Today’s micro-winery has a marked advantage over the larger wineries making supermarket plonk. The smaller the winery, the more select your choices can be when deciding to buy materials and grapes. We go on a field trip in this article, and focus on the vineyard, how to find grapes and things to look for when beginning a relationship with a grower.

The simple fact of the matter is that, many wine grape growers won’t deal with a micro-winery that makes only a few hundred cases a year. Most vineyards are managed by larger companies that depend on the big purchase – all the fruit in the vineyard grown for one winery, one contract, and very few harvest days.

The most important benefit that micro-wineries have over larger wineries begins with the fact that purchases of grapes will be small (in quantities of 1-5 tons). Owners of smaller vineyards are very likely focused on coaxing the best fruit from the soil, canopy, and the vintage – rather than making more money with more grapes to the acre. They want their fruit to get into the best hands. In other words, they are looking for the micro-winery.

Where do the two meet? One great way is by word of mouth. If you know someone who makes wine, either professionally or for fun, ask them where they get their fruit. The only problem with word of mouth is that it’s a slow game of telephone calls and conversations that might not yield any results.

My advice, find local growers associations and make a phone call. A simple search online can yield several good resources – for example: YOUR TOWN + GRAPE GROWER should suffice in an extensive list of resources on any internet search engine. Communicate that you are looking for “high quality, small vineyards” and leave your contact information.

More likely than not, the professional organization you speak with will have clients in mind. Additionally, because you have decided to work through a professional organization, it will work in your favor. The grower will see that you are also a professional.

So, the telephone rings, or you get an email from a local grower who is offering you everything you’ve ever wanted. Don’t get overexcited. Look into the wines they are promoting. Taste the wines. Go to the vineyard – early-summer is the best time, around flowering.

There are several things to look for when dealing with a wine-grape grower: where the vines are planted; how the vines are planted; what is the canopy management program; do they irrigate; how old are the vines; what varieties are planted; are the vines grafted on rootstock; are there any recurring problems in the vineyard like mold or disease; are there pests or frequent fires in the area; is the grower competent; are they focused on what you are focused on; do you get along; is the price of the grape within your budget; does the typical harvest sync with your winery program?

Knowing your budget is another very important part of your winery program. Some select small vineyards can charge more because they consistently grow really great fruit. Others charge high prices because their neighbor has a high quality grape growing program, while they themselves do not. Knowing the difference is very important. Typically, the lower the yield of grapes per acre, the higher the potential for quality in the wine. White wine grapes tend to yield higher quantities and retain quality, while red wine grapes suffer if the vineyard is over cropped.

What are we looking for then? In my very biased opinion, two – three tons per acre for black grapes/red wines and up to four tons per acre for green grapes/white wines is best. There are sites and soils and combinations of rootstock and scions that yield well in specific conditions but quality will never be achieved by spreading a vineyard’s potential. We want concentration, focus, and purpose in our wines. We want them to taste good – right?

Now, what kind of combination of grape vine and soil yields the best wines? That, my dear reader, is a very subjective question. It is, however, a question with answers. Generally, a fertile field where almost anything can grow is the worst place to grow grapes. Centuries of winemaking history has proven that vines produce the best wines when they are planted on slightly sloped hillsides, away from a water source, and therefore must struggle to find water deep below ground. A soil that has good drainage is important, rather than one that retains water – water not only keeps things moist, it retains cool temperatures.

Generally speaking, when considering a vineyard for one of my own projects, I reflect on the grape variety that I want to make first. Green grapes for white wines do better on valley floors, or in cooler sites at high elevations or high latitudes. White wines are fruity and minerally and acidic. Cooler temperatures, whether in the vineyard or the overall climate of a region, lend themselves to white wines.

Red wines are more demanding. They require warmer summers, warmer soils, more exposure to the sun. They want a bit of struggle to develop the robust fruit, strong skins and tannins that they have become known for. Warmer climates – macro and micro – lend themselves to better red wines.

So, you’ve done your homework and everything syncs. The grower has exactly what you want and you decide to buy the grapes. This is where your real relationship with the wine begins.

Frequent vineyard visits should help you understand where and how the harvest is developing, how much work will be involved in the vinification process, and what sort of tools you might need to use in the ferment.

I bring up the fermentation because knowing the ripeness of your grapes whether under ripe, over ripe or perfect, the ferment is where the greatness of the grapes actually become wine. In order to create the potential for great wine, even though the grapes might not be perfect, there are things you can do at the processing stage to better the cause.

At the beginning, middle and end of the day, the focus for the micro-winery should be quality. If your focus is cheap, unimpressive hooch, go back to the beginning of this paragraph and read again. The only way to achieve quality is by doing everything you possibly can to capture the potential of the grapes, vineyard, and vintage with a single sip, a single glass, one bottle of wine at a time. In order to do this successfully and successively is to find good sources of fruit. That means good growers, great sites and the right varieties. Knowing what’s what requires you do your homework. How is your next vintage turning out?

To read Ben’s other articles about winemaking: