Yesterday I was in a store in Brisbane and one of the team said " I would love to work on a vineyard and make wine, it must be great fun?".
I was prompted to say "Yes it is" but had to qualify the comment to "Yes it is, most of the time". The qualifier was because this year we had a very small vintage, due to cold, windy weather at flowering time, with the result that we had a much smaller fruit set than normal with some varieties. While our white harvest was top quality and good quantity, for some red varieties we had such small harvests that we will not be able to produce a wine from this vintage. An example is our 2012 Syrah. Such a small crop means it is not able to be bottled as a stand-alone wine. Does not sound so bad until you realise the implications; if there is no 2012 Blue Rock Syrah available, customers who enjoyed the 2011 and older vintages may change to something else before we release the 2013. Then we have to work with our retailers to rebuild the brand, and that equals time and money.
The cost per litre of wine is much higher in a small vintage than it is in a normal one. Think about it this way: we spend many hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in the vineyard to grow our grapes. And we have to spend that regardless of harvest size. We need to prune, mow, tuck, hand pick, trellis, etc with a full crop in mind. Now, if we are targeting (say) 200 tonnes of pinot a year, and we only get 100 tonnes, we have still spent the money - it is a sunk cost regardless of what size crop we get. So in this scenario (2012) effectively our cost of production had doubled. If the normal cost of wine per bottle was $10, now it is $20. Can we increase our wine $10 per bottle to recover that? Sadly, the answer is "no way". In the current tight market, no retailer, importer or distributor is going to allow wineries to increase prices $10 a bottle, just because of a small vintage.
So, what happens is that wineries have to absorb the extra costs and hope to recover it from other vintages; again easier said than done. This is more so with smaller boutique wineries where they have no way to shed expenses. The big industrial producers who harvest with machines, buy grapes in, and have other scale benefits are less at risk. So think about that when you pick a wine up in a wineshop; in tough times, the small producers need coonsumer understanding of their need to recover costs. Maybe spend a few bucks extra and don't buy the big brand label that is on 'special'? Ask a store team member to recommend something a just little more expensive and enjoy it in the knowledge the extra $5 or $6 dollars is going to help a small, passionate producer somewhere. It will probably be a better wine too!
Hence my qualified answer.
Yes, vineyards are a great way to make a living, but make no mistake; they are not an easy way to make a living. Rest assured, boutique winemakers don't do it just for the money!