A Case For Single Vineyard Wines

by Jim law

December, 2014

This article takes a business perspective of the Virginia wine industry: a lack of a strong, consistent supply of Virginia grapes. I’ve heard grumblings from both sides of the equation. Growers aren’t getting paid enough to support their business. Wineries can’t find enough grapes. Over the years Linden Vineyards has had successful long-term relationships with two independent growers. Writing about money matters is difficult for me, but I feel compelled to tell our story.

The idea of single vineyard bottlings at Linden started with the 1997 vintage. For years we had only bottled one Chardonnay and one Cabernet. They were blends of various vineyards. When all the different lots went into one tank at blending time, it felt like a sad occasion. I always wondered how each individual vineyard lot would have expressed itself after bottling. This is the essence of the concept of terroir. Then came 1997, which was a beautiful cool and dry vintage. Each vineyard site was distinctly expressive and individual. This marked the beginning of single vineyard bottlings at Linden, which are now the backbone of all our bottlings.

There are three vineyards involved. The focus of this article is on the relationship of independent vineyards and wineries, so Hardscrabble, Linden’s estate vineyard, does not enter into this equation. Avenius Vineyard is owned and operated by Shari Avenius who has also been Linden’s general manager for the past 25 years. In 1995 Shari purchased a beautiful high elevation ridge of land above her house with the intention of planting grapes. One could say that her experience in the business and marketing side of the winery dissuaded her from any aspirations of starting her own winery. It was (and is) the farming aspect that was the attraction. Today Avenius Vineyard consists of 5 acres of grapes. Shari does the bulk of the work, but is also assisted during the busy times by part-time help. The vineyard is managed in a slightly unorthodox manner and is influenced by biodynamic and other spiritual forces. Avenius wines are sinewy, energetic and fresh.

Boisseau Vineyard is owned and operated by Richard Boisseau. Richard was a customer of Linden back in the 1990’s. His love of wine, gardening and his family farm led to planting vines beginning in 2000. Boisseau comprises 5 acres of vineyards which Richard meticulously manages himself along with some part-time help. The vineyard management is precise, manicured and conservative. The wines from his warmer vineyard site are fruit driven, very ripe, and hedonistic.

The common factors in both of the vineyards are a love of farming, an intellectual curiosity and the desire to produce the best wine that the land is capable of giving. While not involved in the day-to-day winemaking process, both growers help at crush and at blending trials. Over time, I have learned to value their perspectives both in the vineyard and with the wines. I’ve also learned that the personality of the grower needs to be respected throughout the entire process. Farming provides us with an inexplicable primordial satisfaction. The transformation our grapes into wine takes us to an even higher level of wonder.

A successful relationship between a winery and an independent grower has to be long term: in good times and bad. When certain plantings don’t work out, they are removed. When yields need to be reduced, grapes fall on the ground. In a wet summer when canopy work never seems to end, there needs to be more boots on the ground.

Making money is rarely the primary motive for anyone getting into this business. But whether we like it or not, profitability has to be any business’s first priority. Otherwise everything else falls apart. Over the years Boisseau, Avenius and Linden have had several contractual relationships including payment by the acre. Eventually this evolved into an old-fashioned handshake and verbal agreement that the grapes will always come to Linden for a good price. Both of these vineyards are within a few miles of Linden so we are all back and forth during the growing season keeping an eye on things and discussing strategies.

The gorilla in the room is how much does Linden pay for the grapes? With these two vineyard’s level of commitment, labor and quality, “market price” is way too low and unsustainable. In a marketing sense, the “brands” Avenius and Boisseau are now very important to Linden. If these vineyards can’t make money and they fold, the result would be a devastating loss, not only of production, but also of Linden’s identity. We are now co-dependent.

To determine grape pricing, I use the 100 times retail formula as a foundation. It is an old California model that I think has a lot of merit. Simply put, the price of a ton of grapes should be worth 100 times the retail price of the bottle. The grapes that make a $25 bottle should have been bought for $2,500. Over the years I have made one modification for Virginia, I have increased 100 times to around 110 times. This reflects the greater risk and expense of growing grapes in Virginia.

However, it’s not straightforward. Our wine production is based on triage and declassification. An example would be with the red grapes. Each vineyard grows the Bordeaux red varieties. As the season unfolds and the wines are made, those grapes will go into three different programs. At the top are our single vineyard bottlings which retail for $45/bottle. Anywhere from 0% (2011) to 60 % of the grapes will make it into this level in a given vintage. Next is Claret, which retails for $26. Claret comprises declassified barrels and hard press wine. Finally is Rosé which retails for $20. In some cases red grapes are picked specifically for Rosé, but most Rosé is made from bleeding (saignée) certain lots of crushed red grapes.

Pricing is determined on an historical average of the proportions of single vineyard, Claret and Rosé wines. If the relationships are long term, this works. In 2011 Linden overpaid for grapes, as there were no high valued single vineyard wines produced. In 2012 one could argue that the grapes were undervalued, as the percentage going to single vineyard wines was very high.

Over the past three vintages Linden has been able to pay more for grapes. This is commensurate with an increasing percentage of single vineyard wines (less declassification) of even better quality. With the increase in quality, I am comfortable charging a higher bottle price. Winemaking has, and will continue to improve, but the principle reason for the bump in both quantity and quality originates in the vineyards. As we have determined which varieties show the best promise, blocks have been pulled and replanted. We have a better understanding of appropriate canopy management, yields and picking strategies. All of this is a reflection of a long-term, shared goal: better wine.