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As a small business ourselves, we’re a big believer in the philosophy “size isn’t everything”. But what does it mean to be a small producer in the world of wine and spirits?
The meaning of "size isn't everything" in the context of the wine and spirits producers we work with at Sociovino is a little more nuanced than simply a “my vineyard is bigger than your vineyard” attitude. In fact, across the wine industry there has long-existed a machismo celebrating the inverse – and it’s only getting louder.
For both producer and buyer, the sex appeal surrounding the idea of the ‘underdog’ wine is gaining traction, wines that satisfy the criteria set by the obscurer-than-thou wine shoppers who would rather not show than rock up to a dinner party with a bottle any guests have ever seen before – let alone, dare we say it, already brought to the table.
Adelina Winery, Clare Valley, Australia
As in many areas of culture, obscurity is ‘in’ and, naturally, that means certain consumers (but by no means all) will go to any lengths to avoid spending their hard-earned money with a large corporation – wineries that fill over 1 million bottles a day just don’t quite cut the mustard in the era of shopping local and wonky vegetables.
At Sociovino we’re passionate about celebrating the small producer. We’re here to leave you a little clearer on why that is, perhaps you’ll leave equally passionate yourself or, at least, interested enough to give their wines a go. But before we launch into our love letter to these kinds of wineries, we wanted to (quickly) dismantle the dichotomy we’ve seen building between “large” and “small” producers – so often labelled “BAD” and “GOOD” with little qualification.
Harvest time for the Caiaffa winery
To do that, we’d like you to imagine some supermarket ham (bear with us) – either that perfectly pink pre-sliced ham that’s a fridge staple, ready to fill a humble sandwich anytime, anywhere or that packaged, processed, reconstituted meat that sends a shiver down the spine of the shopper who accidently stumbles into the deli isle. In either case, the reaction is spurred by a case of “knowing what you’re getting”, thanks to the intensive manufacturing techniques that seek to hide the origins of your ham, that focus on producing sufficient slices to fill the nation’s lunch boxes (and more), that ensure a flavour perfectly refined to appeal to broad consumer tastes.
Now we’d like to transport you to your local butcher, or that tiny butcher you stumbled across on a recent staycation. We’d like you to ask what the difference is between the three options that sit under your nose, unsliced, perhaps a little daunting, but intriguing nonetheless. We’d like you to recall the stories told by the butcher – of the pigs, the farm up the road, the people, the care in the curing process, the recommendations for their best accompanying pickle. That, reader, is passion for produce. And it’s the same passion, respect for experience and emphasis on quality that distinguishes your small producer from your large one. Large producers aren’t necessarily “BAD”, but they do create a different product. They exist to create wines that keep you within your comfort zone – financially and aesthetically. Small producers exist to create wines that blow your comfort zone to bits, rebuild it bigger and better, and blow your mind in the process through beautiful bottles with personalities you’ll never find on a supermarket shelf – a Jackson Pollock versus an IKEA print.
As with all good things in life, a precise definition is elusive. There’s no specific point at which a winery is stripped of its “small” status. We work with wineries that range in size from two hectares under vine to 150 growers each contributing their grapes to a cooperative winery. So, “small” is less a case of physical size than it is a case of a specific sensibility, a connection between the people making the wine, the land they harvest, its raw materials, and the finished bottle. Small wineries prioritise care, vision and consideration for the land, focusing on quality over quantity, and never cutting corners to drive profit to the detriment to the personality in their wines.
“Small” is less a case of physical size than it is a case of a specific sensibility, a connection between the people making the wine, the land they harvest, its raw materials, and the finished bottle.
The result is, of course, wines imbued with a sense of rarity. While in certain cases the number of bottles available from small producers is incredibly, well, small, we don’t look for rarity to propagate exclusivity. Too much of that already exists in the wine world. Instead, we celebrate rarity as something more down to earth. It’s the result of immense quantities of passion being imparted into areas of land that are small enough for their growers to fully know. Cantina Valle Isarco, a cooperative in Northern Italy’s Alto-Adige region describes its vineyards as “protected and cared for like children by the winegrowers”. Rarity is the result of having few back-up plans in response to challenging vintages or unexpected weather patterns that damage a yield. Each vintage differs from the last, making every bottle a rare glimpse into a certain time, place and person.
Cantina Valle Isarco harvest, Alto-Adige, Italy
Thinking about that little glimpse may sound romanticised – this is the wine trade so, of course, we’re hopelessly romantic – but if you’re not looking for romance in every glass of wine, we’ll encourage you to seek out, at least, a little intimacy. In the words of the Produttori del Barbaresco “each glass carries within itself an extraordinary story of men and women made of tradition, effort and pride”. Generation after generation of these growers have worked their Nebbiolo vineyards to produce the best grapes which are delivered to the winery they themselves founded in 1958. That ensures an intimacy no supermarket wine could dream of imitating, regardless of the extent to which they deploy marketing terms like “artisan” or “small-batch” – it’s why we like to (and can!) introduce you, personally, to all our producers. A relationship between winemaker or distiller and the customer who opens their bottle is something that can only exist when the philosophy of a producer originates in the person or families – not a balance sheet.
However, small production wines offer even more than an intimate window into their makers’ personalities – they glisten with a distinct sense of place. Tuscany’s Castello di Ama describes each bottle as a
“Walk through the streets of Ama”,
the town in which these wines have been made for centuries. But more than this, small production wines seek to celebrate, not obscure, the raw ingredients that shape them, and in doing so, allow the land loved by the growers to sustain a melody in the song that crescendos from every cup. Vittorio Capovilla, of the Capovilla distillery – heralded as one of the best distillers in the world – exemplifies this through unparalleled humility:
“If I start with an exceptional raw material, the only risk is to ruin it…all in all, I don’t invent anything”.
His exceptional range of grappe are, in essence, made in the fields and such is the case with small production wines and spirits in general. From Abruzzo to Australia, the land on which small producers work is prioritised over winemaking techniques. It is nurtured to produce the best quality fruit – generally with lower yields for more intense concentration of flavours – and it is cared for to ensure its productivity for future generations.
In many instances, care for the land is synonymous with organic or biodynamic farming practices and principles. Certified or not (and certification comes at a cost, so may simply be lacking in documentation and not in practice), small producers feel a responsibility for the earth from which they harvest and their connection to the land runs deep for many reasons. First, due to their heritage, usually defined by a long history of same-family ownership (fourth and fifth generation ownership is common). Second, due to respect for the quality of the site they own (usually in optimum and unique locations from mountains to coastlines). And third, due to a forward-thinking philosophy that has sustained the business thus far, whilst always focusing on its sustainability for the future.
Salcheto Obvius Bianco
The Salcheto winery is perhaps the clearest embodiment of such a philosophy, incorporating a respect for the land, water and energy usage, and waste into every step of their working processes. Their dedication to sustainability spreads further even, than their winery (which, as it happens, is entirely self-sufficient), as the first company in the world to have certified the carbon footprint of their wine bottles – there's a calculator on their website that allows you to track your impact from seed to sip. Such an attitude reflects a level of conscience, on a vineyard- and global-scale, possible only in small production. It also reflects a level of risk taking open only to small producers who possess a flexibility inaccessible to large corporations defined by their rigid financial targets. Natural winemaking, to name just one example, and its use of wild (and somewhat unpredictable) yeasts and spontaneous ferments doesn’t scream “born from a board-meeting brainstorm”, and neither does the long list of creative projects undertaken by small producers every year – either as a result of curiosity, accident or simply problem-solving when a vintage doesn’t quite go to plan. Exploring small producer wines and spirits exposes us to a new world of experimentation beyond the bounds of predictable taste.
Such a penchant for creativity leads us, then, to our key descriptor for the wines and spirits flowing from the barrels of our producers: big flavours. Big flavours don’t stem from infinitesimal control of yields of diluted fruits, planted to draw the greatest volume of liquid from extremely fertile and monocultured land. Big flavours don’t stem from ferments adjusted to a specification through precise measurements of additives ranging from acidifiers and oak flavourings to sugars and ‘mega purple’ colourants. Big flavours don’t stem from tanks diluted with water for maximum volumes and maximum profit. Big flavours aren’t designed to perfectly match the tastes of mass-consumers – instead they encourage us to step outside of our comfort zone, to approach a bottle of wine as we would a work of art: as a cultural phenomenon that’s been created to please, to educate, to challenge, but that unashamedly never claims to do all three for all people. In short, big flavours don’t come without a trust and belief in the land.
But that doesn’t mean big flavours – and small producer philosophies - need to break the bank. It does require, however, a little consciousness when it comes to cost and working out what you’re paying for. Take a £5 bottle of wine. The total cost for the liquid itself comes to just 0.30p. The rest covers the cost of tax, importation and packaging. When it comes to small producers, you experience what you pay for – and even an extra £5 will go a long way to converting your print to your Pollock.
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