Category Archives: Millennials

It’s Raining Masters

UPDATE: Apparently there was evidence of cheating during the tasting portion and the results of that segment of this year’s Master Sommelier examination has been invalidated. All Masters who passes this year’s test will have to resit this exam.

Photo by Eduardo Pavon. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Hallelujah?

Earlier this week the Court of Master Sommeliers announced an astonishing 24 new Master Sommeliers.

All together 56 individuals sat for the exams which is taken in three parts. This first is a theory examination that covers the wines and wine regions of the world. Candidates need to know wine laws and production methods as well as details about cigars, spirits and liqueurs. This is followed by Practical examination which includes demonstrating proper table service. Then finally a blind tasting of 6 wines in 25 minutes using the famous Grid Method of Deduction.

To pass, candidates must receive a score of at least 75% in all three parts. With this year’s bumper crop, we saw an incredible 42.8% pass rate.

That’s not bad for something that has been described as the World’s Toughest Test.

A Perfect Storm for a Windfall?

Last year the court announced 8 new Masters out of 58 candidates for a 13.7% pass rate.

In 2016, there was a minuscule 4.7% pass rate as 3 out of 63 candidates successfully completed all 3 exams. The year prior, in 2015, 7 out of 63 passed for a 11% rate.

Now what those numbers don’t tell is how many individuals passed 1 or even 2 of the three exam components. These scores can be carried over to the next examination. Let’s say we have a candidate who passed the Theory examination in 2015 but failed Practical and Tasting. This candidate could then spend the next three consecutive years attempting to pass the remaining two.  After that, though, unsuccessful candidates will need to retake the whole exam.

It’s very likely that 2018 wasn’t the first rodeo for several of the 24 new Master Sommeliers. This could help explain why this year saw so many successful candidates.

The SOMM Effect?

The film also popularize the idea of blind tasting beyond just professionals.

One theory on the large class was that it was because more people were taking the exams. Credit is given  to the 2013 documentary film SOMM  for sparking interest in the field. This film followed the path of Ian Cauble, Dustin Wilson, DLynn Proctor and Brian McClintic as they took their examinations.

Wilson and McClintic would go on to pass all the Master Sommelier exams in February 2011, being 2 of 6 who passed out of 30 (20% pass rate). The following year, Cauble would earn his MS as part of a group of 7 out of 62 candidates taking the exam (11.2%).

In July 2013, only a few week after the film was released June 21st, 70 candidates sat for the MS exam with only one single person, Nick Hetzel from Sage at Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, passing (1.4%).

To even get an invite to take the Master Sommelier examination, candidates must first pass the Advanced Sommelier exam.  According to the Court of Master Sommeliers, this exam usually has a 25-30% pass rate. Before taking that exam, candidates need to have previously passed the Certified Sommelier exam. Additionally, the Court recommends at least 5 years practical experience as a sommelier in the service industry.

If there is a “SOMM bump”, it seems likely that 2018 is just the beginning of the swell.

Are we just getting “Wine Smarter”?

It’s possible that the “World’s Toughest Test” may not be as tough any more for a growing wine savvy community that is being spearheaded by wanderlust Millennials who aren’t afraid to branch out into the obscure, geeky and unknown.

This ain’t your daddy’s Duboeuf.

While previous generations of drinkers may not have strayed very far from the zones of Chianti and safety of Sangiovese, we now have regular wine drinkers (not just trained and studious sommeliers) waxing poetically about the difference between Nerello Mascalese grown on the volcanic soils of Mt. Etna and IGT Nero d’Avola.

Now a days if you are talking Beaujolais, you are far more likely to be talking about the crus than you are of Nouveau.

Blessed with a plethora of wine resources courtesy of the internet (like GuildSomm’s own fantastic website), it’s easier than ever for the curious wine lover to quench their thirst for some vino-knowledge.  Are we seeing a “trickle up” effect from this groundswell of knowledge?

As I mentioned in my post Playing the Somm Game in Vegas, the level of knowledge in the field has never been higher. As consumers get more savvy and adventurous, the sommeliers are upping their game.

Perhaps the windfall of new Master Sommeliers (249 and counting since 1969) and Masters of Wine (380 since 1953) means that we are collectively on a crescent of wine expertise that we haven’t observed before.

Or maybe the World’s Toughest Test needs to get tougher?

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Hey Mama, Hey Mama, Hey Mamamango

While the history of the Muscat family of grapes dates back thousands of years, wine drinkers can be forgiven for thinking of “Moscato” as a relatively new wine.

With over 200 members, Jancis Robinson and her co-authors note in Wine Grapes that the Persians and ancient Egyptians may have been cultivating some Muscat varieties as early as 3000 BC.

Ancient Moscato

Greek and Roman writers like Pliny the Elder and Columella described vines (Anathelicon Moschaton and Apianae) that could’ve been Muscat. The authors noted that the grapes would attract bees (apis) to the vineyard. According to legend, Cleopatra’s favorite wine was the Muscat of Alexandria grape variety from Greece.

Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains is likely the oldest variety of Muscat. Over the course of the Middle Ages it spread from the Greek islands throughout Europe. Here it picked up numerous synonyms such as Muscatel (Spain), Muscateller (Germany), Sárga Muskotály (Hungary) and Moscato Bianco (Italy). In the New World, Muscat was responsible for the legendary 18th and 19th century dessert wines of Constantia in South Africa. Italian immigrants brought Muscat Canelli from Piedmont to the United States sometime in the 19th century.

Yet despite this long history, not many people outside of the cafes of Europe paid much attention to the variety until the early 21st century when rappers and hip-hop artists embraced the sweet, easy drinking style of low alcohol Moscato. By 2017, more than 27 million bottles of Moscato were being cranked out of Italy with 80% of it sent to the United States to be consumed by mostly millennial wine drinkers.

In the US, growers rushed to increase their own plantings of Muscat Canelli/Moscato to compete with the Italian wave as new brands constantly hit the market.

What’s old was new again.

Oh but could Cleopatra have ever imagined anything like Mamamango?

The Geekery

Photo by Megan Mallen. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Mamamango is made up of 95% Moscato Bianco grapes.

Made by Arione Vini, Mamamango is a non-vintage blend of 95% Moscato Bianco grapes sourced from the communes of Castiglione Tinella in the province of Cuneo and Canelli in the province of Asti in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. However, the wine does not qualify for any DOC or DOCG designation like other Moscato wines because of the addition of 5% mango puree of unknown origin.

For fruit-based wines like Sangria from Spain and Portugal, European laws mandate that both the wine and fruit additives must be from the same country of origin. However, the laws are not clear if other “aromatized wine-based drinks” like Mamamango need to follow the same guidelines. Mangoes do grow in Sicily and southern Italy, but most European mangoes are sourced from Spain. Unfortunately the Mamamango website is very vague on details–in contrast to Canella which makes a Bellini sparkling cocktail from peach juice that they note is source from the Veneto and Romagna.

At around 65 grams of sugar per bottle, it certainly has a fair amount of sweetness and calories though it is only 6% alcohol. However, from the mango puree, one 5oz serving will give you nearly a third of your daily vitamin C requirements.

A little fizzy but not vegan-friendly

According to the website Barnivore, Mamamango uses animal based gelatins in the winemaking as a filtering agent to make the wine stable so Mamamango is not “vegan-friendly”.

Instead of a cork with a cage used in high pressure spumante-style sparkling wines like Cava, Prosecco and Champagne, the frizzante-style Mamamango is sealed with twist off closure.

Like many Moscatos, the wine is lightly sparkling in a frizzante-style and while, again, Arione is vague on details it is likely the wine is produced via tank fermentation with the natural carbon dioxide produced during the wine’s brief fermentation being trapped and bottled with the wine.

More fully sparkling spumante-style wines like Prosecco will have over 3 atmospheres of pressure. This a little more than a typical car tire. In Champagne, the wines can get up to 5-6 atmospheres. But frizzante wines like Mamamango will have only slight effervesce and pressure in the 1 to 2 atmosphere range.

The Wine

Mid-intensity nose. It really does smell like mangoes but you’ll hard pressed to pick up anything else. Maybe a smidgen of pineapple around the edges.

The strong mango notes carry through to the palate. The mouthfeel is smooth and creamy and surprisingly well-balanced. With more sugar than doux Champagne (and far less bubbles and carbonic acid to balance), I was expecting this to be more noticeably sweeter. Tasting the wine brings a tangy tickle on the tip of the tongue that suggest acidification. The winemaker probably needed to use a fair amount of tartaric acid to offset all that sugar.

The short finish ends on the mango fruitiness.

The Verdict

Photo by Midori. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated.

You could probably make at least 6 bottles worth of Mamamango with this cup of mango juice.

I try my best to approach new wine trends (like aging wine in whiskey barrels or blending with cold brew coffee) with an open mind but I must confess that I was expecting Mamamango to be sickly sweet.

But it honestly wasn’t that bad. While it’s not something that I would drink at home, I could enjoy a glass at a restaurant for brunch. It struck me essentially as a hipster’s mimosa–or at least the ready made “Hamburger Helper” version of one. It obviously needed a fair amount of manipulation and tweaking in the winery to get the recipe right. No one should buy this wine expecting a natural product.

Though tasting this wine made me wonder—why not make your own Mamamango?  All you would need is fresh mangoes or even mango puree that you can get from the store.

Compared to a bottle of Mamamango costing around $12-14, you can could buy a 15 oz bottle of Naked Juice Mighty Mango for around $3 and have enough mango goodness to make 12 bottles worth of Mamamango.

Put a quarter oz splash of the mango juice in the bottom of your glass. Then pour your favorite sparkler–Moscato, Prosecco, Cava–over it and boom! Homemade Mamamango that is fresher, cheaper, better tasting and with a heck of a lot less sugar and additives.

Now that is something that Cleopatra would’ve Instagram’d.

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Hospice du Rhône Weekend 2018

The BBQ prep for the closing dinner.

Just got back home from a wonderful weekend down in Paso Robles attending the 2018 Hospice du Rhône. This was my first time attending the event and I can tell you that my wife and I are already making plans to attend the 2020 event April 23rd-25th.

To be honest, we are even thinking about attending the 2019 event in the Rhône Valley.

We purchased two weekend passes at $995 each which got us:

4 seminars featuring 9-11 wines each including many wines with limited releases and very small production.
Two lunches (a Rosé lunch on Day 1 and Live Auction lunch on Day 2)
An Opening and Closing Tasting featuring hundreds of wines with each tasting having a different theme (older vintages for Day 1 and newer vintages for Day 2) so each day had different wines to try.
Farewell dinner and BBQ

As you can probably garner from the first paragraph, my wife and I left the event feeling that the cost of the weekend pass was more than worth it for the experience we got. So I’ll share some of my favorite geeky moments, top wines and the two slight negatives that put a damper on an otherwise stellar event.

I’ll save my reviews of the 4 seminars (South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance, A 6th Generation Crusade in the Barossa Valley, Lost and Found: Old Vine Rhônes Across California, The Majesty of Guigal) for their own individual posts because there was a lot of great stuff from each to unpack.

Top 3 Geek Moments

Meeting two Masters of Wine in Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards and Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co. I got a chance to talk to Billo about the possibilities of Walla Walla hosting a future Hospice du Rhone (would be incredibly exciting!) and with Morgan it was hard not to be charmed with his unabashed geekiness for old vine vineyards in California.

John Alban, Morgan Twain-Peterson and Tegan Passalacqua at the old vine seminar.

Which along those lines….

Having the light bulb flick on about the treasure of old vine field blends. Some of the most exciting wines at the event were old vine field blends featuring a hodge podge of grapes like Mataro (Mourvedre), Syrah, Peloursin, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Trousseau noir, Grenache, Mondeuse, Alicante Bouchet and the like inter-planted and fermented together. In an industry dominated by monoculture and mono-varietal wines, the character of these field blends like Carlisle’s Two Acres and Bedrock’s Gibson Ranch are off the charts.

And no one is intentionally planting field blends right now. This truly is a treasure of the past when farmers, rather than viticulturists, just kind of did their thing and let what would grow, grow. That kind of proposition is way too risky today but that only heightens the importance of saving these old vineyards and supporting the wineries who source fruit from them.

As a Millennial, the character and stories behind field blend plantings is the perfect antidote to the mind-numbing boredom of the “same old, same old”. Millennials are changing the wine industry with their craving for new experiences and new things as well as authenticity–which an old vine field blend delivers in spades. It’s why I’m skeptical that Cabernet Sauvignon will continue it dominance and why I don’t think Merlot’s downturn is just because of a movie.

Potek Winery’s Mormann Vineyard Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills.
Great wine but Potek’s labels are WAAAAAAY too busy. Admittedly in a wine shop I wouldn’t even give them a second look because they’re so hard to read.

Though speaking of that movie…

Screw Pinot. Let’s start drinking Santa Barbara County Rhônes. I mentioned this in my quick take on Day 1 and day 2 only reaffirmed how special these cool climate Rhônes are. I’ll also add the Russian River Valley of Sonoma because not only can you find Carlisle’s Two Acre gem there but I was also thoroughly impressed with the wines from MacLaren.

Top 10 (non-seminar) Wines of the Event

When you have wines like a 2005 Guigal La Turque being poured at the seminars, it would be easy to fill up this list with nothing but seminar wines. But there were a lot of fantastic wines poured at the Opening and Closing tastings so here are 10 of my favorites in no particular order.

2016 Jada Hell’s Kitchen Paso Robles — It was actually hard to narrow down just one of the Jada wines to put on this list because every single one of them were stellar. This one was very full bodied and hedonistic with rich dark fruit, velvety smooth mouthfeel and a long finish with dark chocolate notes.

2016 Louis Cheze Condrieu Pagus Luminis — Crisp but mouthfilling. Lots of fresh tree fruit notes–apricots and peaches–with some stony minerality.

While I enjoyed the opportunity to try Saxum, I’m actually far more excited about the wines being made by their assistant, Don Burns, with his wife Claudia at their Turtle Rock Winery.

2016 CR Graybehl The Grenachista Alder Springs Grenache Mendocino County — I guess I could add this to my cool-climate Rhône discoveries. Like Jada, this was a hard one to narrow down because I loved everything from this producer. The Alder Springs had a particular vivacious mouthfeel of juicy blackberries with some spice and floral notes.

2012 Turtle Rock Willow’s Cuvee Paso Robles — Made by the assistant winemaker of Saxum. Truthfully, I liked these better than the Saxum wines I tried. Very floral with a mix of red and dark fruit. One of the best noses of the night.

2012 Dos Cabezas Wineworks El Campo Sonoita Arizona — One of the surprises of the event. A Tempranillo-Mourvedre blend from Arizona that tasted like a spicy Ribera del Duero and juicy Jumilla had a baby. Very impressive.

2008 Kunin Alisos Vineyard Syrah Santa Barbara County — Winners across the board from Kunin. Great mix of dark fruit and earthy forest floor. Very long finish. These were wines I wished I had more time to savor.

2012 Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape — This hit my perfect catnip style of savory, meaty undertones wrapped around a core of juicy, mouthwatering fruit. Such a treat to have and I suspect that the 2015 will be even better with a few more years.

2007 Carlisle James Berry Syrah Paso Robles — All in all, Carlisle probably made my favorite wines of the entire event. I can still taste the 2016 Two Acres from the old vine seminar but this James Berry was a close second. Still very lively with dark fruit, mouthwatering medium-plus acid and some spicy minerality on the finish.

A 100% Cinsault pet-nat was not only geeky good but also a palate savior.
Would really love to see more sparkling wines like this at future Hospice du Rhone events.


2017 The Blacksmith The Bloodline Cinsault Pet-Nat Darling W.O. South Africa — This was much needed salvation for the palate (see below) but it would have been a treat to try under any circumstance. Super geeky Cinsault pet-nat, this wine had a huge nose of orange blossoms and cherries that jumped out of the glass.

2005 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage — This wine wasn’t part of any featured tasting and was certainly an unexpected treat that someone brought to the Live Auction lunch on Day 2. This was my first Chave and my lord! Still quite young and powerful for its age with layers of red fruit, savory Asian spices and a long finish of smokey BBQ notes.

Palate Fatigue and a little clicky culture

While overall the event was fantastic, there were two things that stuck out as minor negatives. One was the absence of sparkling wines which are the guardian angels of the palate at tastings like these. As readers of my flashback review of the 2017 Taste Washington know, periodically taking a break from big, heavy reds with some palate cleansing bubbles is a must if you’re going to maximize your tasting experience.

There were a few producers pouring some roses and crisp white wines which helped but it was disappointing not to see more sparkling examples. I know that the Rhône is not particularly well known for bubbles but there is the Clairette de Die and Saint-Péray AOCs producing sparkling wine and Australia has a good tradition of making sparkling Shiraz. I’m sure there are also examples from New World producers experimenting with sparkling Viognier and other varieties. It would be great to give these wines more visibility and they would be absolute god sends during the big tastings.

While some of the “clickiness” at lunch was disheartening, the gracious couple who shared this wine from their table gave me an amazing thrill that was a joy to try.


The second negative was how “clicky” the culture among the attendees were–especially at the lunches. It’s wonderful that the Hospice du Rhône is in its 22nd year and it’s clear that there are many people who have been attending this event regularly. But for a “newbie”, it felt hard at times to break into the crowd.

Again, this was most felt at the lunches where several times seats and entire tables were reserved not by official organizers but other attendees who didn’t seem to have any interest in interacting with people who weren’t part of their local scene.

But there were certainly more than enough gracious attendees who were welcoming and approachable (as well as the organizers themselves like John and Lorraine Alban, Vicki Carroll and Faith Wells) to make the event exceedingly enjoyable and well worth attending again.

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The Winery Twitter Dance

Recently The Drinks Business reported that major spirit brands like Beefeater, Drambuie and Bacardi are abandoning Twitter and lessening their marketing focus on social media.

A primary reason for the withdrawal that was cited by the beverage analyst firm YesMore was that the labor commitment with maintaining multiple social media accounts–with not only Twitter but also Facebook, Instagram and other venues–was too high.

But let’s be frank here. With the average salary of an entry-level social media coordinator being around $38,000 a year, there is likely a more substantial reason why these multi-billion dollar corporations like Diageo, Bacardi and Beam Suntory are not interested in investing pennies essentially into having an active social media presence on platforms like Twitter.

They don’t think it’s worth the money.
Photo by No machine-readable author provided. Ile-de-re~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=931732

Just as you hope that a good label will help you stand out from the “wall of wine,” an engaging Twitter account can help you stand out from a timeline of bottle porn.

Now if the big brands don’t think there is a solid return on investment with being active on Twitter, what about the small winery?

For many wineries, especially small family wineries where the owner is often the winemaker as well as the tasting room manager and janitor, there is likely not an extra $38K a year in the budget for a social media coordinator. For them, the decision to invest in Twitter or other social media is an investment in time and energy–which is often more valuable than money.

So the question again is “Is it worth it?”

And if so, how can wineries maximize the very limited and precious resource of their time and energy on social media platforms like Twitter?

Anecdotally, looking at my own Twitter feed with the wineries I follow and interact with as @SpitbucketBlog, the lay of the land seems fairly similar to the results of the YesMore study of major spirit brands. While there are a few exceptions (which I note below), many wineries seem to have abandoned Twitter in spirit, if not in action.

Those who do “engage” on Twitter often really aren’t engaging at all but rather fall into the routine of posting only random “bottle porn” shots of their wines in pretty portraits with maybe an occasional food pairing suggestion. (The “bottle porn” ill is an even bigger problem on Instagram whose format encourages its inane use.)

Making Twitter work for wineries

I’m going to break a little cold hard truth here and speak directly to the wineries. Just because you make wine doesn’t mean people want to drink it. While Mr. Rogers knows how special you are, in the beverage industry you have to work a lot harder to stand out from the pack.

On a daily basis, there are dozens of other beverage options competing for the attention of your potential customer. When they walk into a restaurant or bar and pick up a wine list, that number can jump to hundreds. Walk into a wine shop and you’ve got thousands of options.

Your bottle can’t speak directly to the customer from the shelf but you can on Twitter.

Engagement should be your first and foremost priority every time you or a winery employee logs onto Twitter. The point shouldn’t necessarily be to sell wine but rather to sell yourself–your story and what makes your winery unique.

And, truthfully, you do have a unique story. While you are “just making wine”–like your thousands of competitors–there are thousands of little decisions you are making in the vineyard and the winery that leaves an indelible imprint on your wine. Share them. Share that part of you that you are putting in your wine.

Let people see some of the wonders and mysteries of wine. When you are in the wine biz and surrounded by it all the time, every day, it is easy to forget how cool it can be to “regular folks” to see what bud break is or what a bubbling ferment looks like. The vast majority of wine drinkers have no idea how canopy management or green harvesting influences the end quality of a wine. What do winemakers look for when picking out barrels and how do you “feed yeasts”?

These are things that make wine drinkers who are scrolling through a timeline of nothing but useless bottle porn stop and read your tweets.

Say No to Bottle Porn

Photo By Denkhenk - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9655331

What’s in the blend? How was it made? What’s the story of the vineyard or winery? Who knows!?!? It’s just bottle porn.

One of the worst things a winery can do is get lazy and just post bottle porn pics on their timeline. What is bottle porn? Random pics of wine with little to no information outside of things like “Hey, it’s sunny out! Great day to open up our new Chardonnay!”

Maybe a winery will spice it up just a tad with a food pairing suggestion but it’s still pretty useless.

Yeah, we get it. You make wine and you want to sell it. But how does that make you different from the thousands of other wineries out in the world and on Twitter? It doesn’t.

And that’s the rip.

In a competitive market like wine you want to stand out. Lazy bottle porn just keeps you chained to the pack of Twitter clones posting the same random bottles pics. It doesn’t matter if they have different wine labels or set in an exotic setting like a fire by a ski slope. It all looks the same.

Like regular porn, it’s pretty easy to get “desensitized” to bottle porn with the vast majority of Twitter followers just scrolling right past your tweet. That’s the lesson that the big corporations in the spirits world learned. Sure a Tweet is a heck of a lot cheaper than a billboard or magazine ad buy but they are far less effective.

If posting random bottle porn is all that you are willing to do to keep your winery’s Twitter active then why even bother? You might as well follow Bacardi and Beefeater to Twitter retirement.

But if you do want to take advantage of the potential reach that Twitter offers, here are three winery accounts that I recommend every winery take a look at.

A Few Great Winery Twitter Accounts to Follow

Rabbit Ridge Winery (@RabbitRidgeWine)

If I had to point to one account that I would encourage other wineries to emulate, this would be it because here is a winery that actually engages people–not only about their wines but about wine in general. A small family winery in Paso Robles, I suspect that owner Erich Russell himself does most all the tweets because this account has a personal feel to it. Far from just being a “brand,” Rabbit Ridge has a personality to it that says there is a real person behind the keyboard and, most importantly, a real person behind the wine.

But this feel of a person behind the keyboard goes two ways. The problem with a lot of winery Twitter accounts is that they come across as too robotic and too promotional. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for a winery to be engaging rather than static and solely promotional. The way you engage with other Twitter users should be approached the same way you engage potential customers–are they just wallets that (hopefully) buy your product or are they people that you are sharing the work of your land and your hands with? Rabbit Ridge Winery is an excellent example of an account that makes potential customers on Twitter feel like they’re actually people who the family of Rabbit Ridge wants to share their story and love of wine with.

Tablas Creek (@TablasCreek)

Anyone who has read my Wine Clubs Done Right post knows that I admire the business acumen and customer focus approach of this Paso Robles winery. That same savviness shows in their social media approach where they let consumers get a behind the scenes view of the vineyard and winemaking process.

While Rabbit Ridge and Tablas Creek are probably at the upper end of exceptional engagement, it is still possible for wineries to “up their game” and get more mileage out of Twitter without being quite as active. Below is one such example.

Lauren Ashton Cellars (@LaurenAshton_WA)

While not immune to the siren song of occasional bottle porn, one thing that Lauren Ashton does exceptionally well is encouraging people to come and engage with them at various tastings they do outside of their winery.

And their timeline has several more examples where an actual person, name and face, is introduced to prospective customers with a personal invite to meet them at an offsite event. It’s promotional but still engaging and even if that is the bare minimum that wineries on Twitter do, it’s still elevating the Twitter game and helping them stand out from the crowd of lazy bottle porn.

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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. The label lacks a vintage year and only notes an alcohol percentage of 13.5%. But the bottle says zilch about what’s inside. The original Apothic Blend is based on Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Apothic Crush is a blend of primarily Pinot noir and Petite Sirah so really this wine could be made of just about anything.

It’s a mystery how exactly the wine was “infused” with the flavors of cold brew.  Is it even real coffee? Was a new oak chip/Mega Purple  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

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. My friends knew that there were ringers (a cheap under $10 Cab and a completely different grape). So they were at least expecting something in the $7-15 Apothic price range 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.

The most common descriptor was “not horrible but not good”.  Quite a few wondered if I slipped in a non-wine ringer like watered down Kahlua or a “weird stout beer” with another popular guess being a cheap under $10 Cab with Zinfandel blended in.

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

My (non-blind) Notes

Tasting before the blind tasting, I found 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. Coupled with the very thin fruit, the wine felt a little skeletal. Noticeable back-end heat suggested the alcohol is probably higher than the 13.5% listed. However,  the body was definitely medium rather than full. The finish dies pretty quickly.

The Aftermath

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

After the tasting, one of my friends had the idea to add milk and ice to Apothic Brew to make a “Red Russian” cocktail. It 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. We didn’t have mulling spices or dried fruit to add sweetness though. Overall, 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.

The wine’s definitely targeting cold brew fans more than wine drinkers. However, 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?. It’s 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 standard 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 “micro-influencers” 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 helpful 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. However, though Thach, Olsen and Wagner are releasing the 3rd Edition of Wine Marketing and Sales in May 2018 that may tackle the subject.

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 crosshairs 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 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 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 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. 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 longer reach me as a willing audience.

The second part of staying on topic is a little grayer. 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 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

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

Looking at Social Vigneron’s list, I saw many wine influencers that I already followed. But more than half were individuals that I’ve never heard of prior. 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 positively influenced me include:

Jancis RobinsonThe Beyoncé of Wine, IMO.
Decanter Magazine
Tim Atkin
Jamie Goode — One of my favorite tools
Chris Kissack
Wine Folly

Vinepair
Alder Yarrow
Jon Thorsen
Wine Spectator
Wine Enthusiast

The common theme with all of the above is that they are content creators. These folks regularly produce compelling content that I want to consume. They also clearly “know their shit”. 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. 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. They achieve this with 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 relatively 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 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 influential 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 see 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 exciting.

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 savvy vineyard owners and wineries 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, there is 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”. It likely will be a key component in mass-produced red blends or a Pinot noir-enhancer. However, varietal examples from producers in Clarksburg, Lodi, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara could offer consumers attractive and characterful wines.

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

 

Among white wines, we see a similar pattern.

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

Chardonnay still rules by Cabernet Sauvignon’s side. However, we have upstarts like the Spanish variety Albariño (≈ 107% growth) and Portuguese grape Verdelho (≈ 75%) seeing a significant increase in plantings.

As with the reds, the interest in Italian white varieties is growing.  Vermentino is seeing around a 287% growth in plantings. Plus, the combined stable of Muscat grapes (led by Moscato bianco) more than doubled 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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