All posts by Amber LeBeau

60 Second Wine Review – Four Graces Pinot noir

A few quick thoughts on the 2017 Four Graces Pinot noir from the Willamette Valley.

Four Graces Pinot

The Geekery

Paula Marie and Steven Black named Four Graces in Dundee after their four daughters when they founded the estate in 2003. Legendary Oregon winemaker Laurent Montalieu (Bridgeview, WillaKenzie, Solena, Kudos and Westmount) crafted Four Graces’ early vintages-which quickly captured acclaim.

In 2014, the winery became part of the Foley Family’s extensive portfolio of brands that includes nearly two dozen wineries in California, Oregon, Washington and New Zealand.

Owned by Bill Foley, who also owns the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, the holdings of Foley Family Estates includes many well-known names such as Chalone Vineyards, Chalk Hill, EOS, Firestone, Guenoc, Lancaster Estate, Merus, Roth, Butterfield Station and Sebastiani as well as Foley-Johnson in Napa. In the Pacific Northwest, Foley also owns Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla and Acrobat in Oregon–acquired from King Estate in 2018.

Today, the heart of Four Graces are two sustainably farmed estate vineyards. The Foley Family Vineyard, located in Dundee, covers 110 acres on red volcanic soils with a few parcels biodynamic. The 90-acre Doe Ridge Vineyard in Yamhill-Carlton is planted on marine sedimentary soils.

The Willamette Valley Pinot is a blend of plots from the two vineyards. The wine sees around nine months in French oak with about 15% of the barrels being new.

The Wine

Cherries photo by Ronnie Macdonald. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Ample red fruit but this wine needs at least another year or 2 to show more.

Medium-intensity nose of red fruit-cherries, cranberry and raspberries. A little earthy component around the edge but somewhat muted.

On the palate, the earthiness comes out more with a mix of forest and garden herbs. It’s a bit Burgundian with medium-plus acidity, firm medium tannins and a medium body. The red fruit carries through but, overall, the wine feels fairly shy and tight. Moderate finish introduces spice components (cinnamon and clove) that suggest potential.

The Verdict

Usually with WV entry-level Pinots ($25-30), the wines are ready to go on release. But this Four Graces really needs some time.

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The Coronavirus Email I’d Like to Get

Like many wine lovers, my inbox has been flooded this week with notes from wineries and wine shops detailing their response to the Coronavirus outbreak. Even places that I’ve not heard from in years, such as shops I patronized in the early 2000s when I lived in Missouri and Florida, have suddenly rediscovered my email address.

virus image photo by Harris A, et al. Released by the US gov under the public domain

It’s great that so many businesses are being proactive in closing to protect employees and guests. It’s also a smart move to offer free deliveries and curbside pick up.

But that’s not what I need right now.

As much as I love shopping for wine, a barrage of “BUY! BUY! BUY!” is going to get a quick ‘delete.’ At worst, it may even prompt me to unsubscribe. That’s because even though I do want to support small businesses, it’s just not where my head is at the moment.

Instead, my thoughts are taken up with concerns on how my high-risk dad is doing 5000 miles away. Or whether my sisters are going to be laid off and need help with bills as they juggle homeschooling their kids. Not to mention my own quarantine situation here in Paris.

So when I go to my inbox or social media feeds, I’m looking for something that I desperately need.

A distraction.

Something to do or look forward to that breaks me out of this rut of endless bad news and worry. I need something that feels somewhat normal even though every single thing around me feels alien and bizarre.

The emails and social media posts that resonate the most with me right now are ones that give me an outlet to not think about Coronavirus for a moment. Yet, I fret that in the desire to do something (and drum up sorely needed sales), many businesses are going overboard. It’s not a bad idea to want to communicate to customers. Nor is it misguided to let folks know that you’re still open for business even in a reduced capacity.

But it’s more about how you go about it.

1.) Drop the Form Letter Speak

I’m going to splice together text from several different emails I’ve received this week. Even though some are from wineries and others from wine shops, I doubt many will pick out the splicing because they all sound pretty much the same.

Dear Friends,

During these challenging times, we’re are so grateful for the overwhelming heartfelt support from you — our amazing customers. We would like to announce the following steps that we are taking in response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in the community. The well-being of our staff, customers, and the community remains our top priority, and we will continue to adapt and adjust these measures due to the evolving circumstances.

In compliance with the California public health mandate, our tasting rooms are temporarily closed. We appreciate everyone’s patience and understanding during this unprecedented time.

The positive news is that the rest of the business is up and running. If you’d like to place an order, you can do so online, or by speaking to one of the team. Whether you are self-isolating, lying low or just love good wine, keep your spirits up and enjoy FREE delivery.

Please stay safe and healthy, follow CDC guidelines, and we’ll all make it through this together.

Sincere thanks for all of your support!

Your customers have likely already received at least a dozen of these emails with several more still to come.

If someone is going to know exactly what an email says before they open it, it’s not an effective email. Businesses must find ways to break out of the formula. One way is to turn it back to the customer with a personal touch. Such as:

Dear Amber,

How are you holding up? As you may have heard, our tasting room is temporarily closed. But our staff has been coming in each day to check in on our wine club members. Please feel free to call or email us if you just want to chat, have questions about what we’re doing at the winery, or even need some wine sent your way. We’ll figure something out…

Think of how different it feels to receive the second email as opposed to the first. They both basically convey the same thing. (Hey, our tasting room is closed, but we’re still here and can get you some wine!) But the first feels formulaic while the second feels sincere and empathetic.

2.) Offer more than just wine to buy and free delivery

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs image by 	FireflySixtySeven. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Yes, we all love wine. But right now, we need a little more than free shipping.


I wrote before about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in the context of wine education, but let’s go back to its traditional use. Because, truthfully, wine really doesn’t have a ready place in the pyramid.

You have to realize that most all your customers are going to be focusing a lot on those bottom tiers of physiological and safety needs. But as more communities get locked down in isolation, that middle tier of needing communication and connection (belonging) is going to be more prominent.

This is when wineries and wine shops need to offer more than just their products. They need to offer themselves. We always talk about how the wine industry is a people-oriented business. That’s never going to ring more true than it will over the next several months.

Now is the time to think outside the box about how to reach consumers–not just to sell, but to connect. Numerous creative ideas are emerging from forward-thinking wineries like Kendall-Jackson which is planning a series of virtual concerts, cooking classes & yoga.

Several wineries such as St. Supéry are launching virtual tastings. While this runs the risk of being overdone, it’s a starting point for other creative ways to utilize platforms such as Facebook Live, Discord or Zoom to interact with consumers.

But there are so many other ideas that can be explored.

Movie night with your own Mystery Science Theatre 3000-type Rifftrax.

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60496972

Wine + indulging your inner Tom Servo & Crow = a hella fun time.


I would love to be in a Zoom room listening to winemakers riffing films like Sideways, A Walk in the Clouds, Wine Country, Bottle Shock, A Good Year, etc. The awesomeness potential could be off the charts.

And it’s fairly simple to do, not requiring the purchasing of any movie rights. Select a movie that is currently available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu or even YouTube. Pick a date and time where folks can start watching at the same point. Encourage them to keep the movie on mute and then have fun drinking and riffing.

Virtual Book Clubs

Independent bookstores and libraries are taking the lead on this, but there is no reason why wineries and wine shops can’t follow suit. With many titles available on eReaders, lots of folks are going to be turning to books for a change of pace. You can discuss popular wine books or something completely different. This could be done on a Facebook and Instagram thread or, better still, setting up an interactive Zoom room that folks can participate in face-to-face (virtually).

Wine Games

On Instagram, I do a Mystery Grape game utilizing the IG Story feature. Other bloggers such as Outwines, The Grape Grind and Bin 412 do similar games as well. It’s an easy platform that many wineries and wine shops can pick up.

Whether it be wine education games or silly scavenger hunts around the house, it’s all good fun for a few moments of distraction. And, honestly, it’s probably a better use right now of your Instagram than glamour shots of the vineyard and bottle porn.

While folks want diversions, you have to toe the line to avoid sounding tone deaf. Things aren’t very glamorous these days and likely won’t be for a while. It’s important to acknowledge the hardship and uncertainty even when you’re trying to provide other outlets.

Move wine classes online

Zoom screenshot

Robert Joseph, The Wine Thinker, and Polly Hammond of 5Forests are using Zoom to conduct their Real Business of Wine live streams. It’s a great medium for many virtual events.


This is especially important for wine shops to stay connected with the community. Many shops use their wine classes to help differentiate themselves from their competitors and build relationships with regular attendees. You can still have face to face interactions with your customers–just in a different format.

These classes should be free since you’re not providing wine and food. Though you could take a page out of the wineries’ virtual tasting book by offering a discounted package for delivery beforehand. But most people aren’t going to want to open up 6 to 8 wines at home. And you can’t bank on them having a Coravin.

So I would encourage you to build your classes around one bottle of wine to taste while listening and interacting with the instructor. The other bottles in a delivery pack could be “homework” for later to try at their leisure.

The important thing is to keep offering these classes–to keep offering that connection.

While it’s easy to get overwhelmed now, we’re all in this for the long haul.

It’s likely going to be several weeks, maybe even months, before things start feeling normal. Every wine business need to take that distant vision in their planning.

The craving for a distraction and normalcy is only going to grow. Wine can be both a blessing and balm during these troubling times. But wineries and wine shops need to do more than just ask for a sale.

They have to acknowledge the other needs that consumers have and find ways to deliver more than just a great bottle of wine.

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Getting Geeky with Nik Weis St. Urbans-Hof Rieslings

Note: The wines reviewed here were samples.

Today is Riesling’s birthday!

Well, sort of.

Riesling grapes photo by Peter Ellis, Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.5

We’re celebrating one of the world’s greatest wine grapes because of an important document from March 13th, 1435. In an old cellar log from 585 years ago, the estate of Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen in Hessische Bergstrasse noted the purchase of “Riesslingen” vines.

This is widely considered to be the first written account about Riesling. While Jancis Robinson pegs the date as March 3rd, 1435 in Wine Grapes and some sources say it was actually February, the trade org Wines of Germany has declared that today is as good of a day as any to give our regards to Riesling.

I’m totally down with that.

As frequent readers of the blog know, you don’t need much to convince me to drink Riesling. Besides how incredibly food-friendly it is, I absolutely adore how it expresses terroir. From fantastic Australian Rieslings coming out of Mudgee to Napa Valley and numerous Washington State examples, these wines all exhibit their own unique personalities.

Yet they’re always quintessentially Riesling–with a tell-tale combination of pronounced aromatics and high acidity.

While the details of those aromatics change with terroir, that structure of acid is tattooed in typicity. If you don’t overthink it too much with flavors that can tempt you to wonder about Pinot gris, Gruner Veltliner and even Albarino, that acid is what should bring you home to Riesling in a blind tasting. Master of Wine Nick Jackson describes this well in his excellent book Beyond Flavor (received as a sample), noting that, like Chenin blanc, the acidity of Riesling is always present no matter where it is grown.

However, while Jackson describes Chenin’s acidity as creeping up on you like a crescendo–with Riesling, it smacks you immediately like a fireman’s pole. On your palate, all the other elements of the wine–its fruit, alcohol and sugar–wrap around Riesling’s steely acidity. Jackson’s firepole analogy is most vivid when you’re tasting an off-dry Riesling because while you can feel the sense of sweetness ebb, like a fireman sliding down, that acid holds firm and doesn’t move.

Seriously, next time you have a glass of Riesling, hold it in your mouth and picture Jackson’s vertical firepole. It will really change your blind tasting game.

And for some great benchmark bottles to try those skills out on, may I suggest the geeky good wines of Nik Weis St. Urbans-Hof in the Mosel?

The Background

St Urban pic by MR 2017. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under : CC-BY-SA-4.0

Glass window feature of St. Urban at a church in Deidesheim.

Along with his wife, Daniela, Nik Weis is a third-generation winegrower based in the middle Mosel village of Leiwen. His family’s estate, St. Urbans-Hof, was founded by his grandfather, Nicolaus Weis, after World War II. Named after the 4th-century patron saint of winegrowers who hid in vineyards to escape persecution, Weis’ family estate covers 40 hectares along the Mosel and its southern tributary, the Saar.

Many of these plots, including choice plantings in the villages of Ockfen and Wiltingen in the Saar and Piesport in the Middle Mosel, were acquired by Nik’s father, Hermann Weis.

Hermann was also the notable pioneer of Riesling in Canada. Bringing some of his family’s unique proprietary clones of Riesling to the Niagara Pennisula, Weis founded St. Urban Vineyard in the 1970s. Now known as Vineland Estates Winery, cuttings of the Weis clone Riesling from the original vineyard has been used to spread the variety all across Canada. The clones are also used in American vineyards–where they are known as Riesling FPS 01.

But the Weis family’s influence is also felt keenly in Germany as the keeper of the “Noah’s Ark of Riesling.” In his book, Riesling Rediscovered, John Winthrop Haeger notes that the Weis Reben nursery is one of the most renowned private collections of massale selected Riesling clones around. Founded by Weis’ grandfather, the source for much of the bud wood is the family’s treasure trove of old vine vineyards going up to 115 years of age.

Moreover, Master of Wine Anne Krebiehl notes in The Wines of Germany that without the efforts of Weis and his vineyard manager, Hermann Jostock, much of the genetic diversity of Mosel Riesling would have been lost.

Vineyards and winemaking

Depending on the vintage, Nik Weis can make over 20 different Rieslings ranging from a sparkling Brut to a highly-acclaimed trockenbeerenauslese. He also grows some Pinot noir, Pinot gris and Pinot blanc as well.

Old vine Riesling

Nik Weis’ wealth of old vine vineyards makes it easy for him to make this stellar bottle for less than $20.

The family estate covers six main vineyards–three in the Mosel that all hold the VDP’s highest “Grand Cru” designation of Grosse Lage. When these wines are made in a dry style, they can be labeled as Grosse Gewächs or “GG.” These vineyards include:

Laurentiuslay, planted on gray Devonian slate in the village of Leiwen with vines between 60-80 years old.
Layet, planted on gray-blue slate in the village of Mehring with vines between 40-100 years old.
Goldtröpfchen, planted on blue slate in the village of Piesport with vines between 40-100 years old.

Saar Estates. 

Along the Saar, Weis has two vineyards with Grosse Lage status and one with the “premier cru-level” Ortswein status (Wiltinger). Compared to the greater Mosel and the Ruwer, the Rieslings from the Saar tend to have higher acidity because this region is much cooler.

In The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste (another must-have for wine students), Master Sommelier Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay note that despite its more southerly location, the wider Saar Valley acts as a funnel bringing cold winds up through the valley. However, those vineyards closer to the river benefit from enough moderating influence to ripen grapes consistently for drier styles while vineyards further inland tend to be used for sweeter wines.

Bockstein, planted on gray Devonian slate in the village of Ockfen with vines between 40-60 years old.
Saarfelser, planted on red slate and alluvial soils in the village of Schoden with vines between 40-60 years old.
Wiltinger, planted on red slate in the village of Wiltigen with vines dating back to 1905.

As a member of the German FAIR’N GREEN association, Weis farms all his family’s vineyards sustainably. To help reflect the individual terroir of each plot, Weis uses native ambient yeast for all his fermentations.

The Wines

2016 Bockstein Spatlese (WS Average $27)

This was my favorite of all the wines. High-intensity nose of golden delicious apples, apricot and peach with some smokey flint.

On the palate, this wine was extremely elegant with 8% ABV that notches up to medium-minus body with the off-dry residual sugar. However, the high acidity balances the RS well and introduces some zesty citrus peel notes to go with the pronounced tree and stone fruit. Long finish lingers on the subtle smokey note.

2017 Goldtröpfchen Spatlese (WS ave $32)

Medium-plus intensity nose with riper apples and apricot fruit. It is also the spiciest on the nose with noticeable ginger that suggests some slight botrytis.

On the palate, while medium-sweet, it tasted drier than I expected from the nose. This wine spent some time in neutral (5+-year-old) oak, which added roundness. That texture consequently helps to make this 10.5% ABV Riesling feel more medium-bodied. Moderate length finish is dominated by the primary fruit, but I suspect that this wine will develop into something very intriguing.

2018 Wiltinger Alte Reben Riesling (WS ave $18)
Wiltinger Riesling

It’s crazy to think of drinking century-plus old vines for only around $18.

Sourced from the Weis family’s oldest vines that date back to 1905, this is an insane value for under $20.

High-intensity nose, this is very floral with lilies and honey blossoms. A mix of citrus lime zest and green apples provide the fruit.

On the palate, there is a slight ginger spice that emerges despite it tasting very dry and not something that I would suspect with botrytis. Still well balanced with high acidity that enhances the fruit more than the floral notes from the nose. Long finish is very citrus-driven and mouthwatering.

2018 Old Vine Estate Riesling (WS ave $17)

Another very excellent value sourced from low yielding vineyards between 30-50 years of age.

High-intensity nose with white peach and apricots as well as minerally river stones. This also has some petrol starting to emerge.

On the palate, the stone fruits continue to dominate with a little pear joining the party. Off-dry veering towards the drier side of that scale. The high acidity makes the 11% alcohol feel quite light in body. Moderate finish intensifies the petrol note–which I really dig.

2018 Mosel Dry Riesling (WS ave $15)

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very citrusy with ripe Meyer lemons. In addition, some apple and honey blossoms emerge to complement it.

On the palate, the lemons still rule the roost with both a zest and ripe fleshy depth. The ample acidity makes the wine quite dry and also introduces some minerally salinity as well. At 12% alcohol, this has decent weight for food-pairing but still very elegant. Moderate length finish stays with the lemony theme.

Bonus Geekery

On YouTube, Kerry Wines has a short 1:37 video on St. Urbans-Hof. It includes some winery views as well as gorgeous vineyard shots that surprised me. While you certainly see those classic steep Mosel slopes, there’s also much flatter terrain as well. I haven’t had the privilege yet to visit the Mosel but will certainly need to check that out.

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60 Second Wine Review — Audrey Wilkinson Gewurztraminer

Note: This wine was a sample at the 2019 Wine Media Conference.

A few quick thoughts on the 2019 Audrey Wilkinson Gewurztraminer from the Hunter Valley.

Audrey Wilkinson Gewurz

The Geekery

Now owned by the Agnew family of Agnew Wines, Audrey Wilkinson is a historic estate in the Hunter Valley. Founded in 1866 by brothers Frederick and John Wilkinson, it was the first vineyard established in Pokolbin.

When Audrey joined the family estate in 1897, he introduced cement fermenters and new techniques for handling the grapes in the winery. His wines would go on to win numerous awards at some of Australia’s most prestigious wine competitions.

Acquired by the Agnews in 2004, the heart of the Audrey Wilkinson vineyard is still one of the oldest in the Hunter Valley. The family maintains a 20 ha estate that includes a small block of Gewurztraminer.

The Wine

Lychee fruit photo by sannse.. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

There would be no excuse for not pegging this as Gewurz in a blind tasting. It has the typicity nailed.

High-intensity nose– lots of lychee and rose petal terpenes. This screams Gertie from across the room. However, it also has lime and apricot notes adding complexity.

On the palate, the wine tastes distinctly dry with the lime note emphasizing medium-plus acidity. Very mouthwatering. There is a fair amount of weight and roundness with some phenolic texture. It’s not distracting at all with the fruit balancing well with the full-bodied weight of the wine. Long finish lingers on the lychee with a slight ginger note coming out.

The Verdict

This wine is probably not going to make its way to the US, unfortunately. However, at around $18 USD (Wine Searcher estimate), it would be a very solid bottle if it did. Most likely in the US, you’d see it more on restaurant wine lists. No doubt, its dry style, fresh acidity and high quality would pair very well with a variety of cuisines.

I can easily see a savvy somm falling in love with this wine. And if you happen to come across it, I’m sure you will too.

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Education is Not Going to Save the Wine Industry

There’s a public Facebook group that I belong to called Friends Who Like Wine In The Glass. Ran by Steve and Vashti Roebuck of Wine In The Glass, it has nearly 10,000 members who span everything from regular wine lovers to industry folks and even Masters of Wine.

It’s always a good place to pop in for interesting wine conversations such as this recent thread by Larry Baker, aka Larry the Wine Guy. The thread started with Baker posting his latest video about the confusing 75% loophole for labeling American wines by grape varieties and the challenges of trying to educate consumers that their favorite Cab, Merlot or Pinot noir might actually be a red blend.

I know where Larry and other wine stewards/somms are coming from.

As someone who spent many years in the retail trenches, I can sympathize with Larry’s frustrations. The loophole is confusing. It’s also really tough dealing with people so hung up on a grape variety that they’re closed off to trying any other wine which doesn’t have that magical name on the label.

Yet, many American varietal wines in the sub $20 category can be very “red blend-y”–either because of style or a winemaker using the full stretch of that 75% loophole. I understand the desire to want to educate consumers on this loophole and use that enlightenment as a segue to get them to break out of their mono-varietal rut. However, watching Larry’s video and picturing these types of conversations happening on the sales floor made me cringe.

I know Baker is a good guy and has the best of intentions. I’m sure he’s had many great customer interactions and successes. But I’m also absolutely certain that his sincere, but exacting approach to educating consumers has turned off more than a handful as well.

(Update: Since this blog has been published, Baker has shared some more of his thoughts on sales in the comments of his original post that are worth reading for his perspective.)

I’m not writing this to pick on Larry.

He’s definitely not an isolated case.

Every single person reading this blog can think of sommeliers, wine stewards or tasting rooms associates that they’ve encountered who’ve leaned a bit too hard on the wine education front. While some of it can be driven by arrogance and snobbery, for most folks (like Larry), it’s more of an over-extension of passion. When you love wine and what you do, it’s hard not to want to share that and use your knowledge to encourage folks to try new things.

Aviation mechanic using a greasing gun image by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Kyle Steckler. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under PD US Navy

You only need to apply a little grease to ease the friction.


That passion isn’t bad. Wine education isn’t bad. But it’s imperative for anyone dealing with consumers to understand that education is not the engine that drives sales. It’s service, of which education is merely the grease that helps smooth things along.

But you know what happens when you over-grease the gears? Things run hot and break down. Customer service breaks down and the whole engine that we need to sustain the wine industry starts grinding to a halt.

Slathering on even more grease is not going to fix that.

As the US deals with declining wine sales, getting that engine back up and running is at the top of many concerns. However, anytime the industry deals with disappointing sales, there’s always a knee-jerk reaction that more education must be the answer.

Why is no one buying Sherry? It’s too confusing!

Why are Rieslings such a tough sell? People don’t understand them!

You could play this script out for most any wine topic.  It’s like there is a paradox that the answer is to both dumb things down while using education as a hammer to break through consumer ignorance. But what we should be doing is putting away both the crayons and hammers. We don’t have an education problem in the industry.

We have an empathy problem.

Frequent readers of the blog know that this is a tune that I’ve sung many times before. From my posts One Night Stands and Surprises about wineries, Wine Shops’ Biggest Mistake to my recent ponderings of When Did We Stop Treating People Like People?, I’m going to keep banging this drum.

In my career, there’s been no lesson more valuable to learn than that consumers want more listening and less lecturing. They want to be heard, seen and served–not sold to. Any winery, restaurant or wine shop that teaches “selling skills” should throw out those training manuals and start over. It won’t be selling skills that get you sales; it will be your service skills.

campfire photo by Dirk Beyer. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons GFDL and cc-by-sa-2.5

While the logs are undoubtedly vital, no air=no fire.

Those are the skills that will teach you to meet the customer where they are–at their level of knowledge and comfort. While service skills value the use of education to help smooth things along, they know that its use must be measured and not overdone.

Holding a consumer’s interest in wine is like maintaining a fire. It starts with a spark and some kindling. As it grows, you throw on logs (new wines, new knowledge) as fuel to keep it going. But you can’t toss too many on without smothering out the whole thing. The fire needs ventilation and air to sustain itself.

Too many wine professionals smother consumers with education and expertise.

I’m not saying that the industry should turn “anti-expert.” I don’t think anyone can read this blog and come away with the idea that I’m against wine education and expanding folks’ knowledge.

Education is important. Greasing the gears and throwing logs on the fire is essential.

But it’s not the engine or air which our industry needs to survive. Service is.

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Wine Delivery & Shipping Costs — Is This a Battle that Wineries Can Win?

On Twitter, Jason Haas of Tablas Creek shared some of the struggles that wineries have battling consumers’ expectations for cheap or free shipping on wine deliveries.

He very justifiably blames Amazon for creating this quagmire. It’s a sentiment that I’m sure most e-commerce businesses would agree with. One recent study from the National Retail Federation found that 75% of respondents in the US expected free shipping–including 88% of Boomers.

And as retailers like Wine.com and Total Wine & More roll out their own free shipping programs, it won’t be only Amazon shaping wine consumers’ expectations.

As I noted in my retweet of Haas’ thread, this has me conflicted. I know that shipping wine is expensive and complicated. There are so many things that wineries and retailers have to consider which businesses shipping books and bed spreads don’t deal with.

But when I take off my “wine biz” glasses and look at how I act as a consumer, I know that I’ve been Amazon’d.

Shipping Cost screenshot

On second thought….maybe not.


I can’t count how many times I’ve been on a winery’s website picking out items only to go “Whoa” at checkout because of delivery. It’s not that I expect free delivery, but when I see a fee of more than $25-35 (roughly $2-3 a bottle) for a case, I start asking myself, do I really want this wine?

That should make wineries nervous. Because, usually, the answer is going to be “No. I don’t need this wine.”

Up until that point, I was fully onboard spending money and just rolling along with the sale. However, as soon as I was given a reason to pause and wonder if the wines are really worth it, the train derailed.

It’s not because I felt angry or offended that a winery was charging delivery fees–again, I completely understand the business behind it. But what wineries need to understand themselves, is that consumers have so many other choices–not just of different wines and wineries but also of other beverages.

There’s never a situation where we absolutely have to buy your wines. Our lives are not going to be incomplete and joyless without it. In that sense, buying wine (especially online) is always going to be a bit of an impulse purchase. A fleeting fancy carried by a moment of intrigue.

The last thing a winery wants to do is kill that momentum.

Now if I feel this way as a consumer who is reasonably knowledgeable and sympathetic about the tough market wineries face, think about the average consumer who doesn’t know the business. It becomes easy to see why they would expect free delivery or fees far less than the $25-35 that someone like me is comfortable with.

Likewise, it shouldn’t be a shock when e-commerce studies show that upwards of 50% of online baskets are abandoned on the delivery page. While I sincerely hope that cart abandonment numbers are better for wineries, I’m sure even a 30% rate of abandonment cuts deeply into a winery’s sales.

So how much should wineries subsidize shipping?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that question. Every winery is going to have its own numbers to crunch. But there’s always going to be a delta between what it costs to ship and how much consumers are willing to pay–and that gap is only going to get larger.

Therefore, I would encourage wineries to add a few more numbers to crunch.

1.) How much are you spending on new customer acquisitions?

So many of my abandoned carts were at wineries that I never tried before. I would come across an article or hear a recommendation that piqued my interest. I’d go check out the website, find other wines that intrigued me and start nibbling the hook. But the difference between reeling in a new customer or having the line break often comes down to how easy it is to get your wines. It doesn’t matter how good the wine is if crappy websites, poor user experience and, yes, delivery fees means that the consumer never tries it. It’s not only a lost sale but also a lost relationship.

Remember, there is always other wine and wineries out there casting their lines. Someone else is going to reel in that customer if you don’t.

2.) How much do you spend to break into a new market?

Many DtC sales are from consumers who can’t find your wine locally. If they’re not going to buy from you directly because of delivery fees, then how much do you need to invest in establishing a presence in their market? This is a big question for West Coast wineries who are looking at the East Coast–which is often the most expensive region to ship to.

Of course, thanks to the asinine three-tier system, even shipping into new markets usually requires licensing, fees and significant investment on top of shipping costs. More numbers to crunch.

3.) But even for the markets that you’re already in, what is the margin difference between a consumer buying 1-2 bottles of your wine retail versus 6-12 online?
Flat Rate screenshot

Oh I’m definitely going to spend way more than I intended here.

This is one part of the “Amazon Effect” that actually benefits wineries. We’re all really suckers when it comes to free shipping and will spend more to get it.

And I fully admit that I’m one of those suckers. If a website gives me a spending target to get free shipping, I’m usually going to exceed it. Even though I know it’s a placebo and I’m still indirectly paying for shipping, it feels easier to justify the money. Instead of paying an “extra fee”, I’m getting an extra product, so I’m happy.

With wine, a flat rate delivery-fee always encourages me to buy more because I figure if I’m in for a penny, I’m in for a pound. And, hey, if someone else is going to carry the heavy wine bottles to my door, then I might as well buy two cases instead of one!

But if I’m at a wine shop, I’m buying far less. Plus, I’m filling up my basket with other wineries’ wines as well–giving you even less of my wallet.

So can wineries win the delivery cost battle?

In short, no. Consumer expectations for free and cheap delivery are only going to continue to grow stronger. Yes, it’s easy to blame Amazon. But, ultimately, it’s always going to be consumers writing the rules with their wallets.

And while your tactics might need to change, the battle for consumers’ wallets can certainly still be won.

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60 Second Wine Review — Hopes End Brandy Barrel-Aged Cabernet Sauvignon

Note: This wine was a sample from the 2019 Wine Media Conference.

A few quick thoughts on the 2018 Hopes End Brandy Barrel-Aged Cabernet Sauvignon from South Australia.

Hopes End Cab

The Geekery

Hopes End is part of the Trinchero Family’s extensive portfolio, which includes brands such as Menage à Trois, Charles & Charles, Joel Gott, A3 Wines and Sutter Home.

Slightly unusual for its style & low $10-13 price point, the Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced entirely from the state of South Australia instead of the vast, multi-regional South Eastern Australia designation.

While South Australia is known for the wines of the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Padthaway and Coonawarra, most likely this wine comes from the Riverland region in the Lower Murray. As Australia’s largest wine region by volume, the Riverland is responsible for nearly 25% of all Australian wine produced.

As noted on the bottle, the wine spends 30 days aging in brandy barrels. However, I can’t find any details of the barrels’ origins or if the wine saw any other type of aging.

The Wine

Blackberry pie photo by Rei at English Wikipedia. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0-

Definitely more blackberry pie notes than brandy in this wine.

Medium-intensity nose. Very jammy dark fruit–blackberry, black plum. Noticeable woodsy oak and vanilla, but it doesn’t smell brandy-like.

On the palate, the 9 g/l residual sugar is very noticeable with the dark fruit having a pie-filling weight and texture. Medium-plus acidity helps balance it somewhat but is curiously citrusy. This could be some of the brandy coming out.

The vanilla is very present with soft medium-plus tannins and a creamy, full-bodied mouthfeel. The moderate finish does introduce black pepper spice which adds some complexity.

The Verdict

As I’ve done before with previous tastings of bourbon barrel-aged wines, I did my best to keep an open mind. While it wasn’t as gawd-awful as Apothic Inferno, this Hopes End was still just okay.

It’s an off-dry red blend that doesn’t taste like the inside of a barrel. While it’s not my personal style, it’s certainly in line with many mass-market red blends in the $10-13 range.

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When Did We Stop Treating People Like People?

Two things have been rummaging through my thoughts this past week. One has been Rob McMillan’s very sobering post on The Email You Don’t Want to Get. Though published a few weeks ago, his write-up about a father and his daughter’s disappointing experience at more than a dozen wineries is still generating new comments and conversations popping up on my social media feeds.

The second is this now infamous video of a guy retaliating against someone reclining her seat on a flight from New Orleans to Charlotte.

Friends on my personal Facebook account know that I have a lot of thoughts about that video. But as I ruminated on this and McMillan’s missive, it struck me that the fundamental issues behind both were quite similar.

At the heart of these conflicts and failings, was a point when folks stopped looking at the person they were interacting with–the wine club members coming in to taste, the person in seat 27A–as people.

And they became “things.”

A guest.

A club member.

Another visitor.

Another passenger.

A potential sale.

A bastard.

It doesn’t matter if we assign positive or negative connotations to the terms. There is still an empathy gap that emerges as soon as we look past the person to what we feel they are to us. It creates a blind spot that keeps us from seeing what we are (and what we’re doing) to them.

Go back to McMillan’s letter

Many folks have noted that the wineries in question probably thought they did a good job. They had wine club members come in, poured wine and got the sale. Way to go team!

Though here’s the thing. These wineries didn’t just have a wine club member visit–some generic entity. They had Craig and Amy (I’m making up names for the father and daughter) visit–two unique individuals with their own feelings, expectations and history with each winery. Yet, when they walked through the door, their identities vanished and they became just club members, guests or potential sales. They became “things” whose value to wineries could be measured in numbers–bottles sold, daily visit count or new member sign-ups. And they were treated as such.

But the problem with treating people like things is that they start to feel like that’s all they are to you. You could tell from Craig’s note that he and his daughter certainly think that their value to wineries is measured in dollar signs.

I fully realize as a consumer/collector I’m not on anyone’s radar and certainly no ‘whale’ in any way, but we focused on reserve wines, bought at every winery and did drop over $10,000 in total. My daughter noted ‘that’s probably negligible in this great economy’. As an aging Boomer, well out of the 1%, I hadn’t considered that. — From “The Email You Don’t Want to Get“, February 8th, 2020

So if his worth as a wine club member doesn’t measure up with thousands of dollars spent, then–in his mind–why bother?

But, again, the wineries likely don’t think that they did anything wrong.

Cookie cutter people photo by Tomtchik. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

There’s no recipe for customer service that works with every person.

To some degree, it’s obliviousness, but really it’s a by-product of the tasting room mindset. In many wineries, tasting room staff are measured by metrics that commoditize consumers. There are bonuses for signing up new wine club members and commission on wine sales.

Some places utilize mystery shoppers and NPS (Net Promoter Score) to gauge customer service, but even that sets up a cookie-cutter “teach to the test” mentality. It imparts the impression that if you do A, B & C then your guests must be happy. In some cases, that’s true. But it overlooks the weighting that different things have on each guest.

For most mystery shop and NPS surveys, not saying “Thank you” at the end deducts only one or two points. Not great, but it doesn’t bomb your score. However, not being thanked by any of the 15 wineries they visited undoubtedly felt like a bomb to Craig and Amy.

It’s the same with greeting–such a small thing that usually has a similarly small point value. Yet something as simple as hearing your name can have an immeasurable impact on a consumer, making them feel seen as a person.

And, ultimately, that’s really what we all want–to be seen as a person.

Airline seat photo by Geof Sheppard. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Yeah…it’s tight for everybody.

Now let’s go back to the airplane video. You can spend hours going around who’s to blame and how much blame any of the three parties involved (puncher, recliner, airline) merit. But if you step back and look at it dispassionately, you see a common thread.

The lady reclining didn’t view the guy trapped behind her as a person before she first reclined back, unannounced. She didn’t look at his situation in the back row or that he was eating, so when she jerked her seat back, it spilled his drink on his lap.

The guy behind didn’t view the lady in front of him as a person who may have had serious back issues that necessitated her needing to recline. Nor did he see a person who made a mistake and likely didn’t intend to cause his drink to be spilt. Instead, she became the villain who was making his flight more cramped and miserable. While he may have been a sympathetic character initially, his childish response of jarring her seat only escalated things.

Then there are the airlines which we know view passengers as commodities and not people. For the last several decades, seats and legroom continually get shrunk in a quest to fatten the bottom line. If space weren’t such a sparse commodity, tempers wouldn’t flare up so much over reclining. But instead, we have airlines measuring every inch they can possibly squeeze–not realizing the miles of value those inches hold to the people who fly.

We don’t want the wine industry to go down that path.

We don’t want to lose sight that this is–and will always be–a people-oriented business. People have feelings. They have needs, desires and expectations with the greatest of them being a simple acknowledgment that they exist.

People don’t want to be treated like just another guest or wine club member. They want to be treated as Craig and Amy.

The person sitting in seat 27A has an entirely different situation and perspective than the person in 26A. The only way you’re going to understand this (and avoid unnecessary conflict) is to engage them as the individual people they are–not as the commodity or “thing” you assign them to be.

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Fuck the Fires — Drink Australian Wine

It’s too much — the lost habitats and species. The homes and businesses devastated. Now there are reports that some Australian wine producers in the Hunter Valley and Adelaide Hills may lose an entire vintage due to smoke taint.

Kangaroo in Robert Stein Vineyard

Picture that.

Even if you don’t work in the wine industry, imagine an entire year’s worth of your work wiped out. Think about all those steps, sweat and hours in the vineyards going up in smoke. Perhaps insurance and safety nets will help offset some of the financial losses. But nothing offsets a punch to the gut.

You still feel it. But you learn to manage it and move forward. This is what Australian winemakers are doing right now. However, they don’t have to do it alone.

So in the spirit of Yael Cohen’s Fuck Cancer movement, I encourage the wine community to #FuckTheFires and commit to supporting our brothers and sisters in the Australian wine industry.

There are numerous ways that people can help.

Consumers — Drink Australian Wine, especially from small family producers

Hunter Valley Wineries

Just a small assortment of the many tremendous Hunter Valley wineries that could use your support.

It begins and ends with you. Consumers who care and want to make an impact need to vote with their wallets. You need to ask for and actively seek out Australian wines at your local wine shops and restaurants.

While some producers may have lost their 2020 vintage, there are plenty of bottles of current 2016-2019 wines out in the market. The cash flow of moving those bottles through the supply chain and emptying backstocks will help cushion the blow of a down vintage in 2020. Find these bottles and drink up. This is the easiest thing that anyone can do to help the Australian wine industry.

I know this is tough in many markets–especially in places like the United States where the Australian “selection” is dominated by a handful of big names and mass-produced brands. While the supermarkets aren’t likely to change anytime soon, independent wine shops and restaurants can be more responsive. And, believe me, if customers start asking for more Australian wines, they will rise to meet the demand.

Importers and Distributors — Promote and expand your Australian portfolios

This is more of a personal plea to my American compatriots back home. Because even though we’re the largest wine import market by value, the perception of Australian wines for many US consumers is still of low-priced critter wines and fruit bombs. While those wines helped pave the way for Australian wines into the States, they certainly don’t reflect the realities of Australian wine today.

American consumers deserve the chance to know about things like cool-climate Pinot noirs from the Mornington Peninsula and Margaret River Chardonnays that are ages away from the tropical, butter bombs of the past.

Then there are the crackling Rieslings of Mudgee or the beauty of aged Hunter Valley Semillon. Not to mention the Hunter’s exciting foray into alternative varieties like Verdelho, Fiano and Vermentino as well as intriguing Shiraz-Pinot noir blends.

Lowe Zinfandel

David Lowe was inspired by the great Dry Creek Zins of Fred Peterson of Peterson Winery.
His Mudgee Zinfandel strikes me as a mix of the red-fruit & peppery spice of a Dry Creek Zin with the mouthfeel and texture of a ripe Paso wine.

While I do think that Zinfandel is the “craft beer” of American wine, it’s also made its way to Australia as a passion project of more than a few winemakers worth discovering.

In Orange, they’re exploring the potential of high elevation vineyards as well as carbonic maceration. All of which are tailor-made to capture the interest of the wanderlust Millennial market eagerly looking for something different.

There’s so much more to Australian wines than fruit and furry critters. Please, help give American consumers a chance to discover this.

Wine Shops & Restaurants — add more Aussie options to your selection

I know you guys are caught in the middle between what consumers are buying and what you can actually get from importers and distributors. But being caught in the middle means that you can also push at both ends.

Highlight your Australian wine selection by pointedly putting them in front of consumers. And let them know why you’re doing this. Something as simple as a line on a menu saying, “To support the wineries and families dealing with the effects of devastating fires, we proudly offer this selection of Australian wines for you to enjoy” goes a long way towards bringing awareness to consumers.

Of course, we want consumers to lead the way and dictate demand. But dictations often need a prompt to get going. Seize on that and give consumers a prompt to consider Australian wine. In chicken and egg scenarios, successful businesses are rarely the chicken. So take the lead and be proactive in your promotions.

Wine Writers and Influencers — Talk About Australian Wines

Sasha and Jean Degen

Sasha Degen and her mom, Jean, run a tiny winery dedicated to single-vineyard wines.
Sharon Parsons did a lovely write up on Degen during the 2019 Wine Media Conference in the Hunter Valley.

Yes, there’s so much exciting and interesting stuff out there in the world of wine to write about. But next month, next year and so on, all that exciting and interesting stuff is still going to be there.  So mix things up!

I’m not saying that you need to turn your blog or social media feed completely over Australian topics. However, now is the time for us to turn the spotlight on Australia for something good.

Currently, when Australian topics come across newsfeeds, it’s almost always for something heartbreaking. The fires, the floods and drought. We don’t need to whitewash or sugarcoat the negatives. But we shouldn’t dwell on them either. Australia is so much more than just natural disasters and things that can kill you.

Let’s change the narrative by sharing the stories of dynamic Australian winemakers forging ahead. Let’s talk about how Australia is a microcosm for wine–combining the history of many of the world’s oldest vines and multi-generation family winemaking with innovation that is at the forefront of climate change and the future of the wine industry.

But most importantly, let’s make sure that in the minds and hearts of wine consumers that Australia doesn’t get left behind once the news cameras leave.

Wineries — Hold solidarity tastings featuring your wines and their Australian peers

The wine industry is unique in that while it’s a business and every winery is technically competing against each other; it’s also a community. There are too many other threats to our industry–declining interests by younger generations, neo-prohibitionism, government regulations, tariffs, unstable economies, climate change, hard seltzer and other beverages–that merit more concern.

Whether it’s across the street, across the country or globe, we’re all in this together. The health and success of all our businesses–wineries, shops, restaurants, writers, educators–depends on consumers being engaged and intrigued with wine.

That’s why it would be a fabulous idea for wineries in other regions to host “solidarity tastings” featuring their wines alongside their Australian counterparts.

This will not only highlight how interconnected the world of wine is but help deepen the understanding and appreciation of guests who could try Cab, Shiraz, Sauvignon blanc, etc. from a local favorite next to an expression of that grape from somewhere in Australia. But instead of being done as a competition, it’s done in the spirit of community–perhaps even to raise funds supporting relief efforts in Australia.

Cathy Huyghe and Rebecca Hopkins have a wonderful list of worthwhile organizations to support on their A Balanced Glass site.

Hospice du Rhone seminar mat

Events like the Hospice du Rhône do a great job of highlighting the community among winegrowers.
I remember being fascinated with how many Californian, French and South African winemakers attended this seminar. They were there to taste and ask questions of the panel from Barossa just like the rest of us.

This is a powerful message to send because, while this time it’s Australia, who knows which wine community will be next?

California, Washington, Canada and South Africa are certainly not strangers to devastating brush fires. Flooding, drought and mudslides are hitting European and South American wine regions with increasing frequency as well.

Even if you’re a skeptic about climate change causing these, there’s always the vagarities of devastating earthquakes like those that Chile, New Zealand and Italy have endured. This won’t be the first time that the wine community comes together for support and it certainly won’t be the last.

Why this matters

The timing and impetus for the industry to respond to the fires by supporting the Australian wine community couldn’t be more stark. The industry once again is wringing its hands over how to reach Millennials and Generation Z. But how many times do we need to be beaten over the head with the same messages?

Younger generations want to support businesses that stand for something. That share their values. That basically gives a damn.

So, here you go. Stand up. Give a damn. #FuckTheFires and let’s drink some Australian wine.

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60 Second Wine Review — Silverado Cabernet Sauvignon

A few quick thoughts on the 2013 Silverado Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.

Silverado Cabernet Sauvign

The Geekery

In 1976 Diane Miller, daughter of Walt Disney, and her husband, Ron, purchased Miller Ranch from Harry See (of the notable See’s Candies family). A couple years later, Diane’s mother, Lillian Disney, acquired a neighboring parcel of See’s in the Stags Leap District that became Silverado Vineyards.

The sale included several acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 1968-69 by See after seeing Nathan Fay’s success with the grape. This would become the notable “See Clone” (FPS 30) that today is one of the prized heritage clones of Cabernet.

In the early years, the Millers and Disney sold their grapes to wineries such as Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Grgich Hills until they were inspired to make their own wine.

The first vintage in 1981 was made at Shafer Vineyards while the Silverado winery down the road was being built.

Sourced from estate vineyards, the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon includes fruit from Stags Leap District and the Mt. George Vineyard in Coombsville. Certified Napa Green, all the vineyards are sustainably farmed. While labeled a Cab, winemaker Jon Emmerich blended in 9% Merlot and 3% Petit Verdot for this vintage.

The Wine

Mocha pic by André Richard Chalmers. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

The creamy mocha coffee notes add richness & depth without overwhelming the fruit.

Medium-plus intensity. More red fruit than black (cherry, raspberry, plum). Noticeable oak and cedar with some mocha coffee notes as well.

On the palate, the ripe fruit becomes very juicy with high acidity. Medium-plus tannins are chewy, holding up the full-bodied weight of the wine. Some creamy vanilla enhances the coffee flavors but doesn’t overwhelm the fruit. Moderate finish introduces a minty note that wasn’t noticeable on the nose.

The Verdict

At $45-50 retail, this is an excellent buy for a Napa Cab. At the restaurant, we paid closer to $110, which wasn’t great but not dreadfully horrible for restaurant markups.

Still, I was impressed with how food-friendly and versatile this Silverado was to go with both my steak as well as the wife’s lighter chicken dish.

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