr is taking an important first step in breaking down the barriers that have prevented many American consumers from enjoying these exceptional craft beverages.

When I spoke with Winestyr co-founder and CEO, Bob Wilson, he told me that he felt like he was speaking to his doppelganger, due to our shared passion for promoting myth-free wine education, and appreciation for small production wines. After a brief discussion of wines that we had enjoyed, Bob recommended that I try Winestyr's collection of wines from Nichelini Family Winery. Nichelini is a Napa Valley winery, and is the oldest continuously operating winery in the U.S., with production dating back to 1890. The winery is currently under its fifth generation of family ownership, and still employs a family winemaker. Sadly, due to its lack of distribution, without Winestyr, I likely would have never learned of Nichelini.

2010 Nichelini Family Winery Merlot2009 Nichelini Family Winery Cabernet SauvignonOver the last few weeks, I have had the chance to enjoy Nichelini's 2010 Merlot, as well as their 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. Both were delicious. The Merlot was deep and brooding, with a plush, dense full-bodied character. Red fruit flavors jumped from the glass, while the palate was packed with flavors of plums, red fruit jam, and a hint of mint in the finish. The Cab was far more delicate, with a medium-bodied character, and silky tannins that kept me coming back for another sip, until the bottle was gone. Aromas and flavors of kirsch liqueur and dark fruits dominate the wine, but are clean, crisp, and pure. I enjoyed the bottle with a house marinated steak dinner from Guild Fine Meats, and it was one of the more enjoyable meals that I've had in the past few weeks.

What all this means to say, is that small family estate wines are worth your time. They may not be easy to find, but in a day and age where we expend the time and effort to enjoy craft beers, grass-fed steaks, and organic vegetables, why should we should we sacrifice when it comes to wine? Sites like Winestyr are making it increasingly easy to obtain these craft bottles, and although they might not have the brand recognition of the wines that you find on a supermarket shelf, or in the pages of the Wine Spectator, they are every bit as good, if not better.

Article originally appeared on Truth In Juice: Wine Education & Commentary (
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