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Full Disclosure: Who Makes Your Wine?


IN OCTOBER, PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA received the Nobel Peace Prize. The award engendered much controversy as many observers of the international scene were flummoxed as to why Obama received this prize. (Remember, though, both Henry Kissinger and Yassar Arafat, hardly hardcore peaceniks, received it, too.) It’s not so difficult to figure out why our President was anointed in Norway: The Beer Summit put him over the top.

The Beer Summit—where Obama chilled over brewskis with Professor Louis Henry Gates, Jr., of Harvard, Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department and-inexplicably-Vice-President Joe Biden, all in the name of advancing racial harmony. Many thought the Beer Summit was a cheesy idea, though just as many thought it was a brilliant “teachable moment” of statecraft.

But here’s where the Beer Summit really went wrong: The President drank Bud Light because, in the words of Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, Obama “is sticking to the good old American brand.” Too bad Bud is owned by InBev of Belgium. Gates chose a Red Stripe, the most popular beer brewed in Jamaica, but owned by the British beverage conglomerate, Diageo, which also produces Guinness, Harp and Tusker. Crowley chose Blue Moon, a “craft” weisbier brewed in Golden, Colorado, and owned by the beer monolith SAB Miller/Molson Coors, which has corporate origins in pre-Mandela South Africa. Biden chose a non-alcoholic (less than 0.5 percent alcohol) Buckler, owned by the humongous Heineken International and produced in the Netherlands (though not available there since the beer and its drinkers became the butt of jokes by Dutch standup comic Youp Van’t Hek).

American craft and microbrewers were not happy with the Beer Summit, and rightfully so. It is amazing to think that someone with the political skills and intellectual rigor of Barack Obama wouldn’t know, or didn’t care to know, that all of these beers were produced by non-American multinational corporations.

But do you know who produces your favorite wines?

The American wine industry is relatively healthy, though battling the depression of recession like so many other businesses. Many people who enjoy wine have a romantic vision of who makes their preferred wines—an individual, an artisan who grows and harvests grapes, then makes those grapes into an exquisite beverage to accompany a lovely lunch or dinner. This image of the winemaker as a man or woman of enormous integrity, a person who is one with the earth, has been promulgated by the wine industry for decades. In some cases, that image is close to true; often, however, the wine you enjoy is the product of corporate decision—making, consumer preference surveys and consultants who chime in on flavor, aromatics, labeling and, above all, “price point.” Just as we make choices in the foods we purchase for our families to eat, we might also want to know when the wines we drink are the vinous equivalent of agribusiness.

Let’s take a look at the most venerable name in the history of Napa Valley wine. Robert Mondavi, who died in 2008, built the reputation of his eponymous winery with the able assistance of his sons Michael and Tim, and his daughter, Marcia. It might not surprise you to know that since 2004 nobody named Mondavi has worked at the Robert Mondavi winery, and that it is, in fact, owned by the world’s largest wine company, Constellation.

Constellation, an American-Australian partnership, began life as the Canandaigua Wine Company (it still maintains its corporate offices in New York State in the Finger Lakes town of Victor). Canandaigua, then as now led by the Sands family, cut its teeth on Manischewitz wines, which Constellation still owns. About 15 years ago, Canandaigua began to acquire many wine brands, some of them known for high quality and beloved by connoisseurs, some of them bargain brands. But let’s focus on the moderate- to high-end of Constellation’s wine business.

Do you enjoy the wines of Robert Mondavi, Clos du Bois, Estancia, Franciscan Estate, Mount Veeder Winery, Ravenswood, Simi and Wild Horse from California? How about Hogue from Washington State? Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs from Canada? Alice White, Banrock Station, Chateau Reynella, Hardys, and Leasingham from Australia? Kim Crawford, Monkey Bay, and Nobilo from New Zealand? Ruffino from Italy? These and dozens of other international wine brands are owned by Constellation.

Or maybe you really enjoy Louis M. Martini and William Hill wines from the Napa Valley, as well as Mirassou wines from Monterey, or the Sonoma County Heritage Vines Zinfandel of Rancho Zabaco? All owned by Gallo, along with Barefoot, Dancing Bull, Frei Brothers, MacMurray Ranch, and Turning Leaf (all California), Black Swan and McWilliam’s (Australia), Ecco Domani and DaVinci (Italy), Martín Codax and Las Rocas (Spain), and Red Bicyclette (France). Gallo, a privately held, third-generation wine company, owns many other wine brands and is the largest winery in the United States—the third-largest wine conglomerate in the world. Gallo’s Barefoot brand produces the top-selling sparkling wine in the United States, Barefoot Bubbly.

Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay is the argest-selling white varietal wine in the United States—no surprise there—but Jackson Family Estates also owns Matanzas Creek, Arrowood, Byron, Murphy-Goode, Stonestreet, Edmeades, Cambria, La Crema, Hartford Family, Robert Pecota, and Freemark Abbey, among several other famous California wine brands.

The largest-selling red wine in the United States may come as a surprise to you (it did to me): Menage a Trois Red Wine (more than a million cases sold) produced by Folie a Deux winery in California. Folie a Deux is just one brand owned by Trinchero Family Estates in California (the Trinchero family originally struck gold when they produced Sutter Home White Zinfandel in the late 1970s). In addition to Folie a Deux and the ubiquitous Sutter Home brand of wines, Trinchero also produces or controls distribution of Montevina, Terra d’Oro, Joel Gott, Bandit, Wild Bunch, True Earth (organic), and Newman’s Own, all from California, and Reynolds and Little Boomey from Australia. Trinchero’s Fre is America’s top brand of dealcoholized wines.

Nobody named Fetzer works at Fetzer winery, and hasn’t since the Fetzer family sold their brand to Brown-Foreman in the mid-1980s (Brown-Foreman owns Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve Bourbon, as well as Bonterra, Sonoma-Cutrer, Korbel and Little Black Dress wines).

There is nothing wrong with most of these wines; they’re all at least drinkable, and some are very good, even excellent. But what if we opt instead to choose wines produced by small producers—a single winery owned by a single family? We can start right here.

All of our Hudson Valley wineries are owned by valley residents, and the same type of resident ownership and commitment holds true for the overwhelming majority of wines produced in the Finger Lakes and Long Island.

In the end, drinking wines produced by large corporations may be inescapable if we drink wines on a regular basis, but sometimes it seems as though these corporations can’t resist the maxim that Bigger is Better. On the same day that President Barack Obama received his Nobel Peace Prize, Gina Gallo, the public face and director of winemaking for her family’s multinational winery, married Jean-Charles Boisset of France’s third-largest wine company and president of Boisset Family Estates. Boisset’s newest acquisitions include Raymond, DeLoach, and Lyeth wineries in California, and something called the Dan Ackroyd Discovery Series.

What would John Belushi say??

Hudson Valley Restaurant Week is back this April 8-21!