Archive for: June, 2019

Introducing the Mystery Grape Game

A lot of my writings the past few months have been focusing on wine business and marketing topics. That’s always been an interest of mine that I’ve enjoyed exploring. But it’s also an area that I need to stay up on as part of my WSET Diploma studies and eventual attempt towards getting a Master of Wine.

IG Mystery Grape clue James Busby

All the images used in this post will come from a recent Mystery Grape. Can you figure out the grape?

The Wine & Spirit Education Trust and the Institute of Masters of Wine were both founded by figures in the wine trade and while their certifications require a broad depth of knowledge on grape varieties, wine styles, regions, winemaking and viticulture–the nature of the business of wine is always in the backdrop.

In fact, it is this inclusion of the global business of wine that most separates WSET and MW certifications from those of the Court of Master Sommeliers–which focuses instead on service topics.

I’ll still be doing regular Geek Notes and other general wine features on the blog. But I’ve started to focus a lot of my geekiness over on the SpitBucket Instagram account where I’ve launched a Mystery Grape game using the IG story feature.

So what is it?

There’s really not much online in a game format to help high-level wine students. A lot of wine games are tailored more towards newbie wine lovers. For myself, I was looking for a game to help with both blind tasting as well as deep-level wine knowledge of grape varieties.

I didn’t find what I was looking for, so I created it.

IG Mystery grape straw bears

Be sure to look for secondary & tertiary aroma clues as well as primary notes.

Using photos featured on IG, I’ll post up to 10 clues relating to the identity of a particular wine grape. Players can answer by replying to the IG story or on a specific IG post that I do when the second batch of clues are live.

The next day I’ll highlight who got the correct answer first as well as other folks who got it right. I’ll also explain in the congratulation post many of the clues and often highlight a particular wine that exhibits a lot of the notable traits of the Mystery Grape.

It’s meant to be challenging.  For the first batch of clues, I’m aiming for WSET Diploma/Advance Sommelier level knowledge with easier WSET 2 & 3/Certified Sommelier clues coming towards the end.

If you don’t get it, that’s alright. A lot of folks won’t. But I guarantee that you will learn something regardless.

Below I’ll give you some tips as I explain the game.

Here’s How It Goes.

Monday through Friday I’ll launch the game with the first clue being a wine map. This is going to be our starting base and is often an area that folks will encounter blind tasting examples from.

I’m going to feature plenty of grapes that aren’t included in blind tastings, but I do regularly reference the Court of Master Sommeliers’ list of Probable Red Grape Varieties and Probable White Grape Varieties. If you’re a wine student and don’t already have those pages bookmarked, you should bookmark them now.

The next 3 to 4 clues will be aroma and flavor clues.
IG Mystery grape clue apple

It’s crazy how many white grape varieties have apples as a primary flavor.

Here is where I’m often going to get a little tricky because I’m not going to give you the dead-giveaway notes right away. I’m not going to post pictures of black currant, tobacco leaf, anise and cedar off the bat if I’m talking about Cabernet Sauvignon. Nor am I going to show you a map of Piedmont and then post pics of cherry, roses and tar for Nebbiolo.

Those items might come later on when I get to the WSET 2/3 level clues. But here I’m going to focus on some of the important but less obvious notes including young primary and secondary flavors as well as tertiary notes that come with age. I might also skip around the globe a bit. Many of these grapes are grown in multiple places and Diploma/Advance Sommelier candidates need to know those different notes.

However, the majority of the clues will pertain to the map region with other flavor notes being connected to regions that get brought up in subsequent clues.

Most of these clues will come from my own tasting notes of these grape varieties, but I will sometimes reference Neel Burton’s The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, Rajat Parr’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste and the Oxford Companion to Wine.

The last clue (#6) of the first batch is usually a context clue.
IG mystery grape honey wax clue

This pic actually contained two clues that were fairly specific to a particular white Australian wine grape. It referenced both the nature of the grape and an unique aging note.

Many grapes within a wine region will have similar flavor profiles. I can have a map of France with notes of red plum, blackberry, tobacco, pepper and chocolate and it could refer to dozens of grapes. So I need to narrow the focus a bit. I’ll do that by tossing in a clue that is relatively specific to the Mystery Grape–such as that this grape can also be found in the Veneto, Abruzzo and Puglia regions as well. (If you have an idea of what grape I’m talking about, post it in the comments).

Almost all these context clues are going to come from Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes. For Italian wines, I also like using Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy. Both books are must haves for wine students.

Now sometimes from this first batch, there will still be multiple contenders even with the context clue. Folks can take a stab at it, trying to be first. It depends on how generous I’m feeling with what kind of feedback I’ll give you if you’re wrong. Sometimes you might just have to wait for the next batch of clues.

Second Batch of Clues

Clues 7-10 will be more context clues hitting on history, wine styles and additional regions that our Mystery Grape is associated with. These often will tie back to the first batch of clues in some way.

And these clues will be easier–including more WSET 3 knowledge with at least clue 10 going down to WSET 2/Certified Sommelier/Certified Specialist of Wine level.

IG Mystery Grape Israeli wine.

Admittedly this was a little hard for a Clue 9, but it was something that googling would give the answer away to.

At the launch of the second batch of clues, I will do a separate Instagram post that will also go out on the SpitBucket Twitter account highlighting a particular clue and letting folks know if someone has already guessed correctly.

Timing

I’ve been testing this game over the last month and found that I have players in the US, Europe and Australia.  That pretty much makes a perfect time impossible. So I’m going to err on the sake of my sanity and go with the timing that works best for my schedule.

I’m in Paris so I will launch the game with the first batch of clues between 11 am to Noon CET. That will be 5-6am New York, 2-3am Seattle and 7-8 pm Sydney.

I know that kind of sucks for the Americans. But take solace in knowing that the first batch of clues is usually difficult enough that the Mystery Grape is often not solved until the second batch is posted.

The second batch will be released between 6-9 pm Paris time. That will be Noon-3 pm New York, 9 am to Noon Seattle and 2-5 am Sydney. Here is where it kind of sucks for the Australians but there have been some savvy Australians who have gotten the Mystery Grape with the first batch.

Again, my apologies that outside of Europeans, there is always going to be time zone issues for someone. But, hey, in the end, it’s all about having fun and learning something. The IG stories last up to 24 hours before they’re deleted so anyone can play at any time.

The best way to approach it is to set a personal goal of trying to guess the grape with as few clues as possible. Then try to beat your best the next day.

A Few More Tips

IG Mystery Grape saffron

At first blush you might think this is a clue for a blue floral note. But the other clues are referencing a white grape.
However, look at the user name from the image @saffron.tabuma. That and clicking on the image to look at the tags, should help you realize that this is saffron. This note come out in certain white wines that have been “influenced” by something.

If you don’t understand a clue, it’s always a good idea to click on the picture and go to the original image page. Often the caption and #hashtags will give more context. I’m very deliberate in which image I choose and usually I will select images with specific hashtags.

Plus, sometimes the image I select is from an album of pictures taken by the Instagram user. I don’t consider those other album photos when I choose the clue image. But I have seen many times where they provide insight into wine regions that the Mystery Grape is associated with. Plus, they are usually cool images to look at too.

It’s okay to Google. Especially with the second batch, there is almost always a google-able detail that will lead you to the Mystery Grape. It’s not cheating if it helps you learn something.

Don’t expect the obvious, but also don’t overthink it. Yes, this game is meant to be challenging. But sometimes your gut from the first batch of clues turns out to be right. The same thing often happens with blind tasting. You never want to lock yourself in on one answer too early before you’ve fully evaluated the wine. However, you should always take note of what your gut instinct was.

Intrigued?

You can head over to Instagram now to take a look at today’s game. There you will also see posts from several of the last few games featuring grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malvasia, Grolleau, Zinfandel, Pinot blanc, Rondo, Petit Verdot, Pinotage, Albarino and more.

You will see both “clue posts” as well as bottle pic congratulation posts. Those latter posts will explain many of the clues along with a featured wine made of the Mystery Grape.

BTW, how did you do?

Could you guess the French grape with some Italian flirting that I used as an example in the “Clue 6” section? Or how about the previous Mystery Grape referenced in the article’s images? Let me know in the comments below.

Happy Geeking!

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One Night Stands and Surprises

When is the last time that a winery really surprised you?

Photo from Unnamed photographer for Bain News Service. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-Bain

Now I’m not talking about a wine that was unexpectedly delicious (or atrocious), a shocking winemaker departure or an owner selling.

Instead, I’m talking about being genuinely surprised by the way that a winery interacted with consumers.

I’m talking about a “Morton’s Surprise.”

Back in 2011, a hungry businessman boarded a flight destined for the Newark airport. The flight was going to arrive late and in a half joking, half grumbly manner he tweeted out to his favorite steakhouse, Morton’s, that he would really like a porterhouse steak when he landed in two hours.

The Morton’s Twitter account did more than just “like” his tweet.

When he got off the plane and retrieved his bags, there was a Morton’s employee (from a location 24 miles away from the airport) waiting for him with a 24 oz. Porterhouse steak, shrimp and a side of potatoes.

Yeah, that’s a heck of a surprise.

Now I’m not expecting wineries to show up at airports with free wine.

But let’s look at the base elements of this story and compare it to how most wineries interact with consumers on social media.

Morton’s could have responded to the initial tweet with something like:

“Oh thank you! We’re glad you are a fan. Come by and visit!”

Sound familiar? It’s pretty much a word-for-word reply that you see from wineries every day in response to consumers tweeting, Facebooking and Instagramming about wines they enjoy.

That’s not a horrible response. It’s polite and at least something of an interaction–which is undoubtedly better than not responding at all. But it’s so…scripted.

And when you’re competing in an engagement economy–where the goal is to build enduring and lasting relationships with consumers–a scripted response is basically the marketing equivalent of a one-night stand.

Slam Bam, Thank You Ma’am

Photo by Jhaymesisviphotography, Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Um….he thanked me for being a fan with three thumbs up emojis.

One of the critical elements of the Morton story is that they were already dealing with an engaged customer. This was someone who liked their brand and took time out of their day to talk about it. Not only that, but they also made the effort to look up the company’s tag and include them in the conversation.

That kind of customer engagement is hugely valuable. They essentially took the brand to bed and clearly had a good time.

So why is that good time so often greeted with scripted responses?

I don’t think a lot of wineries realize what they have when they’re tagged in a consumer’s post. That might be why we (and the consumer) are so rarely ever surprised by how they respond.

Yet, think about all the investment that wineries put into getting new customers. Now think about how many new customers that Morton’s likely got from going beyond the “one-night stand” engagement of just thanking and liking a consumer’s comment.

How can wineries surprise their consumers?

Let’s say that someone does a post raving about a winery’s red blend. Put yourself on the other side of the computer screen and imagine how you would feel getting a response like this:

“Oh thank you! We’re glad you loved it. You know, our winemaking team puts together that blend in February. If you’re in the area, let us know and you can help us put together next year’s wine!”

Whoa…did this winery just invite me to help make their next blend??? How freaking cool is that!
Photo by Johann Jaritz. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Hmm, maybe we can pull this trick off during harvest? Obviously, it depends on labor laws and restrictions, but back in my winemaking days, we could never get enough volunteer labor during harvest.

And the thing is, the odds of that consumer actually showing up at the winery’s door on a cold February day is pretty slim. This was a low-risk proposal.

Though, if they did show up, damn you’ve got a really engaged consumer and potential brand ambassador who is practically volunteering to promote your wines.

However, the impact of that invitation went far beyond a “one-night stand” response. It was like the winery texted them back in the morning to let them know that they really did have a good time and are wondering when they can meet again.

That’s engagement that leads to lasting relationships.

And this “surprise script” can be adapted to cover so many angles. Do folks think you have a really eye-catching label? Offer to email them the new label design for your latest release to get their feedback.

Did someone post a photo of your wine along with a fantastic dish they cooked? Ask them for the recipe and THEN post on your social media feed, tagging them, your winery team’s attempt at recreating their recipe and food pairing.

Essentially the secret to surprising consumers is to simply go beyond just acknowledging their posts.

It’s acknowledging them.

Now, yes, this type of social media engagement requires time and labor costs. So does everything in business. You can spend a fortune on vineyards, personnel, barrels and equipment but that is all for naught if people aren’t (repeatedly) buying your wine.

Building sales means investing in your consumers and not squandering the engagement capital that you already have. It means building relationships instead of being content with one night of vinous nookie.

Photo by Arnold Gatilao. Uploaded to wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

Enthusiastic and engaged consumers, plus fried chicken. How is this not a win in anyone’s book?

Scroll back up and look at the examples I posted. Now put yourself in the shoes of the consumers receiving those replies, receiving those interactions. Not only will they be super stoked at the thought of getting another bottle of your wine, but do you think they would keep those sentiments to themselves?

No! It’s social media. They’re going to share and talk about how this winery, just out of the blue (in their minds), asked them to help make their wine, give feedback on a label or made Grandma Coury’s famous fried chicken and posted about it.

And you better believe that every time they’re with someone and a bottle of your is wine nearby, they’re going to share their story about your wine.

People don’t talk about one night stands (unless they’re really bad). But they do talk about the ones that surprised them and texted them back in the morning.

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60 Second Wine Review — Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Elia Rosé

Today is apparently National Rosé Day. In the US? Globally? Who knows?, but I figured it was as good as any day to share a few quick thoughts on the 2018 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Elia Rosé from Napa Valley.

Stags Leap Elia

Note: This wine was tasted as a sample.

The Geekery

First released in 2015, the Elia Rosé is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the legendary Fay Vineyard in the Stags Leap District.

The 2018 vintage is a blend of fruit harvested in early September to make rosé (with six hours of skin contact) and then later fruit harvested in November. Tasting notes don’t clarify if this last batch was made in the saignée style. However, the resulting color of the wine and timing suggest that likely was the case.

Winemaker Marcus Notaro then aged the wine for 5.5 months in combination neutral oak barrels and stainless with 550 cases made.

The Wine

Photo by USDA NRCS. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD USDA NRCS

Very ripe cherry notes in this wine.

Medium-plus intensity. A mix of red cherry and ripe raspberries. Around the edges, there is a little mint eucalyptus note that reminds you of its red Fay counterpart.

On the palate, you can definitely feel medium-body weight and phenolics, but the texture is very well done. No bitterness or astringency at all. Again, there is a velvety texture that reminds you of a Stags Leap District Cab. The medium acidity gives some balance of freshness but unfortunately fades with the finish.

The Verdict

This is definitely a unique rosé with a lot of character. It was fun to try as a novelty but, without a doubt, a massive driver of its $44 price is the quality and novelty of its grapes. The Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon averages around $140 a bottle.

You can tell that the SLWC team put a lot of thought and care into crafting a high-end rosé. But, in all honesty, it’s not something that I’d feel compelled to hunt down or pay more than $30 for.  There are just too many other great rosés out there for far less.

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Groans and Hoses — Or how I saved wine writing from satirical dick pics

I really shouldn’t be writing at 2 am. I should be in bed, lying next to my gorgeous wife. But instead, I’m downstairs on my laptop so as not to disturb her with ruminations that have been bothering me for the past few days.

Photo by Alex E. Proimos. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Ruminations that I’m far from alone in sharing as evidenced by the eruption of anger towards a recent piece posted on Master of Wine Tim Atkin’s site.

There Ron Washam, the HoseMaster of Wine, wrote a satirical tribute to Robert Parker in the voice of wine writer Alice Feiring. The background, besides the announcement of Parker’s recent retirement, is that Feiring is a fierce natural wine advocate who has had deep philosophical disagreements with Parker on how wine should be made.

While she’s written numerous books in her long career, as well as a highly respected newsletter, one of Feiring’s most notable works has been her 2008 part treatise, part memoir The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization

I’m not going to link to Washam’s piece.

But I will post screenshots and you can Google the full thing for context if you like. But, believe me, the “context” isn’t much better.

I’m a frequent reader of Tim Atkin’s site. It’s one of my favorite bookmarks. Both he and his contributors–including Celia Bryan-Brown and fellow Master of Wine Christy Canterbury–usually produce excellent and engaging content.

I’m also a fan of witty and biting satire–both written and performance. George Carlin, Amy and David Sedaris, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain, Frances Burney and, of course, the legendary Jonathan Swift.

So perhaps my expectations were too high when I went to read Ron Washam’s “satirical” take on Alice Feiring and what she might say to Robert Parker in a note.

Attribution: Ron Washam at https://timatkin.com/, June 3rd, 2019

Attribution: Ron Washam https://timatkin.com/alice-feirings-tribute-to-robert-parker/

Really?!?

Instead of getting satire, Ron Washam and Tim Atkin gave us a dick pic.

Instead of skewering both the real and made-up divide between Parkerized wines vs. Natural wines–something ripe and juicy for satire–we get “a woman scorned” as Washam signs off his Alice.

We get a women’s work, her research, her personal journey, her opinions, her philosophy and approach all drilled down to “Oh, she just really wanted to ride his dick! Ha Ha!”

Give me a break.

Now I don’t agree with everything that Alice Feiring says. I think the idea of Parkerization has been vastly overblown and the disdain of “Parkerized wines” has had more of a Streisand Effect than anything. It pushed people into camps and encouraged tribalism–which is just as destructive in wine appreciation as it is in politics.

But I respect her work and even if you don’t agree with Feiring’s opinions and approach, she certainly deserves more than sexually charged mockery.

Yes, she is a strong voice in the public sphere on controversial topics. Then speak to her voice, speak to her words, speak to the controversy.

Speak to the substance of what she is saying. Don’t denigrate and dismiss with a phony portrait of a scorned sex kitten.

That’s not satire and it’s certainly not wine writing.

The post that I should be writing tomorrow (while I’ll now be sleeping) is one answering a poignant question that came up during the recent Born Digital Wine Awards Summit about the nature of wine writing.

During the summit, Felicity Carter of Meininger’s Wine Business International posted this compelling Tweet asking how the industry would be impacted if there were no wine writers.

The post that I wanted to write was in defense of wine writers. In defense of people like Tim Atkin, Celia Bryan-Brown, Christy Canterbury and others who share their joy and passion of wine with their readers.

Yeah, wine writers have their warts and often spend too much time focusing on telling people what to drink. But overall, I think wine writing brings much-needed light to a topic that is both fascinatingly complex but also quite simple in its pleasures.

And that, for me, is the essence of wine writing–bringing light.

Now it doesn’t mean that everything has to be all fuzzy, lovey with everything fabulous.

The disinfecting light of sunshine on dark and uncomfortable topics (like sexism in the wine industry, racial, labor and environmental issues) is just as important as sparking the lightbulb of discovery in consumers to seek out new wines and learn more about them.

It’s also that disinfecting light that makes satire such an important literary genre. Good satire is like yanking the table cloth away from the table. Yes, it may make things uncomfortable and mess up all the place settings. But that’s precisely the point–to shake things up and encourage the reader to look at what’s really being served to them instead of just accepting the ornate way it is presented. Regardless of how modestly it was proposed.

Satire is about bringing light, not heat.

It’s not about being offensive. That’s low-brow and something that any idiot can do. But a good satirist will heed the advice of the greatest satirist of them all.

Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets within the world, and that so very few are offended with it. — Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books and Other Short Pieces

A good satirist (like a good wine writer) can toe the line between the uncomfortable and the offensive without crossing it. And if they do cross, once again they should heed Swift’s advice and never be ashamed to own that they were wrong.

Because that shows that they are wiser today than they were yesterday.

Ron Washam should admit that he was wrong with his sexualized attack on Alice Feiring. And Tim Atkin should admit that he was wrong to publish it and let it hang on his site under the banner of his name and Master of Wine credentials.

That post did nothing to bring light to Atkin’s readers. It did nothing to further the conversation about Parker, Feiring, Natural Wine, Parkerization or even satire.

It was a satirical dick pic and wine writing should be better than that.

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375ml Bottles — A halfway good idea?

Before we hit the bottle, let’s talk about cans.

Photo by KlausFoehl. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

I’ve been a canned wine skeptic for a while. But my skepticism has faded quite a bit in the almost three years since I wrote that post.

One reason for that is the data showing that consumers are adopting canned wines to the tune of $45 million in sales (June 2017-June 2018). That quickly jumped to $69 million by the end of 2018 with more than 739,000 cases of canned wines sold in the US.

But the biggest eye-opener for me was when I started noticing my elderly (70 year-plus) consumers buying canned wines.

Wait…what?

House wine pride can

My favorite was the lady who bought a bunch of these cans for her after church treat because the colors just made her feel cheerful.

All the hype and marketing reports attribute the canned wine boom to Millennials. It’s fun! It’s convenient! You can take cans backpacking and to concert festivals! This is the feedback that we’re getting from the focus groups.

Now, I sold a lot of canned wines to Millenials back in my retail days. No doubt. There is smoke to that fire.

But seeing my elderly customers adopting canned wines caught me off-guard. This is a demographic that is notoriously reluctant to embrace novelty and change.

So I did what anyone should do when you have real live customers standing in front of you on the sales floor.

I talked to them.

And I found out that their reasons for buying canned wine were pretty darn practical.

Some of my customers were buying them because cans were easier for them to open with a beer key than cork or screwtop. Another customer who regularly bought boxed wines told me that the 3 and 5L boxes were getting a little heavy for her to take up the stairs into her house. So she keeps a cooler in her car now with a few cans of wine and carries them up in her purse a couple at a time.

But the most common refrain when I asked these consumers why they were buying cans was that they simply liked the portion size and not worrying about waste. They found the standard 375ml to be perfect for a couple of glasses. One gentleman described it as his lunch-dinner combo. He’d open a can at lunch for a glass and then finish it off with his supper.

No waste. No worries about leftovers that might not taste as good the next day. And he doesn’t have to listen to his wife yelling at him for getting snockered.

Hearing these real-world perspectives made me realize that underneath all the smoke and hype about canned wines were some serious embers burning. Yeah, novelty and fun can get a fad flowing, but what makes something become a category are these practical considerations that criss-cross demographics.

That’s what wineries need to pay attention to.

The practical considerations that drive sales trends.

Photo from

Will 2020 herald the new Roaring 20s?

While I’m not really convinced that we’re seeing the dawn of Neo-Prohibition in the US, I do fully buy-in that we’re in the midst of a “moderation movement.”

People are drinking less (but hopefully better) and they are paying attention to calories and serving sizes. Again, this is a movement that is being mostly attributed to Millennials and Generation Z, but it stretches across generations. Boomers are starting to drink less and Weight Watchers has always been recommending that the calorie conscious limit themselves to a 125ml (4.2 oz) serving size.

These are strong headwinds of influence that the wine industry is going to have to consider. The days of a couple (or an individual) regularly dusting off a full 750ml bottle in one setting are waning. We can’t bank on consumption levels staying the same.

Nor do I think we should put our faith in the Coravin saving the day.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my Coravin. It’s been an invaluable study tool when I need to open up multiple bottles of wine for tasting. Whenever Amazon has a Prime Day sale on it, I enthusiastically endorse folks checking it out.

Author using her Coravin

Again, the Coravin is excellent for blind tastings but not for the Wednesday night pizza wine.

But it’s a $200+ investment with replacement capsules costing around $20 for a 2-pack. It’s not something that I’m going to use for my everyday drinking wine. Truthfully, outside of wine studies, I rarely use it on a wine less than $50. The capsule cost and wear & tear just aren’t worth it for me.

And the Vacu-Vin sucks ass. I’m sorry. I’m not going to waste my money on a placebo-product.

The bottom line though is that wineries really shouldn’t be banking their future on the solutions of other people’s products. They need to guide their own destiny and, to borrow my favorite phrase from Emetry’s Paul Mabray, “future-proof” their business.

So how do they answer the concerns of the moderation movement, serving-size and waste issues? Portion-controlled cans and boxed wines are one answer.

But let’s be serious.

Do you really see Lynch-Bages in a can?

Or how about a nice Napa Cab? A Washington Syrah? A Mosel Riesling?

Most likely not. For a lot of wineries, the canned and box wine options aren’t going to fit with their branding. But 375ml half-bottles do.

There’s just that pesky problem of production costs. I asked about this on Twitter a few days ago where several winery folks laid out the hard truth. Bottling 375ml doesn’t follow the same logistics as bottling 750mls with wineries not only needing different glassware but also different sized labels, capsules and case packaging.

Jason Haas of Tablas Creek was especially forthcoming.

In a Tablas Creek Vineyard Blog piece, Haas shared more details about the difficulties in selling half-bottles. Even though it cost 2/3 that of producing a 750ml, not many consumers are willing to pay 2/3 the price. The mental math and perception issues make it tough.

Back in my retail days, I saw a similar situation with magnums. Many would see a 1.5L magnum and expect it to be no more than double the price of the regular 750ml–or even cheaper because of a “bulk discount.” Eventually, more educated consumers would grasp that there is some premium for the bottling costs and storage potential.

That may be the case with 375ml–especially if the retail price of the wine can stay closer to 55-60% of the 750ml price. But I don’t doubt that will involve subsidizing some of the production cost–at least until supplies and logistics become favorable.

Nor do I doubt Haas’ other point about the dwindling demand (and production) that Tablas Creek sees in their half-bottle program.

At our apex in the late 2000’s we were bottling 450 cases each of our Esprit and Esprit Blanc in half-bottles. By the early 2010’s we were down to 250 cases of each. Then 200, then 150. Last year we bottled just 125 cases of each. This year, it will be only 75. — Jason Haas, “Is there a future for half-bottles?” June 3rd, 2019

Being ahead of the headwinds.

It doesn’t shock me that a winery as innovative and savvy as Tablas Creek is 15 years ahead of the curve. I give massive credit to Haas for picking up critical insights in the early 2000s from the sommeliers at his restaurant accounts about their use of half-bottles.

I know for myself, some of the most gang-buster experiences I’ve ever had playing the Somm Game (where I essentially give a somm my budget and let them pick out anything) have been at programs that made liberal use of their half-bottle selection.

But being ahead of the curve means that the timing isn’t always there to hit a home run.

That is always going to be the scourage of innovation. Sometimes the best ideas for the future are ones that haven’t worked out the best in the past. Back in April, I posed this question to wine writer and producer Robert Joseph when he was featured on Sorcha Holloway’s #UKWineHour Twitter chat.

It’s well worth reading Joseph’s answer on Twitter. As the 2019 winner of the Born Digital Wine Awards for innovation in the wine industry, he does give a lot of food for thought.

We didn’t talk about 375ml half-bottles and packaging in that thread. However, I think this is a vitally important conversation for the industry to start having now.

The “Canned Wine Boom” is a wake-up call for wineries.

But don’t let the ringtone of Millennials! Novelty! Fun! distract you from picking up the phone and listening to the voice on the other end of the line.

The moderation movement is real.

Calorie counting and serving-size awareness are real.

Waste considerations are real.

That is why wineries investing in 375ml bottles is absolutely more than a halfway good idea.

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The Sleeping Giant of Italian Wine

A couple of days ago, Harper’s UK posted an article about the dominance of Old World wine in the Chinese on-trade sector (restaurants, bars, etc.). While New World regions like Australia are making an active play, France still rules the roost with a 36.7% market share.

Mauro Sebaste Roero Arneis

But the French have been focusing on China for a few decades now–starting not long after France and China formally established diplomatic relations in 1974. Interest was strongly led by Bordeaux estates, which still make up a sizable chunk of the French-Chinese market today.

However, the most eye-raising stat from Harper’s report was the very solid share of Italian wines at 17.9%. Though, as the article noted, Italian wines still only account for 6.3% of total Chinese imports–which includes grocery and retail sales.

But considering that you don’t hear much about marketing Italian wines in China, there is plenty of room for optimism if I’m an Italian wine producer.

And it’s not just China that is seeing growth in Italian wine sales.

Italian wine sales in the US have been steadily growing as well–and, no, it’s not your grandma’s straw basket Chianti or cheap Pinot grigio that’s fueling that growth.

Luigi Pira's Dolcetto d'Alba

Luigi Pira’s Dolcetto d’Alba is a screaming good deal in the $12-16 range retail and is rarely seen above $35-40 at restaurants.

Instead, backed by a huge marketing push, Americans are discovering the vast diversity of Italian wines. With its bounty of unique and exciting grape varieties, as well as thousands of small producers, Italian wines are particularly enticing to Millennials who desperately seek something different from the same ole, same ole.

Even better, because Italian wines are still lingering in the straw basket shadow of fiascos past, many of these wines are crazily underpriced. Especially in the $10-20 range, you can often find bottles that way overdeliver on the price. Simply put, Italian wines are nailing the Millennial Math.

In the race to capture the hearts of the elusive Millennial market, Italian wine producers have a great head start. Wineries across the globe are well advised to pay attention to a sleeping giant that is poised to take more of their market share.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Go check out your local wine shop and meander over to the Italian section.  Look for examples of these grapes below and see for yourself what the hype is all about.

Seven exciting Italian wine grapes to try.

Below are varieties that most good wine shops should carry at least one, if not multiple, examples of. All of the pictured and referenced wines are ones that I’ve personally found in the United States, though a few of them I did first try on producer visits to Italy. But, while they were all excellent, you don’t need to look for these particular producers. It’s more about just trying the grape.

BTW, if you want to geek out more about Italian grapes, I very highly recommend getting Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy as well as Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch’s Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. That last recommendation currently has many used paperback options available on Amazon for less than $10 bucks. Great buy for wine students.

Aleatico

Fubbiano Aleatico

This Aleatico with dark chocolate covered raspberries was a heavenly pairing.

One of the oldest grapes in Italy, Aleatico can be found as far north as Elba and Tuscany and as far south as Sicily and Puglia. DNA evidence has shown that it has some parent-offspring relationship with Moscato bianco, but it is not yet known which grape is the parent and which is the child. Still, a good comparison of Aleatico is to think of a black Muscat with more racy acidity and spicy aromas of cinnamon.

Made in the passito style (with dried grape), this Fattoria di Fubbiano Aleatico reminded me of a richer and spicer ruby port. This wine was beautifully balanced with sweetness and deep dark fruit but still lively and fresh tasting. For around $25-30 for a 500ml bottle, it’s an excellent choice for that bedeviling pairing of red wine and chocolate.

A great choice for: Wine drinkers who want balance and complexity in their sweet dessert wines.

One of the biggest things that separate wine geeks from wine snobs is that geeks can appreciate good sweet wines. After dinner, many sweet wines are perfect as dessert themselves or as pairing partners. If you have a snob friend who always turns their nose up at sweet wine or who thinks Port is too alcoholic, challenge them with a great bottle of Aleatico.

Arneis

Photo by Virginia Scarsi. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The same fog conditions that are so valuable for maintaining freshness in Nebbiolo can help Arneis retain its acidity in the right locations.

In the 1980s, Arneis was one of Italy’s most popular white wines, but this Piemontese grape eventually took a back seat to the global thirst for Italian Pinot grigio (and later Moscato). Still, quality minded producers like Mauro Sebaste never lost faith in this fresh and aromatically floral grape.

In the Piemontese dialect, the name “Arneis” is derived from the word for “rascally individuals,” and the grape can be a bit of a rascal in the vineyard. Producers have to pay attention to the vine throughout the growing season and make sure that it is planted in the right locations to thrive. The sandy, chalky soils of the Roero on the left bank of the Tanaro has shown itself to be particularly well-suited for Arneis.

Before DOC/G laws were tightened, the low acid Arneis was often blended into the higher acid Barbera and even Nebbiolo of Barolo to help soften those wines and add aromatic lift. It was a practice not that dissimilar to the co-fermenting of Viognier with Syrah in Cote Rotie. The best examples of varietal Arneis attest to the wisdom of that old practice with gorgeous white floral notes, subtle herbalness and creamy mouthfeel.

A great choice for: Fans of white Rhones like Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.

But also red Rhone drinkers for that matter too. The combination of lovely floral notes with a mouth-filling body makes this another great white wine option for red wine drinkers.

Barbera

Mauro Veglio Barbera d'Alba

Pro tip: Producers who make really good Barolo and Barbaresco (like Mauro Veglio) will usually make a very kickass Barbera.
If you’re at a restaurant and don’t want to pay a fortune, compare the Barbera and Barolo/Barbaresco sections for producers.
I can guarantee that the Barbera will be a great buy.

One of the biggest surprises for me in visiting Piedmont was how much Barbera dominates the wine lists of local Piemontese restaurants. While Barolo and Barbaresco are the region’s pride and joy, Barbera is what they drink most regularly. And it makes sense because the grape produces immensely delicious wines that are very approachable young.

It’s also no shocker that Barbera is one of top 5 most planted grapes in Italy.  What is a little more surprising is that it is one of the 15 most widely planted red grapes in the world.

Unoaked examples are going to show lively acidity and be redolent of red fruits. Meanwhile, some oak will introduce more vibrant chocolate notes. In general, the wines from Barbara d’Alba tend to be more full-bodied with more prominent tannins.  While I find those from Barbara d’Asti to be more floral and velvety.

A great choice for: Folks getting knee deep and geeky into the Cru Beaujolais trend.

There are rocking bottles coming out of Beaujolais, but people are catching on and the prices are starting to rise. I actually find Barbera to be a little more consistent than Gamay. Plus, with it still being under the radar, amazing bottles can be easily found for less than $20.

Dolcetto

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as user:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The “red stemmed” version of the Dolcetto has even made its way to the US. This cluster pic was taken at a vineyard in the Puget Sound AVA of Washington in mid-October just before harvest.

The “little sweet one” that is never sweet and rarely a little, light bodied wine. The name likely came from Dolcetto’s favoring as a table grape. I haven’t had the privilege of trying Dolcetto grapes off the vine. But I’ve heard from producers that they are quite a treat. Apparently, you can taste the bright red berry and plum flavors of Dolcetto as well as a subtle saline note that the best Piemontese examples exhibit.

While we don’t talk about clones as much for Dolcetto as we do for Sangiovese or Pinot noir, Dolcetto has quite a bit of clonal variation. In the vineyard, these can be readily apparent by looking at the cluster stalk. Most have a greenish stem, but one particular clone (or biotype as Ian d’Agata prefers) known as Dolcetto dal Peduncolo Rosso has a fiery red colored stem. It is a specialty of the Tassarolo area near Alessandria. However, it can be found in many vineyards in the Dolcetto d’Alba zone as well.

The Dolcetto d’Alba area tends to produce the biggest, most full-bodied Dolcettos with a mix of red and dark fruit. While not as tannic as the Nebbiolo of great Barolo and Barbaresco, these wines will have some heft. In the Dolcetto di Dogliani area, the wines tend to exhibit more floral notes. This is also the area where I pick up that saline minerality the most.

A great choice for: Wine drinkers wanting something between a Pinot noir and a Merlot.

While, undoubtedly, more tannic and bigger bodied, I get a lot of Pinot quality in some Dolcetto. Particularly with the floral and minerally nature of Dolcetto di Dogliani. However, those from the Dolcetto d’Alba area can have more opulent dark fruit. With oak influence, even some chocolate notes can come out. You wouldn’t ever confuse a Dolcetto for a plush, hedonistic Napa Merlot. However, the lively acidity and freshness can hit a lot of pleasure spots for Washington Merlot fans.

Falanghina

Donnachaira Falanghina

A great white wine option in the $14-16 range for pairing with medium to heavy body food dishes.

This is another ancient Italian wine grape with likely Roman origins. However, the association of Falanghina with the famous Roman wine Falernian is probably misplaced.

Part of this is because there are so many different types of Falanghinas out there. Ampelographers are not yet sure how many are different clones/biotypes or if they’re distinct grape varieties. For the most part, what you’ll see in the US is Falanghina from the Benevento IGP in Campania.

In the rich clay and volcanic tufa soils of Campania, Falanghina produces heady, full-bodied wines with tree fruits and floral notes. Some examples can also have a subtle leafy greenness. It’s not quite New Zealand Sauvignon blanc green but more reminiscent of an excellent white Bordeaux.

A great choice for: White Bordeaux fans!

But as with the Arneis above, I can also see Falanghina capturing the attention of white Rhone drinkers as well. It definitely has the body and structure to appeal to many wine lovers. Likewise, drinkers of unoaked or lightly oaked (but not buttery) Chards can find this wine to be a charming change of pace as well. It will pair with many of the same food dishes.

Friulano

Schioppettino Friulano

I had to hunt for online retailers that offered this Schioppettino Friulano but, even paying a premium, this was still an absolute steal of a wine for under $25.

When I had my big cellar-clean out parties before moving to France, this Schioppettino Friulano rocked my world. I was pretty much dragging this bottle to everyone at the tasting and telling them that they had to try this wine. If you ever wanted a textbook example of minerality, this was it.

Formerly known as Tocai Friulano, legend has it that Italians shared this grapevine with the 13th century Hungarian King Bela IV where it was once used for that country’s famous Tokay wines. Ampelographers and wine historians now believe that there is little truth to those tales. But the racy acidity, green apples, nutty almonds notes and flinty minerality of Friulano is not that far off from a dry Hungarian Furmint.

A great choice for: Fans of exciting, minerally whites.

Dry Riesling, Chablis, Sancerre. You’re probably not going to confuse Friulano with any of those. However, there is a kinship in the electric way that all these wines dance on your tongue. There’s a nerviness about them that is just absolutely intoxicating once you find a great example.

Another tell-tale distinction between wine geeks and wine snobs is the cyclic journey that geeks take in appreciation of great whites. Both snobs and geeks often start out drinking white wines. Maybe sweet Rieslings before moving on to the Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Pinot grigios of the world. Then comes the dabbling in red wines. Here most snobs get stuck with the occasional allowance for the “appetizer” white wines of Great Burgundies and what not. All before you get down to the seriousness of red wines, of course.

But wine geeks eventually circle back to the wonderful world of whites. They can appreciate the seriousness and winemaking skill that making great white wines entails. Without a doubt, Friulano is a wine geek’s wine.

Dry Lambrusco

Dry Lambrusco

While it’s great with my wife’s homemade Margherita pizza, dry Lambrusco would elevate even Totino’s Party Pizza.

Yes, dry Lambrusco. We’re not talking about the Riunite or Cella Lambruscos that your Aunt has hidden under the cupboard. If you want the surest sign that you’re shopping in a good wine shop, it will most definitely be the presence of dry or Secco Lambrusco. Often with a slight effervescence, this is one of the most perfect pizza wines that you can find.

June’s #ItalianFWT Twitter chat–which I recently profiled– focused on Lambrusco with a lot of great write-ups and reviews of different wines (almost all of which can be found in the US). I highly recommend checking out the #ItalianFWT hashtag which featured links to many great blog posts. A few of my favs were:

The Wine Predator’s Bugno Martino’s Organic Lambrusco Defy Expectations.

The Asian Test Kitchen’s TOP 5 FAST FOODS PAIRINGS WITH LAMBRUSCO.

Linda Whipple’s SIPPING LAMBRUSCO IN STRAWBERRY SEASON

A great choice for: Pizza lovers.

While the blogs listed above gave other great pairing ideas, my heart still goes to pairing dry Lambrusco with pizza. The tang and sweetness of the tomato sauce pairs gorgeously with the bite and rambunctious berry fruitiness of Lambrusco. Plus the saltiness of the cheese and toppings is the perfect foil for the tannins and subtle earthiness.

This really is one of those magical pairings that everyone should try. You can see how vividly the wine and food change when you have them separate compared to having them together.

Want more? Check out these 60 Second Reviews of a few more Italian wine favorites

60 Second Wine Review — Lanzavecchia Essentia . A crazy delicious Nebbiolo, Barbera and Merlot blend that I’m still smarting over not buying more bottles of.

60 Second Wine Review — 2008 Ferrari Perlé. A $30-35 traditional method sparkler that blows most mass-produced negociant Champagnes in the $40-50 range out of the water.

60 Second Wine Review — Armani Colle Ara Pinot Grigio. Think all Italian Pinot grigios are cheap and watery? Think again.

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