Wine has been made in almost every corner of the world for thousands of years. In most European countries families grew vines to make their own unique wine right outside their windows. The monks in their monasteries were famous for making their own blends in both the Old and New World as well. These could be considered the roots of what would become boutique wines.
There are many different views on what constitutes a boutique wine. Is it the size of the winery? The total production capacity? Or is it specific to a particular range of wines? Most in the industry believe that a boutique winery is one that produces wines which carry on the true spirit of winemaking—the same one that began outside those cottage windows so many years ago.
The small, family-owned wineries with winemakers who have a passion for producing truly outstanding wines in limited quantities, unencumbered by the requirements of producing huge quantities of bland, blended mass-consumer wines is what winemaking is all about. Because you can taste the love and passion with each sip, these interesting and off-the-beaten-track wineries are becoming sought after by today’s more discriminating palates.
The California Wine Institute doesn’t really use the term, but it does try to break down wineries and place them into categories grouped by their production: Small (under 5,000 cases), Medium (5,000-500,000 cases), and Big Commercial (over 500,000 cases). The latter would include wineries such as Mondavi, BV, Gallo, Sutter Home, Kendell Jackson and Berringer.
To make things even more interesting, some of the bigger wineries produce a very limited number of cases of a particular wine, which could be considered "boutique" by some if you're judging by production alone. You could speak with eight wine shops and get at least seven different answers of what constitutes a boutique wine.
A good example of what may be considered a boutique wine is Chien Wines in Lompoc, California. Don and Lindsay Schroder are a husband and wife team that produce high-quality wine with very small productions. If one could not guess from the name, the Schroder's have two passions in their lives, dogs and wine. Both require lots of love, patience, and persistence. At Broman Cellars in Napa Valley, wine is a family passion. Bob Broman works side by side with his daughter Lisa to produce a whopping 1,400 cases of small, ultra-premium, hand-crafted lots of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Overall, a good rule to follow is that boutique wines represent those made in limited quantities and are typically produced from single vineyard sources or made by small, artisanal wineries. At the most basic level, the art of real winemaking has always been about a family (or group of families) putting aside a small part of land to grow varietals and produce wines for themselves and consumers in small quantities. Why should that change now?
The next time you are in a wine region anywhere in the world, take the time to turn down that little dirt road. You never know what you will find.