Category Archives: Millennials

Hunting Unicorns in the Stags Leap District

Even if it’s was just a marketing farce of Horace Chase, I still like the story of how Stags’ Leap Winery (and the area) got its name. Jancis Robinson recounts it in her book, American Wine, with the legend of Wappo tribal hunters chasing a stag. The hunt was close until the cunning beast secured its freedom by leaping across a vast chasm among the craggy palisades.

Stags Leap Palisades

The “Leap” of the Stags Leap District behind Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Kirk Grace, director of vineyard operations for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, pointed those fabled peaks out to me when I visited the district on a recent press tour. I thought about those hunters often while tasting through a stellar line-up of Stags Leap District wines.

There’s a lot of great wine here, no doubt. Trophies and treasures abound with a close-knit community of growers and producers. It’s hard to find a bad bottle because they all hold each other accountable for maintaining the area’s reputation.

But even with the bounty of treasures, there is still the urge to hunt.

As I noted in my post, Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?, there’s a dichotomy brewing in the valley. It’s between what the Boomers (and, to some degree, Gen Xers) want to buy against the boredom that Millennials have with seeing the same ole, same ole everywhere. It’s this boredom that pushes us away from Napa in a hunt for something different.

However, from a business point of view, the current Napa recipe is working spectacularly well right now. Folks are making outstanding Cabs and Chardonnays which Boomers and Gen Xers are gobbling up. Of course, the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon grows really well in Napa Valley helps a lot.

Shafer Cabernets.

You can’t discount how delicious these Cabs can be. They are, indeed, “dialed in.”

As Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards noted, the valley has spent the last 40 years or so dialing things in. They have virtually perfected the art of making exquisite Cabernet. I can’t argue against that. The proof was loud and clear in the many sinfully delicious wines that I had on that trip. It has also been solidified over the years by several bottles that I’ve purchased and enjoyed on my own.

But even with all that velvet-glove gluttony, my Millennial heart was still tempted by another sin.

Lust

A craving for something different. Something exciting. Something worth stringing a bow and sharpening arrows for.

While the stag has gotten fat and easy to cull, I was excited to discover other beasts in the Stags Leap District that would have given the Wappos a good fight. These wines are often made in meager quantities and rarely see the light of retail or restaurant wine lists. Instead, these are the gems hidden in the tasting rooms and wine club offerings. But they are absolutely worth hunting down.

Steltzner Sangiovese

The Steltzner Stags Leap District Sangiovese was so good that a member of our tasting party bought another vintage (2015) to take to dinner.

What was even more remarkable–beyond their existence–is that each of these wines was quintessentially Stags Leap. The family resemblance you see in SLD Cabs of bright, juicy fruit with powerful, yet ripe and forgiving tannins echoes fiercely throughout these wines. Likewise, you can see the same care and “dialed in” attention that Stags Leap producers are known for in each bottle.

Of course, with all that care and the SLD banner comes a hefty price tag. With the average price of land in Napa over $300,000 an acre (and hitting over $400,000 an acre in the Stags Leap District), nothing here is going to be cheap.

Undoubtedly, this is always going to be an area where the Millennial Math is a struggle. However, one of the things that enhances value is excitement and uniqueness.

And you can’t get much more exciting and unique than hunting unicorns.

So let me share with you some of the unicorns I discovered in the Stags Leap District.

Again, I’m not trying to downplay the region’s flagship Cabernets. But trumpets have been heralding their triumphs for decades. If you’re like me, sometimes your ears get enchanted by a different tune. I think each of these wines offers notes worth singing about.

Note: the wines tasted below were samples provided on the press tour.

Steltzner Sangiovese ($55)

I’m going to be writing a dedicated piece on Dick Steltzner in the not too distant future. It’s fascinating how someone who is so ingrained into Stags Leap District history would step out of the parade so many times to do his own thing.

Even though Steltzner’s Cabernet Sauvignon has been prominently featured in iconic bottlings like the inaugural vintage of Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and the 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon (of Judgement of Paris fame), he’s never been afraid to try new things.

Steltzner Sangio

The 2016 Steltzner Sangio. Probably my favorite of the two vintages but they were both excellent.

The initial plantings of Steltzner Vineyards in the mid-1960s included Riesling which had been a favorite of Dick Steltzner since he tried Stony Hill’s version. The Riesling didn’t work out, but that didn’t discourage him from experimenting again in the 1980s with adding Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Pinotage and Sangiovese.

Over the years, Dick Steltzner has gradually parcelled and sold off his vineyard–first in 1990 and most recently in 2012 to the PlumpJack Group. However, he’s kept many of his oldest and favorite plantings including the absolutely delicious Sangiovese as well as some Malbec vines which will occasionally be made as a varietal ($55).

Today, the vineyards are managed by Jim Barbour with the wines made by Mike Smith and Robert Pepi.

The Wine and Verdict

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of black cherries and plums. Not as herbal as an Italian example. Instead, there is an intense blue floral component.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through and are quite juicy with medium-plus acidity. Full-Bodied but not overbearing with ripe medium-plus tannins. As with the Stags Leap District Cabs, the texture and mouthfeel are outstanding. The fruit wraps around your tongue, having a tug of war with the mouthwatering acidity. It makes you want to both hold the wine in your mouth to savor and swallow so you can enjoy another sip. Long finish brings back the floral notes and adds a little oak spice.

Like Villa Ragazzi’s Pope Valley/Oakville Sangioveses, you’re not going to mistake this for a Tuscan wine. But this wine has more than enough character to stand on its own compared to similarly priced Brunellos.

Ilsley Seis Primas ($79)

Not long after Nathan Fay pioneered Cabernet Sauvignon in the Stags Leap District, Robert Mondavi suggested to Ernest Ilsley in 1964 that he try his hand at the variety. The Ilsley Vineyard was already selling their Carignan and Zinfandel to Charles Krug winery. When Robert Mondavi opened his winery a couple of years later, a good chunk of the fruit for his very first Cab came from the young Ilsley vines.

The Ilsleys continue to sell fruit to wineries even after starting their own label in 2000–most notably to Shafer Vineyards where David Ilsley is the vineyard manager. David also manages the family vineyard with brother Ernie running operations and sister Janice handling hospitality and sales. Since 2009, Heather Pyle-Lucas has been making the wines after starting at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Ilsley Seis Primas

Such a delicious bottle. I’m kicking myself for not figuring out a way to bring a few bottles back to Paris.

The 2015 Seis Primas is a blend of 62% Malbec, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc with only 183 cases made. The name pays homage to the six girl cousins that make up the 4th generation of the Ilsley family. The wine is sourced from six separate vineyard blocks including a 1996 planting of Malbec that the girls’ grandfather, Ed Ilsley, added to the family estate.

The Wine and Verdict

High-intensity nose. Rich dark blackberry fruit and plum. Lots of blue floral notes of violet and irises. There is also some noticeable oak spice, but it’s not dominating at all.

On the palate, the oak is more noticeable with a chocolate component added to the dark fruit. But still not overwhelming with black pepper spice emerging that compliments the allspice and cinnamon. Full-bodied with high-tannins, the wine is balanced well with medium-plus acidity that keeps the fruit tasting fresh. Long finish lingers on the spices.

I know that I said that it’s hard to find value in the Stags Leap District, but this wine proves me wrong. I’m stunned that this bottle is less than $100. It was easily one of the Top 5 wines that I had that entire week in the Stags Leap District after visiting 15 wineries and trying lots of heavy-hitters.

Honestly, if this wine had the magical “C-word” on the label, it probably could fetch closer to $130. All the Ilsley wines are sold direct-to-consumer. If you want any chance of bagging this trophy, you need to visit this family winery.

Clos du Val Cabernet Franc ($100)
Clos du Val Cab Franc

The 2016 Clos du Val Cabernet Franc. Still young but impressive already.

Even among Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignons, Clos du Val is a unicorn. From founding winemaker Bernard Portet to current winemaker Ted Henry and assistant Mabel Ojeda, tasting a Clos du Val Cab stands out from the pack. While the use of new French oak has steadily increased over the years (100% for their 2015 Hirondelle estate), it’s never been as overt as it is with many of their Napa brethren.

With lively acid and more moderate alcohols, these are always wines that sing in harmony with food. Think Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Yeah, Fleetwood Mac and the Heartbreakers are great–just like a big, bold, luscious Napa Cab is at times. But, damn, if there’s not something magical about tension and style.

These are also wines built for aging. That’s why it wasn’t shocking that when the historic 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting was recreated in 1986, it saw the 1972 Clos du Val Cab nab first place.

The Cabernet Franc comes from the estate Hirondelle Vineyard that surrounds the winery. It’s named after the French word for “swallows” and references the birds that build their nests on the northwest side of the winery every spring. The 2016 vintage was 99% Cabernet Franc with 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. Clos du Val’s winemaking team aged the wine 20 months in a mix of 80% new French and Hungarian oak.

The Wine and Verdict
Swallows at Clos du Val

Some of the swallows and nests that give the Hirondelle Vineyard its name.

High-intensity nose. Very floral but also an earthy, leather component. Underneath there is some dark fruit of blueberries and blackberries, but they’re secondary notes in this very evocative bouquet.

On the palate, the fruit makes its presence more known and are amplified by high acidity. Very mouthwatering. The earthy, leathery notes are still here but add a truffle component. It’s not like a Rhone, but it’s almost meaty. Firm, medium-plus tannins have solid structure but are still approachable. Moderate length finish brings backs the floral notes.

This is definitely a completely different Cabernet Franc than anything you would see in the Loire. It’s also not as “Cab Sauv-like” as many new world examples of Cabernet Franc can be (especially in Napa and Washington). The wine is certainly its own beast and is bursting with character. I can only imagine how much more depth and complexity this wine will get with age.

At $100 a bottle, you’re paying top-shelf Cab prices for it. But I guarantee this wine is going to have you scribbling a lot more tasting notes and descriptors than your typical $100+ Napa Cab.

Quixote Malbec ($80)
Quoixote shower

Or step into the shower they have in the visitor’s bathroom at the Quixote tasting room.

Quixote is pretty much the Narnia of Napa Valley. If you want to find unicorns, all you need to do is enter through the Friedensreich Hundertwasser-designed wardrobe and there you are.

Carl Doumani founded Quixote in 1996 not long before he sold Stags’ Leap Winery to Beringer (now Treasury Wine Estates). At Stags’ Leap, Doumani built a reputation for the high quality of his Petite Sirah.  When he sold the property,  he kept many of the choice parcels for his new venture. The current owners, the Chinese private firm Le Melange, which acquired Quixote in 2014, continues to make Petite Sirah a significant focus.

They make three tiers of Petite Sirah. The prices range from the red label Panza ($50) up to their premier black label Helmet of Mambrino ($105-125 depending on the vintage). Quixote also makes a very charming rose of Petite Sirah ($35). All of those are well worth trying. However, the one wine that really knocked my socks off was their Stags Leap Malbec.

Doumani fell in love with the grape after a trip to Argentina in the 2000s. He had a little less than an acre planted with the first vintage released in 2011. Only around 100-150 cases of this wine are produced each year.

The Wine and Verdict
Quixote Malbec

The 2015 Quixote Stags Leap Malbec.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Blackberries clearly dominate the show with some noticeable chocolatey oak undertones. With a little air comes black pepper spice, anise and savory leather notes.

On the palate, this was one of the most quintessential Stags Leap wines I tasted. Totally “iron fist in a velvet glove” all the way. Very full-bodied with ripe, medium-plus tannins. The plush texture is accentuated by the creamy vanilla of the oak. Medium acidity gives enough balance to add juiciness to the blackberries and also highlight a red plum component. Moderate finish brings back the spice notes with the black licorice note lingering the most.

In many ways, I can see regular consumers (as opposed to blind tasters) thinking this was a Napa Cab. There’s the rich dark fruit with noticeable oak. Coupled with the full-bodied structure and mouthfeel, it hits all those hedonistic notes that many consumers seek out in top-shelf Napa wines. But I love what the Malbec-y spice brings to the table. It helps the wine stand apart as a unicorn worth seeking out.

It’s definitely different than Malbecs grown elsewhere in the world (and a lot pricier too). However, this is truly a unique expression of the grape that reflects the Stags Leap District exceedingly well.

Other Stags Leap District Unicorns that I haven’t had yet but am on the hunt for.

In 2014, Decanter magazine noted that the Stags Leap District was planted to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petite Sirah and 1% other. I honestly don’t think the numbers have changed much in the last five years. If anything, Cab has probably gained more ground and relegated Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah to the One-Percenter Club.

So, yeah, these wines are going to be hard to fine.  But my experiences with the unicorns that I’ve already encountered has me feeling that these are going to be worth the hunt.

Chimney Rock Cabernet Franc ($85)
Author with Elizabeth Vianna.

Yup. Totally fangirl’d.

I fully admit that I’m an Elizabeth Vianna fangirl. I adore her work at Chimney Rock and she also has a great twitter account worth following.  Another upcoming post in the works will see me getting geeky over Chimney Rock’s crazy delicious Elevage Blanc.

From a solely Stags Leap perspective, this Cabernet Franc from their estate vineyard intrigues me. Even though Chimney Rock’s vineyards essentially encircles Clos du Val’s Hirondelle vineyard, I suspect that this will be a very different expression of Cabernet Franc. That’s partly why it would be so cool to try.

Chimney Rock also occasionally releases a rose of Cabernet Franc as well as a varietal Sauvignon gris– when the latter is not being used up in their Elevage blanc.

Update: Oh and there’s now this to look forward to!

Yes! A Stags Leap District Fiano!

Pine Ridge Petit Verdot ($75)
Pine Ridge map

While founded and based in the Stags Leap District, Pine Ridge sources fruit from many places and has estate vineyards in Carneros, Howell Mountain, Rutherford and Oakville.

Founded by Gary Andrus in 1978 and now owned by the Crimson Wine Group, Pine Ridge was also a big player in getting the Stags Leap District established as an AVA. While the winery is well-known for its Chenin blanc-Viognier blend (sourced mostly from the Clarksburg AVA in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties), the bread and butter of Pine Ridge’s Stags Leap estate is, of course, their Cab.

That’s what makes trying this Petit Verdot so intriguing even though a small amount comes from their Oakville property. Petit Verdot is a late-ripening variety that is seeing increased interest across the globe. It’s being planted more to help offset the toll that climate change is having on overripe Cab & Merlot. Of course, it can be a finicky grape to make as a varietal. However, when it’s done well, it’s a spicy delight!

Regusci Zinfandel ($60)
Screenshot of The Taste podcast

If you want to listen to a great podcast, check out Doug Shafer’s interview with Jim Regusci.

The Regusci family has a tremendous history in Napa Valley beginning with the site of the very first dedicated winery built in the Stags Leap District. The stone building, constructed by Terrill Grigsby in 1878, was known as the Occidental Winery for many years.

In 1932, Gaetano Regusci acquired the property and planted Zinfandel with many of those vines still producing fruit today. The family would sell grapes and maintain a dairy ranch on the property for several decades. In 1996, Gaetano’s son and grandson, Angelo and Jim Regusci, started the Regusci Winery.

While Zinfandel has a long history in Napa, its numbers are slowly dwindling. That’s a shame because Zinfandel is the “Craft Beer” of American Wine and a grape that is poised to capture Millennials’ attention. I don’t think anyone else in the Stags Leap District is still growing the grape which certainly makes this a fun unicorn to find.

Stags’ Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis ($150)

I became fascinated with this wine when I attended a winemaker’s dinner last year with Stags’ Leap Winery’s winemaker Joanne Wing.

Stags’ Leap Winery Winemaker Joanne Wing.

Sourced from a tiny Prohibition-era block of vines, Ne Cede Malis is a field blend.  Mostly Petite Sirah with up to 15 other different grapes including Sauvignon blanc, an unknown Muscat variety, Carignane, Mourvedre, Grenache, Peloursin, Cinsault, Malbec and Syrah. The grapes are all harvested together and co-fermented.

Coming from the Latin family motto of Horace Chase, Ne Cede Malis means “Don’t give in to misfortune.” But with the last vintage of Ne Cede Malis on Wine-Searcher being 2015 (Ave price $86), I do fret that maybe these old vines came into some misfortune. If any of my readers know differently, do leave a comment. (UPDATE BELOW)

Of course, that is the risk that comes with all unicorns. One day they may simply cease to exist. But that is also part of the thrill of the hunt.

Sometimes you bag your prize. Other times you’re standing on the edge of a cliff watching it leap away.

UPDATE: The Ne Cede Malis lives on! I was very excited to get an email from Stags’ Leap Winery letting me know that these old vines are still going strong with the 2016 vintage slated to be released in the fall for a suggested retail of $150.  Only around 500 cases were produced so this is still a unicorn worth hunting!

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How Can Wineries Use Instagram Better?

It’s been a little over a month since I wrote my post Why Do Winery Instagram Feeds Suck So Much? which garnered some tremendous responses. Many folks have emailed me, including wineries, to share their thoughts.

Photo by Today Testing (for derivative) featuring work from Pexels. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

I was most surprised at the number of wineries that asked me to “audit” their feeds. I have to give them massive credit for seeking honest feedback. It’s effortless to get lulled into the status quo, thinking that if you’re getting an okay amount of “likes” and “shares” that you must be doing good.

The vast majority of responses to my original post has been agreement that, yes, winery Instagram feeds do tend to suck.

But that’s not a universal sentiment. There was one really thought-provoking comment left by an owner of a social media agency that sharply disagreed with my take. You can go to the article to read her six-point comment as well as my reply. I appreciate her contrarian view and suspect that it’s probably shared by quite a few folks who run social media marketing firms.

But while we both agree that “authenticity” is vital, there are a few things about that contrarian view that I just can’t buy into–especially when it comes to marketing to Millennials who are the biggest users of social media.

Brand Awareness: The Be-All, End-All of Marketing?

One of the main points that commentator made was that “Regular pictures of the bottle help to keep the label top of mind is pretty basic, crucial even, to drive awareness and brand recognition- especially for new or boutique wineries.”

Now, I’m not against any pictures of wine labels appearing in social media feeds. My issue with “bottle porn” is the gratuitousness and oversaturation of it. Essentially many wineries take the idea of “Brand Awareness” and drive it off a cliff trying to emulate McDonald’s or Starbucks.

Here’s the thing. Wineries (especially small boutique wineries) are never going to be McDonald’s or Starbucks. It’s silly to take their idea of branding as benchmarks to emulate. People don’t look for the same things from wineries that they do from MacDonald’s or Starbucks. With those latter behemoths, they’re banking on the “top of mind” impulse buy.

I’m hungry. There’s a McDonald’s. You’ve got a Starbucks cup. You know, I could use some coffee.

Photo of image Created by Street Advertising Services for the Barefoot Wine Reverse Graffiti campaign in UK. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Don’t mind the bird poop on the sidewalk. It adds street cred.

While you can make a valid argument that supermarket wines need to bank on some of this recognition impulse buying, this is not going to work the same way for a small boutique winery. Seeing a few random bottle porn pics on Instagram is not going to help these wines stand out in the massive wall of wine.

If you’re a small boutique winery playing in the arena of “Brand Awareness,” you’re always going to get trampled underneath the bare feet of the big boys.

Instead, small wineries need consumers who are actively looking to find their wines. They need consumers who are engaged and motivated.

They need intention, not impulse.

Brand recognition only gets you so far. Relationships will take you further.

The goal of small boutique wineries should not be “top of mind.” You’re never going to achieve that. But you can most definitely squeeze a little place in the hearts of consumers who feel connected to your wines because they feel like they know you and know a part of your story.

Photo by Matt Pourney. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under the public domain.

If you’re expecting to win the “Battle of the Wine Wall” with brand awareness and bottle porn, then you’ve already lost and dragons won’t help you.

That should be the goal of every winery’s social media strategy–building the relationships that consumers have with their brand.

Saturating your feed with nothing but bottle pics and fake poses doesn’t give the consumer anything to connect with. It doesn’t tell us anything about the people and places that makes a wine worth finding. There is no motivation to want to search online, get in a car, visit a store or winery.

It’s just…porn. Pretty pictures. A cheap thrill. Well, maybe not so cheap for the wineries that pay beaucoup bucks to marketing firms for the staged photoshoots.

So how can wineries inspire (good) intention on Instagram?

Well, the first thing you should not do is to treat your social media like “one big commercial.” Just no. Don’t.

This is especially vital if your winery is trying to capture the attention of Millennials. Because, if you haven’t heard, Millennials hate ads. Like we really, really, really hate them.

Now sometimes we’ll allow the subtle stuff, which is where the “bottle porn phenomena” got its start. But eventually too much is too much and all the subtlety is lost. Then you start venturing into the area where we feel like you’re ruining our social media experience.

Instead of putting you “top of mind,” you’re moving to the top of our shit list. That’s inspiring a bad kind of intention. I’m not kidding. Ask any Millennial you know and they’ll name a few brands that they absolutely refuse to buy because of how annoying their advertising is.

For me, Jared and Coit Cleaning can go to hell.
Photo by M.O. Stevens. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Maybe this is why Millennials are supposedly killing the diamond industry? So that no one will ever talk about going to this godforsaken store again. I’ve never set foot in here and never will because of their annoying ads.

And, honestly, while I wouldn’t say that they’re on a “shit list,” there are several wineries that have completely zapped any enthusiasm or interest I had in finding their wines simply because of how boring and porn-saturated their IG feeds were. It’s not like I would adamantly avoid their wines, but with so many other options competing for my wallet, “Why bother?”

That’s what you have to remember. There are so many other options competing for your consumer.

The ones that are going to get their attention are the ones that give them a reason to bother. For a demographic that craves connection and engagement, you have to meet them where they’re at.

You have to enhance their social media experience, not ruin it. Show us something interesting and engaging.

Show us something like Grgich Hills which lets visitors stomp grapes during harvest.

Or Long Meadow Ranch which, during Pride Month, subtly let all its followers know that everyone is welcomed there without nary a rainbow flag or pinkwashing in sight.

Show us some history like Charles Krug Winery or Buena Vista in a way that lets us know that we can take part in that history.

Share what makes you unique even if it’s your passions outside of wine like the art of James Frey of Trisaetum or beekeeping at Spottswoode.

Or just share your geeky love of doing what you do like what comes through in every IG post by the Mullineux family.

Show us your people because that is the one thing that most sets you apart from every other winery. From the vineyard workers, to harvest interns, the winemaking team, hospitality, everyone–they each put their own unique imprint on your wine.

I raved about this on Twitter during my #WineMktMonday chat, but I absolutely adore this IG post from Côte Bonneville.

Screen shot from Côte Bonneville IG https://www.instagram.com/p/ByiIlengOyO/

Rock on, Rosa! You better believe that I’m going to find some Côte Bonneville wine (like their gorgeous DuBrul Cab or crackling off-dry Riesling) to toast to her and the Côte Bonneville team’s efforts.

Heck, show us their family like this excellent post that Frog’s Leap Winery did to highlight a proud papa moment of one of their cellar crew.

And, well, cute animals never make a bad post. Seriously, you have to look at these baby sheep at Hanzell!

Now if you look at the IG accounts for all of those wineries, yeah, you’re going to see some bottle shots.

But their PPP ratio (People:Places:Porn) is far healthier than what you see on most winery Instagram accounts. And every single one of them gives me a reason to pay attention–a reason to feel a connection to their brand.

As a consumer, those kind of IG posts motivate me to seek out their wines with intent. They’re not crossing their fingers and hoping that brand recognition and impulse blows customers into their tasting rooms like tumbleweeds. Instead, they’re creating the wind that’s doing the moving.

Bottom line: People are always going to be better than bottle porn.

Photo from Nationaal Archief / Spaarnestad Photo, SFA006004681. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons with no known copyright restrictions.

Maybe we need to get him frolicking on the beach? That should score some “likes”!

A consumer is always going to be able to make more of a connection with a real, living breathing person than an inanimated wine bottle. Every time. Everywhere.

You’re not selling vacuum cleaners. We don’t need to know all the products and features. But a HUGE part of wanting your wine is driven by knowing you. After all, the wine is a product of the passion and people behind it.

While I respect the hard work and effort of marketing firms, and I’d like to think that their hearts are in the right place, I need to be brutally blunt here.

If the people you’re paying to market your wines are telling you that you need to treat social media like “one big commercial,” then you’re wasting your money with them.

Yes, I’m sure they can point to plenty of metrics showing how many “likes” or “shares” and “comments” that a fancy, professionally shot and beautifully curated spread has. But tell me this…

Can anyone buy your wine with a “like”? With a “share”? How many comments of heart-eyes emojis can you point to that turned into real customers motivated to seek out your wines?

I’m not saying that metrics aren’t important. But they can be overstated. Ultimately the question that every winery should ask about their social media strategy is:

Do I want to chase likes and shares, or do I want to chase connections and sales?

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Book Review — Drive Through Napa

The folks behind I Like This Grape were gracious enough to send me a copy of their latest book, Drive Through Napa: Your Ultimate Companion to Napa Valley’s Wines Regions.

Drive Through Napa cover

Photo courtesy of Naushad Huda, ILikeThisGrape.com

While working on a research project about the Stags Leap District, I had several opportunities to check out the eBook version written by Paul Hodgins and Naushad Huda with Kathy Lajvardi providing graphic design.

Below are a few thoughts about this modern primer on the most famous wine region in the United States.

The Background

Naushad Huda came up with the idea of Drive Through Napa after wandering,

“If Pharrell or Complex Magazine were to write a wine book, what would it look like? What would it sound like?”

Previously, Huda had founded the digital creative agency XTOPOLY that focused on interactive marketing. They worked on T-Mobile’s first mobile eCommerce site and created campaigns for several global companies including Vitamin Water, Nestle, Emirates Airlines, Nivea and Google. After merging XTOPOLY with the Finnish software company Vincit in 2017, Huda served as their Director of Strategy and Partnerships.

It was during this time that Huda, along with his wife Kathy Lajvardi, wanted to take a fresh approach to the traditional concept of a regional wine guide.  Lajvardi is an accomplished artist whose done graphics work for the Iron Man and Transformer movie trailers. Her photographs and paintings are also regularly featured in major art galleries.

Partnering with Paul Hodgins, a longtime writer for the Orange County Register and author of The Winemakers of Paso Robles with Julia Perez, the Drive Through Napa team embarked on their project with Millennials as a target audience.

The Book

With that Millennial-focus in mind, Drive Through Napa is designed to be easily digestible within a 1-hour read. One of the goals of the creative team was to avoid many of the cliches that they saw in other wine guides–such as endless photos of vineyards that all look the same. The main graphics in the book are maps and price-to-rating charts taken from data provided by Vivino.

Another focus of the book was to steer clear of being a “what to drink” guide. Instead, Drive Through Napa takes more of a high-level approach to exploring the 16 AVAs (or “neighborhoods”) in Napa with brief blurbs on climate, elevation, rainfall, soils as well as principal grapes and their characteristics.

SLD Screenshot from Drive Through Napa

Screenshot of winery listing for the Stags Leap AVA which also includes notable vineyards.

Each AVA section touches a bit on some of the history and key pioneers. They also include a listing of most all the wineries and many notable vineyards that call each region home.

A critical distinction between Drive Through Napa and other regional wine guides is that there is no contact information about these wineries. Nor are there any details about which wineries are open to visitors and if appointments are necessary.

I suspect part of the reason for this stems from the goal of not being a “what to drink” guide.

The book does include a note directing folks to check out each individual AVA associations’ website. However, they unfortunately don’t include what those websites are so folks will have to Google them.

In addition to the AVA chapters, the introduction of the book goes into some of the history of California wine and the role that Napa has played in bringing prominence to the state. It touches on the usual characters of the Catholic Church and early 19th-century pioneers but also devotes time to post-Prohibition figures like Brother Timothy Diener of the Christian Brothers and putting the “Mondavi Effect” into context.

Additionally, the intro chapters include a short glossary of essential wine terms used in the book and briefly touches on a few of the major California wine regions beyond Napa.

Things I really liked about the book.

Photo by Sarah Stierch. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 4.0.

Burgundian winemaker and Raymond Vineyards owner Jean-Charles Boisset is one of several subjects interviewed for Drive Through Napa.

The team behind Drive Through Napa certainly achieved their goal in creating an approachable primer. There is brilliant simplicity in the graphics and design that makes it easy to digest even when a fair amount of information stray into technical viticultural details.

You don’t need to be a “wine geek” to pick up this book and find it useful. But if you are a geek, there is most certainly something in it for you as well.

My favorite part of Drive Through Napa was the interviews they included in several AVA chapters. Here Hodgins and Co. asked very pointed questions such as  “What effect does your region have on the grapes that are grown here?”, “What will we notice when tasting a wine from your AVA?” and What do people misunderstand about your AVA?”

This is where Drive Through Napa moves beyond just being an easily digestible primer on Napa Valley towards something that wine students will find immensely useful. In particular, I would encourage folks working on blind tasting exams to pay careful attention to the answers about AVA characteristics and their influence on the resulting wines.

The interview subjects have some serious pedigree.

Richie Allen, Director of Viticulture and Winemaking for Rombauer Vineyards (Carneros)
Taylor Martin, Managing Partner of Italics Winegrowers (Coombsville)
Dave Guffy, Director of Winemaking for The Hess Collection (Mt. Veeder)
Lorenzo Trefethen of Trefethen Family Vineyards (Oak Knoll)
Celia Welch, consulting winemaker of Keever Vineyards and many others (Yountville)
Jon Emmerich, winemaker of Silverado Vineyards (Stags Leap District)
Jean Hoefliger, winemaker of Alpha Omega Winery (Atlas Peak)
Nicole Marchesi, winemaker of Far Niente Winery (Oakville)
Ivo Jeramaz, winemaker of Grgich Hills Estate (Rutherford)
Jean-Charles Boisset, owner of Raymond Vineyards and many others (St. Helena)
Stuart Smith, owner and winemaker of Smith-Madrone Vineyards (Spring Mountain)
Danielle Cyrot, winemaker of CADE Winery (Howell Mountain)
Dawnine and Bill Dyer, owners and winemakers of Dyer Vineyard (Diamond Mountain)
Bo Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena (Calistoga)
Andy Erickson, consulting winemaker and owner of Favia (Napa Valley)

Things that were “Meh.”

Diamond Mountain screenshot from Drive Through Napa

Good luck trying to find those $30-40 Diamond Mountain wines. My best guess is that these are white wines and roses.

I found the Price-To-Rating charts to be pretty useless. Using Vivino’s 1 to 5-star ratings, Drive Through Napa featured a bar chart for most of the AVAs. Here they highlighted what the average score was of wines at various price points.

Spoiler alert: In every AVA but Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain and Carneros, the wines with the highest ratings are the ones that cost $70+.

And really, the $70+ wines are still the highest rated segment even in those exceptions. They just happen to share the same rating as another price category.

I honestly don’t think a single person is going to be surprised at these charts.

I also do wish they did little more with the winery listings for each AVA. In particular, I think they should have found a way to signify which wineries had open tasting rooms, those that needed appointments and which ones that there is no way in hell you’re getting into.

I doubt including little icons (asterisk, smiley faces, etc.)  next to each name would have added much to reading time. Plus, even if they didn’t want to be a “What to Drink” guide, anyone that is buying this book is likely going to want to visit Napa. And they’re probably going to want to drink something.

Steering folks to the individual AVA associations is fine (though, again, would be helpful to have their web addresses in the book). But that one small change to the winery listing pages would have significantly enhanced the overall utility of Drive Through Napa.

The Verdict

While I was fortunate to receive my e-copy of Drive Through Napa as a sample, I would buy this book without question. For $18 paperback and $9.99 for Kindle, it more than delivers in content and usefulness.

In particular, I wished I had this book back when I worked at Total Wine and helped train their wine staff in my region. I would have recommended Drive Through Napa to every wine associate there, especially those studying for their California TWP certifications. Likewise, I can see this book being handy for sommeliers–especially with those interviews I mentioned above.

You can’t talk about American or Californian wines without talking about Napa. If you want to understand this famous wine region, Drive Through Napa is a great place to start.

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Talking Wine and Millennials on the next #WineMktMonday!

Next Monday, June 24th, I will be the featured guest on Jessyca Lewis’ #WineMktMonday talking about the wine industry’s approach in marketing to Millennials.

Wine Mkt Monday details

I profiled Lewis’ #WineMktMonday on a previous Geek Notes about useful Twitter chats for wine lovers and wine students. A long time wine educator and social media consultant, Jessyca Lewis has worked with wineries across the globe.

On Twitter, she uses her bi-weekly #WineMktMonday chats to highlight innovative voices in the wine industry such as Jim Morris, Vice President of Estate Management and Guest Relations at Charles Krug; Tim Hanni, Master of Wine and author of Why You Like the Wines You Like: Changing the way the world thinks about wine; Shayla Varnado, founder of Black Girls Wine; Zoltan Nagy, author of Reinas de Copas about the pioneering women leading Spain’s wine industry and Frances Gonzalez, founder of VeganWines.com and Despacito Distributors.

I am very excited to join that list of guests to discuss Millennials and the changes they’re inspiring in the wine industry.

This has been a topic that I’ve focused on quite a bit on the blog as evident by the bounty of articles in the Millennial category archive. Those Millennial focused articles have also been some of the most read and shared posts that I’ve produced here on SpitBucket.

The Wine Industry’s Millennial Strawman
Millennial Math — Where’s the value in wine?
Is the Wine Industry boring Millennials to (its) death?
The Real Influencers of the Wine World
Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?
Adapt or Perish — The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Technology
No, There’s Not an App For That — Winery Visit Rant
The Lost Storytelling of Wine
Zinfandel — The “Craft Beer” of American Wine

So Join Us This Monday!

It will be at 9 am PST, Noon EST, 5 pm BST and 6 pm CET on Monday, June 24th. If you’re not familiar with how Twitter wine chats work, take a look at my primer for some tips. Everyone is welcome to participate, whether you’re just a regular wine lover or someone in the industry.

And if you have a question about Millennials and wine, tweet them to Jessyca Lewis (@JessycaLewis) with the #WineMktMonday hashtag. It might just make it to the chat!

See you on Monday!

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375ml Bottles — A halfway good idea?

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

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

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

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

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

Wait…what?

House wine pride can

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

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

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

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

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

I talked to them.

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what wineries need to pay attention to.

The practical considerations that drive sales trends.

Photo from

Will 2020 herald the new Roaring 20s?

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

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

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

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

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

Author using her Coravin

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

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

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

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

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

But let’s be serious.

Do you really see Lynch-Bages in a can?

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

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

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

Jason Haas of Tablas Creek was especially forthcoming.

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

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

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

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

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

Being ahead of the headwinds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moderation movement is real.

Calorie counting and serving-size awareness are real.

Waste considerations are real.

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

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The Sleeping Giant of Italian Wine

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

Mauro Sebaste Roero Arneis

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

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

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

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

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

Luigi Pira's Dolcetto d'Alba

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

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

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

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

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

Seven exciting Italian wine grapes to try.

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

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

Aleatico

Fubbiano Aleatico

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

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

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

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

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

Arneis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbera

Mauro Veglio Barbera d'Alba

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dolcetto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falanghina

Donnachaira Falanghina

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

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

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

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

A great choice for: White Bordeaux fans!

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

Friulano

Schioppettino Friulano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dry Lambrusco

Dry Lambrusco

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

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

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

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

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

Linda Whipple’s SIPPING LAMBRUSCO IN STRAWBERRY SEASON

A great choice for: Pizza lovers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fake Wine and Real Boobs

Does sex still sell? It used to be hard to argue against appealing to one of humanity’s most basic instincts. In many marketing campaigns–after hunger and security–a little titillation was the salt that added spice to a brand’s identity.

Photo by Tania Saiz - originally posted to Flickr as red lips isolated in white, CC BY 2.0

But recent trends suggest that we are slowly moving away from these Cro-Magnon conventions.  Several studies have shown diminishing returns for ad campaigns that focus on overt sexual imagery. In some cases, they can even promote a backlash against brands.

Part of this is changing demographics with those pesky Millennials once again causing trouble.

They never want to follow the old playbook, don’t they? Even Victoria Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch have found that reaching Millennial consumers is a bit harder than the hot bods that they have splashed over their ads.

It’s probably because those sexy ads feel so fake. With around 90% of Millennials valuing authenticity in brands, it’s clear that selling fantasy is not always the best approach.

So why are there still folks in the wine industry clinging to these outdated marketing ideas?

Booth Babes and Nonsense

Earlier this month, the Bâtonnage Forum on Women in Wine conducted a panel where the topic of how women’s sexuality is used to sell wine was debated. According to Jess Landers of Seven Fifty Daily, one of the most “controversial” statements came from esteemed vintner and former UC-Davis professor Carole Meredith.

“…when I go to wine events, I see women who are overtly selling sex under the pretense of selling wine. I sometimes see women who show up to pour wine wearing very tight clothes, very short skirts, their boobs hanging out. I have to wonder, Do you feel that you have to dress like that because the wine you’re pouring just isn’t very good? Doesn’t that diminish the wine? And if it doesn’t diminish the wine, doesn’t it diminish you?” — Carole Meredith, How Women’s Sexuality Is Used to Sell Wine, May 6th, 2019

Preach it, Carole!

The scare-quotes around controversial is intentional because I honestly don’t see anything contentious with what Meredith said. In fact, I often have the same thoughts when I’m at a tasting with tarted up “booth babes” who don’t know a thing about the wine they’re pouring. It actually angers me that rather than invest in training on their products that the wineries and marketing firms that employ these women are encouraging them to use their other assets to sell wine.

I’m not angry at the women. They’re just trying to do a job. I’m angry at the mindset that thinks this schtick works.

But it only works in convincing me not to buy your wine.

Photo by Diego Delso. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Gratuitous side booby.

Any winery that has to resort to using sex to sell is raising the white flag.

They’re sending out the message loud and clear that what they’re putting into the bottle is as fake and vapid as their marketing. It’s a boob move.

I get that same message from brands promoted by so-called “influencers” posing with bottles on Instagram as well.

They might not have their boobs hanging out, but they’re certainly not selling you on the story or quality of the wine. Instead, they’re selling you on fakeness and parlor tricks. They want you to “hey, look over here!” while the magician pockets your card (and hopefully your money).

Maybe those tricks worked in the past. But today, misdirection is anathema to consumers craving authenticity and substance.

If you want me to buy your wine, put your clothes back on and tell me what’s in the damn bottle!

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Sculpting Soapstone in Napa

I wrapped up my week-long press tour of the Stags Leap District yesterday. You can look forward to me spending the next couple months working through my notes in between other writings and reviews. For those that want a sneak peek of some of the insights and themes that I’ll be writing about check out the SpitBucket Instagram page. There I’ve posted pictures and thoughts from many of the wineries that I’ve visited.

Photo By Lysippos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Before the trip, I wrote about some of the questions and expectations that I had going in. A large part of my role in Friedenreich’s research entourage was to bring a Millennial perspective with an eye towards what the future of the Stags Leap District could be. While that is a role that I’m apt to fill, the WSET Diploma student and wine marketer in me is also conscious of the present reality of business.

Many times in between my Millennial “what if” questions, I found myself taking a step back to think about what I would do if I were a general manager, COO or president of a Stags Leap District winery.

Honestly? There is not much that I would do differently.

Though I still see challenges ahead, I couldn’t find fault in how well-executed all these operations were. It’s clear that these wineries have found a recipe that works for them and have spent considerable time, thought and capital into honing and perfecting that recipe. They’re all working hard to maximize the gifts of terroir like a sculptor skillfully chiseling away to reveal the beauty of the piece underneath.

However, they’re not chiseling their work into granite.

The nature of the wine industry is inherently transient. It’s an agrarian product that is a consumable good. There will always be factors at play (climate change, demographics, consumer trends) that will weather even the mightiest of edifices. No matter how much care, attention and capital that you invest, everything you do will always be chiseled in soapstone.

Quixote Malbec

There is some sexy Malbec being made in the SLD. These wines combine the spiciness of Argentine Malbecs with the seductive texture of Stags Leap District wines.

Even the fabled European wine regions spent centuries, if not millennia, figuring themselves out.

Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the backbone of the great wines of the Medoc, is still in its adolescence in Bordeaux. The Bordelais have been making wine since the Romans while Cab only appeared on the scene in the late 18th century. And even then, it took some time to catch on. During the 1855 classification, many of the grandest estates of the Left Bank relied heavily on grapes like Malbec and Merlot.

The soapstone sculpture of Bordeaux has changed many times over the years. With climate change, it’s already starting to change again with a growing focus on Petit Verdot and even Malbec making a return.

With Cab barely out of the womb in Napa, why should we not expect its form to change as well?

Now I’m not discrediting the beauty of Napa and, particularly, Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon. I had many delicious examples which I’ll be writing about on this blog. But while not as numerous, there were certainly several “unicorn” wines of other grapes that had me excited about what the future sculpture of SLD could be.

Some strawmen, some strong points.

Now back to those Millennials and the future challenges they may pose.

Often I heard the strawmen assessment that Millennials would come around once they had more money. However, there were also some excellent points which I’ll tackle in future pieces.

One is that education will be paramount in reaching Millennials. That does present the challenge of how do you entice anyone to want to be educated. But I also think it offers a double edge sword. One that can both cut Napa/SLD producers just as much as it can clear the path.

Another strong point is that rather than thinking of demographics, producers should market to “tribes”–i.e., a tribe Cab-lovers. This was argued exceedingly well by Russ Joy, the general manager of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. That tribal spin invites personalization with a sense of community and identity. A sort of “hipster” approach, which is somewhat ironic.

Malk Vineyards

This tiny little patch of vines in the foreground is Malk Family Vineyards. Beyond the dirt road is Steltzner, then Joseph Phelps, then Mary Jane Fay Vineyards (fruit sold to Shafer), then Odette and FINALLY you get to the Silverado Trail.

But probably the point that I could appreciate the most was the blessing of small production.

This was made quite clear at the tiny 2-acre estate of Malk Family Vineyards. With only a few hundred cases, the Malks don’t need to focus on chasing the market. Anyone who finds them (and believe me, the drive to find them is a bit of a hunt), is someone who is already passionate and committed.

That small production provides a bit of cover that will undoubtedly help many producers weather the changes–regardless of what they’re carving.

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Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?

Note: A follow up to this post can be found at Sculpting Soapstone in Napa

I’ve entered the lion’s den.
Photo By Aaron Logan - from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/albums.php, CC BY 1.0,

This week I will be in Napa assisting Kenneth Friedenreich, author of Oregon Wine Country Stories, with research on the Stags Leap District for the sequel in his Decoding the Grape series.

Surprisingly, no one has written a dedicated book about the district yet. With 2019 being the 30th anniversary of the AVA’s establishment, a deep dive into the legacy and future of this influential region seems long overdue.

That puts me on a fact-finding mission with Friedenreich and two of his other compatriots as we embark on a schedule of winery visits and interviews. In many ways, I am the odd duck in this entourage being not only the only woman but also a Millennial seeing Napa Valley beside the eyes of three Boomers.

Past and Present

The dichotomy will be rich as Friedenreich, Doc Wilson (a longtime fixture in the Oregon wine scene) and Mark, a pediatrician from Portland, represent the bread and butter of Napa Valley.

Photo By LEONARDO DASILVA, CC BY 3.0,

Are legends still exciting?

They are the generation that took with gusto an appreciation for fine American wine. For the last 40 plus year, every Napa vintner that has had an inkling of success achieved that by courting the Boomers.

While the recipe has varied somewhat over the years, the entire business model and marketing of Napa has been oriented towards enticing and exciting this large and lucrative demographic.

And it has remained a lucrative demographic even as the Boomers settle into retirement. They (along with the smaller Generation X) are still the ones buying the high priced and highly prized bottles that have paved Napa’s reputation with gold. That’s a reality that no vintner can ignore.

But what of the Future?

On the surface, I’m probably the ideal Millennial consumer that Napa wineries could hope for. I’m highly engaged with wine and willing to travel. I crave experiences which is something that Napa has spent decades perfecting. And, most keenly, I’m in a position of financial stability where I could afford to join wine clubs and regularly buy $100+ bottles if I wished.

Pritchard Hill at sunset

I will say that the view from Pritchard Hill is awe inspiring.
It does add a bit more character than the highly manicured vineyard lawns of the valley floor.

I might be a minority among my cohorts, but there are other Millennials like me, and we are the future bread and butter.

And with auspicious timing. For just as some industry folks are beating the strawman that Millennials will come running as soon as they have more money in their pockets, here I am representing the best-case scenario that Napa vintners could hope for.

How are they planning to reach me?

While Friedenreich is going to write his retrospection of the Stags Leap District from his Boomer perspective, he’s very conscious of the contemporary. One of the things that I’ll be contributing to the team is being the canary in the vineyards.

Will the Stags Leap District (and Napa in general) still be relevant in another 30 years?

Yes, Cab is King but for how long?

Even if I can afford $100+ bottles, what is the distinct value that makes getting these wines worth buying instead of a nice whiskey or the myriad of other options I have?

I’m from a generation that is notoriously in love with great stories so how are today’s SLD and Napa wineries communicating their stories? Do they feel authentic? Is it presented in a way that I can connect with and relate to?

The old recipe is not going to work.

Photo By Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA - Darioush Winery, Napa Valley, California, USAUploaded by Josve05a, CC BY 2.0,

I mean, yeah, that kind of looks interesting… I guess.

To be brutally blunt, Napa can be really boring.

The marketing to my generation has been trying to sell us a luxurious lifestyle that is rather generic.

Oh, beautiful people in a beautiful place. That’s nice.

Open up Instagram and you see a countless stream of beautiful people in beautiful places. There’s nothing special about that messaging. Been there, done that. Scroll.

Adding a glass of high priced Cab or Chardonnay doesn’t make the #NapaStyle filter feel any more unique or authentic. At worst, with literally hundreds of wineries delivering the same message, it feels fake and basic.

So what Napa will I see this week?

Will I see producers following the old recipe of success that has served them so well? Perhaps. With Boomers and Gen Xers still buying, it would be foolish to abandon it altogether.

But what I am hoping to see is a glimpse of planning for the future. I’d like to see a Stags Leap District and a Napa Valley that recognizes that the old #NapaStyle filter is a recipe for Millennials to keep scrolling past.

What I want is Napa unfiltered.

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The Folly of Price-Blind Scoring

Walk into a grocery store or wine shop and take a look around. You’re going to see tags–lots of tags–with wine scores. Usually, they’re at least 90 points because, these days, getting 90 points is akin to spelling your name right on the exam. Good job, Johnny. Gold star for you.

Photo By Caleb Zahnd from USA - Bobbing for apples, CC BY 2.0,

Now I’m not going to dive into another drivel about the scourge of score inflation or the silliness of points.

Instead, let’s talk about the Apples to Apples trap.

I’ve been banging the drum about the need to highlight value–especially for wineries wanting to capture the emerging Millennial market. These consumers are always looking for the best bang for the buck, so it’s vital to look at what kind of message we are sending them.

Is a 90 point $10 wine a better value than a 90 point $40 wine? Or what about an $8 wine with 4.2 stars on an app? Is that a better value than an $80 wine with 4.0 stars?

Apples to apples, right?
Photo By Usamasaad - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Both of these fruits have been rated “Outstanding” with superior character and style.

But we know that’s not right. We also know that the typical consumer is not going to look at the details or differences such as one score coming from Joe Schmoe while the other from a respected publication. Nor are they going to bother to learn that one wine is a 100,000+ case bulk wine from a mega-corp while another is a small lot production from a family winery’s estate vineyard.

So what happens when our value-minded Millennial consumer grabs that 90 point $10 Cab and are just “ho-hummed” by the experience? What messaging will ever make that other $40 wine worth trying? Certainly not that the message that it got 90 points!

On the flipside, what if they absolutely loved the $10 wine but thought the $40 wine was crap. Then we get back to the lovely “No wine is worth spending more than XX because of blah” circle of Dante’s Inferno.

Sure, education is always the easy answer but, as an industry, we have to accept that education is not the elixir that we so desperately wish it was. Lots of consumers, if not most, are not interested in education. They want short-cuts and the security blanket of stars and numbers.

They want an apple to be an apple–not an orange, not a coconut.

So what do we do?

Get rid of “price-blind” scoring

Go ahead, keep your scores, stars and numbers. But put some teeth and reality behind them. Let an apple still be an apple but point out when it is a Braeburn (your daily value drinker) versus a Pink Lady (something more of a treat). And don’t be afraid to compare them to other apples. Yeah, this Pink Lady is not worth the money compared to the Honeycrisp or Fiji.

Of course, you can’t do this blind (in any fashion) but maybe that’s not such a bad thing?

I expressed this sentiment about judging wines based on value in a recent Twitter thread where wine writer Robert Joseph countered with a very astute point.

He’s right. Just as some tasters would judge expensive wines more harshly, there are others who would be more inclined to give them an easy pass. However, the fact that two types of biases exist doesn’t mean that both are equally valid. If one benefits the consumer (judging on value) while the other doesn’t (judging on faux merit), then the answer is to root out the afflicting bias.

The critic who automatically thinks that a high price=great score is wrong and should be called out on that. While they aren’t likely to admit that bias (and it may be self-conscious), patterns always emerge. Instead of accepting this, we should be challenging these judges to actively and consciously rethink their biases.

Being “price-blind” doesn’t work in the real world.

By InterestingPics - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sometimes you don’t need an “Outstanding” apple. Sometimes you just want to get an apple that you can use to both bake a pie and have as a snack. Or a wine that you can cook and serve with dinner.

A consumer standing in front of a wall of wine is not “price-blind.” They have a budget and an expectation for what they can get within the limits of their wallet and credit card. We have to recognize and respond to this.

However, one of the biggest hindrances is that most professional writers receive the wines they review as free samples. I understand why it benefits wineries to put their bottles in front of people who will write about them. And I definitely appreciate the benefits to writers who often can’t afford to buy all the wines they review.

But samples still remove the writer from having to deal with the realities of the consumer–how they actually think and shop–when they write their reviews. That’s an obstacle that we have to work to understand and overcome.

There are reasons why a consumer may want to buy a Braeburn and reasons why they may want to buy a Pink Lady. Likewise, there are different reasons and expectations for buying a $10 wine for pizza and a $40 wine to take to dinner with the in-laws.

Even if a critic is receiving their wines as free samples, they need to at least acknowledge that “objectively” judging the pizza and nice dinner wine on same scale is foolish.

So let’s stop being foolish.

Bottle of Petrus

While I don’t regret spending $2600 on this bottle of Petrus, I would much rather buy multiple bottles of Ch. Angelus than buy another.
Beyond a one-time “Super Bowl” experience, it’s simply not worth it. I feel like it would be hard to be that honest if I had this wine as a free sample.

Let’s stop pretending that price doesn’t matter and that we can objectively review a wine based solely on the merits of what’s in the glass. For god sakes, how many decades have we spent playing this charade?

Yes, there are going to be bias but let’s tackle those biases head-on and put them in their place.

The onus of every critic and wine writer should be to first acknowledge their own biases with price. They need to step back and think of how often their eyes automatically go “oooooh” at the sight of an expensive bottle and wonder “why?” that is so. Conversely, if the thought of tasting a “value wine” makes us recoil, we need to own up to that too.

The second onus we have is to put ourselves into the consumer’s shoes as much as we can. And the best way to do that is to start comparing apples to apples.

So you’ve received a $50 bottle of wine as a sample. Great.

Now how does that wine compared to the other $50 bottles of wines that you may have purchased yourself at some point? Or the $30 bottles, $20 bottles, $200 bottles whatever.

The number one question that every critic should ask themselves when reviewing a wine is–how would I feel buying this with my own money? Would I feel like I got a good bang for my buck? Or would I feel like I’d rather had spent the money on something else?

Now, wait, how does this solve our “Apples to Apples” trap from above?

Come on Amber! If we’re grading on the curve of value then doesn’t that mean we’re still going to have those $10 wines that someone thinks is drinking pretty good for a $10 wine and those $40 wines that someone else thinks is drinking pretty good for a $40 both get 90 points?

Yes, and that’s precisely the point.

Instead of painting critic scores as an “objective” assessment of intrinsic quality, we’re letting it be a subjective assessment of value. A $10 wine that drinks pretty good compared to other $10 wines should be highlighted as worthwhile just as a $40 wine should be assessed among its peers.

Instead of being a trap, we turn our bounty of 90 point wines into bushels–each with their own kinds of apples. That’s certainly preferable to the wine industry’s current gig of tossing all these apples into a tub filled with water and wishing the consumer “Good Luck!”

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