Patrick Brunet of Domaine de Robert, farms roughly 2,500 vines per acre by hand
In wine production, oak barrels (see here for more on this subject) are the second largest expense after grape purchases, unless, of course you already own the grapes, having grown them yourself. In industrial “winemaking,” where a company needs to fill its “brand position” in the marketplace with many multiples of thousands of cases, this is rarely, practically never the case.
Whether you’re “Cupcake Vineyards,” and buying grapes or ready-made “wine” on which you’ll slap your label (or a multi-national, publicly-traded marketing corporation most known for luggage that does the same), the “raw material,” grapes, are one of your largest expenses. This brings us to farming.
Before we get started down that road, let’s first establish how things work with our producers; 99.5% of them farm their own vineyards, and do so sustainably. Most are fully “organic,” some are "certified" in their respective countries (a nightmare process in France and Italy), and a good number farm biodynamically. There is a rare exception made only when we know the exact relationship between the grapes and the winemaker. All you need do is ask. Now that that’s out of the way:
If you’ve ever wondered why we don’t carry the typical “large selection” of industrial-scale “wine” that you’d find in a typical liquor store, it’s because we care about the foods we eat, and think our customers care about the foods they eat as well.
Industrial farming and the math of grape
The average price of “industrially-farmed-famous-grapes” in California in 2020 (wine grapes, red and white, averaged out between them) was around $675 per ton.
In rough math, it takes about 16 tons of grapes to make 1,000 cases of wine. Do the math, and it’s about $0.89 per bottle, cost to the winery. Add in the costs of corks, bottles, labels, and case packaging, and you're conservatively at about $1.35*
Keep in mind that this is for fruit farmed at roughly 900 (average) vines per acre (planting density), fertilized, herbecided, irrigated, farmed and harvested by machine–at upwards of 10 tons of grapes per acre (let’s be kind, and say the average is 5 tons) of grapes per-acre. These are grapes that are, qualitatively, on par with the “tomatoes” farmed for Ragú® Tomato Sauce. Another analogy: industrially-farmed beef, pork, chicken and corn. All the same stuff going into what many consumers eat and/or drink on a regular basis.
The kind of grapes that result from small, artisan producers like those with whom we work, are a whole different thing. Our producers generally have more than twice as many vines per acre, farm sustainably, and produce 2-3 tons per acre (many, even with higher “density” plantings, produce less). These are healthy, fully developed grapes–it’s much more involved than just ripening the sugars (brix, for you wine geeks out there). And these grapes demand respectful, thoughtful winemaking of the type you have a right to expect.
Industrially-farmed grapes require techniques that don’t resemble “winemaking” as you might expect—they require “food-processing” techniques. These techniques may include the use of oak alternatives which are employed during multiple stages of “production,” as well as spinning cones, reverse osmosis, various and sundry chemical additions, and a host of other techniques to arrive at a commercially viable “wine.” They are to real wine as Ragú® is to homemade marinara in Abruzzi…in July…from a little old lady’s garden. So, if you’ve ever wondered why we don’t carry the typical “large selection” of industrial-scale “wine” that you’d find in a typical liquor store, it’s because we care about the foods we eat, and think our customers care about the foods they eat as well.
*This, of course, isn’t what you pay. That “buck-thirty-five” equals about $5.50 of the price you pay at a typical liquor store. This is for reasonably “good-quality,” industrially-farmed fruit. You can buy industrially-farmed grapes for a lot less, and the quality will be equal to the cost–as little as $1.75 by the time it hits a liquor store. For those of you keeping score, it stands to reason that “Two-Buck-Chuck” isn’t something you’d want to ingest.