The Math of Grapes

 Patrick Brunet of Domaine de Robert, farms roughly 2,500 vines per acre by hand

In wine production, oak barrels are the second largest expense after grape purchases, unless, of course you already own the grapes, having grown them yourself. In industrial “winemaking,” where a company needs to fill its “brand position” in the marketplace with many multiples of thousands of cases, this is rarely (practically never) the case.

Whether you’re “Cupcake Vineyards,” and buying grapes or ready-made “wine” on which you’ll slap your label (or a multi-national, publicly-traded marketing corporation most known for luggage that does the same), the “raw material,” grapes, are one of your largest expenses. This brings us to farming.

Before we get started down that road, let’s first establish how things work with our producers; 99.5% of them farm their own vineyards, and do so sustainably. Most are fully “organic,” some are “certified” in their respective countries (a nightmare process in France and Italy), and a good number farm biodynamically. There is a rare exception made only when we know the exact relationship between the grapes and the winemaker. All you need do is ask. Now that that’s out of the way:

If you've ever wondered why we don't carry the typical ``large selection`` of industrial-scale ``wine`` that you'd find in a typical liquor store, it's because we care about the foods we eat, and think our customers care about the foods they eat as well.

Industrial farming and the math of grapes

The average price of “industrially-farmed-famous-grapes” in California in 2014 was around $1,200 per ton.

It takes about 16 tons of grapes to make 1,000 cases of wine. Do the math, and it’s about $1.60 per bottle, cost to the winery.*

Keep in mind that this is for fruit farmed at roughly 900 (average) vines per acre, fertilized, herbecided, irrigated, farmed and harvested by machine – at upwards of 10 tons (sometimes more) of grapes per-acre. These are grapes that are, qualitatively, on par with the “tomatoes” farmed for Ragú® Tomato Sauce. Another analogy: industrially-farmed beef, pork, chicken and corn. All the same stuff going into what many consumers eat and/or drink on a regular basis.

The kind of grapes that result from small, artisan producers like those we work with, are a whole different thing. Our producers generally have more than twice as many vines per acre, farm sustainably, and produce 2-3 tons per acre (many, even with higher “density” plantings produce less). These are healthy, fully developed grapes – it’s much more involved than just ripening the sugars (brix, for you wine geeks out there). And these grapes demand respectful, thoughtful winemaking of the type you have a right to expect.

Industrially-farmed grapes require techniques that don’t resemble “winemaking” as you might expect – they require “food-processing” techniques. These techniques may include the use of oak alternatives which are employed during multiple stages of “production,” as well as spinning cones, reverse osmosis, chemical additions and a host of other techniques to arrive at a comercially viable “wine.” They are to real wine as Ragú® is to homemade marinara in Abruzzi, in July – from a little old lady’s garden.

So, if you’ve ever wondered why we don’t carry the typical “large selection” of industrial-scale “wine” that you’d find in a typical liquor store, it’s because we care about the foods we eat, and think our customers care about the foods they eat as well.

*This, of course, isn’t what you pay. That “buck-sixty” alone – forget about other costs for bottles, labels, corks, etc., equals about $5.50 of the price you pay at a typical liquor store. This is for reasonably “good-quality,” industrially-farmed fruit. You can buy industrially-farmed grapes for a lot less, and the quality will be equal to the cost – as little as $1.75 by the time it hits a liquor store. For those of you keeping score, it stands to reason that “Two-Buck-Chuck” isn’t something you’d want to ingest.

David Moore
David Moore

David Moore started buying wine for Philadelphia restaurants in 1977 and was managing partner of Philadelphia’s first “wine bar” in 1981. In 1991, after nearly twenty years in restaurants (including five spent at Le Bec-Fin), David took over the wine program at a New Jersey retailer and built a nationally recognized business focused on “wines off the beaten track.” In 1996 he and his brother, Greg joined forces to form Moore Brothers Wine Company. He’s our resident mapmaker and graphic design department, as well as IT director. He is often found staring at data and code, or screaming at misbehaving computers.