Most people assume that the wine in their glass came from a winemaker who tended the grapevines, crushed the grapes and then carefully aged the wine until it was ready to bottle. In truth, this is rarely the case. Many of the wines lining supermarket and liquor store shelves have been pieced together like patchwork quilts.
The people who do this are called negociants--they buy and blend wine made by others and then sell it under their own label. It is an honored profession in Europe. But in the United States, it has been an entry-level game dominated by fringe players and dabblers and is generally looked down upon by the winemaking elite.
Here's how it works. Negociants buy ready-made wine that may or may not be aged. Occasionally, they buy from wineries, but most often they go through brokers such as Ciatti Co. and Turrentine Brokerage, which sell excess product from wineries around the world. This is the market of last resort, where wine is cheapest, often less than $10 a gallon.
Negociants get samples from brokers, specifying the region, type of grape or price point, and go to work. No sophisticated laboratory equipment is required to blend a new wine. The "vintners" can sit at their kitchen table tasting samples until they find the rare one that can stand alone, or create a palatable blend. Add a catchy name and conspicuous label, and a negociant can easily sell a few thousand cases.
Marketing and distribution can be as easy as a call to grocery chain Trader Joe's, which specializes in selling negociant wines like these--labels that make a one-time appearance or have a limited run. Costco and Target also feature one-off wines.
Peter Posert, who jumped into the negociant trade two years ago, shows how fast it all happens. He was tasting bulk wine samples just a few months ago; the resulting line of $10 California red and white varietals will be on shelves this spring under the Buccio label. "This is opportunistic winemaking," he says.
The dicey part of the negociant business is the uncertainty of the bulk wine supply. Wines from the same source are never available twice at the same price, so a negociant's 2009 Cabernet rarely resembles the 2008 version.
Those who get serious and want a consistent product usually start buying grapes after a few years, often through the same brokers. But that may not be necessary in the coming years if high-quality wine begins arriving consistently on the bulk market.