Category Archives: Millennials

Apothic Brew Wine Review

Last night I did a very mean thing.

I had several friends (wine industry folks, connoisseurs and newbie/casual wine drinkers) over for a blind tasting of Cabs and Cab-dominant blinds. While I forewarned them that I was going to toss a few “ringers” into each group like another grape varietal and a cheap under $10 Cabernet Sauvignon, I didn’t warn them about this.

I didn’t tell them that I was going to subject them to Gallo’s latest limited release–Apothic Brew.

But as with my exploration of the trend of aging wine in whiskey barrels, I wanted to get as much objective feedback as I could. Let’s face it, it’s hard to approach something like cold-brew infused wine without any preconceptions. You are either going to have a visceral nauseating reaction to the idea or squeal in delight at the possibilities.

While certainly not perfect (or academic), I figured my 27 friends from various backgrounds, age groups and wine experiences were good guinea pigs to give Apothic Brew a somewhat fair shake. The results of the tasting are down below but first some geeking.

The Background

According to Gallo’s marketing, the idea of Apothic Brew came to winemaker Deb Juergenson last year while working the long hours of harvest where she frequently enjoyed staying caffeinated with cold brew coffee. Noticing the similarities between the flavors of red wine and cold brew, Juergenson decided to experiment with infusing the two. Lo and behold, only 5 to 6 short months later Apothic Brew was released on the market in time for April Fool’s Day.

Cute story but I sincerely doubt it played out like that.

Photo by Sage Ross. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

From 2015 to 2017, sales of cold brew have grown by 430%

Gallo is one of America’s most successful companies selling more than 80 million cases of wine a year with nearly $5 billion dollars in revenue. They also have one of the largest and most savvy marketing departments in the industry.

There is no way that this (non-vintage BTW) Apothic Brew wasn’t being laboratory crafted, tested and developed for years.

It’s very likely that the market analysts at Gallo spotted early on the emerging cold brew trend that really took off in 2015 but has certainly been around longer as well as millennial wine drinkers openness to try new things and saw an opportunity.

E.J. Schultz noted in Ad Age in a 2013 interview with Stephanie Gallo, V.P. of Marketing E. & J. Gallo Winery, that “Unlike previous generations, young adults will try anything, including wine served over ice, from a screw-top bottle or even out of a box.”

With the successful launching of limited release editions of Apothic Crush and Apothic Dark (which later became year-round offerings) as well as Apothic Inferno, Gallo is following a popular recipe of crafting a finely tuned marketing campaign based around the latest wine trends and the “limited availability” of their new wine. As Christine Jagher, director of marketing at E. & J. Gallo, describes in a recent interview:

“We will often tease their release to get our loyal followers excited for what’s to come,” Jagher says. “If we can catch their attention at the right time, they will already be searching for a new item by the time it hits the shelves. They will also be likely to help spread the word among their friends and family.” — as quoted to Andrew Kaplan for Seven Fifty Daily, September 27, 2017

That said, it’s hard to find any concrete details about the wine itself. Beyond the label lacking a vintage year and noting an alcohol percentage of 13.5%, the bottle is not very forthcoming about what is inside. The original Apothic Blend is based on Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon while Apothic Crush is a blend of primarily Pinot noir and Petite Sirah so really this wine could be made of just about anything.

How exactly the wine was “infused” with the flavors of cold brew is a bit of a mystery as well. Is it even real coffee or was there a new oak chip/Mega Purple kind of additive created? While typical cold brew coffee has around about 26 milligrams of caffeine per fluid ounce compared to 27 milligrams for a standard hot brew coffee, Danielle Tullo of Cosmopolitan notes that Apothic Brew has less caffeine than a standard cup of decaf.

The Blind Tasting

Slipping the Apothic Brew into a tasting of mostly Cabs, I deliberately placed the wine at the very end of each tasting group. My primary purpose was to make sure that the coffee notes in the wine didn’t wreck my friends’ palates. I wasn’t exactly having the Apothic Brew “compete” with the other wines but with my friends having the knowledge that there were ringers (a cheap under $10 Cab and a completely different grape variety of unknown price), I knew that they would judge it with at least the expectation of something in the $7-15 Apothic price range included in the group.

By the time each group got to the last wine, there were vocal and immediate reactions of “Whoa” and “What the hell is this?”.

Some examples of the blind tasting notes on the Apothic Brew from people of various backgrounds–including wine industry folks, casual drinkers and wine newbies.

For the most part, the wine was described as “not horrible but not good” with several people thinking it was a cheap under $10 Cab with other grapes like Zinfandel blended in. Quite a few folks thought I slipped in a non-wine ringer like watered down Kahlua or a “weird stout beer”.

While “coffee” was obviously the most common tasting note descriptor, the next common descriptors were tannic and tart.

My (non-blind) Notes

Tasting the Apothic Brew before I bagged it for the blind tasting, I found that it had a high intensity nose of coffee. Rather than cold brew it smelled more like a can of Folgers coffee grounds. The coffee really overwhelmed the bouquet, making it very one-dimensional.

On the palate, the coffee certainly carried through but at least some fruit emerged with red cherry notes. Medium acidity offered decent balance to keep it from tasting flabby but it didn’t taste very fresh either. Medium tannins had a chalkiness to them which, coupled with the very thin fruit, made the wine feel a little skeletal. Noticeable backend heat suggested the alcohol is probably higher than the 13.5% listed though the body was definitely medium rather than full. The finish dies pretty quickly.

A “Red Russian” invented by my friend with a 1:1 ratio of Apothic Brew to milk served over ice.

The Aftermath

After the tasting one of my friends had the idea to add milk and ice to Apothic Brew to make a “Red Russian” cocktail that was actually kind of tasty. Certainly weaker and tarter than a true White Russian with Kahlua, but drinkable and an interesting riff on the cocktail.

We also experimented with treating the Apothic Brew like a mulled wine by heating it up. While we didn’t have mulling spices or dried fruit to add sweetness, I would say this experiment was far less successful than the Red Russian. The coffee notes became more pronounced but so did the tartness and thinness with a bitter aftertaste.

Surprisingly, the Apothic Brew tasted better the next day. It actually smelled and tasted more like cold brew with some chocolate notes emerging to add flavor.

Should You Buy It?

While the Red Russian was the best, I was surprised at how much better the Apothic Brew tasted the next day–even out of a plastic cup.

I think the descriptions “watered down Kahlua” and “not horrible but not good” are probably the most apt. The Apothic Brew is certainly different but it’s not disgusting.

It’s definitely tailored to people who are more cold brew fans than wine drinkers but it does have potential for experimentation with wine-based cocktails (a la the Red Russian).

Ideally for its quality level, the Apothic Brew should be priced more inline with the $7-9 regular Apothic Red Blend or the $8-10 “hard cold brews” in the market but expect to pay a premium for its marketing budget with the wine priced in the $14-18 range.

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Under the (Social Media) Influence

Photo from U.S. Department of Agriculture. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-2.0Social Vignerons just published their list of the 2018 Top 40+ Wine Influencers: Who to Follow on Social Media? that is worth taking a gander at.

The value in gauging “influence” is always going to be imprecise. You can base it on the number of followers that one has on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram but that metric is easily gamed with purchased followers, bots and other “tricks”. Digital influence metrics like Klout scores have their own issues with Social Vignerons noting that they stopped using Klout for their rankings because changes in social media platforms have made the score less relevant.

What are Social Media Influencers?

A common definition of a Social Media Influencer is “an individual who has the power to affect purchase decisions of others because of his/her authority, knowledge, position or relationship with his/her audience.” These include celebrities, recognized experts in a field, journalists, bloggers and “microinfluencers” who are regular people with a sizable social media following within a particular niche.

Marketers value these influencers because they believe that they can deliver on the 3 Pillars of Influences–Reach, Resonance and Relevance–to steer potential customers towards their brands.

Social Media Influences in the Wine Industry

Still got a lot of mileage and worthwhile info out of these books though.

In many ways, the use of social media in wine marketing and sales is Star Trek territory. Wineries and marketing firm are exploring strange new worlds where the old rules often don’t apply.

When I was working on my Wine Marketing & Sales degree at the Northwest Wine Academy and the Wine Business unit of the WSET Diploma Level, many of my wine business textbooks (such as Liz Thach’s Wine Marketing & Sales, Moulton & Lapsley’s Successful Wine Marketing and Brostrom’s The Business of Wine) gave scant to no mention of how to utilize social media–though Thatch, Olsen and Wagner are releasing a 3rd Edition of Wine Marketing and Sales in May 2018 that may tackle the subject.

However, at the core of Marketing 101 is that to be successful you need to reach new customers so even if wineries have to learn how to utilize social media influencers via trial and error, it is still an endeavor worth taking. That is why lists like Social Vigneron’s Top Wine Influencers is worth looking into but it’s also worth thinking about critically as well.

What Influences Me?

As a married millennial adult with no kids and plenty of disposable income, I’m squarely in the cross hairs for many wine businesses. I also understand that I am influence-able and will spend money on new wines, travel to new wine regions, attend wine events, etc based on interactions I have on social media. That is why I’m selective about the sources I follow because in order for a social media influencer to fulfill the 3 Pillars of Influence and “reach” me they need to demonstrate Resonance and Relevance.

Resonance — Are you creating new content that excites me? I’m a wine geek. I want to read about and be exposed to new wines, wineries and regions. Sure, your opinion can be helpful in adding color but everyone has an opinion. I need more than just that.

Some social media influencers don’t create new content but merely “retweet” or “repost” content created by others. That can be useful to some degree, especially if you are bringing to my attention something that I may have missed. But I often end up following and paying more attention to the original content creator than I do to the reposter.

And speaking of reposting, PLEASE don’t repost the exact same thing multiple times a day! Once, maybe twice, is fine after several hour intervals to hit online audiences that are active at different parts of the day but few things get me hitting the ‘Unfollow’ button quicker than seeing the same post tweeted out three times within a single hour.

Relevance — Be credible (i.e. “know your shit”) and be on topic. The first is easy. I’m not going to follow an account that passes off blatant errors and marketing crap as fact–like Champagne Masters and Their Bull Shit. The article that inspired that post came across my timeline via Food & Wine magazine and while I will give them a mulligan, I have no interest whatsoever in following any of the author’s social media platforms. But if Food & Wine keeps publishing shoddy pieces like that then they will no long reach me as a willing audience.

The second part of staying on topic is a little more gray. While I know we are all humans who lead multi-faceted lives, if you are going to be a Wine Social Media Influencer, be a Wine Social Media Influencer. A few comments here or there about trending topics is par for the course but too many off-topic posts about politics, TV shows or posts about your pets gets boring really quickly. The beauty of platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter is that we can create multiple accounts to engage our varied interests. The short of it is this–I’m following you for your wine content which is the area you are most able to influence me so focus on that area instead of off-topic stuff.

My Social Media Wine Influencers

Looking at Social Vigneron’s list, I saw many wine influencers that I already followed but more than half were individuals that I never heard of. I started following several of them but if I find that I’m not getting any Resonance or Relevance, I will unfollow them and move on.

Among the ones on the list that I currently follow and have certainly influenced me include:

I am one of 267,000 that belong to the J-Hive.


Jancis Robinson — The Beyoncé of Wine, IMO.
Decanter Magazine
Tim Atkin
Jamie Goode — One of my favorite tools
Chris Kissack
Wine Folly
Wine Spectator
Wine Enthusiast
Vinepair
Alder Yarrow
Jon Thorsen

The common theme with all of the above (besides that they clearly “know their shit”) is that they are content creators who regularly produce interesting content that I want to consume. Other content creators not included on Social Vigneron’s list that I follow include:

The Academic Wino
Mike Veseth – The Wine Economist
W. Blake Gray
Terrorist
Jeff Leve — The Wine Cellar Insider
PalateXposure
Wine Business Monthly

Perhaps these lists will be updated to include some of the new names I discovered from Social Vigneron’s Top 40+. Just like with trying a new wine, I’m open minded and hoping to be pleased. But if I’m not finding what I get very compelling, I have no qualms spitting it out.

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Cab is King but for how long?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons from George Cattermole and the  Gallery of Shakespeare illustrations, from celebrated works of art (1909). At a 2018 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium panel on Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the directors of winemaking for E. & J. Gallo Winery, Chris Munsell, shared a bit of advice that he learned from a marketing executive.

…for any wine to be successful, it need[s] to be of good quality, known by consumers and profitable for everyone involved. — Wines & Vines, Jan 29th, 2018.

Following that line of thought, it’s easy to see how Cabernet Sauvignon ticks off each box.

Cab’s ability to make high quality and age-worthy wines is legendary. It is relatively easy to grow in the vineyard and is very adaptable to a wide range of winemaking techniques. This adaptability increases the profitability of the grape as winemakers can make virtually any style of Cab to fit consumers’ tastes at prices that still meet desired profit margins.

At the Unified panel mentioned above, Evan Schiff, the winemaker for Francis Ford Coppola Presents’ Diamond line, describes how Coppola can make consistent under $13 Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards throughout California with the use of enzymes that facilitate quick fermentation, oak barrel alternatives like chips and staves (as opposed to $400-1000 new barrels) and micro-oxygenation.

Meanwhile, in Napa County where a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes can cost anywhere from $6,829 to $59,375, producers seemingly have no problem selling high end Napa Valley Cabernets for several hundreds of dollars.

The reason why Cabernet Sauvignon is a fairly easy sell is because of the second point in Munsell’s advice. For consumers, it is a known quantity.

Photo by self, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as Agne27

One of the oldest plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington State at Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley.

In 2017, while off-premise sales of wine only grew by 3%, Cabernet Sauvignon out-paced that trend with 5% growth. This growth was seen across a variety of price points ranging from a 21% increase in sales of $4.50 (per 750ml) boxed wine to a 15% increase in sales of Cabernet Sauvignon over $25.

Cab is clearly King but even the reigns of Sobhuza II and Louis XIV eventually came to an end. Looking to the horizon, it is not hard to find trends that, like Macbeth’s witches, whisper of toil and trouble in store for the monarch.

Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair: Who seeks something unique and rare?

If you want to bet on the dethronement of Cab, you only need to look towards the first, second and third murderers of all things–Millennials. With over 75 million members (surpassing now the Baby Boomers), industries ignore this powerful demographic at their peril.

While it’s a mistake to overly generalize with such a large cohort, one consistent theme that has emerged is that Millennials tend to value experiences over material goods. In the wine industry, we are seeing this play out in Millennial wine drinkers’ “curiosity” about unique grape varieties and unheralded regions. Instead of seeking out the high scoring Cult Cabs and status symbols that beckoned previous generations, Millennials often thirst for something different, something interesting.

A report by Master of Wine Matt Deller notes that 65% of Millennial drinkers in his Wine Access study actively sought out “unusual wines and vintages”. And while the buying power for Millennials currently lags behind Generation X and Baby Boomers, Millennials have a desire to spend more.

With this context in mind, some interesting trends stand out when you look at the acreage reports of vineyard plantings in California.

Of course Cabernet Sauvignon still commands a significant chunk of acreage with 90,782 acres of vines in 2016. That is around a 26% increase from 2008 and is a testament to the healthy market that exists for Cabernet. But looking a little deeper we see that savvy vineyard owners and wineries are anticipating the adventurous appetites of Millennial drinkers.

How does Teroldego pair with newt eyes and frog toes?
From the California Department of Food and Agriculture and USDA 2016 acreage report

During that same 2008-2016 period, we can see impressive growth in Italian grape varieties in California like Aglianico (≈ 63% growth), Montepulciano (≈ 77%) and Primitivo (≈ 233%). Even the obscure northeastern Italian grape of Teroldego from Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol is getting in on the action with an astounding growth of nearly 731%.

The vast majority of these new Teroldego plantings occurred in 2014 & 2016 with huge producers like Bogle Vineyards, Constellation Brands, E & J Gallo Winery and Trinchero Family Estates behind most of the plantings in the Central Valley of California. It looks like the grape is being groomed to be the “new Petite Sirah” as a key component in mass-produced red blends (or a Pinot noir-enhancer) but varietal examples from producers in Clarksburg, Lodi, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara could offer consumers intriguing and characterful wines.

Beyond the second wave of Cal-Ital varieties, Cabernet is seeing growing competition from its Bordeaux stable-mates of Malbec (≈ 130% growth) and Petit Verdot (≈ 62%) as well as the Uruguayan favorite Tannat (≈ 132%).

Among white wines, we see a similar pattern even though Chardonnay still accounts for over 94,000 acres in California–an increase of around 13% from 2008.

If she was around today, it’s likely that Lady Macbeth would be drinking Moscato… or Rombauer Chard
From the California Department of Food and Agriculture and USDA 2016 acreage report

While Chardonnay still rules by Cabernet Sauvignon’s side, we have upstarts like the Spanish variety Albariño (≈ 107% growth) and Portuguese grape Verdelho (≈ 75%) seeing significant increase in plantings. As with the reds, the interest in Italian white varieties is growing with Vermentino seeing around a 287% growth in plantings and the combine stable of Muscat grapes (led by Moscato bianco) more than doubling their acreage in 8 years.

There is no question that Cabernet Sauvignon bears a charmed life. It makes delicious wines that delight both wine drinkers’ palates and wineries’ bottom lines. But the fickle and ever-changing tastes of the wine world means that even the greatest of kings have reigns that are just brief candles.

While Cab’s light is not likely to go out anytime soon, perhaps the king should watch out for his shadows.

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Trading Out instead of Trading Up


Seven Fifty Daily reposted an old Jon Bonné article from October about Do Wine Drinkers Really Trade Up?

This is a question that regularly percolates in the wine industry, occasionally bubbling over. Bonné gives lip service to (but doesn’t link) the New York Times op-ed by Bianca Bosker Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine that created a firestorm last year. The op-ed was an excerpt from her book, Cork Dork, which, likewise produced some interesting reactions.

The gist of Bosker’s take is that wine industry folks shouldn’t turn their noses up at so-called “cheap wine” because there is actually quality in these bottles, even if there isn’t terroir. To add seasoning to her opinion, she includes a quote from no less of an esteem source than that of Master of Wine Jancis Robinson.

“It is one of the ironies of the wine market today, that just as the price differential between cheapest and most expensive bottles is greater than ever before, the difference in quality between these two extremes is probably narrower than it has ever been.” — Jancis Robinson as quoted in the NYT March 17th, 2017.

This narrowing in the quality gap has come via technological advances and winemaker “tricks”, several of which Bosker list in her op-ed, like the use of the “cure-all” Mega-Purple, toasted oak chips, liquid oak tannins and fining agents like Ova-Pure and gelatin.

Still despite these mass manipulations, Bosker contended that these technological advances had help “democratize decent wine.”

Needless to say, many folks disagreed with Bosker, few more passionately than natural wine evangelist Alice Feiring in her post to Embrace the “Snobs.” Don’t Drink Cheap(ened) Wine. But my favorite rebuttal had to be from Alder Yarrow of Vinography.

By M.Minderhoud - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

I think Ronald would want to have a few words with Alder.

“[Bosker’s argument] is the wine equivalent of saying that McDonalds deserves the affection and respect of food critics and gourmets the world over for having engineered such tasty eats that can be sold at prices everyone can afford.” Alder Yarrow, Vinography March 23rd, 2017

Some certainly defended Bosker’s view with most of those defenses centered around the idea that these cheap democratized wines introduce people to a less intimidating world of wine. A world that they may eventually trade up from for “better wine”–whatever that may be.

“She seems to share the view that mass-marketed, everyday wines eventually will lead a person introduced to wine through them to step up to more challenging wines. This perception isn’t without precedent.

I have a hunch that industrial wines will prompt neophytes who find that they enjoy wine to search for wines that have more to say.” — Mike Dunne, Sacramento Bee April 11th, 2017

And this is where we get back to the concept of “Trading Up”

Many people in the wine industry are unconvinced that this phenomenon exist. While the Bonné article above tries to paint some nuances around the concept, you will find many writers who doubt that people ever really trade up and instead think that the reason why we are seeing an increase in “premiumization” is simply because older 4 liter box wine drinkers are dying off while newer Millennial drinkers are starting right off the bat with a little more pricier $7-10 wines. In the article linked above, The Wine Curmudgeon expresses skepticism that a Bogle or Rodney Strong drinker would ever “trade up” to a Silver Oak.

Bonné also notes that there is a significant segment of wine drinkers that are risk and change adverse, pointing to Constellation Brands’ Project Genome study that found around 40% of consumers prefer to stick with drinking the same ole thing they drink everyday.

British wine writer Guy Woodward, in another Seven Fifty Daily article, quoted a buying manager at the UK grocery chain Morrisons flat out saying that his customers aren’t interested in trading up, being quite content with their £5 (around $7) bottles.

Maybe the industry should count its blessings that Millennials are even buying $7-10 wines and just cross our fingers that the next batch of wine drinkers in Generation Z start out their wine journey in the $10-15 range?

Or we can stop talking about “Trading Up” and start talking about “Trading Out”.

A major hang up in the “Should we love ‘cheap wine’ debate?” is the focus on the word “cheap”– which means different things to different people. For some, it means the type of mass manipulated wines that Bosker describes from her visit to Treasury Wine Estates. For others, cheap just means…cheap. This is especially true when you are talking about a Millennial generation of wine drinkers saddled with student loans and a lower wage economy. It is a victory for the wine industry when a Millennial reaches for that $7-10 wine instead of a six-pack of craft beer.

By Jami430 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, on Wikimedia  Commons

I mean, seriously, we could get about 7 meals of avocado toast for the price of one bottle of Silver Oak.

But for “natural wine advocates” like Alice Feiring who want wine drinkers to take their wine seriously and folks, like me, who despair at supermarkets monopolized by brands made by the same handful of mega-corps like Constellation, Treasury and Gallo, perhaps the potential of the Millennial market offers the perfect solution to our woes.

Going back to Alder Yarrow’s Vinography post, he references a Bosker rebuttal from Troon Vineyard’s general manager Craig Camp, that aptly notes the abundance of inexpensive but non-industrialize wine on the market. These include under $20 wines made in Beaujolais, the Cote du Rhone, Languedoc, Spain, Portugal, etc. Heck, you can even find tasty wines from these regions under $10. Now you might not find these in a grocery store, but they exist and often just down the road from the grocery at your local wine shop.

But how do we get drinkers to seek out these wines?

I think it is best to start small and encourage wine drinkers to get in the habit of “trading out” which simply means trying something new. Even if you are still shopping at your convenient grocery store looking at the litany of industrialize wines–try a new one. Sure, grab a bottle of your regular “go-to” but also grab something else. Just one bottle of something you never had before. Try it. If you hate it, you still have your ole trusty.

Why? Because drinking the same wine over and over again is like eating the same food. To echo back to Yarrow’s quote, you wouldn’t eat at Mcdonald’s everyday, why would you want to drink the same thing everyday?

So let’s say you try something different but in the same grape or from the same wine region. That’s a good start but it is still like limiting yourself to just one type of cuisine (Italian, Chinese, Indian, pizza, etc). Now granted, you can have a fair amount of pleasure exploring all the delicious possibilities of pizzas or Indian cuisine, just like you could have exploring all the delicious possibilities of the Riesling grape or the wines of Washington State. But you have even more potential for more pleasure when you trade out your standby cuisine for a chance to try something different–like Moroccan food or stuffed portobello mushrooms.

So many Cru Beaujolais….which incidentally goes great with both pizza and Indian food.

Encouraging the wanderlust and sense of adventure that Millennials have demonstrated, is the best path for wine industry folks promoting alternatives to industrialized wines. Yeah, mass produced and mass manipulated wines are probably going to be the starting point for a lot of wine drinkers. Bosker is quite right in that their accessibility and approachabilty has helped democratize wine.

But stop stressing if people reach for bottles of 19 Crimes or Apothic. Instead, keep encouraging them to “trade out” at least one of those bottles for something, anything different.

Perhaps if they keep trading out and exploring new wines, they may eventually find themselves on the wine industry’s holy path of “trading up” into more esteemed quality wine. But even if they don’t end up trading up to a higher price tier of wine, at least their journey is going to be a heck of a lot more interesting than just eating at McDonalds.

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Are Americans Ditching Beer?

The Spirits Business is blaring the headline that “US alcohol consumption declines for second year”.

Yikes!

Well not so much. Digging a little deeper beyond the headline, The Spirit Business notes that the IWSR report attributes the 0.2% drop in alcohol consumption to a 0.5% decline in beer sales which represents 79% of the alcohol market in the US.

If you look at wine and spirits, we’re actually seeing positive growth of 1.3% and 2.3% respectively.

Phew!

Or is it?

There is clearly something going on with the decline of beer consumption with the mega-Goliaths of the industry like Constellation Brands and AB InBev struggling. Though while people may not be drinking as much Corona and Bud Light, the craft beer market is still seeing steady growth. Likewise, the cider industry has also been seeing positive numbers.

Could it be that more Americans are following the adage of “drink less, but better”?

Perhaps.

Why drink Corona when you could have some fantastic ciders from Elemental Cider in Woodinville, WA?


Instead of the light lagers of macrobrews, it seems that Americans drinkers are moving towards IPAs and seasonal beers that often have higher alcohol %. These tend not be brews that you can guzzle down a six-pack or do keg stand with. Indeed, part of the appeal of craft beers is that you can sit down and actually geek out over them, taking time to savor the experience.

And, of course, we know how Millennials are all about those experiences.

Plus with the growth in hard alcohol and cocktails, it is very likely that rather than ditching alcohol, Americans are simply trying to get more out of their drinking than just getting their buzz on.

I would say to my friends in the beverage industry not to fret about the headlines touting a decline in consumption. Americans are drinking plenty.

Drynuary be damned.

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A look ahead to 2018

On Bloomberg, Elin McCoy (of The Emperor of Wine fame) shared her thoughts on what wine trends will be the stories of 2018. She makes a few interesting predictions that are worth pondering.

1.) Big bottles will be huge

McCoy predicts sales in large format wines will continue to grow in 2018, citing the UK retailer Majestic’s enthusiasm for the category with sales of large format wines up nearly 400% in 2017. While among collectors, magnums have always held fondness for their ability to age more gracefully, the trend towards large format wines grew even in the “in the moment” rosé category.

Beside, why have a mag of one rose when you can have 6?


I have to admit that I’m a bit skeptical of this trend namely because of other trends that are happening in the important Millennial demographic such as drinking less overall and when they do drink, not overdoing it. Downing a mag of rosé doesn’t seem to have long term appeal.

We are also likely to see a backlash to the “Generation Waste” trend among Millennials. One of the drivers in the growing “meal kit” industry that is popular among Millennials is the potential for less food waste with each kit being exactly portioned for 2 to 4 users. The potential waste in opening up a large format makes that trend seem even less appealing so I would wager more on single-serve wine packaging gaining traction than large formats in 2018.

2.) The year’s hot spot will be Spain

I’m on board with this prediction and I will add Portugal with its wealth of indigenous grape varieties to the watchlist. Now granted, wine experts have been making these predictions for a couple years. But hey, we’ve got The Bachelorette’s go ahead now. Enloquece, amigos!

3.) Climate change is heating up

Though no one is talking about Swiss whiskey….yet.


This is something I talked about last year with my post Running Out of Stones (and Glaciers) in the Age of Climate Change. The changing map of wine being driven by climate change is both frightening and exciting for wine lovers.

As much as the Japanese have taken the whiskey world by storm, could they do the same with Pinot noir from the north island of Hokkaido? Perhaps, but again we have to question at what cost?

4.) You’ll be buying more wine online

This one is up in the air for me. If Amazon can’t make a go out of selling wine online, who can? Certainly not Wine.com which has horrendous customer service.

Though considering most of these wines are $2-3 higher on Vivino than they are at my local wine store, maybe free shipping isn’t that great of a deal?


I hit the “fool me twice” wall with Wine.com this past holiday season. I previously had a poor experience with getting a order with them but thought I would give Wine.com another try.

I ordered wine in November for a Champagne tasting event on December 17th, figuring that giving them more than 3 weeks would be adequate time. After weeks of poor communication, promises of status updates that never came, I got frustrated enough to cancel the order and have washed my hands of ever shopping with Wine.com again.

Still, I’ve had positive online experience with retailers such as JJ Buckley and utilizing in-store pick up with some local Washington State retailers. I will confess to being intrigued with Vivino’s Amazon Prime type offering of free shipping with a $47 annual membership.

I’ll keep my opinion of online wine shopping fluid at this point.

5.) The fizz sector will keep broadening

“I enjoy cooking with wine, sometimes I even put it in the food…” — Julia Child (or W.C. Fields depending on the source)


McCoy notes that consumers can expect the price of Prosecco to rise in 2018 thanks to some troublesome harvests in northeast Italy. But even if consumers move away from Prosecco, increase interest in Spanish Cavas and French Crémants will more than fill the gap.

With this I fully agree as this is another Millennial driven trend that has several factors going for it. Beyond viewing bubbles as an everyday beverage (as opposed to just something for celebration), the cocktail culture among Millennials has saw a renaissance of not only classic favorites like Aperol Spritz and Kir Royale but also new rifts that give Millennials a reason to always have a bottle of bubbly in the fridge.

6.) The “luxury experience” way to taste wine

While most estates here are “reservation only”, I will say that one of my favorite visits in Bordeaux was to the very non-luxurious “Shackteau” of Marie-Laure Lurton’s Château La Tour de Bessan


This trend saddens me because it is also tied into wineries moving away from offering free tastings. That is fodder for another post but, personally, I believe that the more “exclusive” and limited that wineries make their tasting experience, the more narrow their customer base gets.

While I understand the desire to discourage “Bridesmaid Brigades” that swoop into tasting rooms, guzzle up the free booze and leave without buying anything, I ultimately think wineries are better off encouraging folks to come in off the street and give their wines a try versus making their potential customer decide, right off the bat, if this unknown winery is worth paying whatever tasting fee is being asked.

Even among known and established wineries, I fret that the trend towards “reservation only” and luxury experience tasting is only going to push more wine into the realm of the “1%” and away from the experiences of regular consumers.

7.) The rise of robots in the poshest vineyards

Oh Lord have mercy if Elon Musk ever fixes his attention on the wine world. This is another area that is both exciting and frightening for wine lovers. On one hand, it is indisputable that advances in knowledge and technology in the vineyards and winery have led to this present glory age of exceptional wine quality. Even in the worst of vintages, it is still possible to make good (if not great) wine.

“Modern” old-school technology at Ch. Valandraud in St. Emilion.


But, again, at what cost? Increases in technology have certainly added more tools to the winemaker’s tool belt but at what point do these tools stop being tools and start being more cosmetic manipulation?

Machines can help make better wine but, if you reduce the human element, can it really be great wine? How much of the “terroir” or story of the wine do we lose when we remove more of the human actors?

Of course, one driver of this trend that shouldn’t be overlooked is the increasing labor shortages in major wine regions. Perhaps the move towards technology could be one necessitated out of survival.

Either way, 2018 will be another interesting year of changes and development in the wine world. Drink up!

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In Defense of Evil Empires


Recently Esther Mobley of The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the blockbuster Pinot noir producer Kosta Browne’s new direction away from their super-lush and highly extracted style to something less “over-the-top, opulent, blow-your-lid-off wines.” The catalyst for this change, according to Kosta Browne’s president Scott Becker, is changing consumer demand, particularly among Millennials.

“We were at the risk of becoming victims of our own success…To be relevant and successful for the next 20 years, we have to recognize that the consumer is changing.” –Scott Becker as quoted by SF Chronicle 11/7/17

A sharp motivation also seems to be a bit of ego bruising that Kosta Browne has taken over the years for being one of the poster child of the high alcohol, super-ripe and hedonistic wines that flooded the market in the last few decades. Mobley quotes founder Dan Kosta concerns over his namesake winery being used by winemakers in Oregon and by organizations like In Pursuit of Balance as an example of what not to do with Pinot noir. The Chronicle article also includes an interesting anecdote about a sommelier at the NYC restaurant Breslin being ignorant that a winery named Kosta Browne even exist.

Quick look–is this Pinot noir or Syrah? Sometimes it’s hard to tell with wines as well.


Let’s set aside how poorly it reflects on the quality of the wine knowledge for a restaurant’s program when their sommeliers are completely ignorant of a winery that has not only won Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year (and been featured in their Top 100 list numerous times), is regularly in the top half of most collectible wines from California according to Vinfolio’s Collectibility Index and is, for all practical purposes, part of the pantheon of “cult producers” of Pinot noir in California with a 2 to 5 year long waiting list just to be able to buy a bottle.

Even if you don’t like Kosta Browne and don’t feature them on your wine list, it’s beyond pale to shrug your shoulders at the name as if you never heard of them.

I say that as someone who really doesn’t like Kosta Browne’s wines and would roll my eyes at seeing them on restaurant wine lists with their exorbitantly marked up prices just waiting for an expense account ego to order them.

Particularly a big-fish whose name rhymes with “Stiancarlo Ganton”


But even if Kosta Browne is not my style, I’m a bit sadden to read about this “change in direction.” It’s not that I don’t think pursuing more balanced wines isn’t a worthwhile goal. But seeing Kosta Browne trying to become “more restrained” in style is a bit like following the Hot Stove League in Baseball in the post-Steinbrenner years as the New York Yankees aim to be more “fiscally restrained”. Yeah, you’ve got the LA Dodgers and Boston Red Sox’s trying to fill in the gap with their best Belle Glos and Sea Smoke like efforts but as a fan of an old school small market Joseph Swan-like team (the St. Louis Cardinals), the excitement of potentially landing a big-fish is not quite a thrilling when one of the Goliaths of the game is sitting on the sideline. David isn’t David if the sling shot is never used.

“Good is a point of view…. Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power. ” — Chancellor Kofi Parker, Jr.


Likewise, how exciting would the Star Wars movies be if the Galactic Empire changed philosophies all of the sudden and started espousing Kofi Annan style diplomacy?

The world needs Evil Empires like the New York Yankees and Kosta Browne because the little guys, the outsiders, the rebels, the hipster snobs need something to aim for. The world needs balance between good and evil and you can’t have one without the other. So why should we root for Kosta Browne to shed it evil ways and try to become something….else? Do we think that people will suddenly stop wanting to drink lush, full-bodied and highly extracted Pinot noirs? Of course not! Just like matter can be neither created nor destroy, so too, is evil and the taste for residual sugar in wines constant.

And as we’ve seen from history, when a vacuum of evil is created, there can be consequences when a new force tries steps in.

You can argue that a lot of the world’s recent problems can be traced to the Chicago Cubs winning the 2016 World Series by trying to out-Yankee the Yankees.

If I could photoshopped him twerking on the Camaro, I would.


They went from being the lovable, lowkey Eraths of the Pinot noir world to the big budget and crass-commercialized Meiomi. They changed their style, trying to become the “New Evil Empire” and it messed up the cosmic order. Now we have women twerking on top of cars, folks dropping turkeys from planes and idiots launching home-made rockets trying to prove the world is flat. Yes, the world is out of whack and I place the blame squarely on Ben Zobrist.

A New Hope.
AKA winemakers of the Eola-Amity Hills.


Sure, big over-the-top wines can be boring and lack “character” just like big, cash-rich organizations that can buy or trade for any stud player can be infuriating and soulless. But doesn’t knowing the fact that these Evil Empires exist make it all the more satisfying when you find the gem of a bottle that tells a story to your palate or when your plucky rag-tag team of no-names finally scale the summit?

Sure, we want to root for the underdogs. But we also need those Big Dogs to still be casting their long shadow of evil like the Death Star. The world works better this way. It’s has balance even if that balance is dripping with sugar, extract and alcohol.

There is a place in the world for the Kosta Browne Yankees just like there is a place for my Joseph Swan Cardinals, the Merry Edwards Twins, the Beaux Freres Giants, the Argyle Mariners and the Williams Selyem Braves.

There is even a place, begrudgingly, for the Meiomi Cubs. Well, once they’ve been dethroned and relegated to the bottom of the shelf.

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Feeling low on Merlot

Let’s talk about Merlot. And let’s talk about it with only mentioning the movie Sideways once. There. We’ve got that perfunctory obligation out of the way.

Yes, Merlot has been down for a while though Forbes contributor Thomas Pellechia will tell you that it has had a little bump in popularity lately. However, it is still a far cry from the powerhouse it once was.

As a Washington wine lover, Merlot’s downfall has been disheartening. The grape holds a special place in this state because it help put Washington on the national wine map (far from the Potomac) when wineries such as Leonetti, Andrew Will and L’Ecole earned numerous accolades in the late 1980s and early 1990s for their Merlots.

Mama Bear was very annoyed when Goldi finished off the Otis Kenyon Merlot without saving her a glass.

Mama Bear was very annoyed when Goldi finished off the Otis Kenyon Merlot without saving her a glass.


Washington Merlots are also very distinctive–richly textured with medium plus to high tannins and moderate acidity that sew together dark fruit flavors with floral and spice notes that can not help but capture the attention of both “big red drinkers” and those who adore elegance and subtle complexity in their reds. If Goldilocks was a Napa Cab fan and Bordeaux lover, she would find Washington Merlots to be “Just right”. There are many reasons why wine writer Lettie Teague calls Washington State a missionary for Merlot.

This distinctiveness and incredibly high quality of Washington Merlots help catapult it to the top of the state’s production, leading the way from the mid-1990s till 2006. But then it dropped.

And dropped.

It wasn’t just Washington State that fell out of love with Merlot. It was nationwide with winemakers sensing the changing tide a couple years before you-know-what premiered in 2004. The movement was already afoot with Merlot vines being uprooted in favor of new Rhone varietals like Syrah and Grenache as well as some of its old Bordeaux buddies like Malbec and Cabernet Franc.

Why? It’s easy to blame a movie but I think that overlooks something important.

Merlot is boring.

You weren’t expecting that after the first few paragraphs were you?

By Chilli Tuna - Cropped from El bosque, CC BY 2.0

Plot twist!


Now don’t get me wrong. Merlot wines can be absolutely delicious but be honest with me for a moment. When was the last time you were at a restaurant and your heart soared with intrigue when someone at the table asks for “a bottle of Merlot”? Not a particular producer or a region like Pomerol, just a Merlot. Now think about that same situation if someone asked for a Syrah, a rosé, a Grüner Veltliner, a sparkling wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot noir. I’m willing to bet there would be a bit more arching of the brow and sense of anticipation in wondering what was in store as one of those bottles was brought to the table.

It’s just not the same with Merlot. And to be fair, I think a lot of people have the same reaction with Chardonnay as the ABC Movement (Anything But Chardonnay) is still alive and kicking with nary a film to blame for its strength. Part of it is the ubiquitous nature of both grapes. You see them everywhere. But, as a millennial, I often hear another refrain among my cohorts.

Our parents (and grandparents) drink Merlot.

They drink Cab too and maybe this trickle down apathy will eventually topple that red wine king, but for millennials it’s hard to get excited about something that you strongly associate with older generations. In the tech world, there is similar discussions about why younger users are leaving Facebook for other social media platforms. More and more, Facebook is being associated with mom and dad, aunts and uncles and that weird dude you shared one study group with back in high school. Facebook is becoming boring and that is the realm that Merlot has been in for some time.

What do millennials find exciting?

That’s the million dollar question for wineries and marketers the world over. Many virtual trees have been slaughtered as article, after article, after article, ad infinitum is written about millennials’ influence on the wine industry and how wineries are (or aren’t) adapting. We can nitpick about correlation and causation but its hard not to notice that the growth in the millennial wine market has coincided with the decline in Merlot. It’s also hard not to notice that this has also overlapped with the rise of red blends.

The irony, in a semi-Alanis sort of way, is that many of the most popular red blends in the market today feature Merlot very heavily.

By Marcello Casal Jr./ABr; cropped, and resized by Hajor. - Agência Brasil [1], CC BY 3.0 br,

It’s like Cheval Blaaaaaaaaaaanc
in a fast food cup


Apothic Red – Merlot with Zinfandel, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon
Menage a Trois – 35% Merlot with Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon
Cupcake Red Velvet – Merlot with Zinfandel and Petite Sirah
14 Hands Hot to Trot Red Blend – Merlot and Syrah
Radius Red Blend – 57% Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Tempranillo.

On the higher end we have restaurant wine list staples like Duckhorn Decoy Red Blend (52% Merlot), DeLille D2 (57% Merlot) and Chappellet Mountain Cuvee (43% Merlot) leaving Merlot’s mark on consumers’ palates.

This doesn’t even count the huge influence of Merlot in Bordeaux where it is the most widely planted grape in the region. Even in the “Cab-dominated” Left Bank, many top estates of the Medoc feature Merlot quite heavily in their blends. Check out some of the recent blends of Chateau Palmer, such as the 2013 which was 49% Merlot and the incredible 2009 that was majority Merlot!

This all makes perfect sense because Merlot is delicious. The grape’s rich plum and cherry flavors, subtle chocolaty notes, lush tannins, moderate acidity and ability to marry well with the flavors of new oak barrels hit many of the cues that make wine consumers sing with pleasure. People love Merlot. People drink Merlot. It’s just in the form of red blends.

But SSSSHHHHH ….. don’t tell anyone. Especially not Mom and Dad.

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