Some time ago, I saw a report on the surge in popularity of craft beer and how large breweries have been slow to react to this segment of the market, which is experiencing double-digit annual growth. Of course, if you have the funds, you can buy your way of any hole. In 2011, for example, Anheuser-Busch bought Goose Island Brewery, a well-regarded craft brewery in Illinois.
The underlying questions of the piece were: Can Goose Island maintain its standards and is it truly a craft brewery when it’s owned by a beer-making behemoth?
Americans love the scrappy, little guy who sends the long-time champ reeling. Nobody roots for Goliath when David lets fly his slingshot.
I was thinking of Goose Island on a recent tour of Alexander Valley, Calif., when I was smitten by a particular cabernet sauvignon. With its dark, intense flavors of blackberry and dark cacao and its firm tannins, it certainly spoke to where the grapes were grown—wind-swept cliffs hanging high above the valley below. The owner of these vines explained that they typically vinify a mind-numbing 200-plus separate lots (some less than acre in size), each with its own unique characteristics. She also said that the 900-acres of vineyards (many of which cannot be accessed by tractors due to the extreme slope) are spread out over her 5,100-acre estate.
When wine lovers hear these details, they say: “Wow, an artisan hillside cab from Alexander Valley. Can I try that?”
When accountants or winery owners hear these details, they say: “Wow, that’s really expensive. Can we try making wine from other vineyards?”
The wine that bowled me over was the 2009 Stonestreet “Rockfall” Cabernet Sauvignon ($75). The owner in question is Barbara Banke. Banke’s “other” winery is Kendall-Jackson.
I’m not here to ponder Kendall-Jackson’s place in the wine world or consider its ubiquitous Vintner’s Reserve brand. I cannot help but wonder why it’s difficult at times—and impossible for some—to love a wine made by one of the largest winemakers in the United States.
At a seminar at the winery, a group of sommeliers laughed as Stonestreet winemaker Graham Weerts described the difficulties of growing and harvesting hillside grapes, like the time one of the tractors rolled over. I sat next to Banke, who wasn’t laughing as hard as the rest of us. I asked her if this operation made any money.
Naturally, she was coy with her answer. She did point out there are years when not a lot of wine is made due to extreme climatic conditions. I then asked her if an independent, artisan winemaker without the financial backing of Jackson Family Wines could do what Stonestreet does. She refused to speculate, but said the wines almost certainly would be more expensive in order to pay all the workers who must hand-harvest the grapes, buy the $800 oak barrels, live with the reality of not producing much of anything to sell from time to time and to repair tractors that roll down the hill from time to time.
I’m not in a position to judge whether Goose Island beers are better or worse now that Anheuser-Busch owns the brewery. I can tell you that I’ve sought out Stonestreet cabernets since my return and generally have been rewarded with an enjoyable wine, especially when you consider the price.
[Since Rockfall is made in minuscule amounts, finding it may be a challenge. Stonestreet’s Monument Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon is slightly more abundant and well worth the $48.]
Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog