A few quick thoughts on the 2016 Hess Chardonnay from Napa Valley.
Donald Hess came from a family of brewers in Switzerland. But in his twenties, Hess purchased a mineral water source and founded Valser Wasser that grew to become the largest in Switzerland. It was a search for new sources in California that would bring Hess to discover Napa Valley wines in the 1970s and eventually lease the old Mont La Salle winery on Mount Veeder from the Christian Brothers.
The Su’skol Vineyard, located just east of Carneros at the far southern extreme of Napa Valley, is the source for the estate Chardonnay. The vineyard is unique with Hess using massal selection to propagate and sustain a mixture of 9 different clones of Chardonnay–including several of the aromatic musqué clones. Like all their estate vineyards, Hess farms Su’skol sustainably and is certified Napa Green.
Depending on the vintage, around 20-30% is fermented in new French oak for nine months with weekly lees stirring for four months. A similarly small amount will see malolactic fermentation. In 2016, around 21,700 cases were made.
Gorgeous citrus blossom notes in this Chardonnay.
High-intensity nose. Lots of lemon with very citrusy white blossom notes as well. Subtle herbal and white pepper spice reminds me of both Sauvignon blanc and Gruner Veltliner. With air, spiced pear hints at oak and more Chardonnay-like fruit.
On the palate, the Chardonnay character emerges with spiced pear, as well as apples, going along with the still pronounced citrus fruits. There’s also noticeable medium-plus weight and subtle vanilla creaminess of oak. It doesn’t dominate the profile, but the fresh lemon definitely moves to more lemon custard. High acidity still maintains freshness with a mouthwatering nature that lingers on a long finish.
This is definitely a very different Cali Chard that’s nothing like the butter bomb “cougar juice” stereotype. Nor is it trying to be a wannabe Chablis.
For around $17-20 retail, it’s just a plain delicious Chardonnay that is well worth finding.
I’m very excited to have been asked by Robert Joseph, aka the Wine Thinker, and Polly Hammond of 5forests to join them on their April 20th Real Business of Wine panel talking about wine consumers. While I’ll be there to share some insights on Millennial buyers, the event is going to cover a lot of ground.
“Join us for this very special session in collaboration with ARENI Global, as we explore the changing face of the modern wine consumer. Millennials, Boomers: does it matter? Technophobes, Social media natives: what does it mean for communications? Wine shops, DTC: what does the future look like?”
The panel will start on Zoom at 18:00 BST (1 pm EST, 10 am PST). You can get the link by registering on the RBW site.
Joseph and Hammond launched RBW earlier this year to bring wine professionals from across the globe together to talk about today’s hot topics. In a little over a month, they’ve broadcasted over a dozen episodes covering issues as diverse as biodynamics and natural wines to excelling at eCommerce, wine writing and working remotely from home.
Along the way, they’ve featured a literal Who’s Who of authoritative voices in wine such as Jancis Robinson, Jane Anson, Isabelle Legeron, Felicity Carter, Laura Catena, Rebecca Hopkins, Ronan Rayburn, Joe Fattorini, Monty Waldin, Eric Asimov, Tim Atkin, Elaine Chukan Brown, Alice Feiring, Paul Mabray, Jasper Morris, Ray Isle, Erica Duecy and DLynn Proctor.
But, hey, I’m just going to do my best to hold my head above water while talking about a topic that I’m passionate about. Beyond being a Millennial myself, over my 15+ years of retail experience (most of it in the wine industry), I’ve seen how the old playbook doesn’t always work with my cohorts. However, we’re far from monolithic with the oldest of my generation starting to hit their 40s while the youngest is still in college.
On this blog, I’ve written about Millennials a lot. These articles have been some of the most searched for and shared pieces I’ve produced.
However, more than participating, what I’m most looking forward to are the new insights.
One of the great things about the Real Business of Wine format is that it’s interactive with the hosts, Joseph & Hammond, frequently bringing in folks from the audience to ask questions and share their experiences. (Check out of one my favorite episodes below on Wine Tourism as an example.) It truly does become a global conversation that I’m thrilled to be a part of.
However, because of its popularity and bandwidth issues, they have to limit the audience to around 100 people. This is why they encourage registration via email to secure your place. So if you want to take in the panel live, definitely sign up!
But don’t worry if you miss the 100 person cut-off, the episode will be on The Real Business of Wine YouTube channel with clips posted on the @realbizwine Twitter feed.
The other night I had a gorgeous rosé….which I have ZERO desire to ever purchase again.
For comparison, I weighed a FULL bottle of Champagne as well. You expect that to be thick and heavy to hold the pressure. It was 1595 grams, meaning that this empty rosé bottle (892 g) weighed more than HALF a full bottle of Champagne.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. It was absolutely lovely. Superb even.
The 2018 Flor de Muga from Rioja checked off so many of my yummy boxes. High-intensity aromatics of strawberries, citrus peel and peaches. Crackling acidity and freshness with a little bit of creamy texture coming from the oak. Long minerally finish that introduces some cinnamon spice to add complexity. Scrumptious to the last drop.
But every time I refilled my glass, enthusiasm for buying this rosé diminished. Because regardless of how much pleasure it was giving me, I couldn’t get past how obnoxiously heavy the bottle was.
It was ridiculous. Holding the empty Muga bottle in my hand, I was startled with how similar the weight felt compared to the bottle of Bodegas Tradición Amontillado I had just opened that was mostly still full. While I bought this bottle online, the next time I see this wonderful and exceptionally well-made rosé available for purchase, it’s going to get a big ole “Nope” from me.
Because there are TONS of wonderful and exceptionally well-made rosés out there that I can buy instead–including many that I have yet to discover. There’s no monopoly, anywhere, from any region or winery for quality wine. Like every other consumer, I have near limitless options to spend my money. Making good wine alone doesn’t cut it.
And, frankly, life’s too short to waste time with obnoxious fat ass bottles.
As part of a Millennial generation that has been telling brands for years that we want more sustainable, less wasteful packaging, seeing wineries still cling to these ridiculous heavy bottles sends the message that they’re not serious about sustainability. I don’t care what platitudes of stewardship you put on your website if I’m holding the contradiction right in my hands.
But before we made our bottle change, we reached out to our fans on Facebook, Twitter, and this blog asking for what they looked for in a wine bottle. I was expecting a mix of people in favor of the solidity and feel of the heavier bottles and those who wanted the greener environmental footprint of the lighter bottles. And there were a few of each of those. But the overwhelming majority of the responses focused on utility: people wanted bottles that they could lift and store comfortably, and larger bottles don’t fit in many pre-made wine racks. The hostility toward the larger bottles was eye-opening.
— Jason Haas “A lighter wine bottle revisited, 10 years and 1,370,000 pounds of glass later”, July 29, 2019
But wait, Amber. What about all those marketing and psychology studies saying that people respond positivity to heavy bottles?
They’ve all got merit. I’m not going to dispute that. There are certainly plenty of case studies out there to back them up. But besides invoking the wisdom of Bob Dylan about times a-changin’, I want to cast light on something that those case studies don’t consider.
The success of the “Heavy Bottle=Better, more premium wine” strategy is wholly dependent on ignorance. It’s a tent propped up with two poles.
Ignorance of what makes a wine truly high quality and premium. Ignorance of the huge carbon footprint and environmental debt of transporting heavy glass bottles.
Another thing to consider–a flimsy tent is easy to set up. Other, even cheaper, brands can adopt thicker bottles–negating your “competitive” advantage.
Sure, you may fool Joe RandoCustomer on the sales floor with your hefty Bottle A swaying him away from Bottle B. But you can’t escape that the long-term success of this trick depends on sustained ignorance. As soon as any of that ignorance chips away, the tent collapses.
Go back to Haas’ Tablas Creek blog.
Note that it was his loyal (i.e., repeat) customers who were telling him so overwhelmingly how much they hated the heavy bottles. These customers are less likely to be fooled on the sales floor by a heavy bottle because they’ve found plenty of premium wines, like Tablas Creek, that aren’t in those kinds of bottles. The light bulb has “clicked” for them so that pillar of ignorance loses its support.
However, losing that second pillar of ignorance is what’s really going to sink heavy bottles.
With all the talk about sustainability these days, would you really want to place a wager on your customers staying ignorant about wine’s carbon footprint? Or that the vast majority of a winery’s carbon costs come from the packaging and transport of glass bottles?
Sure, we can talk about cans, pouches and other alternative packages, but I’m not going there today. Instead, I just want wineries to start reading the writing that’s on the wall and the messaging that their customers (both current and future) are getting.
And in the wine industry, numerous forward-thinking wineries like Jackson Family Estates, Tablas Creek, Torres and more have long ago shown that, for them, sustainability isn’t a platitude. While they might not aggressively market their lighter bottles as a competitive distinction, there’s going to be wineries that will.
While it’s not just a “Millennial Thing,” it certainly is important to us.
Lots of ink has been wrung worrying about Millennials and Gen Z consumers. The hot question is always when are we going to come around and start adopting wine like previous generations. There is some truth to the optimism that all that my cohorts need is time. However, wineries need to be thinking now about the messaging that they’re sending to these consumers.
Because, yeah, your wine may be great. But so are numerous other wines that similarly want a piece of our wallets. If we have the choice between a wine that speaks to our values and one that doesn’t (or is even hypocritical about it), you know which one has the advantage.
Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s not something I would wager on.
The last few weeks, I’ve been wrapping my head around the new abnormal. This has included indulging in the smorgasbord of virtual wine events that have sprung up everywhere. They’re fairly easy to find via social media and handy calendar pages. But while several events, such as Master of Wine Rebecca Gibb’s Lockdown Wine Quiz, have been terrific distractions, most of the virtual wine tastings held by wineries have been absolute duds.
Which has really bummed me out.
I was very high on this idea. Virtual tastings seemed like an excellent way for wineries to stay connected while generating revenue with the sale of VT wines for the events.
While sommeliers, retailers and bloggers have also been hosting virtual wine tastings of their own, I focused on winery VTs to see how they were adapting to this platform. But after sitting in on numerous virtual tastings (or watching the post-broadcast YouTube recording) from wineries big and small, US, Australia, UK, France–one consistent theme emerged.
Most of these events are boring as hell.
I’ve not seen a winery publicize data from their virtual tastings. But for the ones that have conducted multiple events, I’m willing to bet that they’re already seeing a participation drop as we move from novelty to reality.
However, rather than scrap the idea altogether, we should take a critical look at where these events may be falling short.
Other writers, such as Antonio from Wine and Other Stories, have offered feedback and suggestions from a consumer’s POV. But I want to focus on how these virtual tastings are likely failing with their two main objectives (building connections & generating revenue)–and how we can reframe them to make them more effective.
It’s hard to make a connection when you’re missing the critical connecting link.
This is the Achilles’ heel of winery virtual wine tastings. They want to “bond” and connect with consumers over bottles of wine that the person on the other side of the screen probably doesn’t have. Even tastings that are tied to wine club shipments or special VT kits are hampered by limitations as most people don’t want to open up multiple bottles at once. And you certainly can’t bank on everyone having a Coravin at home.
Few things increase the “suckitude” of a virtual wine tasting more than listening to folks go on and on about a wine that you’re not tasting. It doesn’t feel like a chat or a connection. At best, it’s a wine review of something that you might be interested in buying in the future.
But consumers don’t want to devote much time and attention listening to wine reviews. Think of why digital-savvy wineries tend to keep their “About this Wine” video clips reasonably short. You lose people’s interest droning on about wines that they’re not tasting.
Sometimes, you even lose it while they are tasting.
The goal shouldn’t be to connect over the wine but to connect with the people.
Now we’re not going to abandon objective #2 (generate revenue) completely. But if wineries want to make virtual wine tastings a long term success then they have to divest from the “tasting” part that’s limiting their reach. Instead, we need to start thinking of these events as FaceTime Podcasts.
Every winery should make it a priority to check out Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink to That! podcast before they even think of doing another virtual wine tasting. These fireside chats with winemakers and other industry folks are chockful of best practices on how to maintain a wine lover’s interest for an hour (or more).
Many episodes of IDTT start with a special offer to buy a wine from the featured guest.
I haven’t yet hunted down a bottle of Hanno Zilliken’s Saarburger Rausch Riesling but this winery is still top of mind even 5 years after I first listened to this episode.
But that single wine is never the focus, nor are the chats ever bogged down with tasting notes and minutiae–even though they can get plenty geeky. Instead, Dalton keeps the attention on the person behind the wines. And it’s not just the stories or anecdotes that are superb. In the interactions between Dalton and his guests, you get a feel of their personality and presence. They become real and more than just a name or label.
There’s scarcely an episode of IDTT featuring a winemaker which doesn’t make me more interested in finding that producer’s wines. Even if I don’t immediately buy them, seeds have been planted that make their brands more likely to blossom, top-of-mind, when I see them on a wine list or retail shelf.
Before even tasting a drop of their wine, a connection has been forged.
Now think of combining that seed-planting with digital video and interactive platforms.
The advantage of a virtual wine tasting is that folks can see the winemaker interacting in real-time. They can ask questions and have them answered live on screen. That’s freaking cool and we should be excited about this potential.
These are powerful tools to build strong connections with consumers. So why limit them to just people who already know your brand and have pre-bought your wine?
You want the reach and effectiveness of a podcast. The difference between a virtual wine tasting and a “FaceTime Podcast” is like fishing with a small hand net vs. a large casting one.
Cast with a bigger net. Broaden your web event’s topic.
By far, one of the better virtual wine tastings I watched was done by Elizabeth Vianna of Chimney Rock Winery in the Stags Leap District. Now, yes, I am admittedly biased because I clearly adore Chimney Rock wines. But over the past few weeks, I’ve sat through at least a half-dozen virtual tastings, FB and IG live events done by other wineries I equally love that were thoroughly lackluster.
I want to highlight Chimney Rock’s tasting because it has both the inherent limitations of VTs (focus on a pre-sale kit of wines) as well as the tantalizing hints of what a good “FaceTime Podcast” could be like.
While talking about the four wines in front of her, Vianna kept dropping intriguing tidbits that spoke to broader topics about vintages, blending, aging wine, etc. While answering questions from the audience, more fertile themes emerged that could be their own dedicated topic for future events.
(6:33) Ying & Yang of blending hillside fruit vs. valley fruit
(8:06) The “Lazy Winemaker Vintages” of 2013, 2014, 2015
(17:34) When should I drink this wine?
(20:50) Why Cab is king
(21:50) Winemakers as interpreters instead of creators, aka “What happened in 2012”
(27:25) The 2011 vintage, aka “What would happen if Napa Valley had Bordeaux weather in a tough year.”
(40:04) White wines for red wine drinkers
All of these could be done inclusively while still prominently featuring a winery’s wines.
Picture promoting this kind of an event.
The 2013, 2014 and 2015 vintages produced some spectacular wines in the Napa Valley. With droughts and Mother Nature doing a lot of the heavy lifting, these vintages are playfully nicknamed “The Lazy Winemaker Vintages.” Join us this Saturday, April 4th, with your favorite 2013-2015 Napa wine as our winemaker answers your questions and takes you through what made these years special. Don’t have a bottle handy? We’ve got you covered [link to store], but you can bring anything you like.
Throughout the event, you’re featuring your wines from those vintages but they’re more like “product placement” props. People are still seeing the labels and getting your insights on how the vintages shaped those wines. There’s plenty of seeds being planted to intrigue the consumer. However, because the focus is on the vintages, rather than those specific wines, the audience doesn’t feel left out or that the event isn’t relevant to them if they’re not tasting the exact same wine you are.
Also, your content becomes way more useful and searchable for people to discover down the road. A YouTube video with strong keywords in the title like “Why Cabernet Sauvignon is King in Napa Valley” is going to get a lot more views over the years than “Live Tasting Event April 4th” or “March Wine Club Shipment Live Event”.
Long term vs. short term thinking
The current en vogue of virtual wine tastings built around wine club shipments and VT kits might produce some short-term revenue. I don’t discount that that is incredibly important right now.
But their inherent limitations still mean that you’re fishing with a small net that’s not going to get much bigger. And you’re relying on those existing consumers to stay interested enough in the “virtual tasting” format to continue participating. While it’s too early to have any concrete data, the shelf life for VTs doesn’t seem very promising.
But the potential of these online tools is extremely promising. We just need to continue to innovate and experiment on how we use them.
The key to remember is that even when you’re not selling bottles, you’re still selling your brand. You’re selling your passion, personality and insights.