Breaking Down Winemaking Styles

During a recent trip to Napa-Sonoma, California, I had the opportunity to interview several winemakers and talk with tasting room managers in the premium wine segment.  The discussion produced a large amount of material, but a few ideas stood out. One question continued to run over and over in my mind:  does a winery begin with some sort of vision for the final product?  If so, how does it come to be…

Is Wine Style Part of the Business Plan?


**INSERT Dilbert cartoon HERE** ©Scott Adams


Folks, I am not able to include this Dilbert cartoon, but you simply must click on this Link and check it out.  Funny stuff and right on point for this commentary.  This cartoon was excerpted from: Washington Business Journal, “Is your vision statement for real?”, Mar 17, 2011, Link Here.  Good read!  Unfortunately, even non-profit commentary use must still respect creative property!


The Vision

In the over $25/btl retail segment, I would say the wine itself easily contributes 2/3 (or more) to the brand identity.  Can you develop a brand, without developing a vision for the product?  I find this kind of discussion fascinating…

Is it important for employees and customers to understand that vision?

Should a Winery Have a “Wine Style”?

Every winery has a story to tell that differentiates them from the thousands of other producers in the marketplace.  That story is the cornerstone of each label.  So, what does this have to do with winemaking? Everything!  The questions posed in these interviews uncovered a glimpse into that underlying vision and ultimately how they wish their wines to be perceived by both their own organization and the consumer.

Why would an owner choose the difficult premium wine segment of the market in the first place?  There must be a calling, or a passion driving that decision?  Framing that story in a way that can capture a wine enthusiast’s imagination… is a message worth crafting.  So, where could wine style fit into this picture?  In this price category, more than any fancy, gimicky label design, or strategic marketing plan, the wine itself defines the brand.  If this thinking is sound, then the style of wine produced IS the winery’s identity.  Following this logic, finding a way to bring the story behind making the wine directly to the consumer is absolutely critical to building the brand.  If you look at wineries in this way, what stories do they have in common?  After interviewing enough winemakers / owners, you start to see commonalities.  In my opinion, the choice of wine style seems to manifest in one of three different ways:

1.  Begin With the Quality of the Fruit  –  Wine should express the character of the fruit and Terroir

  • This is the winemaker as viticulturist view.  Requires an emphasis on the wine growing.  With a complementary view of nurturing the vines to produce supreme quality fruit.  This is best implemented in an estate winery situation.

Impact on the Wine – Tends to add complexity and layering of flavors.  These wines often have a more defined mid-palate. This style is frequently made to be fruit-forward and emphasizes clarity and freshness.  This approach will usually drive good structure, but may not emphasize balance and often has a varietally correct flavor profile.  This style is typified by the winemaker as farmer – often with formal training in biology, botany, or agriculture and the winemaker leans heavily on learning his trade through internships and experience.

2.  Begin With Analyzing the Fruit  –  Better wine through better chemistry

  • This is the winemaker as technologist view.  Monitor and measure everything.  Wine is a mixture of chemical components and the optimum desired profile can be identified and reproduced.

Impact on the Wine – Brings more consistent quality.  These wines tend to focus on correct ratios.  There is rarely a desired component missing, but the product can often lack finesse.  Tannins, acidity, alcohol, phenolic development all carefully measured to arrive at the optimal formula generally accepted by the industry.  This style is typified by the winemaker with a UC Davis MS in Enology, who has taken the technological training completely to heart.

3.  Begin at the End  –  Start with a clear vision for the final product

  • This is the winemaker as artist view.  Where the winemaker is the star and bringer of quality.  This demands a winemaker as leader, who can leverage a history of experience, knowledge and technique to drive the wine to match his vision.

Impact on the Wine – These wines tend to be either elegant and composed, or knock your socks off with a focused over-the-top approach.  Focusing on the elegant approach…  Whether, or not the fruit is up to muster, these winemakers find a way to make the wine balanced and have great mouth-feel.  These most often are classically styled wines, with good structure, acidity, tannins and texture.  Flavors and aromas are less of an emphasis.  This style is typified by the winemaker as the leader and star – having a decade, or two of experience, always knowing the right decision to make, regardless of vintage variation.

Most wineries mix some combination of these ideas, but one of these philosophies typically shines through.

Does One Style Produce Better Wine?

The answer is most definitely no, but the wines within each style category do tend to have similar characteristics.  I enjoy wines in my cellar from producers that fall into all three categories, depending on my mood.

As a consumer, does identifying the story behind your favorite winery matter?

This time the answer is most definitely yes.  If you are like myself and many of the wine enthusiasts I know, we enjoy quality wines, but like to vary flavors and styles.  You may recognize these different styles in your favorite wines.

I have always found this to be sound advice:  “The key to finding new wines you are likely to enjoy, is to track the winemakers and vineyards.”  Pay attention to this information for your favorite wines and it will help you find other labels worth trying.  Connecting to the story behind your favorite winemakers and favorite vineyards can make your wine appreciation much richer.


Filed under Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Winemaker Interview

5 responses to “Breaking Down Winemaking Styles

  1. Pingback: Winemaker Interview – David Ramey of Ramey Cellars | Winemaker Interview Series

  2. What a great article, good points for our new wine region of San Diego County – can I get a pdf and your permission to reprint in an upcoming issue of the magazine – check us out. Teri Kerns, Editor –


  3. Jim Ruxin

    You make some good points, especially for California wine.

    But you ignore the non-interventionist school which lets the vineyard and the vintage determine the final product. Great wine are made this way, especially in the high end sector you mentioned, in which the wine and/or the winemaker is more of the star. Garagistes in Pomerol for example exemplify this. Kistler’s chardonnay’s disprove it, where the bottlings are less distinct and marked by the winemaker’s vision…generous oak. Peter Michael, on the other hand, has been known for less blousey, less oaked and more elegant chardonnay. There is a consistency of house style there as well.

    The notion of branding cannot be separated from the success of Phelps or Opus One. I think what you really mean is the notion of specificity, a character to the wine that is unique to it and will distinguish it from others. Not terroir alone, but a character the winemaker has chosen to achieve from his raw materials.

    The Phelps is a name that stands for quality, but beyond opulence at the top end, its commercial success relies as much on the success of wines at lesser price points that carry the cache of the brand without the price tag, but have the volume to make up for it in revenue produced.

    I heartily agree that wine lovers will have the most pleasure in tracking the winemakers and the vineyards…but not brands.


    • Thanks for the comment Jim. You are 100% right on the money with the 4th approach… but it minimizes the role of the winemaker and that was the major source for the original material… Plus, if you take the non-interventionist thinking too far, this style of wine is personally my least favorite – very inconsistent in character.

      To your last point, that was actually the underlying focus of the entire piece: U.S. wineries must start connecting their complete story to their brand. Wine Style is one of those stories to tell. In my small sample, the wine tasting room attendants had very little exposure to what their winemaker was trying to achieve. Developing the brand IS telling the story of the vineyard, the winemaker, the pursuit of quality, an Owner’s vision… Marketing a luxury product is connecting a product to a story. If a premium segment winery wants to establish their brand, they must craft that message carefully and make it part of the organizational DNA. My 2 cents anyway.


      • Jim Ruxin

        You identify another problem, in that tasting rooms are aimed at extracting dollars from tourists, not from passionate wine lovers who are more discriminating. Wineries do not pay their tasting room staffs enough to come with a lot of wine knowledge. Not required to sell wine at list to tourists.

        Commodification of wine beyond artisanal product to upscale dry goods supports your branding advice.