By Lara Whiteley, GrapeConnect Contributor
February 08th, 2019
The perception of bulk wine undoubtedly varies based upon where you sit in this multifaceted industry. Somewhere in this web, the misconception that bulk wine defines solely large-scale operations, loss of character, and gargantuan store displays abounds. However, there are many benefits that the bulk market provides to countless different wine related businesses. Outlining a few of the main ones perhaps will expand the understanding of this realm of the industry outward from its close affiliates.
The wine industry is an agricultural business and Mother Nature is head of payroll. “[The bulk market] can protect your brand and supplement bad harvests,” explains Sean Wilborn founder of Cloudland Vineyards & Winery, one of the newest additions to the Georgia wine scene. A vigneron could end harvest with less fruit than expected due to that pesky post bud-break freeze or hailstorm or, moving more to the extreme, a heart wrenching earthquake or wildfire. Turning to the bulk market allows the business to remain relatively steady. On a positive note, harvests of plenty, 2018 for example, can leave a winemaker with more fruit than tank space. Excess fruit can be turned into a business deal versus fodder for wasps and yellow jackets.
Having worked at the helm of a winery with 100,000+ case production prior to his new found boutique winery in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Wilborn speaks to the benefits he sees on both ends. “For large wineries, when your tasting room has huge visitor volume, [the bulk market] is a huge component of keeping up with demand in a limited operational space. If you have more demand than your cellar can handle, you lean on the bulk wine industry to keep customers happy, meet demand, and maintain consistency. From a boutique winery standpoint, I cannot afford five 20,000 gallon tanks nor do I have the space. Supplementing some bulk that fits my style allows me to grow my brand as well as vineyard operations.” Moreover, this market also gives regions without prime grape growing conditions the ability to supplement their crops and maintain an income that it may not be able to support on its own.
Defining the bulk industry does not have to interpret to a loss of terroir. Bonded in the later part of the 70s, Doyle Hinman of DW Hinman Cellars has since curated his business model around the private label market. “I really enjoy what I am doing it gets me back on the production side…this new venture is very, very, very good. I only wish I had thought about it many years before, but I don’t know that it would have worked many years before.” With more companies adopting private labeling, alternative packaging, virtual wine clubs, and companies like Blue Apron adding wine to their offerings, a growing demand exists for the bulk market and opportunities abound for companies like Doyle’s.
Commenting on the aforementioned stigma, the seasoned Oregonian gave us his take and how he works to combat it.“For lack of a better word, an occupational hazard is the term itself – bulk wine.” Doyle is no stranger to lackluster responses when it comes to describing the industry to those that are not as familiar. “I feel the connotation that prevails is that bulk wine is somebody else’s problems. It doesn’t have an identity for itself.” As Doyle has occasionally experienced, some sellers are keeping the best lots from themselves while selling what is left over. Although an understandable approach for the seller, this is not all there is to be found on the market. For him, the wine he sources need not only be pleasing to the palate but more importantly true to its sense of place, for his business this is Oregon Pinot Noir. In speaking to an expression he tasted for a project not long back he notes, “it was not bad but it just did not have any of the character that I think Oregon Pinot has to offer… It was not the Oregon Pinot Noir that I think the world needs to be aware of.” His model allows him to be a steward for terroir coast-to-coast and country-to-country providing his clients with the best expression he can procure and create. Visit the DW Hinman Cellars webpage to learn more about his business model.
Yes, the bulk market does fuel large formats, cult followings, and 125 case drops to retail outlets. Perhaps this is where the noses turn – but why? As wine professionals, lest we forget the needs and desires of the consumer? The avid collector only hunting for the best vintages of Barolo and Burgundy exists, but does this represent the entire consumer market? Definitely not. There is a segment of consumer that could care less about vintage variation and terroir but prefer knowing that each time they pull a bottle from the vast sea of options they’ll be getting old faithful. From a wine education standpoint, what better way to introduce a complete novice to the vast world of wine than by beginning with bottles that make them feel comfortable. A person must have a general appreciation of literature before diving into Thoreau or Steinbeck, an invitation before crossing the threshold. The flip side being that many consumers that shop in this arena are avid consumers. They have found after long last precisely what checks all of their boxes without forgoing balance or complexity. Quality ranges in every corner of the industry from annual production of 8,000 cases to 100,000 cases.
Multi-dimensional thinking when it comes to the bulk wine market is a must. Its’ purpose is not linear, but rather opens the door to all consumers, producers, wholesalers, and businesses providing a platform for each to thrive. The esteem and respect for those bottling 100% estate should forever remain but an understanding that quality, complexity, and balance can exist outside of this realm is one that we at GrapeConnect stand by. We are here to support both ends of the spectrum and all that flows in between.