Category Archives: Philosophy

The Sandbox

“He walked in, pulled out a roll of hundreds, and flipped me two,” gnarled the no-nonsense owner of a boutique wine shop. He had been paid by the largest distributor in the state for bringing in ten cases of wine.

This is illegal.

In his case, a customer requested the cases for a special event—he had no intention of stacking* them in his store. In fact, he thought the wine was shit. He also didn’t know he’d get the payout. From the perspective of the conglomerate distributor, his purchase had triggered the payoff. Send in the man with the wad of Benjamins. Interestingly, Mr. Heavy Pockets is a separate employee than the distributor’s sales rep who typically services the shop.

Nestled on the edge of a wealthy, Midwest suburb, this one-man wine shop prides itself on small-production and high-quality wines. The owner doesn’t cower to the Powers. He simply received an unexpected, free date night, paid for by a customers large order, and mediocre taste.

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

As I walked out the door with my distributor’s sales rep, he said, “Yeah, I’ve heard it before. I’ve talked to some larger shops that say, “I’d love to stack your wine, but I can’t give up the $140 a month I get for that stack.” Both the winery that employs me and our distributor here can’t play this game. Both small and family-owned with honorable values statements, we wouldn’t dare, nor can we afford to dance this dance.

The words “pay to play” get thrown around frequently in the wine world. In the age of wine distribution mergers, the game keeps getting scarier for the thousands of small to medium-sized wine producers. You want your wines on certain shelves and restaurant wine lists, get ready to pay. While not always Benjamins, money flows to these accounts circuitously. And we’ve only talked about distributors.

Over the past week, Wine Spectator released their “Top 10 Wines of 2016” through a countdown. Seeing the producers on the list from my region, and having tasted hundreds of 2014 Willamette Valley wines, I have a tough time believing these producers landed on the Top 10 by merit of the juice alone. In fact, Wine Spectator doesn’t even deny the non-blind nature of the picks. While most of the industry uses the term “X factor” to describe a thrilling bouquet or texture that carries something unique and sublime, here Wine Spectator directly states something quite different:

“Then when you take the bag off, that’s where the X Factor comes in. Is it a new domain, new producer, great value? What is it about the wine—that’s the back story that adds to the excitement.” Senior Editor James Molesworth, Wine Spectator 

And of course, how did these wines receive their high scores in the first place? Plenty furrow their brows at the correlation between advertising dollars spent and scores received. Here I do not levy my claim at Wine Spectator alone, nor do I levy it at all publications. None the less, plenty of room to wonder.

While none of this news should surprise us in the 21st century, it should still unnerve us. And if you want to settle those nerves, go find that honest suburban shop owner and ask him what he recommends. It is the path to better wine and a better world, locally and globally.

 

*Stacking = to stack multiple cases of the same wine to prominently display it, typically reserved for the $15 and under category in medium to large wine, beer, and liquor stores.

Sources

In-smell

I have a bias. I’ve long held this inclination, but have recently worked to expand my awareness. New in . . . sight has affirmed my bias—no more shame.

I care way more about the aromatics of a wine than any other factor. From the nose we can gauge nuance, complexity, layers, intrigue, depth, density, purity, specific aromas. . . you get the point. However, as a rather new industry-insider, many around me have emphasized the importance of wine’s texture and mouthfeel. Why? Points and the general public.

I submit wines for my employer (a producer of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) to nearly all of the major wine publications for review and a score. Conversations with winemakers, PR/Marketing specialists, and other industry insiders, in conjunction with a close following of the scoring publications, has undeniably confirmed the value of a wine’s texture, weight, and presence on the palate. Palate increases points—most want a suavely-textured wine.

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A captivating bottle produced by Owen Roe

I, however, put much less emphasis on mouthfeel when judging a wine. And after months of refocusing on texture, weight, tannins, acidity, and their interaction, the last two weeks have jilted my new practice. I recently caught the bug that gave my wife Pneumonia. While spared the clogged lungs, my head has suffered the consequences mightily, and so has my sense of smell. I’ve spent two nights at my WSET Level 3 in Wine course unable to smell the Pommard, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or Côte-Rôtie wines tasted during the sessions. Zero smell. “Alright, a new chance to focus my energy on the palate,” I consoled myself.

Nonsense.

Wine is simply alcohol without our sense of smell. Yes, I could and did focus on these other factors while sick, but I could have instead drunk orange juice to play with acid, or whole milk to experience weight. Hell, combine the two—it wouldn’t have mattered. Smell makes wine the knee-buckling elixir that has captivated our minds for millennia. While not the only factor that makes a wine great, smell is primary.

If you, like the publication editors and reviewers, value a wine’s density and texture, more power to you. I’m going to keep swirling and sticking my nose in the glass, because I revel in the rapture of this rabbit hole.

The maker of the rabbit hole

The maker of the rabbit hole

Tasting the Bella Vida

Three wines. Each providing a thumbprint and insight into a winemaker’s style. All under one roof. A tour of the Willamette Valley typically provides the curious connoisseur an experience with Pinot Noir, soils and AVA variations, winemaking style, and brand image. The preeminent role of site, however, leaves the taster wondering what effect the winemaker had in comparison to the plot of land and farming that raised the grapes.

Bella Vida Vineyard in the Dundee Hills

Enter Bella Vida Vineyard. Located in the rust-hued hills of Dundee, the motherland of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Bella Vida contracts three noteworthy Willamette winemakers to each craft a Pinot Noir that highlights this site and the essence of their winemaking style. As a 26 acre vineyard, each winemaker works with very similar fruit tended by the same vineyard manager. This culminates in a memorable and deeply informative tasting experience.

In the middle of the tasting, owner Steve Whiteside poured a trio of 2012 vintage wines from his three winemakers—Jacques Tardy of Torii Mor, Jay Sommers of J. Christopher, and Brian O’Donnel of Belle Pente. Each wine demonstrates that winemaking impacts our experience with a wine profoundly.

The line-up from Bella Vida Vineyards

2012 Bella Vida Tardy Pinot Noir

Pure ruby in color, lifted aromas of red cherry and spice leave no doubt that this is Dundee Hills wine. In the background, a hint of mushroom adds intrigue. With lithe body, medium-plus acidity, and a finish that carries memories, this wine will clearly benefit from aging. I have a bottle in my cellar to investigate. Excellent.

2012 Bella Vida J. Christopher Pinot Noir

A darker-hued wine with a blue rim, this wine leans into the darker fruits with spiced blueberry melding with tilled earth. A balanced wine all around. While my least favorite of the three wines, it undoubtedly sings of Pinot Noir while holding its head high. Delightful.

2012 Bella Vida O’Donnell Pinot Noir

Minimalist winemaking creates a suave-textured wine with black cherry, bramble, and floral kisses. My tasting crew unanimously declared this their favorite, in large part due to the mouthfeel. Excellent.

With production at about 150 cases for each of these wines, visitors to the valley will likely never touch these gems unless they visit the vineyard personally. The opportunity to taste the decision-making and ethos of each winemaker will captivate any wine enthusiast. The fact that the fruit hails from such a stunning site—both visually and viticulturally—makes this a must visit tasting room on your next trip.

Tar, Barnyard, White Pepper, Compost

What makes expensive wine so expensive? I get this question more than almost any other. And it is a great question. Many layers weave together to create a wine’s price tag (Wine Economics Part I, Part II, and Part III only scratch the surface). However, a remarkable reality persists—the large majority of wine drinkers don’t particularly enjoy drinking expensive wines, especially the exalted wines of the Old World*. Blind tastings of regular folks have consistently shown no correlation, or even a negative correlation, between the wines they like and the price of the wine.±

A view from the patio at Bethel Heights in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA of Oregon

The tasting descriptors of lauded Old World regions provide clues as to why this phenomenon exists. Open a five year old Beaujolais Cru from Morgon, France, and the slate stoniness and tart acidity, along with the second-fiddle role of fruit aromas and flavors, shock many wine drinkers. Head south to the Northern Rhone of France, and the Syrah punches the palate with savory black olive, bacon, white pepper, and charcoal. Aged Bordeaux? Wet dusty road, tobacco, truffle, compost, and gravel, with fruit once again singing back-up. The list of the “great” wines goes on in similar fashion. And on. Karen MacNeil argues that Great Wine must display a degree of non fruitedness. See the tasting notes above, and you get her point. For most, though, non fruitedness dominates many of the  great wines, sucking the pleasure provided by the primary fruit flavors.∞

So why the hell does anybody want to drink the expensive stuff? Some argue that wine drinkers experience an evolution of the palate. In reality, the exploration of wine becomes academic. How does a presentation on the macroeconomics of suburban zoning arouse the minds of some fellow humans (this one’s for you, Mom)? The act of diligent study, over time, begins to stimulate neural connections that never previously existed. Consequently, hard work and forced study slowly shift into a pleasure inducing experience. In the words of Twain, “Then his work becomes his pleasure, his recreation, his absorption, his uplifting and all-satisfying enthusiasm.” Blessedly, for wine drinkers, we get to relish in the initial “work.” Absorption and enthusiasm grab hold, and the mind takes the reigns. How do soil, place, and grapes create this? No, winemakers in the Piedmont commune (village) of Barolo don’t add tar extract into their wines. So how does this happen? A wine enthusiast is birthed.

Enjoy the wines you enjoy. When the hard work takes you to a new place, step into the bizarre novelty that surrounds you.

The lush life of bud-break wine experiences.

The lush life of bud-break wine experiences

*Old World = Western and Eastern European winemaking regions, including France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Greece, and Austria, where winemaking first took root.

± http://www.wine-economics.org/workingpapers/AAWE_WP16.pdf

∞There is certainly an American bias in this article. This bias likely plays a substantial role in answering why Americans’ prefer cheap wines. Our processed food, salt and sugar-added diet likely skews our palate toward sweeter, fruit-driven wines. I would love to see a break down of “average consumer” wine preferences in Europe compared to the United States.

A Romantic Ideal Must Tumble

I recently read an excellent article on “White Label wines” by Madeline Puckette and Co. over at Wine Folly. Except for one glaring bullet-point:

“Some wineries with tasting rooms will make a few own-vineyard wines, but will use bulk wine sources to make their cheaper, lower-end affordable bottlings. We’d ask what’s the point of selling something you pre-bought, rather than making at the winery? But it happens…”

It certainly does. Frequently. And understandably so.

First, what is bulk wine? Many established wineries at all quality-levels sell some of their finished wine on the bulk market. This is purchased by the gallon by other wineries or winemakers, typically at a fair tariff. Why would an established winery sell off the fruit (wine) of their hard-earned labor? Sometimes the wine is flawed. Other times it simply doesn’t make the cut for the premiere producer who grew the fruit and made the wine. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, though, and I have drunk many fine wines in the $12-$20 range that resulted from the latter. Finally, some producers sell finished, bulk wine to increase short-term cash flow. It turns out that bottling, labeling, marketing, selling, and then taking a hit in the three-tier system (producer, distributor, retailer) costs wineries a lot of money.

Punching down the cap of fermenting red wine.

Many wineries buy bulk juice, and for essential reasons. For instance, young wineries buy bulk to produce enough volume to create a viable business. Owning your own vineyards is an expensive proposition (understatement of the year at Wagon Wine), and buying fruit is also expensive as a result. Buying some bulk juice allows many new, small, and moderate-sized wineries to enter the market and sustain their business.

I certainly respect the notion that established wineries need not turn to the bulk market.

Thankfully, Madeline contradicts herself at the end by writing:

“We’ve pointed out several issues that white label wines can have, but we believe there’s a lot of potential with this segment of the market. The bulk wine market involves a lot of great wineries and great wines from special places all over the world. A lot of these producers are focused so much on making wine that they lack the resources to market it. Winemaking is very capital-intensive, and the winery may need to sell wines in bulk to raise cash faster than they can sell their own wines, even if the wine is perfectly good.”

Yep, and many young winemakers and wineries rightfully take advantage of this “perfectly good” juice to create their entry-tier wines. Perfectly understandable, and ultimately beneficial to us, the consumers.

So yes, Madeline, transparency matters. And not all bulk juice is equal. However, don’t take a sledgehammer to a nail. Bulk juice in entry-level bottles sustains many reputable, small to medium-sized family wineries.

The Tiers Produce Tears: Tear it Down

I recently returned from a marketing trip with my employer, a small Willamette Valley producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. As we explored the Minnesota market, meeting with local wine shops, three separate owners asked pointedly, “Will you be in Total Wine? If so, we won’t carry you.” Early in 2014, Total Wine & More entered Minnesota, grabbed hold, and shook it like a martini. A few locally-owned shops have closed, including the beloved Four Firkins. While appreciated by many buyers for their substantial selection and low prices—a reputation buoyed by titles like “2014 Retailer of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast—we should pause and reflect on the big box economics of Total Wine.

Total Wine carries an array of wines produced by medium to large producers. Their margins? Minimal—lower than any locally-owned shop can match. This clearly harms the boutique shops, but it also abuses the smaller wineries carried by Total Wine. Yes, Total Wine pays the same price to the distributors as any other shop, and so the wineries make equal money when sitting on the shelves of Total Wine. However, the low markup ultimately devalues any wine on the shelf, and consequently any brand on the shelf. Small to medium-sized boutique wineries only thrive if they create a value brand rather than a discount brand. Big box economics undercuts the value.

Let the sun shine upon the back alley short cuts that lure so many of us.

Let the sun shine upon the short cuts that lure so many of us.

Total Wine makes one exception to their minimal mark up philosophy—their private labels. They amass a fleet of private label wines, which they create through contracts with wineries around the world. “You make the wine, we’ll provide the label.” This model allows the producers to move volumes of mediocre to crappy wine easily, thanks to the serious power wielded by large entities like Total Wine. It also masks the grape growing and production facts, allowing Total Wine to mark these private label wines up substantially more than the other brands on their shelves. Total Wine stocks over 2,500 private labels, and sources report 53% of their sales come from these private label wines. This ultimately means that Total Wine’s management, and subsequently store employees, have an incentive to push the private label wines.

Thankfully, unique Minnesota distribution laws allow some local stores to cleverly fight back.

Shop at locally owned and operated stores, wine and beyond. civiceconomics.com “Local Recirculation of Revenue”

This story, of course, is not unique to wine, and this fact only bolsters the message. We all benefit when we shop at locally-owned stores. Michael Pollan, food writer and journalist, first turned me on to the power of voting with my money. Every dollar spent is a vote for that product, that company, that retailer, and the business practices that support that chain of businesses. A son of a rural Minnesota business owner, I shouldn’t have needed Pollan to clarify the power of shopping locally. Yes, you may pay an extra dollar or two*, but the benefits so clearly outweigh the cost, sun to a grain of sand.

 

*Take advantage of case discounts at your local wine shop, and prices come nearer to alignment when comparing the superstores and small shops.

Sources:

The Head, The Heart, The Slurp

I recently attended an Oregon Syrah tasting with a trio of Willamette Valley winemakers and a few other industry compatriots. We tasted through seven different Oregon Syrahs, including a vertical from Dion Vineyard in the Willamette Valley produced by Anne Hubatch of Helioterra. Violet-blue in color, the 2013 Dion grabbed me by the shoulders and force-focused my energy directly into the glass. Confident white pepper aromatics lead, followed by spice, blueberry, and boysenberry. Floral undertones add a lovely, gentle layer. This wine will excite those who respect and value Rhone Syrah—a mentally stimulating experience.

Other Syrahs from southern Oregon, especially the 2012 Cowhorn Syrah from the Applegate Valley, luxuriously warmed the heart with New World fruit. The Cowhorn Syrah danced a laser-line between density and buoyancy, fruit leather and black pepper. Wines this thick often fail to inspire, but Cowhorn manages to add layers of nuance into the folds of fruit.

Admittedly, Oregon winemakers and viticulturists have only now entered the dawn of this Syr-era. Few have plumbed current or potential vineyard sites with an eye for Syrah gold. The varietal has, however, found a home in Oregon, and the cool-climate Willamette Valley within. I expect to taste starlight from the misty cave depths once it settles into the embrace of well-selected Oregon vineyards.

A few days later, I dined with family at a casual mid-week gathering. My mother-in-law, a bargain wine shopper, opened a bottle of 2014 Blackstone Merlot from California. This sweet, grape slurpee of a wine lacked everything that makes wine sing. It declared itself robotically, centuries away from passing the Turing Test—Mass Market at its worst. It served as a reminder that $10 Washington flattens $10 California every time. Biased as I am, I challenge you: Apothic Red v. Two Vines, Menage a Trois v. Columbia Crest Grand Estates,  Bogle Essential Red v. Lone Birch Red. Let me know your results.

Cheers to wines that stir the head and the heart.

Evolution at the Corner of Wine and Education

A recent article by Levi Dalton provoked my interest, churning the cream within my mind. I have taught writing and literature for five years and hold an MA in Teaching. While I have cut back my appointment to pursue a career in wine, I continue to thumb the minds of students. If attuned, the young people in any classroom reverberate a pulse that mimics the larger society.

Learners value independence, more so today than in the recent past. A profound distrust of the old wisdom has slipped into young minds like a fog on cat’s feet. Even proven facts warrant a lifted brow, and we see these realities resonate through our politics.

In his article, Dalton predicts that sommeliers, the pedagogically elite servers of the wine world, will continue to fall out of favor (as a top sommelier himself, he is positioned to make such claims). Thanks to the easy access to information today, wine lovers and newbies alike can seek insight from apps, blogs, message boards, and publications. This crowdsourcing of knowledge diminishes the need for experts.*

The end of the chalkboard education, though not the end of chalkboard use in wineries. The tasting room at Syncline Winery.

The end of the chalkboard, shut-up-and-listen education, though not the end of chalkboard use in wineries. Photo taken in the tasting room at Syncline Winery.

Plus, why sit passively when you can learn yourself? Participation in wine classes at local wine shops and formal wine schools has risen significantly in recent years. This aligns with modern learners’ desire for independence. The wine curious and lovers both prefer to participate in learning and decision-making rather than passively receive “truth” from an expert. I speculate that a survey of wine educators would corroborate that they have seen a corresponding rise in the questioning, doubting, and challenging of the old wine wisdom. Lord knows the wine elite have built one glitzy kingdom—the new generation has arrived with loupes* in hand.

Case in point. While listening to a panel of winemakers and industry elite from the Finger Lakes region at the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference, one winemaker from a leading producer espoused the importance of moving the second-tier producers away from hybrid and native varietals. The use of grapes such as Maréchal Foch and Catawba tarnished the reputation of the region as a whole. Madeline Puckette, founder of the lauded website Wine Folly, raised her hand and asked, “Why are hybrids so inherently crappy?” Blasphemy! A defense of varietals lesser-than the great vinifera varietals of Cabernet Franc or Riesling!

“There is nothing permanent except change.”

As a Millennial waltzing between the poles of wisdom and modernity, I respect the role of expertise. The foundations of wine knowledge and science have led us to a brave new wine world. However, experimentation, newfound regions and varietals, and individual palates deserve the attention they declare today.

Hopefully I have made some butter.

 

*This is clearly debatable. It remains a strong perception of many millennials none-the-less.

*Loupe = a small magnifying glass used by jewelers and watchmakers.

Film Review: American Wine Story

Wine fanatics and Northwest-rooted wine drinkers take note; American Wine Story will leave you swooning for the open air of the West, and an ethereal glass of Riesling (or Pinot Noir or Doubleback). Created by Three Crows Productions, the film will undoubtedly snare those who appreciate wine documentaries like Somm. The opening series expresses well the allure, the caress that captures wine lovers and never, ever lets go. Well respected and novice wine advocates alike divulge their personal coming-of-wine story (Scott Wright, Dick Erath, Harry Peterson-Nedry, Drew Bledsoe, Pascal Brooks, to name a few). Have a great glass in hand as you watch—it may bring tears to your eyes. Katherine Cole divulges her experience of wine doing just this, bringing tears through its sheer energy and beauty.

American Wine Story: Dream to Risk and Rise

American Wine Story: Dream to Risk and Rise

Drones and time-lapse photography help create a grandiose scale for the film. Ultimately, however, American Wine Story is a tale of grit, risk, and persevering pioneers. The central narrative shares the heartbreaking history of Brooks Winery, a Willamette Valley winery founded by Jimi Brooks. Jimi came home from his youthful, post-college venture in France with a drive to make old-vine Riesling in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. After building his winery to the edge of breakout success, he passed away suddenly from an aortic aneurysm at the age of 38. His friends and colleagues collaborated with his distant sister, Janie Brooks Heuck, to keep the winery alive and thriving. Pascal, Jimi’s son, now owns the winery, and may one day soon take a lead role in the winery. First he needs to finish college and reach a legal age to consume wine.

Pascal Brooks, son of Jimi Brooks

Pascal Brooks, son of Jimi Brooks

Despite the swooning and heartfelt retelling of Brooks’ story, the film effectively and impressively stares directly at the gritty realities of winemaking and relationships. It becomes evident that Janie Brooks Heuck lives in an alternate orbit from her counter-cultural, nomadic brother, Jimi. Janie followed the upper-middle class American dream in all its glory and sterile plainness. Those who value the ideals embodied by Jimi’s life may find Janie a bit sour. Impressively, the film does not over-glorify any one individual, but rather shows humans struggling to find meaning in their relationships and work while wading through the muck of death, debt, and grape must.

Pop a cork, settle in, and let the beauty of clean cinematography and human drive wash over you. You can find American Wine Story on Amazon Prime Instant Video, iTunes, and Google Play. You can also buy the DVD online.

Price Matters: Important Words from Giorgia Casadio

“You must know the price. Ask! You are professionals!” Giorgia Casadio began to preach her gospel. Too many wine professionals had come to her table, tasted her wine, and failed to inquire about the price of each bottle. A group of Wine Bloggers Conference attendees shifted, alert on the chairs and bed corners of a fellow blogger’s hotel room. “I recently tasted a Cabernet in Napa Valley. It cost $140 a bottle. In Italy, it’s understood that it’s easy to make excellent wine when it costs $140. Judge a winery based on its table wine, its $15 bottle. That is the truest test.”

Amen.

Expensive wine deserves respect, and if worthy of the price, it can penetrate your psyche for years to come. However, with a high price comes the unique opportunity for the winegrower to coddle the vines and juice endlessly to massage them into producing profound wine. Terroir also influences quality, and it too adds to the price tag—prime vine real estate commands fortunes. Some wine historians contend first and second growth Bordeaux* grew into their titles rather than earning them justly in 1855. Essentially, the chicken or egg debate applies, and world-class quality came second. The prices the “First Growth” designation allowed wineries to charge gave them the capital needed to produce stellar wine.

Flip the equation. What can a winery create for $10 a bottle? This depends on terroir, care, and commitment. Vineyard managers and winemakers must take the time and energy to weave through the tangles and nuances of their vineyards and varietals. Which corner of your vineyard will blend with another vineyard row a mile away to produce a wine better than the two parts? Which varietals will uniquely meld to enhance and elevate the finished wine? Will you care for the lesser locales within your vineyards with as much force and drive as the rest? Will you seek out the over-looked acres hiding on and beyond the edges of your AVA? I respect producers who care enough to ponder these questions and heed their call. These winemakers craft memorable wine for the common man. Amen, Giorgia.

Tuscan vineyardsThe vineyards of Villa Trasqua in Tuscany

Giorgia attended the 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference to share her wines from Villa Trasqua. Her Tuscan winery deserves respect at every price point, which speaks to Giorgia’s truth. Seek value. Does the wine rise above others at the price point? Thankfully you can find her valuable wines in 14 states, including Washington and Oregon.

2013 Traluna Toscana Rosso ($13): Red fruited with a pinch of baking spices. Mostly Sangiovese with a bit of Alicante Bouschet, this table wine currently strikes me as a bit discordant. However, age will certainly allow it to meld (age-worthiness quickly became a theme when tasting through a line up of Villa Trasqua wines). 13% abv. Good (will likely move to “delightful” with age).

2009 Fanatico Chianti Classico Reserva ($25): 100% Sangiovese, this Reserva resonated purity. Rustic, sexy, honest, age-worthy, memorable—a benchmark wine. Stellar.

2008 Trasolo ($120): Made with 100% Merlot, round, dark fruit produces a lush depth. Aged in new French oak, the fruit stands up proudly against its force. Italian-style shows through this historically French grape. Surprising. Excellent.

*The 1855 Classification System solidified a hierarchy amongst the wineries of Bordeaux. First growth estates, the top-tier, only number 5. The list goes from first to fifth growth, though the large majority of wineries in Bordeaux exist outside this classification system.