An old adage says that there’s strength in numbers, and even in the highly competitive wine industry, winemakers are finding this truer than ever. Whether to promote their wines, improve quality or seek change, winemakers have increasingly begun forming collectives to gain attention and visibility.
A similar style may bond winemakers together, but for others, a team mentality offers the opportunity to create something new. Pannobile is an alliance of nine winemakers from Burgenland, Austria, mostly all following biodynamic and/or natural practices. The group works together to create “Pannobile” wines in addition to their own labels.
Regulations are strict. Only Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent that’s sourced from vineyards around Lake Neusiedl can be used. Wines go through a stringent tasting process, and approval must be unanimous.
An interesting aspect of Pannobile is the way it relates to the personal styles of its winemakers. Some members like the funky qualities of natural wine, while others abhor it. However, they come together to create a singular style of red.
“A Pannobile wine is a full-bodied, structured, tannic red wine with great ageability,” and is meant to express the terroir, says Martin Nittnaus, of Weingut Anita & Hans Nittnaus. “It is never overoaked, super alcoholic or sweet. However, it also does not carry some of the features that can occur in natural red wines such as mousy flavors, heavy Brett, very low alcohol levels or higher residual sugar levels.”
The members agree on red wines, but they’re still trying to define what an acceptable Pannobile white constitutes. While only Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Neuburger are allowed, regulations don’t specify what stylistic qualities the wine must follow.
“It can be super-traditional, bright and filtered, but also skin fermented and cloudy,” says Nittnaus. Because the guidelines are nebulous, many choose to not make a white.
Although Nittnaus says it is “way harder to find a common thread of style as with the reds,” all agree “a Pannobile white should be enjoyable, and as obscure this description may seem, I find it’s magically working. Most people know exactly what it means.”
To stay abreast of their colleagues’ brands outside of the Pannobile label, they taste each other’s new vintages each January.
Club Trésor de Champagne
For Club Trésor de Champagne in France, the goal isn’t to produce a certain style, but to craft the absolute best.
In 1971, this alliance of grower-producers came together to promote their small houses and educate people about grower Champagne. Today, it counts 28 members. Only made during optimal vintages, members submit a wine for the “Special Club” designation, which shows “the best of a vintage and each terroir of Champagne,” says Angéline Templier of Champagne J. Lassalle.
“Every domaine decides 100 percent the way they want to express the wine,” says Templier.
A panel of experts and members judge a wine via two blind tastings, the first on the still wine and the second after three years of aging, before it can be labeled “Special Club.” These premium Champagnes go into a proprietary bottle before landing on shelves worldwide, as well as at the Trésors de Champagne boutique in Reims.
The shop sells the entire Special Club line, as well as the full portfolio of each member. Both stylish and informative, the location is a playground of tastings and education. Each week, a different producer is highlighted, and everyone takes turns working the floor.
New Mission Winemakers
New Mission Winemakers, founded two years ago by winemakers Bryan Harrington (Harrington Wines) and Pietro Buttitta (Prima Materia winery), started as a lark. Harrington used to host tastings at his San Francisco winery after harvest, but he resented the hassle. Buttitta found a space in the city, and the duo invited other comrades-in-wine to showcase bottles to both industry professionals and the public. After a couple of these events, the concept blossomed and the coalition, which now counts about eight winemakers, looks poised to grow.
While most of the players produce wine in and around San Francisco, members are skittish about getting too formal. Harrington, a veteran of the Oakland wine scene, fondly recalls when the city’s winemakers would “all sit around, open up each other’s wines and some weird stuff from Europe,” and talk about their craft.
“But after a couple of years, all the accountants were coming and none of the actual winemakers were there, so I stopped going,” he says. For now, he wants to promote winemakers, people he thinks “are making really great wines but not getting a lot of press,” through the tastings, and let the group evolve organically.
While New Mission’s tasting events are laid back, Cape Wine, one of the largest trade shows in the Southern Hemisphere, is an opportunity for South African winemakers to make some noise. However, Duncan Savage, of Savage Wines, knew that to present as a lone brand at the 2015 exhibition would be ineffective and “bloody expensive.”
“So, four of us put our heads together and said, ‘Let’s go big and do something proper.’ ” They enlisted more members and “formed a group of younger, [outgoing], like-minded people doing interesting styles of wine that focused on the vineyards.”
The group named itself the Zoo Biscuits, after a popular children’s treat. The name was recently changed to the Zoo Cru, after the group was threatened with a lawsuit by the corporation that makes the cookie.
Meetings were held at a “dodgy old pub” and plans were made over pints of beers.
“We were the only ones to actually build our own stand,” says Savage. “Everyone got these swanky builders to come in, [but] we made ours look really funky and cool. People were blown away.”
Surprisingly, given how popular the Zoo Cru concept is, the winemakers don’t use the term outside of shows. Rather, they focus on their individual labels.
“If something works, people have the habit of flogging it till it’s dead, and you get no future value out of the concept,” says Savage. While the group has grown to 15 winemakers, some of the original members plan to pull out after Cape Wine 2018 to let the new members run with it.
“We feel 2018 is going to be epic, and we want to quit while we’re ahead,” he says. “It’s a platform for people to try to keep things interesting. If they can get it right, fantastic.”
Cercle Ruster Ausbruch
To effect political change, it often takes a village.
After the Austrian wine scandal of 1985, where producers were accused of adding diethylene glycol, a component in antifreeze, to sweeten wines, the country’s wine reputation plummeted.
In response, Cercle Ruster Ausbruch, comprised of winemakers in the town of Rust, formed in 1991 to regain a global foothold in the sweet wine category and re-establish Ruster Ausbruch as a premium botrytized wine.
As founding member Heidi Schröck of her namesake label put it, “The vision was like King Arthur’s roundtable. We wanted our chair back at the sweet wines table internationally.”
The group initially worked to distinguish itself from other sweet wine-producing areas like Tokaji Aszu, and held regular tastings to approve the members’ offerings. Today, efforts focus on marketing and politics.
Schröck and the other members are vying for Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC) status for Ruster Ausbruch, which they hope to achieve this year. The group believes the designation will solidify its position as a premium wine and help further their message.
Wine is considered a convivial beverage, so it’s only fitting that its producers show a sense of camaraderie that’s rare in other fields. Through collaboration, winemakers can improve both their individual businesses and the overall industry.