Business

Large-scale vs. small-production winemaking: Is there a difference?

Adam LaZarre (center) with Garagiste Festival co-founders Stewart McLennan and Doug Minnick at Saturday’s festival in Paso Robles.
Adam LaZarre (center) with Garagiste Festival co-founders Stewart McLennan and Doug Minnick at Saturday’s festival in Paso Robles.

Adam LaZarre has made a million cases of wine a year — and a hundred. And the hundred, he says, is much harder.

Lazarre, who co-founded and sold Rex Goliath Wines for $30 million, oversees winemaking of several labels for BevMo, Costco and grocery stores at Wine Hooligans and makes small lots of sought-after LaZarre Wines with his wife, Angie, in Paso Robles. He shared some differences between large-scale and small-production winemaking at last weekend’s Garagiste Festival in Paso.

At LaZarre Wines, where he says he hopes to open a tasting room in the next year or so, it’s hands-on traditional winemaking: selecting the grapes and deciding when to pick them, aging the wine in oak barrels, and then determining what he needs to sell them for.

With large-scale winemaking, the sales price is set first and you work backward to the price per gallon.

“It’s making wine on a balance sheet,” said LaZarre, who’s also back at the helm of Cycles Gladiator, another national label he co-founded in 2005 and later sold. “If it’s going to sell for $56 a case, you have to make it for $36 a case.”

Large-scale production benefits from economies of scale with lower prices on items like bottles and corks, but producers — including some of Wine Hooligan’s larger labels — also employ a number of techniques to save time and money.

“Do you think I use French oak barrels?” LaZarre asked the crowd, noting a barrel can cost $1,000 or more. “Do you think I use barrels at all?”

High-volume wines are generally made in huge tanks, with wood chips, staves or even powder added to provide the oak flavor. Producers can inject tiny amounts of oxygen over a couple months to mimic a couple years of barrel aging.

There are tannin additives, flavor and color additives and even ones that replicate aging a wine on the lees (sediment from fermentation).

“Add this, and poof, it’s wine,” LaZarre said.

Large-scale producers also often buy finished wine on the bulk market and blend it in with their own.

And don’t think these shortcuts aren’t used in the Old World or pricey Napa and Sonoma operations, LaZarre said, noting he’s seen wineries in France and Spain that look like the inside of the Space Shuttle.

“There’s not a lot of difference with the more expensive wines,” he said. “Some are doing things I wouldn’t ever do. You would be surprised by a lot of what goes on.”

Sally Buffalo writes about wine, beer and spirits. Reach her at sallybuffalo@gmail.com or on Twitter@sallybuffalo.

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