When I was a snotty little punk rock kid, the ultimate badge of dishonor that an artist could have leveled against them was that of being a “sellout.” The pejorative term was reserved for those who, by the estimation of their ideologically pure fans, had begun to care more about the money than the music. This summation was typically reached when the music began to become something that was more palatable to the masses, a clear indication that the band in question was angling for a major label record deal. It was largely irrelevant whether the music was improved by the evolution, it only mattered that the perception existed that the ultimate goal was to make more money. There are some circles of the wine world, and even larger circles of the craft beer world, that apply the same mentality to their favorite beverage producers.
There is still a little Doc Martin wearing anarchist in the back of my brain who ironically sneers the words of Less Than Jake’s Johnny Quest Thinks We’re Sellouts at every privately owned winery or brewery who “sells out” to Big Beverage, but having worked in the industry for several years now, I have to say that I grudgingly offer kudos to anyone who figures out of how to make a chunk of change in the wine biz.
Most people don’t realize how difficult it is just to be profitable in the wine industry, let alone build a brand that is successful to the point of being viewed as a target for investment by one of the large brands or conglomerates. It’s damn hard, and although most people who own wineries are serious about the art of making great wine, at the end of the day it is a business, and the ultimate goal of business is to make money. Given the challenge involved in building a successful brand, it is hard not to admire the success of Charles Smith or to begrudge him for cashing in on that brand when the opportunity came knocking.
I have to say that I was not surprised when I learned of the $120 million sale of five wines from the Charles Smith Wines portfolio to Constellation Brands, a conglomeration that is about as representative of “The Man” as it gets in the beverage world. Charles Smith has been cultivating a brand for his Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Velvet Devil Merlot, Boom Boom Syrah, Chateau Smith Cabernet Sauvignon, and Eve Chardonnay that seemed specifically designed for sale to an outside investor. Not to knock the quality of the wines, but these are clearly wines that are produced for quantity, with labels that stand out on a shelf. It is easy to see why Constellation was interested in purchasing the labels, and hard to believe that this wasn’t always part of the plan for Smith.
This particular kind of sale can, at times, even be a case of addition by subtraction. Although Smith will maintain a consulting winemaker role in the wines that were sold to Constellation, shedding these higher production brands from the portfolio could allow his winemaking team to focus their efforts on lower quantity wines that are produced by the various limbs of his wine empire. Randall Graham famously shed a number of his largest brands from his portfolio several years ago to focus his efforts on his core Bonny Doon Vineyard brand. In addition to the ability to give more focus to the core wines, such a sale has the obvious benefit of generating a pile of cash that can be reinvested in the winery as needed.
I certainly understand the desire to view the wine industry through a romantic lens – I am inclined to view the wine world that way at times myself – but the fact is, like any other business, financial realities will almost always take precedence over idealism. It is likely that this sale will generate very little outrage, as Charles Smith has always been thought of as more of the rock star enfant terrible of the Washington wine world than as the romantic ideal of the artisan winemaker. However, even if he were more like the romantic vision, very few could turn down the chance to cash in on their efforts the way that Smith did. I know that I will cast no stones at those who do, because it takes a lot of hard work to sellout in this industry, and I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same if I found myself in their position.