Sorry that it has been a while since my last post. I’ve been busy learning first hand how difficult it is to move countries in the middle of a pandemic–and I’m far from done yet.
Earlier this summer, the wife accepted a new position in London. While I love being in Paris, I’m super excited about this move as London is the heart of the global wine trade. It’s also the base of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust which will make finishing my WSET Diploma easier, followed by (hopefully) applying for the MW program.
But even though the UK is just over the Channel from France, trying to coordinate a move and working through visa applications is a doozy. As an American, I can’t really blame Brexit but I’m sure the looming uncertainty there has not helped when it comes to finding French and British lawyers/banks/companies, etc that are willing to work together to help us get from point A to point B.
Then, of course, there’s the inevitable drag and delays driven by COVID. Even setting foot in the UK to look for a permanent place to move to is stipulated on first a 14-day quarantine period. So looks like it’s going to be a temporary Air B&B dwelling with our stuff in storage for god knows how long.
All of this is just a long way of saying that I’m putting the blog on hold till at least November. I’ll still be maintaining VirtualWineEvents.com and posting things on my social media channels of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook–albeit less frequently.
My goal is to hopefully get settled by the end of this year and be raring to go at the start of 2021. Thank you to all my subscribers and readers who have sent notes and messages. I really appreciate hearing from you. I’ll be back, I promise!
By now, I’m sure a lot of folks have heard about the viral video of two brothers reacting to hearing Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’ for the first time. If Tim and Fred Williams want to continue their tour of 80s hits, one song that the wine industry could certainly use a blast from the past of is Lionel Richie’s 1983 classic ‘Hello (Is it Me You’re Looking For?)‘.
That’s because as we stare into a future of more consumers beginning their buying journeys with online searches, many wineries have no clue of how to win the hearts (& wallets) of those consumers.
Even before COVID, a new Wall of Wine was being built that wineries needed to adapt for. But it’s not what we find in brick and mortar settings. It’s the changing way that consumers approach shopping for products to buy–as well as places to travel and visit.
Sleep on Search and Digital at your own peril.
Smartphones have changed the way we live and think about everything. Having a world of knowledge at our fingertips has fundamentally reprioritized how we approach information–what’s important to remember vs. what we can search for on the fly. And while, as a wine geek, I hate to admit this, for a lot of consumers, “wine knowledge” is pretty low on the totem pole of things worth remembering.
Wine Intelligence has noted this trend for some time but points out that this, interestingly, coincides with greater overall consumer confidence in buying wine.
Because a consumer doesn’t need to fret about knowing the difference between Pinot noir in Burgundy compared to Oregon when all they need to do is Google it. The answer is right there–or at least an answer good enough to satisfy their query. While “serious wine people” may quibble at things like Wikipedia and Wine Folly being top results, regular consumers sure don’t. This is the future, so we need to be paying attention to it.
Think of how many wine sales begin with a question. What’s a good Napa Cab to give as a gift? Are there vegan-friendly wines? What’s the best wine to have with chicken marsala? Even at restaurants or wine shops, consumers are just as likely to Google the answer as they are to ask a sommelier or steward. Maybe even more so.
Now think of how many wine sales are missed by wineries not evening trying to be the answer to those questions.
Do you have a spot on the digital Wall of Wine?
Come on, Lionel! People are searching. Are they finding you?
Don’t just Google yourself. Google what you do, what you make and where you are. Think of questions that consumers might ask that could lead them to you. Take a look at this search for California Zinfandel.
BTW, if you’re doing a virtual tasting/webinar, these questions in the Google results box would be great titles & themes to use.
The wineries mentioned in first page results (particularly in the very click-coaxing starred articles) definitely have a shelf spot on the digital Wall of Wine. But even if you’re not showing up in results for a high-value search term like “California Zinfandel,” hope is not lost. You could still show up on the first (maybe second) page of results for things like spicy Zins, Zinfandels that aren’t sweet, bold Zins, sustainable Zinfandels, Cheap Zins that don’t taste cheap, etc. While you may not be at prime “eye-level” placement on the digital shelf, finding yourself at least somewhere is better than not being stocked at all.
And don’t forget to check out YouTube as well. More and more people are incorporating video search in their buying journeys. This is an area that is only going to continue to grow–especially with the integration of voice search and smart TVs into our lives.
The importance of this extends far beyond just online shopping.
Even if you don’t want to bother with that “digital stuff,” the digital stuff is certainly going to bother you if your winery is built around tourism and tasting room visits. It’s very likely that one of the long-term impacts of COVID (as well as growing concern about the carbon footprint of traveling) means that folks are going to be more selective about where they go. If people are traveling less, they’re going to be researching more to make those fewer trips really count. And where do you think they’re going to be doing this research?
Picture a Zin-loving consumer at home, sitting on their couch, thinking about taking a trip to Sonoma. They turn on their smart tv, go to YouTube and start researching “Wineries with old vine Zin in Sonoma.” What are they going to find? Is it you they’re looking for?
Mostly product reviews with really only one winery-produced video in the top results.
Folks, it was never about selling tasting packs as a short term revenue gap. It was never about trying to replace tasting rooms or just making due until things “got back to normal”. The wineries that took that approach are no better off today than they were before lockdown.
The wine businesses that hit home runs as virtual wine events were taking off were the ones that realized the value in the content they were producing. Content that shows up on searches.
In the last few months, hours upon hours of new wine content have been added to the digital Wall of Wine. And it’s still coming as wineries, wine shops, influencers and educators find more ways to leverage these digital tools. Some of it’s great with strong keywords (not ‘Virtual Tasting May 14th with the Winemaker’ stuff) and captions containing more relevant search terms. Some are pretty blah, showing the half-hearted effort and short-term thinking of the people behind them.
The really savvy folks find ways to use the content from an online event in multiple ways.
Maybe that involves partnering with a digital marketing firm to add a professional flair and slice it up into easily digestible 2 to 4-minute nuggets like what Pour Agency and Outshinery do with their productions. These could be uploaded to places like YouTube and Vimeo where they’re prime to show up on consumer searches–giving you more opportunities to reach consumers.
Plus, don’t forget winery websites (many of which could use some love and touch up). Think about how much more alive and humanized a product detail page could be with a short video clip of the winemaker talking to real people about the wine at a virtual tasting.
Heck, I’m sure that even the most blasé virtual tasting or Instagram Live has at least two to three sound-bite moments. Why not mine these for 20 to 40-second clips that could be used on social media? Lord knows that wineries are never short in need of fresh SM content.
On VirtualWineEvents.com, we’re seeing a lot of traffic move towards people looking for video replays of past events. So it’s clear that this content has the potential to keep delivering results long after the event.
The digital Wall of Wine is only going to get more crowded.
If there is any lesson to be learned from COVID, it’s about how tenuous the old marketing playbook can be. It all works great, up until the point that it doesn’t. Tasting rooms, restaurant sales, they can all be gone in a snap. And retail is certainly not going to get any easier.
With DtC sales the lifeblood of many wineries, it’s never been more critical to keep the blood pumping. It’s not enough to rely on impulse and influence to make a sale. You have to cultivate intent.
Your consumers are already searching for their next bottle to buy or tasting room to visit. Is it you they’re searching for?
And, most importantly, is it you they’re going to find?
While the present is still grim in some areas (such as South Africa), many wine regions have open up their tasting rooms even in a limited, socially distant capacity. That’s been sure relief for cash-strapped wineries and a welcome respite for wine lovers who need to digitally detox. (Provided they feel safe and welcomed.)
But make no mistake. There is still a lot of value and a healthy market for online wine events. The folks that have gotten used to finding wine edu-tainment from the comforts of their couch aren’t melting away in the summer heat.
Since launching VirtualWineEvent.com in early May, I expected things to get quieter as places opened back up. But if you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been writing as much, I can tell you that those expectations didn’t play out. Running VWE is turning into a full-time job with managing listings as well as counseling wine businesses about their events. (Though we’re still committed to keeping this as a free resource for the wine industry.)
Now I will say that the number of online wine events featured on the site each day has certainly decreased from a high point of 60-70+ a day in May/June to about 30 to 40 a day. (Though, to be frank, that high point was a bit much.) However, our site traffic keeps rolling on. A big reason, I suspect, is that even though the number of events have gone down, the overall quality has gone up.
But the number is much lower as those wineries putting on those lackluster events likely didn’t see many results for their efforts. Maybe they had a little bump in the first few weeks but probably soon saw attendance and enthusiasm fizzle. However, the wineries, wine shops, educators and influencers that got it–that figured out how the game was to be played–are the ones we see still investing and putting out quality online wine events.
The wineries that viewed virtual tastings as nothing more than a revenue stopgap were always thinking too small and too limited. Meanwhile, other wineries, like Ridge Vineyards and the many who have partnered with 67 Pall Mall, approached these events as brand-building opportunities instead of wannabe tasting room experiences. These are the folks who nailed it from the get-go and will continue to see results.
I encourage my readers to save a spot and join us at 10 am PST/1 pm EST. I’ll be sharing many of the insights that I’ve learned from managing VWE.
I’m not going to give them all away here, but I’ll leave you with this thought.
In a crowded marketplace, you can’t always rely on impulse driving a sale. Think of a label or bulk stack catching a consumer’s eyes. The sign on the road saying “Tasting Room Open.” That interesting name and just right price on the wine list. All the things that we used to rely on encouraging a wine lover to give you a shot.
As the COVID shutdown has shown us, relying on impulse is tenuous. Instead, you need to drive intent. You need to give consumers a reason to look for your wines, to want to go to your tasting room or visit your website and social media.
The ease and global reach of digital video is a powerful seed planter and intent driver. The future of virtual wine events belongs to the wineries and wine businesses that understand this.
A few quick thoughts on the 2017 Domaine of the Bee red blend from the Côtes du Roussillon-Villages AOC.
Justin Howard-Sneyd is a Master of Wine who, after a long career as a wine buyer for Safeway/Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Laithwaites, founded Domaine of the Bee with his wife, Amanda, and friend, Philippe Sacerdot.
From the first vintage in 2007, the flagship red is a blend of Grenache and Carignan sourced from their 4 ha estate spread out over three plots in the Agly Valley just south of Maury. Many of these vines are extremely old such as the WWI-era plantings in the schist soils of La Coume de Roy & La Roque and the 60+-year-old vines of Grenache planted on a streak of limestone at Bac de Genievres.
From the tiny yields of these old vines, Domaine of the Bee works with winemakers Richard Case (Domaine Pertuisane) and Jean-Marc Lafage (Domaine Lafage) to produce just 2500 to 5000 bottles a year.
The roasted rosemary and lovely floral notes add depth to the rich fruit of this wine.
High-intensity nose–rich dark fruit (black cherry, plums) with some savory, roasted herbs. With air, a lovely floral note of violets & lavender emerge.
On the palate, those dark fruits carry through bringing chocolate & a creamy vanilla component as well. Medium-plus acidity with some stem character adds cinnamon spice and keeps the fruit feeling lively. Very full-bodied but well balance with no back-end heat from the alcohol. Long finish lingers on fruit & savory herbs.
This is a big wine but very well made, easy to drink and savor. Superbly solid for $50. With such small production, Domaine of the Bee wines can be tough to find, but in the US & UK, folks can buy direct from their site. For $30, I can also heartedly recommend the “baby brother” Bee-Side Grenache as well.
In this excellent 67 Pall Mall webinar, Howard-Sneyd shares more of his story and what makes the Roussillon area so distinctive.
Many folks have stood up to put that change into action–most notably Julia Coney’s Black Wine Professionals resource page and DLynn Proctor, Martin R. Reyes MW & Mary Margaret McCamic MW’s Wine Unify mentorship platform. However, there’s so much more that still needs to be done. The obstacles in the wine industry that hinder the growth of BIPOC are omnipresent and systemic.
Tweets, likes, shares and changing profile pics are nice gestures. But unless there are deliberate actions behind them, they’re just another dressing of “thoughts and prayers.” The digital equivalent of changing the label of a syrup bottle while ignoring the sticky mess inside.
Supporting change means enacting change.
Now there are a lot of different ways to do this, the easiest of which is simply patronizing minority-owned businesses. But, especially in the US, there are barriers that make that difficult. The archaic laws that litter the American three-tier system often suffocate direct-to-consumer options. While, thankfully, those cobwebs are being swept away one by one, the main route to new markets for many wineries or distilleries is still through distributors and wholesalers. And for small wineries, that route is often strewn with roadblocks.
But as stark as these barriers are for the typical small winery, they’re only magnified for wine & spirit brands owned by minorities.
In the Washington Post, Chanel Turner of Fou-Dre Vodka in Washington, DC, recounted her challenges in finding distribution noting, “I would set up meetings with different distributors, and they weren’t expecting to see someone like myself.” Likewise, Robin McBride of McBride Sisters Wine points out in VinePair that the struggle begins with just getting access to the “gatekeepers” in the first place.
So what are we going to do about this?
How can we, from regular consumers to industry folk, enact meaningful change to help minority-owned brands gain access to consumer markets?
Well, for one, we can put pressure on the Top 10 distributors that dominate the American wine market–all but one of which seems to be led by white men. As gatekeepers, they wield enormous influence on what wines consumers see on the shelves and wine lists of their communities. Sure, several of them put out statements about Black Lives Matter. A few changed their social media profile pics. But we’re going to need more than just syrupy sycophancy.
These two young somms are working to put change into action. After many years in the hospitality industry in Charleston, South Carolina, they’ve started Mantra Wine Distributors to answer the lack of minority-owned wine brands being represented in their community.
Orozco and Lago know they have their work cut out for them. It takes a lot of capital to start a wine distribution company. And it takes a lot of heart to do it in the middle of a pandemic. But heart and hard work is something that both these women have in spades.
While other folks are changing syrup labels, they want to change their community. They want to bring to Charleston wines that the wine lovers and tourists there aren’t getting. They want to share the stories of the many Black, Latinx, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, Women and minority-owned brands that are waiting to be discovered. And they’re willing to put in the time, sweat and tears to make that happen.
The wine industry needs more folks like Jonella Orozco and Brooke Lago. We need more people willing to chip away at the barriers which limit access, availability and opportunities for minority-owned wine and spirits brands. Projects like Coney’s BWP help increase visibility and amplifies the voices of Black wine professionals while Wine Unify broadens educational opportunities. But we also need to take this fight to the retail shelves and wine lists of our communities.
It’s been a busy spring and early summer for me since the launch of VirtualWineEvents.com. I’ve been invited to several interviews and panels, mostly to talk about the industry’s adoption of these new digital tools. Two exciting ones coming up is the FOMENT Conference this Tuesday, June 30th, which I’ll follow the next day with by joining Jason Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyards for a chat on his weekly Instagram live broadcast.
I’ve posted the details of these events below which I hope you’ll join us for.
Broadcasting live from Yalumba’s Signature Cellar in the Barossa Valley of South Australia, FOMENT tackles the future of technology in the wine industry and tourism. While the timing isn’t ideal for Americans, registering for this free conference will get you access to the recording.
A few of the notable guests that I’m thrilled to be participating in this conference with include:
Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg in the McLaren Vale
Lisa Anderson and Max Waterson of Yalumba
Wine writer Max Allen of Australian Financial Review, JancisRobinson.com and many more
Polly Hammond of 5forests and The Real Business of Wine
Wine Business professor Damien Wilson of Sonoma State University
My lovely wife and the tech-brains behind VirtualWineEvents.com, Beth, joined me in our pre-recorded interview. We talked about the need we saw emerging during COVID. Our goal was to create a site where wineries, retailers and wine educators could post upcoming virtual tastings, webinars, Instagram Lives–completely free of charge–so they could be more easily discovered by wine lovers.
We’ve been exceedingly pleased with the response and traffic that we’re having to VirtualWineEvents.com. Even as tastings rooms start to open up, wine consumers are still looking for interesting and engaging online wine events that they can attend from the comfort of their homes. Likewise, savvy wine businesses realize the continued value of platforms that allow them to showcase their brands to consumers across the globe.
Tablas Creek Wednesday Conversations with Jason Haas on Instagram Live
A perfect case-in-point of a savvy wine business embracing digital tools is Tablas Creek Vineyards in Paso Robles. Every week they host a live stream on their Instagram page. While, for the sake of my sanity and phone notifications, I’m glad that the “witching hours” of endless IG Lives have quieted, these online events are still quite popular.
The laid-back, conversational nature of IG Lives is an easy format for consumers to pick up. All you do is follow the person hosting the event. Then when the notification comes that they’re going live, you click on it. You can watch, comment and even ask to participate if the host wants to bring other folks in to join them. It feels spontaneous and unscripted which, for many consumers, comes across as more authentic.
Numerous wineries like Tablas Creek have been hitting it out of the park with these events that they can later upload to their IGTV channel or YouTube. Check out some of the past Wednesday Conversations with Jason Haas featuring guests like Jeremy Benson of FreeTheGrapes.org, Regine Rousseau of Shall We Wine, Patrick Comiskey of Wine & Spirits Magazine, Cesar Perrin of Chateau de Beaucastel as well as several members of the Tablas team.
I particularly liked this one with Elizabeth Schneider from Wine for Normal People.
There’s often a lull at the beginning of most IG Lives while waiting for people to respond to the notification and join. I love that Haas utilizes this time by giving some behind-the-scenes updates about what’s going at the winery and vineyard. In this episode, he talks about some of the viticultural challenges of their Scruffy Hill Block.
How to Get More Customers to Join Your Winery’s Virtual Tasting Room Experience
What Content Increases Winery Followers and Likes on Social Media
What is The Best Selling Point About Your Winery? Hint: It’s Not Your Wine…
What Can Smarter Winery Marketing Do for Your Winery?
How to Increase Wine Sales with Personalized Winery Marketing
This is the full version that the snippets above were taken from. Brandon Lee of Pour Agency gives a breakdown of the key points on their blog.
01:45 – What is SpitBucket and who is Amber LeBeau?
03:45 – Why is it so important for wineries to invest in marketing and what works
04:33 – The power of YouTube and how your winery can take advantage
06:34 – How can wineries reduce the noise and provide more value?
06:44 – Making good wine alone is not good enough to get more sales
07:32 – Wineries are not only competing with their neighbor or other labels
08:38 – What can wineries be doing to capture more attention?
09:16 – Winery video creates connection and engagement in the midst of the shutdown
10:42 – What your winery might be doing wrong with social media and Instagram marketing
12:08 – Make your content meaningful and stop potential customers in their tracks
12:55 – How can wineries incentivize more people to engage with their virtual tasting room?
14:50 – Sell your brand, not just wine. Jackson Family Estates and The Wine Makers on Radio Misfits – The Wine Makers
17:58 – What video would you want to see created to make you take action and buy a winery’s wine?
20:50 – The easiest thing you can do to start winery marketing right
22:34 – Show people who you are, build meaningful connections with everyone within your winery
25:15 – Wineries should be asking their customers what they want
27:54 – Why it’s important to move forward and innovate with marketing even if you have a reputation
30:01 – What is branding and what does that mean for a winery?
32:00 – If you give people a reason to give a damn, they will give a damn.
32:14 – What’s Amber’s favorite wine?
After working many years with Jean-Luc Thunevin of Chateau Valandraud in St. Emilion, Brigitte Chevalier founded Domaine de Cébène in 2006. Most of the Languedoc sits on a broad alluvial plain, but it was the unique schist soils of Faugères that caught Chevalier’s attention.
For Grenache and Syrah, Chevalier focuses on north-facing slopes to retain acidity & balance. The late-ripening Mourvèdre gets full southern exposures. Being highly drought-sensitive, Mourvèdre also benefits from the friable schistous soils that allow its roots to penetrate deep into underground reserves. Though, curiously, finding Mourvèdre on schist is not very common.
The 2016 Felgaria is a blend of 75% Mourvèdre and 25% Syrah from organically-farmed plots. The wine was fermented and then aged ten months in 500L demi-muids before being bottled unfined & unfiltered.
Lovely freshness to the dark fruit in this wine.
High-intensity nose. Very complex and evocative. I featured this wine on a recent Instagram Mystery Grape game and it was tough to sum it up in just 4-5 aroma/flavor clues. A lot is going on here–black fruits, grilled savory, meaty notes, dried garrigue herbs & flowers (lavender, sage and mint). Also a very intriguing, zesty blood orange note.
The wine kept changing in the glass with the fruits and savory flavors carrying over to the palate–plus added spiciness. Full-bodied with juicy medium-plus acidity and ripe, medium-plus tannins. The long-finish amplifies the spice notes (pepper, clove & cinnamon) as well as the dried floral notes.
As I noted in my IG review, this Felgaria has you licking your lips and sniffing the glass afterwards so that you can savor a tiny bit more of it. If you find this for around the $33-40 that Wine-Searcher is listing, that’s a steal. It probably should be closer to $50, IMO.
Here’s Brigitte Chevalier talking about schist. I love how the color of the rocks inspired her labels.
These are unprecedented times for the wine industry. Some bumps and missteps are to be expected as wineries reopen after long lockdowns. But stuff like what I’m sharing below needs to be called out and nipped in the bud.
Earlier today, I had this exchange with a friend in Washington State. She does not work in the wine industry but is an avid wine lover who belongs to several wine clubs. I asked her permission to post these screenshots of our conversation with both her info and the winery’s name redacted. The only thing I will say about this winery is that it is relatively well known in Washington. With multiple tasting rooms throughout the state, I’m sure they were quite eager to reopen and get back that traffic flow.
But this is not the way you should treat a consumer–or let them be treated. Especially not one who is responding to your Facebook ad asking for visitors to come back to your tasting rooms.
Salty language left un-redacted because, well, that’s how life is.
I understand the frustration.
This should not have played out this way. And what’s equally as frustrating is wondering where else this is happening. While I hope that this is a fluke event, how can we be sure that’s the case?
Even with all the headaches and hassles that COVID has tossed on our laps, the very last thing that any wine business should do is to lose sight of basic customer service. I know none of us asked to be put in this situation and there are a lot of things that are beyond our control. But what we absolutely can control is how we respond when consumers share their sincere concerns.
And there are several ways that this winery could have done better.
I know that monitoring your social pages is a lot of work, but do you really think that having a page that feels too hostile to interact with helps your business at all?
I’m going to go on good faith that the winery rep didn’t participate in the snarky comments. That just boggles my mind that anybody in the hospitality industry would be so idiotic. The winery did do well in deleting those comments fairly quickly. They deserve props there.
But where they dropped the ball was in not calling out the snarky commentators, who were attacking their customer, and in also not apologizing to their customer for being on the receiving end of this abuse. Plus, it was also disappointing that if they were online to delete comments, they still waited several more hours to respond to her question.
I followed up by checking out the winery’s Facebook page and found the post my friend replied to. The ad has received over 400 likes and has been shared multiple times, so a good amount of people are seeing in it. I found the original question and the cursory reply, noting that they’re practicing social distancing, limiting guests, wearing masks, etc. But no apologies for the other comments nor any further comment or post encouraging folks to treat each other with respect.
And, no, my friend has not gotten a DM apology or follow-up either.
Put yourself in this guest’s shoes.
If guests don’t feel comfortable visiting your tasting room, for whatever reason, they’re not going to come.
And in the shoes of similar guests who the industry desperately wants to return.
Here is someone who does want to return. She wants to get back to visiting winery tasting rooms. But she has concerns, like many, many other consumers. So when she sees the Facebook ad of a winery that she likes, telling her that they’re reopening, she reaches out to them.
But instead, she was made to feel that her concerns were “political,” “overblown,” “invalid.” Even if the winery wasn’t aware that guests still get notifications and previews of deleted comments, this abusive behavior should have been called out.
Because what are the odds that this would be a one-time thing? That these Facebook commentators who were attacking this person weren’t going to attack another guest responding to the same Facebook ad and having similar concerns?
And what assurance does anyone have that they wouldn’t be likewise heckled in the tasting room or parking lot by these other “fans”?
If you want to welcome guests back to your tasting rooms, you need to make clear that it’s a welcoming place.
And that extends to how your guests are treated on your social media pages. If other commentators on your Facebook page are attacking your guests, you need to do more than just delete comments. You need to make clear that respect is a value that your winery holds dear.
This is not about being political. It’s crazy that things like personal concern and safety are being turned into political hot topics. But as an industry, we have to rise above this. We have to look out for our customers. We have to make them feel welcomed, valued and safe.
When one winery drops the ball, it hurts their neighbors and everyone else who is also counting on those visitors returning. That’s why we need to call this out and stop this from continuing.
In the last few weeks, I’ve listened to a lot of very moving testimony from Black wine professionals about their experiences in the wine industry. One that hit me particularly hard was Tahiirah Habibi of the Hue Society recounting her story of taking the Introductory Level 1 course & examination with the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Habibi later goes into more detail about her interactions (or rather lack of interaction) with the Court that is just as infuriating. But that story of taking the level 1 exam really resonated with me. It took me back 13 years ago to when I did my own level 1, spending a weekend at a Tucson hotel for two days of classes and the exam. I remember quirking an eyebrow at the instructors referring to each other as “Master Jones” or “Master Smith” and expecting the students to do the same.
But that’s all it was, an eyebrow quirk. A shoulder shrug.
I chalked it up to a vestige of the restaurant industry where everyone “Yes, Chef!” the master of the back of the house. It never once dawned on me, for over 13 years, how what I could so easily dismiss with a shrug and Whatever would so deeply sting someone else. While in hindsight, it’s so glaringly obvious and cringeworthy, it just blew right passed me.
What troubles me the most, though, is that after all these years, I can’t tell you if there were any people of color in that class. With over 50 people attending, it seems like there would have been. But I honestly don’t know. I didn’t notice.
It struck me how often that is the case–how often I don’t notice people of color at wine events. They just meld into the crowd of other wine folks. Now some might say that’s a good thing, that you’re “color blind” and everyone should meld together. It should all just be wine people doing wine things.
But I reject that. I reject the idea that being color blind is a good thing. Because if you’re not noticing the presence of people of color in the wine industry, then you’re certainly not going to notice their absence.
Being color blind robs us all.
I don’t know if the people who advocate “All Lives Matter,” saying that they don’t see color or want to see color, realize that what they’re advocating for is a disorder. Achromatopsia (i.e., color blindness) is an affliction, a limitation.
People that suffer from actual color blindness don’t get to see the world in all its vivid richness. They can adapt and make do, but there will always be things that they’ll never be able to experience fully–the colors and context that enliven life.
Why would we want to aspire to that?
Why would we want to strive for a world that will always be less than what it could be?
It doesn’t make sense–especially not in the wine industry where we are immersed in a product whose greatest strength is its diversity.
We revel in the joy of endless possibilities from the multitude of grapes and wine styles we have. We’re fascinated and enthralled by the unique imprint of different terroirs. Every vintage, new chapters are written by mother nature and the hands of thousands of winegrowers across the globe. The world of wine is a world wrapped up in a rich tapestry of diversity.
But this world doesn’t just begin and end in our glass.
Think about all that we’re missing when we don’t notice the people of color in the room.
And especially what we miss when we don’t notice their absence.
Think about the insights, perspectives and backgrounds that we don’t get to hear about. Wine is consumed by our senses–both physical and through the lens of our sense of self. We reflect all of that in our descriptions and interactions with wine.
If we’re not noticing, listening and talking to people of color, we lose opportunities to see wine through lenses that only they can share. We lose the words, sentiments and moments that broaden our understanding and make our tapestry more dynamic.
Just as the thought of limiting our vibrant world to a small handful of wines makes our heart sink, so too should the thought of limiting the voices that help bring this world to life.
So, no, I don’t want to be color blind. I want to see. I want to listen and learn.
Oh, I’ve tried it a handful of times–most recently the 2018 vintage at the Wine Paris Expo this past February. It’s a frequent high scorer for Wine Spectator and, with their penchant for repeating the same wines over and over again at their Grand Tour, that’s offered me a few more opportunities to try. In wine circles, it tends to pop up at rosé parties–either from someone who wants to “ball” or, ironically, wants to snob it up and make a point about overpriced rosé.
Each time I try my best to taste it with an open mind. But every time I keep going back to my glass wondering, “What am I missing?”
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad wine.
Researching its background with how it’s made is actually kind of cool. The techniques that Sacha Lichine and the late Patrick Léon (Mouton, Opus One) developed for Garrus are undoubtedly innovative. Perhaps echoing back to Léon’s work with Domaine Faiveley, they approached Garrus like making a fine white Burgundy.
The fruit comes from old vine Grenache and Rolle/Vermentino planted on chalky hillsides. Often 100% free-run juice (though some vintages can have up to 10% press juice for balance), the wine is aged in a combination of new and once-used barrels. The wine then sees twice-weekly bâtonnage and lees contact for 8 to 10 months. But being a rosé, where freshness is a premium, Lichine and Léon developed a complex temperature-controlled system to keep the barrels cool throughout fermentation and maturation.
James Suckling has a great video (3:35) with Sacha Lichine where they show that barrel set-up.
Those efforts definitely show up in the wine.
While I’ve never tasted Garrus blind or in black opaque glasses, its mouthfeel is distinctive. The wine has a creamy texture that feels almost like a buttery, vanilla-laden Chardonnay but without vanilla & buttery flavors. I’ll admit that the first time I had it (the 2012 vintage when it was about four years of age), that mouthfeel really caught my attention. I was also impressed with the age as I tend not to have the best of experiences with older rosé. But with ample medium-plus acidity, the wine was still lively and fresh.
I scribbled in my notes that this would be an excellent $30-40 wine. Lo and behold, it was more than twice that! Today, it’s not that shocking to see Garrus over $100 a bottle. And I guess for me, that’s the crux of the issue.
It’s good, but it’s not that good.
While I get the business side of it–the cost of maintaining old bush vines on rocky hillsides, the expensive fermentation & maturation techniques, new barrels, extended aging, etc.–it’s hard for me to feel as a consumer that I’m getting my money’s worth. Full disclaimer, though. Every time I’ve tried Garrus, it has been either at a tasting event–some of which I’ve paid to attend–or that someone else has purchased.
Still, even though I have the means to spend upwards of $100 a bottle on wine, I’ve never tasted a vintage of Garrus that has compelled me to want to spend that on one to take home.
So what does it lack?
That 3L bottle cost around 400 euros. Which is fine on someone else’s dime.
Looking back over my past tasting notes, the words “Shy”, “Subtle”, “Vague” and “Undefined” litter them. The nose, especially with younger vintages (like the 2018 I had this year) often seems very muted, which is always a downer for me with rosés. I expect more pronounce intensity.
I’ve heard that Garrus does shine with some decanting, but I’ve never had the opportunity to experience that. However, it seems like a little bottle age helps as well.
But even with slightly older examples, the texture is always the strongest, if not sole, selling point. The aromatics and flavors still hide in the background. They’re there but they never jump out and make their presence known. I get a little peach, some pear, maybe a bit of exotic mango and the slightest hint of spice that often comes out in the moderate-length finish. Again, pleasant. Enjoyable. Certainly drinkable. But so are many other rosés for far less.
I’m not opposed to the idea of spending money for a “serious” rosé.
I just need to feel that it’s seriously worth it. Which, for me, the Château d’Esclans Garrus is not.