January 19, 2010 / 6:33 AM / 9 years ago

Small is always better for artisanal U.S. winemaker

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - Ask most people if they’ve heard of California’s Littorai wines and they’re likely to say no, but that doesn’t bother owner and winemaker Ted Lemon.

The state of California produces a third more wine than Australia, accounting for the vast majority of American wine production and is home to more than 1,200 wineries that range from big name corporates such as E. & J. Gallo Winery and Robert Mondavi to smaller, boutique outfits.

Family-owned Littorai is one of those small winemakers, but perhaps what sets it apart is Lemon’s determination to stay small and produce wines that he and his family like to drink, even though they are very different from the California norm.

“We produce around 4,000 cases and we have no intention to grow beyond that. We can’t manage it as a family otherwise,” he told reporters during a recent trip to Singapore to promote the artisanal wine in Asia.

Calling his philosophy to winegrowing “profoundly French and profoundly Burgundian,” Lemon said he expected his clients to understand that fine wine is not a commodity that can be cranked out to satisfy demand.

For that reason, most of his clients are sommeliers, rather than mass-market retailers, which helped the company achieve flat sales last year despite the economic recession that hit many restaurants and beverage firms hard.

“We concentrate entirely on producing fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. If we find vineyards that have exciting potential, we will add them to the family. If we find nothing new to excite us, we simply won’t grow. If we’re dissatisfied with the quality of the fruit at any time, we won’t produce it,” he said.

While most California wineries produce “New World” wines with high alcohol content and strong flavors from very ripe fruit, Lemon said Littorai was out to make “elegant, delicate wines, not for competitions, ratings or trends.”

“International distributors often tell me that the image of U.S. wines in my market is too alcoholic, flabby, too big,” he said. “I find that a shame, which is why we try and make a world quality wine for the world.”

Littorai is rarely available in retail stores and is only stocked by a few restaurants, but the winery has global ambitions, exporting up to a fifth of its entire production, a figure that is unusually large for an company of this size.

Lemon, who studied enology in France before working at many prestigious estates in Burgundy, said he expected 2010 to remain a difficult year for U.S. restaurants, and for Asia, where a taste for fine wines is growing along with disposable incomes in many countries, to become a bigger market.

But all that does not mean that Littorai will change the way it makes its wines, unless nature intervenes, he said.

“Most importantly, we believe in that quality lost in so much of modern life: patience,” the winery’s mission statement reads.

Editing by Alex Richardson

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