Family Wine Versus Corporate Wine

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Owning a vineyard and winery, connecting with the life of the vines and the evolution of wine is romantic and compelling.

Being involved with wine on a small, personal scale appeals to those who get a charge out of jousting with nature, tasting the results of hard work and sharing them with others. The appeal is very different, and all bets are off if the family wine company evolves into a corporate mega-business.

Maybe corporations are people, but they certainly aren’t warm-blooded. Large corporations have their own kind of sangfroid, and corporate passions are defined quite differently from those of living, breathing, wine-sipping individuals.

Curious to explore how a family wine business can radically change when its mission becomes driven by corporate directives, I was recently fascinated to meet Gianluigi Bolla, a member of the prominent Italian Bolla family whose wines have impacted the way Americans drink since the 1960s, and, in another guise, continue to influence us today.

In the same week, I was also entertained by Frank and Claudia Purita, whose tiny One Woman Wines & Vineyards in Southold connected to their restaurant, DeLatte, in Greenport, are the very epitome of small-scale winemaking. What they do is probably not far removed from the Bolla family’s beginnings as Soave innkeepers selling the best wine from there to Verona in 1883.

The differences—and ultimately the similarities—of these two wine-involved families’ stories illustrate the importance of having a human touch in wine.

Mr. Bolla told me that in 1973, when he was in his 20s, his family sent him to California to work for Robert Mondavi, hoping that he would gain insights from Mondavi—a visionary Napa winemaker whose mission it was to bring California wines up to European standards. Mondavi was struggling with fruit that ripened too quickly in Napa to allow him to achieve the balance he desired; he urged Mr. Bolla to celebrate and market the low alcohol content of the Bolla family’s wines, saying, “Your family makes a wine impossible for us [in California] to make.”

This wine was Bolla Soave, a light, fresh, dry white wine that became so popular in the U.S., it eclipsed chianti in sales. Frank Sinatra demanded a bottle on the table wherever he dined. It was the perfect wine for the ‘70s when, as Gianluigi explained to me, “after three martinis it was easier to transition to lower alcohol wine like Italian Soave, with 10.8-percent alcohol, than the California wines with 18-percent alcohol.”

Bolla was a true family business, with many members intimately involved. But when Bolla Soave (and Bolla Bardolino) grew beyond the capacity of the family to orchestrate, the Bollas took on Brown Forman as an American corporate partner.

What in 1974 looked like a marriage made in heaven soon became an international hell as the Bolla family, still driven by its love of the land and the conviviality of wine, clashed constantly with Brown Forman, a Tennessee-based company more accustomed to marketing its other brands, such as whiskey and luggage, than fine wine. Finally, there was a face-to-face showdown that resulted in Brown Forman making the Bolla family an offer too good to refuse and buying the Bolla brand away from the Bolla family.

Mr. Bolla, his uncle and brother could have taken the money and retired to Verona quite comfortably. But here’s where the pull of wine showed itself: having been liberated from corporate America, he and his family retreated to the family estate and put their energies into another family asset, this time, one with bubbles: Valdo Prosecco is now the genuine Bolla product, albeit without the family name.

As I sipped the Valdo Rose, Brut and “Oro Puro” Prosecco wines with Mr. Bolla and his longtime winemaker, Gino Cini, I saw their personal involvement and delight in these wines. Though made on a huge scale, the wines still evoke communal delight—the human side of the business.

Later, with the Puritas, I found a similar delight in sharing their liquid labors of love. Alongside One Woman’s outstanding sauvignon blanc, gruner vetliner, merlot, and other samplings, the Puritas offered several fine wines from France and California. We ate delectable samples of Claudia’s excellent cooking, and sang along with Frank as he strummed his guitar.

One Woman’s wines are a drop in the bucket of the Bolla family’s production, yet sitting next to these producers, I found the same generosity of spirit. Therein lies the best reward of the wine biz.

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