Grape Farmers into Winemakers

I like grape farmers. I met my first real grape farmers over in Lodi, California, while reporting a story for the Los Angeles Times; these old German farming families had been selling grapes to big wineries for generations. But with all the consolidation in the wine business, they didn’t like the price they were getting at the farm gate; the only way to stay profitable was to vinify their own wine. So they built wineries, enticed their younger members back home, and hurled themselves at becoming winemaking families.

Something similar has happened with Milbrandt Vineyards, up in Washington state. Butch and Jerry Milbrandt grew up in a farming family in the eastern part of the state, in the high-desert sagebrush country. They were mostly in alfalfa and hay when the winery boom began, and in 1997 they added grapes.

I heard about all this over dinner with Butch, near the ballpark in San Francisco. He’s a no-nonsense agricultural-type guy, with no wine-country affectation. He told me flat out he’d opened a crush facility on his property as an economic move, and eventually started making wine from his own grapes. He still supplies grapes to more than 50 other wineries, and he sells bulk wine all over the country and even makes house-label wines for various clients—this is not a small operation, nor the kind that makes wine-lovers feel all warm and fuzzy. Butch talks openly about using oak chips, for example, to help flavor his lower-price-point wines. But I enjoyed the dinner in part for the odd things I learned—like the difficulty of getting distribution. The way Butch told the tale, it has a lot to do with huge conglomerates like Southern Wine & Spirits and Constellation Brands, and their hold on key liquor labels. No distributor can survive without those big liquor brands, so the conglomerates can force them to take wines as well, thereby squeezing out wineries that don’t have leverage.

Something else I learned that night: You can “cork” a perfectly good bottle of wine by recorking with the original cork upside down. Apparently this can introduce TCA into the bottle and spoil it in a hurry.

Another tip, vis-à-vis box wine: Don’t buy boxes that look rounded, because it means the bag inside has swollen.

Here’s a Milbrandt wine I genuinely liked, and I bet you would too.

2005 Milbrandt Vineyards Legacy Merlot
Grapes: 77.5 percent Merlot, 19.5 percent Cabernet, 3 percent Petit Verdot
Aging: Butch told me they’d aged this in one-third new oak, one-third older oak, and one-third interstave barrels, which apparently means they’ve inserted some new oak material into an older barrel, to give it a little more life
Alcohol: 15 percent (yikes!)
Suggested Retail Price: $24.99
My Tasting Notes: I drank this wine twice—once at home, with dinner, and once with Butch. Both times I liked what was so jammy and Merlot about it, such as the soft mouthfeel and the toasty, smoky aroma and the dense, raisinlike ripeness of the fruit.