Last week E&J Gallo consummated their deal to purchase a bunch of cheap wine brands from fellow booze titan, Constellation Brands. Gallo paid about $800 million for some lower-end brands like Wild Horse and Arbor Mist as well for as some mid-priced grocery store labels such as Estancia. Estancia’s Pinots and Cabs go for about $13 at my local Vons.
The deal would have been even bigger had the Federal Trade Commission not intervened. The FTC forced them to slim down the transaction to maintain a semblance of competition in several wine segments and the brandy market. Despite the FTC’s recent efforts, consolidation seems to be the inevitable endpoint of every major industry including wine.
Alas, I still have hope. I remain optimistic that wine will remain one of a few quiet corners of economic life where the consumer can still, for the time being, avoid the titans of modern industry. Independent wine shops and producers need not go the way of locally owned pharmacies and hardware stores. We can all easily buy wine from smaller producers with a little attention and effort.
You can do it by buying from local wineries in the US. I appreciate handcrafted and hand sold small lot Cabernet from Sonoma Valley and Pinot Noir from the Willamette. It may cost an arm and a leg, but that option thankfully still exists.
However, even in those appellations, truly independent family producers are getting rare. Increasingly they are snapped up and then packaged into bigger networks. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this and it may not matter when your wine is poured into the glass.
However, if I have a choice in 2021 I will choose to give my money to as independent entity as possible. This includes producers and their partners in importation and distribution. I find it simply easier to do this when buying European wines. Let’s take an example of a Sicilian winery whose wines I thoroughly enjoyed in 2020.
Azienda Agricola Emanuele Scammacca del Murgo is a typical Italian story. The Scammacca del Murgo family have long owned their roughly 75 or so acres of land, but only recently did they modernize it and bring up the quality and production of the winery. The wines of Etna are increasingly sought after around the world, yet Murgo’s wines still come in around $20.
Italy’s ability to deliver quality wine and move it halfway around the world at half or less the cost of US producers is a topic for another day.
I came across Murgo’s Etna Rosso and Etna Bianco wines first in a small but mighty wine shop in Shelburne, Vermont. Murgo’s east coast importer, Skurnik helps bring those wines in from Sicily and then gets them into the hands of shop owners across the eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, I also found them at one of my favorite shops in greater LA, the Wine Country. North Berkeley Imports handles their west coast business.
These are relatively small production, affordable, inspiring wines from a wild place. Their Etna Bianco in particular reminded me of the best elements of good Chablis, but with a volcanic mineral streak that sets it apart. Good Chablis is also much more costly.
This brings me back around to my original point. Massive wine organizations like Gallo and Constellation now own or exclusively import many well-known Italian brands. Gallo owns Ecco Domani, La Marca, and Brancaia and imports other big name Italians. You can pay $15 for La Marca Prosecco in a Target, or $17 for Murgo’s sparkling wine if your local wine shop carries it.
When you choose wine like Murgo, your money goes into something more personal than a megacorporation. You might sustain a family’s stewardship of a beautiful piece of this planet for a bit longer. Right now being able to make small gestures such as that is very important to many people including myself.
And it helps that finding gems like Murgo has become easier than ever before. We are living in a golden age of Italian wine production paired with a flourishing of thoughtful importers and retailers. Cin cin to that in 2021.