Diary of a Start-Up Winemaker: Wine, Simplified

Diary of a Start-Up Winemaker: Wine, Simplified

Scott’s busy with the vineyard these past weeks, suckering and with mildew control, on top of his full-time job, and family-guy stuff, so this is coming from me, Stephanie.


I am pretty much a newcomer to wine. Before meeting Scott, my wine experience spanned uncountable jugs of cheap California wine, and then some tasting along Lake Geneva in Switzerland. In short, all mixed up, if non-existent. Then I met Scott, and some years later, found myself in the wine industry, doing the research for our business plan, and I was suddenly face to face with the beast it is — how quickly was I brought up to speed.

Not with all the wines out there, that’s not what I’m talking about, but with the nature of the industry in general, something I’m more in tune to as a brand writer. Now five years later, there’s still something I find very unsettling about the wine world — how loud and busy it feels, and above all, how complicated it presents itself as. As I continue to learn about wine, and more about the wine industry, I often write that I feel like Margaret Mead looking in on and trying to understand the behaviour of some lost tribe. And what I think this tribe needs most of all is to simplify, simplify, simplify — take it down a notch or two. Otherwise it’s too intimidating, too confusing, and too distracting from simply enjoying wine for wine.

Considerwhat we heard when we popped into a local winegrowers meeting at the very beginning of our adventure. There, one of the winery owners was laughing at visitors who were not able to accurately recall all the wines his company produced. Who wouldn’t be confused? At last count, this producer had around 30 different wines for sale on his website. Granted this may not reflect what gets poured in the tasting room, but they do have quite an ever-changing lineup there — easily a dozen, maybe even two — to choose from, from what I remember, not to mention all those distracting ties and aprons and wine tchotchkes for sale, too.

Of course everyone’s going to have their own business model, that goes without saying, and the wine industry offers many much opportunity to get a piece of the pie; so who can blame people for filling up tasting rooms with dozens of wine choices and loads of stuff? According to Silicon Valley Bank’s 2011-2011 State of the Wine Industry Report, consumption alone is projected to increase by 9 percent, to $23.8 billion by 2014. So, wine is an almost 24 billion dollar industry, and that’s just the consumption of it, not the books or programmes or any by-products that serve the machine. Search “wine” on Amazon books and there are over 81,000 results in books alone. Wine and all its accoutrements (like those tchotchkes, ties, and aprons, for example) is a thriving industry — providing something for everyone. But in pure American land-of-abundance style, it’s almost overdone, where the wine itself is almost an afterthought.

If you Google “wine simplifying,” it becomes quickly apparent that I’m not the only one thinking “simplification” is in order. You’ll find sites tackling such topics: simplifying wine tasting notes, simplifying wine labels, simplifying Asian food and wine pairing, simplifying the secrets of wine tasting (secrets?!), simplifying the art of enjoying wine (enjoying wine is an art?!), simplifying wine terminology, simplifying wine storage, etc.

I found one site that I thought might have great promise, keepwinesimple.com, but that brings up another need of the industry — to make learning about wine less daunting. Proclaiming secrets and art for enjoying wine (see my sarcasm above), for example, puts a simple appreciation out of arm’s reach. You could say the same about this site. It has words like “scared,” “intimidated,” and “hyperventilate,” on it, as if that’s how one feels when trying to learn about wine. It reminded me so much of Educating Peter, a book highly recommended as a fun, comprehensive look at the industry, but one that caused my own trepidation and hyperventilation from all the fear and aggravation I sensed a reader was supposed to have.

Then you find sites with wine programs called Vino 101, Wine 101, etc., as if simplifying wine means a return to academics. C’mon. Who the hell wants to feel like they’re in college again—all the homework, SATs, exams, late-night studying, rushed papers, grades, immature and inconsiderate roommates or hallmates, etc. that a name like this conjures up—when they’re learning about wine? Who?

But there’s hope. I ran across a great article by 1 Wine Dude, a little old, but still relevant, titled, The Art of Simplification, An Interview With Andrea Robinson, about a master sommelier who has taken it upon herself to make wine accessible once and for all (the “once and for all” is my embellishement).

Andrea had me at her Top 10 Myths of the Wine Industry (scroll down to the very first week for two video segments on these). It’s all very simple, as it proclaims to be (Myth 10, “Sparkling wine is only for special occasions;” Myth 9, “Rosé is not sophisticated”) and highly relevant. She is very animated and approachable, and in my opinion, has a very (re)fresh(ing) outlook on wine and the industry. Her book, Great Wine Made Simple is on my purchase next list. If any of you have read it, I would love to hear what you think of it.

If I ran the wine world, here’s what I’d suggest: Make it easy, pare it down, and get to it so we can simply enjoy wine for wine. For authors, don’t tell us how we’ve felt about wine, or what intimidates or whatever. Wine producers, don’t make some elaborate story that sounds just like the next guy’s. What we want is an honest, easy-to-follow story, of you and your wine. And give the drinker breathing room to fill in their own story, not wonder if they’ll have enough time to race through your wine lineup before the bus leaves, or which tchotchke they’ll bring home. And wine drinkers, simply celebrate the wine story that you make when drinking the wine. That is what I’ve learned wine is really about, the singular story that comes from the singular wine, and the singular drinker. Can’t get simpler than that. 


With a vineyard planted in the “unproven” wilds of wheat country outside The Dalles, Ore., Scott Elder and Stephanie LaMonica struggle to promote their label, The Grande Dalles, and make a go of selling their wine. From the start, the couple has set out to do things their own way, with the belief that staying out of the crowd is better than being lost in it. These posts share their ups and downs.