Grocery stores now have “organic” produce sections, “gluten-free” choices, “free-range” chickens and “organic” wines. Customers bring “reusable” totes to forgo those expletive plastic bags that mate in the bottom of my cupboard, producing more offspring than an aphid.
Added to this mix of organic, biodynamic, free-range descriptors are two words that are particularly difficult to wrap one’s head around when it comes to wine: “artisan” and “artisanal.”
“Artisan” is defined by Webster as one like a carpenter, plumber or tailor, trained to manual dexterity. (Strange, I never thought of my plumber as an artisan.)
More recently, the adjectival form of the word, “artisanal,” has been used to imply that foods such as jams, jellies, cheeses and wines were handmade in small batches by skilled workers.
In truth, there are no regulations governing the use of the words “artisan” or “artisanal” with food and wine. It can be argued that “artisanal”-labeled supermarket breads that are mass-produced and shipped frozen to be baked locally might not be quite what they purport to be.
Conversely, there can be no doubt that local bread producers Teddy and Marten Paudrups, most recently encountered at the Jacksonville Farmers Market and soon to open Artisanal Bakery on Quintard in Anniston, are artisanal producers. They have firsthand knowledge of their product’s organic ingredients, and are hand-producing small-batch, delicious loaves from start to finish.
The size of production is not a factor in determining whether a product is artisanal. This is certainly the case with wines.
Most winemakers consider their wines artisanal whether they are making 300 cases from their personally owned small acreage or 300,000 cases for an entity like Gallo.
It might seem that “artisanal” wines are made from handpicked grapes, organically or biodynamically farmed, or that the fruit is carefully selected by those directly involved in tending the vineyards, or that the wines are made naturally with little human intervention, or that blends are carefully concocted by winemakers after extensive tasting and evaluation.
But truthfully, artisanal claims are not a worthy criterion in choosing a wine. Given the lack of an official definition of the word, just about any wine could be considered artisanal (maybe with the exception of “Two Buck Chuck”).
Consider these examples:
Vision Cellars 2010 White Wine. In the $25 range by special order from your favorite wine purveyor. Delicious blend of sauvignon blanc and pinot gris made from fruit personally selected by Vision owner Mac McDonald. Artisanal? Yes, but unless things have changed, Mac produces his 150 cases of this wine at the Caymus Vineyard’s facilities.
Conundrum. $16 at Tyson Fine Wines and Things in Golden Springs. A popular white blend by Caymus. An artisan wine like all of Caymus’ wines, although thousands are produced.
Marietta Old Vine Red Lot Number 57. $12.50 range at both the Wine Cellar on Quintard and at Tyson’s. Made by the Bilbro family, in the wine business since 1978. A local favorite. Predominately zinfandel blend. Made by Marietta’s founder and hands-on winemaker Chris Bilbro, who personally approves all blends before bottling and intimately knows his vineyards from his daily rides through them.
Chateau Ste. Michelle Cold Creek Vineyard 2008 Cabernet. $30 range by special order from your favorite wine purveyor. Only 7,000 cases of this artisanal wine were produced by a small winery within the behemoth Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, which churns out more than 2 million cases per year.
Email Pat Kettles at email@example.com