Since France started easing Covid restrictions on May 11th, I’ve been itching to get out of the house. So today I took the plunge and walked to my local wine shop to pick up a few bottles. When I got there, I made a note of the shop’s safety precautions posted outside.
Everyone must wear a mask. Only two customers allowed in the store at once. Maintain at least 1-meter distance from other people.
Once inside, I noticed the tape delineating the one-way race track that we were to take as well as a new precaution. Customers could not touch any of the bottles-only clerks. While this all made sense and I understood fully why it had to be this way, I still have to confess that seeing that sign made my heart sink.
One of my great joys as a wine lover is browsing the shelves, picking up bottles that catch my eye to take a closer look. Sometimes I want to read the back label (particularly with blends) to find out more details. Other times I want to see if it is a fat ass heavy bottle that I can promptly put back on the shelf.
But even if I had disposable gloves, no way was going to happen.
The signs outside the shop where we waited our turn to enter. Which was fine to do on a lovely May day, but can easily get quite unpleasant during poorer weather.
It’s clear that in the age of Covid and social distancing, you do not browse. Everything is “Get in. Get out. Go.” There was no way to not be keenly aware of the customers outside and the one lingering just a meter inside, waiting for me to get done. And I certainly wasn’t going to be that asshole.
There was no time for decisions, so I just told the clerk what I was broadly looking for; an AOC Chablis, an Alsatian Pinot gris and a white Bordeaux with (hopefully) a high percentage of Semillon. Then I took whatever the clerk pointed to. No quibbling over the dryness of the Pinot gris or what the cépage of the white Bordeaux was. Just go.
And while I did it and I accepted what I got, it was still a thoroughly terrible shopping experience that I’m loathe to repeat.
This isn’t about the tired joke of French customer service but rather the realities of the new world that we’re living in. It’s not hard to picture similar scenarios playing out in small wine shops in the US or elsewhere. While the staff may have the best of intentions to offer excellent service, they’re going to be restrained by space and time limitations. Restaurants too. If a place can only serve a fraction of the customers they had before, it’s going to be more imperative to get those customers quickly in and out so you can move on to the next one.
The days of browsing the shelves and having friendly, relationship-building chats are going to be on hold–for who knows how long.
And, damn, does that suck hardcore.
I couldn’t wait to get out of that wine shop. It had nothing to do with worrying about getting sick or the service. I’m sure the wines that the clerk picked will be fine. But rather it was the complete absence of joy in shopping for something that is usually quite joyful.
I honestly don’t know when I’ll be back–to that or any other wine shop. I’m comfortable with shopping online so it’s easy to turn that.
But wine shopping online is often not that joyful either.
While there are good online wine shops out there, quite a few are seven shades of “Ugh.” Especially the ones run by traditional brick & mortars who are quickly trying to cobble together an online presence. Among my biggest pet peeves:
Out of date info–especially with blends and vintages.
No label pic or, just as bad, an old label picture from 7 years ago.
Lack of info about the wine beyond a bland, generic tasting note.
Poor user interface for completing the sale.
But even for the well-designed sites, it’s hard to mimic the in-person experience. Just like our socially distant shop, I can’t pick up the bottles to get a better look. Scrolling through a parade of bottle pics doesn’t have the same effect as looking at wine shelves or bumping into a case stack when it comes to highlighting new and unexpected wines.
Instead, online wine shops almost always play it safe, featuring prominently on the front page and at the top of all searches their bread and butter wines. The sites that focus on crowdsourced user ratings are often the worst at this. You have to wade through a lot of “blah” before finding any “oooh.”
Of course, this could just be what the AI wants me to think….
Then there is the lack of interaction with other wine folks. While I rarely need help picking out a wine, sometimes I do want to hear about what’s new and exciting at the shop. That’s another thing that is hard to duplicate online. Some websites, like Wine.com, utilize chat boxes. While they may be real people on the other end (as I tested recently), it’s hard to build a virtual relationship with a screen name.
They could be delightful and know their stuff, but I can’t hear the enthusiasm in their voice or pick up body language clues that paint a deeper picture. It’s hard to read sincerity via text.
However, I’m not sure about the personal concierge services using Zoom and other platforms.
I haven’t experienced them yet. Mostly because all the ones I hear about are based in the US and UK. The idea certainly sounds promising. I just don’t know if I truly want that intense of a wine relationship.
I don’t need someone checking in on me every time I want to buy wine. As I said, most times I’m completely okay on my own. Rather what I would want is a more casual “Somm with Benefits” kind of relationship. Someone that is there–and consistently the same one or two people–when I need them, but aren’t that clingy and trying to pester me all the time with their latest offers and recommendations.
Essentially, I want a relationship like my local brick & mortar sales clerks. A relationship that I define on my own terms. Sometimes I want help; sometimes I don’t. But when I’m in the mood for a quickie wine recommendation or a geeky conversation, they’re my go-to’s.
But above all, with online shopping, I want some joy.
I want to be greeted with a front-page that surprises and intrigues me–not bores me to tears. If I have to accept cookies so that the site recognizes me to offer something more curated, so be it. That potentially could offer even more value than a brick & mortar experience.
I want something not so sterile and impersonal. The sites that are incorporating more video snippets about producers have been leading the way. Again, this enhances the experience and adds more value.
And I want interaction–but not too much interaction. No annoying “Can I help you” pop-ups and pestering emails. I don’t want the virtual equivalent of a car salesman.
The other night I had a gorgeous rosé….which I have ZERO desire to ever purchase again.
For comparison, I weighed a FULL bottle of Champagne as well. You expect that to be thick and heavy to hold the pressure. It was 1595 grams, meaning that this empty rosé bottle (892 g) weighed more than HALF a full bottle of Champagne.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. It was absolutely lovely. Superb even.
The 2018 Flor de Muga from Rioja checked off so many of my yummy boxes. High-intensity aromatics of strawberries, citrus peel and peaches. Crackling acidity and freshness with a little bit of creamy texture coming from the oak. Long minerally finish that introduces some cinnamon spice to add complexity. Scrumptious to the last drop.
But every time I refilled my glass, enthusiasm for buying this rosé diminished. Because regardless of how much pleasure it was giving me, I couldn’t get past how obnoxiously heavy the bottle was.
It was ridiculous. Holding the empty Muga bottle in my hand, I was startled with how similar the weight felt compared to the bottle of Bodegas Tradición Amontillado I had just opened that was mostly still full. While I bought this bottle online, the next time I see this wonderful and exceptionally well-made rosé available for purchase, it’s going to get a big ole “Nope” from me.
Because there are TONS of wonderful and exceptionally well-made rosés out there that I can buy instead–including many that I have yet to discover. There’s no monopoly, anywhere, from any region or winery for quality wine. Like every other consumer, I have near limitless options to spend my money. Making good wine alone doesn’t cut it.
And, frankly, life’s too short to waste time with obnoxious fat ass bottles.
As part of a Millennial generation that has been telling brands for years that we want more sustainable, less wasteful packaging, seeing wineries still cling to these ridiculous heavy bottles sends the message that they’re not serious about sustainability. I don’t care what platitudes of stewardship you put on your website if I’m holding the contradiction right in my hands.
But before we made our bottle change, we reached out to our fans on Facebook, Twitter, and this blog asking for what they looked for in a wine bottle. I was expecting a mix of people in favor of the solidity and feel of the heavier bottles and those who wanted the greener environmental footprint of the lighter bottles. And there were a few of each of those. But the overwhelming majority of the responses focused on utility: people wanted bottles that they could lift and store comfortably, and larger bottles don’t fit in many pre-made wine racks. The hostility toward the larger bottles was eye-opening.
— Jason Haas “A lighter wine bottle revisited, 10 years and 1,370,000 pounds of glass later”, July 29, 2019
But wait, Amber. What about all those marketing and psychology studies saying that people respond positivity to heavy bottles?
They’ve all got merit. I’m not going to dispute that. There are certainly plenty of case studies out there to back them up. But besides invoking the wisdom of Bob Dylan about times a-changin’, I want to cast light on something that those case studies don’t consider.
The success of the “Heavy Bottle=Better, more premium wine” strategy is wholly dependent on ignorance. It’s a tent propped up with two poles.
Ignorance of what makes a wine truly high quality and premium. Ignorance of the huge carbon footprint and environmental debt of transporting heavy glass bottles.
Another thing to consider–a flimsy tent is easy to set up. Other, even cheaper, brands can adopt thicker bottles–negating your “competitive” advantage.
Sure, you may fool Joe RandoCustomer on the sales floor with your hefty Bottle A swaying him away from Bottle B. But you can’t escape that the long-term success of this trick depends on sustained ignorance. As soon as any of that ignorance chips away, the tent collapses.
Go back to Haas’ Tablas Creek blog.
Note that it was his loyal (i.e., repeat) customers who were telling him so overwhelmingly how much they hated the heavy bottles. These customers are less likely to be fooled on the sales floor by a heavy bottle because they’ve found plenty of premium wines, like Tablas Creek, that aren’t in those kinds of bottles. The light bulb has “clicked” for them so that pillar of ignorance loses its support.
However, losing that second pillar of ignorance is what’s really going to sink heavy bottles.
With all the talk about sustainability these days, would you really want to place a wager on your customers staying ignorant about wine’s carbon footprint? Or that the vast majority of a winery’s carbon costs come from the packaging and transport of glass bottles?
Sure, we can talk about cans, pouches and other alternative packages, but I’m not going there today. Instead, I just want wineries to start reading the writing that’s on the wall and the messaging that their customers (both current and future) are getting.
And in the wine industry, numerous forward-thinking wineries like Jackson Family Estates, Tablas Creek, Torres and more have long ago shown that, for them, sustainability isn’t a platitude. While they might not aggressively market their lighter bottles as a competitive distinction, there’s going to be wineries that will.
While it’s not just a “Millennial Thing,” it certainly is important to us.
Lots of ink has been wrung worrying about Millennials and Gen Z consumers. The hot question is always when are we going to come around and start adopting wine like previous generations. There is some truth to the optimism that all that my cohorts need is time. However, wineries need to be thinking now about the messaging that they’re sending to these consumers.
Because, yeah, your wine may be great. But so are numerous other wines that similarly want a piece of our wallets. If we have the choice between a wine that speaks to our values and one that doesn’t (or is even hypocritical about it), you know which one has the advantage.
Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s not something I would wager on.
There’s a public Facebook group that I belong to called Friends Who Like Wine In The Glass. Ran by Steve and Vashti Roebuck of Wine In The Glass, it has nearly 10,000 members who span everything from regular wine lovers to industry folks and even Masters of Wine.
It’s always a good place to pop in for interesting wine conversations such as this recent thread by Larry Baker, aka Larry the Wine Guy. The thread started with Baker posting his latest video about the confusing 75% loophole for labeling American wines by grape varieties and the challenges of trying to educate consumers that their favorite Cab, Merlot or Pinot noir might actually be a red blend.
I know where Larry and other wine stewards/somms are coming from.
As someone who spent many years in the retail trenches, I can sympathize with Larry’s frustrations. The loophole is confusing. It’s also really tough dealing with people so hung up on a grape variety that they’re closed off to trying any other wine which doesn’t have that magical name on the label.
Yet, many American varietal wines in the sub $20 category can be very “red blend-y”–either because of style or a winemaker using the full stretch of that 75% loophole. I understand the desire to want to educate consumers on this loophole and use that enlightenment as a segue to get them to break out of their mono-varietal rut. However, watching Larry’s video and picturing these types of conversations happening on the sales floor made me cringe.
I know Baker is a good guy and has the best of intentions. I’m sure he’s had many great customer interactions and successes. But I’m also absolutely certain that his sincere, but exacting approach to educating consumers has turned off more than a handful as well.
Every single person reading this blog can think of sommeliers, wine stewards or tasting rooms associates that they’ve encountered who’ve leaned a bit too hard on the wine education front. While some of it can be driven by arrogance and snobbery, for most folks (like Larry), it’s more of an over-extension of passion. When you love wine and what you do, it’s hard not to want to share that and use your knowledge to encourage folks to try new things.
You only need to apply a little grease to ease the friction.
That passion isn’t bad. Wine education isn’t bad. But it’s imperative for anyone dealing with consumers to understand that education is not the engine that drives sales. It’s service, of which education is merely the grease that helps smooth things along.
But you know what happens when you over-grease the gears? Things run hot and break down. Customer service breaks down and the whole engine that we need to sustain the wine industry starts grinding to a halt.
Slathering on even more grease is not going to fix that.
As the US deals with declining wine sales, getting that engine back up and running is at the top of many concerns. However, anytime the industry deals with disappointing sales, there’s always a knee-jerk reaction that more education must be the answer.
You could play this script out for most any wine topic. It’s like there is a paradox that the answer is to both dumb things down while using education as a hammer to break through consumer ignorance. But what we should be doing is putting away both the crayons and hammers. We don’t have an education problem in the industry.
In my career, there’s been no lesson more valuable to learn than that consumers want more listening and less lecturing. They want to be heard, seen and served–not sold to. Any winery, restaurant or wine shop that teaches “selling skills” should throw out those training manuals and start over. It won’t be selling skills that get you sales; it will be your service skills.
While the logs are undoubtedly vital, no air=no fire.
Those are the skills that will teach you to meet the customer where they are–at their level of knowledge and comfort. While service skills value the use of education to help smooth things along, they know that its use must be measured and not overdone.
Holding a consumer’s interest in wine is like maintaining a fire. It starts with a spark and some kindling. As it grows, you throw on logs (new wines, new knowledge) as fuel to keep it going. But you can’t toss too many on without smothering out the whole thing. The fire needs ventilation and air to sustain itself.
Too many wine professionals smother consumers with education and expertise.
I’m not saying that the industry should turn “anti-expert.” I don’t think anyone can read this blog and come away with the idea that I’m against wine education and expanding folks’ knowledge.
Education is important. Greasing the gears and throwing logs on the fire is essential.
But it’s not the engine or air which our industry needs to survive. Service is.
On Twitter, Jason Haas of Tablas Creek shared some of the struggles that wineries have battling consumers’ expectations for cheap or free shipping on wine deliveries.
A short thread on customer expectations and wine shipping. 12 years ago, we surveyed wine club members who had canceled in recent years to learn more about why. One response we got repeatedly was that people expected free or very cheap shipping. https://t.co/JwhKebLKdb 1/
He very justifiably blames Amazon for creating this quagmire. It’s a sentiment that I’m sure most e-commerce businesses would agree with. One recent study from the National Retail Federation found that 75% of respondents in the US expected free shipping–including 88% of Boomers.
And as retailers like Wine.com and Total Wine & More roll out their own free shipping programs, it won’t be only Amazon shaping wine consumers’ expectations.
As I noted in my retweet of Haas’ thread, this has me conflicted. I know that shipping wine is expensive and complicated. There are so many things that wineries and retailers have to consider which businesses shipping books and bed spreads don’t deal with.
But when I take off my “wine biz” glasses and look at how I act as a consumer, I know that I’ve been Amazon’d.
On second thought….maybe not.
I can’t count how many times I’ve been on a winery’s website picking out items only to go “Whoa” at checkout because of delivery. It’s not that I expect free delivery, but when I see a fee of more than $25-35 (roughly $2-3 a bottle) for a case, I start asking myself, do I really want this wine?
That should make wineries nervous. Because, usually, the answer is going to be “No. I don’t need this wine.”
Up until that point, I was fully onboard spending money and just rolling along with the sale. However, as soon as I was given a reason to pause and wonder if the wines are really worth it, the train derailed.
It’s not because I felt angry or offended that a winery was charging delivery fees–again, I completely understand the business behind it. But what wineries need to understand themselves, is that consumers have so many other choices–not just of different wines and wineries but also of other beverages.
There’s never a situation where we absolutely have to buy your wines. Our lives are not going to be incomplete and joyless without it. In that sense, buying wine (especially online) is always going to be a bit of an impulse purchase. A fleeting fancy carried by a moment of intrigue.
The last thing a winery wants to do is kill that momentum.
Now if I feel this way as a consumer who is reasonably knowledgeable and sympathetic about the tough market wineries face, think about the average consumer who doesn’t know the business. It becomes easy to see why they would expect free delivery or fees far less than the $25-35 that someone like me is comfortable with.
Likewise, it shouldn’t be a shock when e-commerce studies show that upwards of 50% of online baskets are abandoned on the delivery page. While I sincerely hope that cart abandonment numbers are better for wineries, I’m sure even a 30% rate of abandonment cuts deeply into a winery’s sales.
So how much should wineries subsidize shipping?
I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that question. Every winery is going to have its own numbers to crunch. But there’s always going to be a delta between what it costs to ship and how much consumers are willing to pay–and that gap is only going to get larger.
Therefore, I would encourage wineries to add a few more numbers to crunch.
1.) How much are you spending on new customer acquisitions?
So many of my abandoned carts were at wineries that I never tried before. I would come across an article or hear a recommendation that piqued my interest. I’d go check out the website, find other wines that intrigued me and start nibbling the hook. But the difference between reeling in a new customer or having the line break often comes down to how easy it is to get your wines. It doesn’t matter how good the wine is if crappy websites, poor user experience and, yes, delivery fees means that the consumer never tries it. It’s not only a lost sale but also a lost relationship.
Remember, there is always other wine and wineries out there casting their lines. Someone else is going to reel in that customer if you don’t.
2.) How much do you spend to break into a new market?
Many DtC sales are from consumers who can’t find your wine locally. If they’re not going to buy from you directly because of delivery fees, then how much do you need to invest in establishing a presence in their market? This is a big question for West Coast wineries who are looking at the East Coast–which is often the most expensive region to ship to.
Of course, thanks to the asinine three-tier system, even shipping into new markets usually requires licensing, fees and significant investment on top of shipping costs. More numbers to crunch.
3.) But even for the markets that you’re already in, what is the margin difference between a consumer buying 1-2 bottles of your wine retail versus 6-12 online?
Oh I’m definitely going to spend way more than I intended here.
And I fully admit that I’m one of those suckers. If a website gives me a spending target to get free shipping, I’m usually going to exceed it. Even though I know it’s a placebo and I’m still indirectly paying for shipping, it feels easier to justify the money. Instead of paying an “extra fee”, I’m getting an extra product, so I’m happy.
With wine, a flat rate delivery-fee always encourages me to buy more because I figure if I’m in for a penny, I’m in for a pound. And, hey, if someone else is going to carry the heavy wine bottles to my door, then I might as well buy two cases instead of one!
But if I’m at a wine shop, I’m buying far less. Plus, I’m filling up my basket with other wineries’ wines as well–giving you even less of my wallet.
So can wineries win the delivery cost battle?
In short, no. Consumer expectations for free and cheap delivery are only going to continue to grow stronger. Yes, it’s easy to blame Amazon. But, ultimately, it’s always going to be consumers writing the rules with their wallets.
And while your tactics might need to change, the battle for consumers’ wallets can certainly still be won.
Note: All the wines reviewed here were samples provided on a press tour.
Back in my retail days, premium Napa Sauvignon blanc was always some of the hardest wines to sell. I’d have fantastic producers like Araujo, Bevan, Cakebread, Grgich Hills, Duckhorn, etc. sit on the shelf untouched. Even during the peak white wine season of summer, it took every bit of handselling savvy to get these bottles into baskets.
You’d think that good wine wouldn’t be that difficult to move, but Napa SB had two knocks against it.
1.) It’s a white Napa wine (usually) over $20 that’s not Chardonnay. (Because, hey, why not get Chateau Montelena or Moone-Tsai Chard instead?)
2.) It’s a Sauvignon blanc over $20. (Why spend more than Kim Crawford or Oyster Bay?)
Now I’m not saying that it’s impossible to sell a Napa Sauvignon blanc over $20.
Obviously, these bottles are selling somewhere (such as tasting rooms). But it’s a tough sell in many retail settings because of the way that most US stores are laid out.
Here you’ll often see varietal wines from New World regions like California, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa all grouped together. Napa Sauvignon blanc rarely seems like a compelling value when stocked among their more value-oriented peers. Even if a shop had a dedicated “California” or “American wine” section, these wines are still competing against sub-$20 options from Washington State, Sonoma, Monterey County, etc.
The few Napa bottles that manage to stay under that magical $20 mark–like St. Supery, Mondavi and Honig–tend to fare better. But even these wines regularly lose sales to other regions.
This is because, in the minds of many consumers, Napa Sauvignon blanc doesn’t have a distinctive style–only a distinctive price tag.
And while they’re more likely to swallow the Napa price for Chardonnay (and, of course, Cabernet Sauvignon), that halo effect rarely reaches the Sauvignon blanc aisle.
Instead, customers who are interested in spending top dollar for Sauvignon blanc are more likely to go over to the Old World aisles for Loire or White Bordeaux. Here, the premium pricing of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Pessac-Leognan doesn’t drag each other down. More importantly, they promise a unique regional identity–which is key.
Back in the varietal section, those few customers reaching for the top shelf are more apt to grab Cloudy Bay. Or maybe one of the few other high-quality New Zealand Sauvignon blanc wines that make their way to the US. Even if you don’t know the producer, seeing the words “Marlborough” and “New Zealand” on the label promises something distinctive.
What is Napa Sauvignon blanc promising?
Something less green and herbaceous than New Zealand? Maybe. Though some producers have been experimenting with things like early harvest, heavier crop load and canopy shading to create more NZ-like flavors.
Something with a lavish texture and noticeable oak influence? Perhaps. These tend to be the more expensive and highly rated examples of Napa Sauvignon blanc. But, again, you have the question of why should a consumer who’s looking to spend top dollar for that style not go with a Chardonnay or white Bordeaux instead?
Which brings us back to the muddled middle that premium Napa Sauvignon blanc finds itself in. It’s not a value-priced wine. But it’s not as distinctive as other premium white wine categories.
Napa has to deliver something compelling–something interesting–to merit those lofty prices.
Of course, Napa wine is always going to be premium priced because of the high cost of land here.
They can’t rely just on the name “Napa” or even the quality in the bottle. Yes, having an outstanding wine helps sell in the tasting room where people can try it for themselves. But you don’t always have that privilege on the sales floor or restaurant table. Those premium bottles have to be hand-sold by an enthusiastic wine steward or sommelier who has already been wowed by the wine.
Though here’s the rub.
Every steward and sommelier is going to have dozens upon dozens of bottles that they’re passionate about. Everything from geeky varieties, obscure regions, small-lot productions to wineries with great stories–they all need handselling. Even hand-sold wines need to find ways to stand out from the pack.
In search of interesting Napa Sauvignon blanc.
During my trip to the Stags Leap District, I had many showstopping wines. And, yes, that included some absolutely delicious Napa Sauvignon blanc.
I noticed a pattern that many of the best examples prominently featured the Sauvignon Musqué clone. This caught my attention as growers in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County are also using this clone to make some thoroughly intriguing wines.
A few of my favorites were:
2018 Taylor Family ($40) made from 100% Musqué clone from Yountville.
2017 JK Ilsley ($35) also from Yountville and majority Musqué.
2017 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar Rancho Chimiles ($40) made from 86% Musqué. This was way more aromatic and textural than SLWC’s regular Aveta Sauvignon blanc ($26) that is only 8% Musqué.
But as delicious as those wines were, it’s hard to say that they were compelling enough to merit a $20+ price tag–especially compared to the similarly delicious Sauvignon Musqué from areas like Arroyo Seco that cost far less. Picturing these bottles sitting on the same retail shelf, it’s not hard to see the higher-priced Napa bottles gathering dust.
However, there was one Napa Sauvignon blanc-based wine that more than stood out as being worth every penny.
I was already familiar with Elizabeth Vianna’s outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon. Nestled in the southern end of the Stags Leap District, neighboring Clos du Val and one of Shafer’s vineyards, this is obviously prime red wine territory. But instead of offering the typical Carneros Chardonnay that is omnipresent in Napa, Chimney Rock’s flagship white is a fruit-forward but elegant white Bordeaux style blend–with a twist.
Bordeaux-style wine made by a Brazilian winemaker at a Cape Dutch-inspired winery in the heart of Napa. There’s a lot going on at Chimney Rock and it’s all delicious.
Vianna has never been a fan of Semillon from Napa. Compared to Bordeaux, Semillon gets too lush and fat here. Now winemakers could do a juggling act with early harvests (like they do in the Hunter Valley) to retain acidity. But while that may work for a low alcohol varietal wine requiring long term aging, it’s not necessarily the ideal match for adding depth to Napa Sauvignon blanc.
Instead, Vianna and her predecessor, Doug Fletcher, fell in love with the “secret ingredient” hidden in many of the best white Bordeaux–Sauvignon gris.
Chateau Palmer in Margaux; Haut Brion, Smith Haut Lafitte and Pape Clement in Pessac-Leognan; Valandraud, Fombrauge and Monbousquet in St. Emilion. Depending on the vintage, you’ll often find anywhere from 5% up to 50% (2018 Blanc de Valandraud) of Sauvignon gris in these highly-acclaimed wines.
So what the heck is Sauvignon gris?
Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz’s Wine Grapes notes that Sauvignon gris is a color mutation of Sauvignon blanc. Similar to the Pinot gris mutation of Pinot, it’s not known precisely where Sauvignon gris first emerged.
One possibility is the Loire, where the grape is known as Fié. Ridiculously low yielding, the vine was almost wholly lost to phylloxera as producers replanted with other varieties. It’s only recently, with the rediscovery of abandoned old vine vineyards such as Jacky Preys’ site in Mareuil-sur-Cher, that Sauvignon gris is getting another look.
Compared to Sauvignon blanc, Sauvignon gris tends to have slightly thicker skins often with a pink hue. It produces wines of medium-plus to high acidity with pronounced, concentrated flavors of melon, mango, stone and citrus fruit as well as a robust floral component. In the cooler climates of the Loire, it can add some subtle herbaceous notes though it rarely gets as green as Sauvignon blanc.
In addition to the Loire and California, producers in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Moldova and New Zealand are also experimenting with Sauvignon gris.
A tasting of three Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc
Tasting the Elevage Blanc and other Chimney Rock wines with Elizabeth Vianna and Kenneth Friedenreich, author of Oregon Wine Country Stories.
The winemaking of Elevage Blanc is very Bordeaux-like with a mixture of barrel fermentation and stainless steel using several yeast stains for complexity. The barrel component (usually around 1/3 new French and 1/3 neutral) sees frequent bâttonage beginning with 3-4 times a week and then gradually decreasing. The wine often goes through malolactic fermentation for stability. Depending on the vintage, around 3000 cases a year are made.
Medium-plus intensity nose of tropical fruit with a savory, smokey component. Proscuitto wrapped melon-balls comes to mind. Along with the melon is some noticeable spiced pear.
On the palate, the pear and oak spices (nutmeg, clove) come through with a little cardamon. The slightly salty, savory, smokey notes are there as well but less pronounced than they were on the nose. The full-bodied mouthfeel is well balanced with medium-plus acidity–giving a lot of life to this wine. But the moderate finish lingering on the spice shows that its time is nearing the end. Still quite impressive for a 10+-year-old white wine.
High-intensity nose. Intense fresh and grilled peaches. Less noticeable oak than the 2008 with the smokiness being more flinty. This one was also the most floral of the three with a mixture of elderflower and white lilies. Very mouthwatering bouquet.
On the palate, the peaches carry through joined by apples that also have a grilled component. Again, the oak is far less noticeable with maybe some subtle vanilla creaminess to go with the full-bodied richness. However, the high acidity keeps this wine well in check. The mouthwatering grilled peaches continue throughout the long finish. The highest proportion of Sauvignon gris and one of the best wines I had on the entire trip.
Medium-plus intensity nose–apple and citrus-driven (star fruit, lemon). It’s the only one of three without a smokey, savory component. However, the oak is noticeable with pastry dough and clove spice. With air, tropical mango emerges as well as very ripe apricot.
On the palate, the toasty pastry and ripe tree fruit (apple & apricot) carry through. While not as heavy and oaky as a Chard, this one definitely feels the weightiest with the pastry tart element. Medium-plus acidity helps keep the full-bodied wine balanced. It also highlights more of the citrus flavors from the nose, bringing some pomelo to the party. Those more defined fruits offset the oak flavors, letting the citrus dominant the medium-plus length finish.
Definitely was one of my top wines of 2019. Such a stellar white that still has several years to go.
While 2014 was my clear favorite, each of these Elevage Blancs was well worth a premium $50 price. They had complexity with each vintage showing its own distinct and unique personality.
It’s clear that Sauvignon gris, itself, adds interesting elements when blended with Sauvignon blanc that you don’t always get with Semillon or Muscadelle in white Bordeaux. Most notable for me was how Sauvignon gris seems to deal with oak, steering the wine towards more savory flavors as opposed to just “oaky” notes.
In contrast, I feel like Semillon and Sauvignon blanc tend to absorb oak flavors like a sponge–making the wine feel more Chardonnay like. It was notable that as the quantity of SG decreased, the oak in the Elevage Blanc became more noticeable.
Blend vs. Varietal
Only the 2016 vintage of Elevage Blanc could be labeled as a varietal Sauvignon blanc. But maybe ditching the varietal designation is the answer to avoiding that muddled middle which plagues these Napa white wines? While a New World “white blend” aisle probably doesn’t get as much traffic as the Sauvignon blanc section, it doesn’t come with the baggage either.
A premium Napa white blend isn’t competing with the value-driven options from New Zealand, Chile and elsewhere. Instead, it can pull more of the “halo effect” of the Napa name as it stands out from various white blends from Lodi, Paso Robles, Sonoma, Washington State, etc.
There is still the question of regional identity, but not many regions have staked a claim to Sauvignon gris. No matter which style you go with–crisp, stainless or lavish, oak-driven–Sauvignon gris adds its own “twist” to the wine. This is something that Napa can sink its teeth into, crafting a distinct regional style of Sauvignon blanc/Sauvignon gris blends.
Though, they better hurry before someone else beats them to the punch.
The wine world has a wicked way of promoting FOMO–a fear of missing out.
From the luxury end, there are cult wines and trophy bottles. In years past, score hounds would scavenge the shelves looking for highly-rated gems before they sold out.
Now for wine geeks and wanderlust Millennials, the entire world of wine is a temptress. But what we fear missing out on is not what the pack is gobbling up. Instead, our minds quiver at the thought of missing out on what’s new and exciting by settling for what’s old and boring.
Why feel content with the same ole Cab and Chardonnay when you could have Touriga Nacional and Grenache blanc?
Yeah, Champagne is charming. Prosecco is perfect for patio sipping. But that’s what everyone else is drinking. It’s what you can find in every wine shop. You can’t have FOMO if there is nothing to be missed.
And that’s the dirty little secret of the human psyche.
Despite the real repercussions when we let FOMO reach anxiety levels, we still crave it. We still crave the thrill of the hunt. But how much thrill is there in shooting ducks in a basket?
In the world of sparkling wine, finding premium Aussie bubbles is a tough unicorn to bag. Unless, of course, you’re one of the 25 million people who call Australia home.
Now yes, we’ll get some sparkling Shiraz exported.
Actually Australia is home to many unicorns. If only I could’ve found a way to keep these frozen for the plane ride home.
Though the ones that make their way to the US tend to be mass-produced and underwhelming. Of course, there is the ubiquitous YellowTail, which has several sparklers in their line up. However, that’s basically the “Fosters of Australian wine”–a well-known ambassador but not really a benchmark.
But only around a fifth of Australia’s sparkling wine production gets exported. That means you need to go down under to even get a hint of what the rest of the world is missing out on. Luckily, I got such a chance this past October during the Wine Media Conference.
There, in both the Hunter Valley and neighboring Mudgee, I was able to try several sparkling wines that I could never find in the States. But I barely scratched the surface. Even spending extra time in Sydney, I found that the highly regarded Tasmanian sparklers were surprisingly difficult to find.
I’ll share my thoughts on many of the sparklers I tasted below. But first a little geeking about Australian sparkling wine.
Australia isn’t an “emerging” sparkling wine producer.
I’d imagine it was quite the scandal having a non-French sparkler served to the French emperor.
Up in the Hunter Valley, James King began producing sparkling wine around 1843. King’s wines would receive great international acclaim–doing particularly well at the 1855 Paris Exposition. Yes, that1855 Paris Exposition. At the end of the event, King’s sparkling Australian wine was selected as one of only two wines that were served to Napoleon III at the closing banquet.
It’s hard to know exactly what these first Aussie sparklers were. King, in particular, was noted for the quality of his Shepherd’s Riesling (Semillon). However, he also had Pinot noir in his vineyard as well.
These early Australian sparklers were made using the traditional method of Champagne.
The 20th century saw more innovation in sparkling wine techniques with producers experimenting with a “twist” on the Champagne method known as the Transfer Method or transvasage. (We’ll geek out more about that down below) The exact date and who was the first to pioneer this technique in Australia is not known though Minchinbury helped popularize its use.
In 1939, Frederick Thomson started using carbonation (or the “soda method”) to make his Claretta sparkling fizz. We should note that while many cheap sparkling wines (including some so-called “California Champagnes”) are made with added carbonation, in Australia these wines can’t be labeled as “sparkling wines.” Only wines that get their effervescence through fermentation (either in a bottle or tank) can use the term.
Speaking of tanks, adoption of the Charmat method took hold in the late 1950s–beginning with Orlando’s Barossa Pearl Fizz. Today, the tank method is gaining in prominence–especially with the strong sparkling Moscato and “Prosecco” market in Australia. (More on both of those a little later too.)
The 1980s saw a spark of French interest in Australia.
Much like in California, the big Champagne houses took an interest in Australia’s growing sparkling wine industry. In 1985, both Roederer and Moët & Chandon invested in new estates.
Roederer help found Heemskerk as a joint-venture in Pipers Brook, Tasmania. But eventually Roederer moved on from the project–selling back their interest in the estate in 1994.
Throughout Australia, sparkling wine accounts for around 6% of production. In Tasmania, that number jumps up to 30%.
Moët’s Domaine Chandon at Green Point in the Yarra Valley of Victoria, though, saw immediate success thanks to the work of the legendary Tony Jordan–who sadly passed away earlier this year.
Like Roederer, LVMH also looked to Tasmania as a potential spot for sparkling wine production. However, they wanted a location more prime for tourism and cellar door sales.
Bollinger was also briefly a player in Australia’s sparkling wine scene through their partnership with Brian Croser in Petaluma. However, the hostile takeover of that brand by the Lion Nathan corporation in 2001 seemed to have ended Bollinger’s involvement.
Today, except for Domaine Chandon (and Pernod Ricard’s Jacob’s Creek), most all of the Australian sparkling wine industry is wholly domestic. This makes me wonder if this is why Aussie sparklers are so hard to find outside of Australia?
Even the most prominent players like Treasury Wine Estates (Wolf Blass, Penfolds, Seppelt, Heemskirk, Yellowglen) and Accolade Wine (Banrock Station, Arras, Bay of Fires, Hardy’s, Croser, Yarra Burn) have their origins as Australian conglomerates before they gained an international presence.
Understanding this is a big part of understanding Australian sparkling wine. Like the traditional method, fermentation happens in the bottle. However, it’s not happening in the bottle that you’re taking home. Instead, after secondary fermentation and aging, the wine is emptied into a pressurized tank at around 0°C where the lees are filtered out. Then the sparkler is bottled anew with its dosage.
The Champenois themselves use transvasage for 187ml airline splits and half bottles as well as large format Champagnes starting with double magnum (3L Jeroboam) in size. This is because these odd formats would be difficult to riddle without excessive breakage.
The Australians were keen to adopt the labor and cost-saving benefits of the transfer method and it’s the most widely used technique. It allows wineries to increase efficiency without sacrificing the quality character of autolysis. Ed Carr of Accolade Wines noted in Christie’s that the difference is as much as $30-40 AUD per case compared to traditional riddling. Plus, winemakers can do one last “tweaking” (such as SO2 and acidity adjustments) before final bottling.
However, many boutique producers stick to using the traditional (instead of transfer) method. These bottles are labeled stating “Methode champenoise,”“Methode traditionnelle” or simply “Fermented in this bottle.”
The sparklers that are made using the transfer method are more likely to state that they are “Bottled Fermented” or “Fermented in the bottle.”
Australian Moscato & “Prosecco”
As elsewhere in the world, Australia has had its own “Moscato Boom.”
Now usually Moscato is associated with the Moscato bianco grape of Asti (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains). However, in Australia, the term is used to refer to the whole Muscat family when the wine is made in a light, sweet style with low alcohol. So a bottle of sparkling Australian Moscato can be made from Moscato bianco, Muscat of Alexandria, Orange Muscat, Moscato Giallo or a blend of multiple Muscats.
The King Valley in north-east Victoria has a strong Italian heritage. The Glera/Prosecco grape thrives in the cooler southern end of the valley with vineyards planted at higher altitudes.
Australian Prosecco is also apparently a big deal–though I didn’t personally encounter any bottles on my trip. The first Australian Prosecco was made by Otto Dal Zotto in King Valley (or “Victoria’s little Italy”) in 2004. The success of that wine and others caught the attention and ire of producers in the Veneto.
This led Italian authorities to take some dramatic steps in 2009. First, they petitioned the EU to change the grape’s name from Prosecco to Glera. Then they expanded the DOC to the province of Trieste, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, where there is a village named Prosecco. This gave them the justification to claim the entire region as a protected geographical area.
Obviously Australian wine producers balked at this with the conflict between the two parties still ongoing. But while Australian Prosecco can be sold domestically, none of these wines can be exported into the EU.
A few of the Australian Sparklers I’ve enjoyed this year.
Amanda and Janet de Beaurepaire at their family estate. Amanda’s parents, Janet and Richard, started planting their 53 hectares of vineyards in 1998.
De Beaurepaire 2018 Blanchefleur Blanc de Blancs – $45 AUD (Purchased additional bottles at winery)
I’ve got a future article planned about the intriguing story of the De Beaurepaire family and the genuinely unique terroir they’ve found in Rylstone, southeast of Mudgee. The family’s name and ancestors come from the Burgundian village of Beaurepaire-en-Bresse in the Côte Chalonnaise. So it’s no surprise that their wines have a French flair to them.
It’s also no surprise that their 2018 Blanchefleur was quite Champagne-like. Indeed, it was the best sparkling wine I had on the trip. A 100% Chardonnay with 15 months on the lees, this wine had incredible minerality. Coupled with the vibrant, pure fruit, it screamed of being something from the Cote de Blancs. I’m not kidding when I say that this bottle would stack up well to a quality NV from a grower-producer like Franck Bonville, Pierre Peters, De Sousa or Pertois-Moriset.
Peter Drayton 2018 Wildstreak sparkling Semillon-Chardonnay – $30 AUD
I had this at an Around the Hermitage dinner that featured many gorgeous wines. But the folks at the Around Hermitage Association started things right with this 80% Semillon/20% Chardonnay blend that spent 18 months on the lees. Hard to say if this was transfer method of not. However, the toasty autolysis notes were quite evident with biscuit and honeycomb. Very Chenin like. In a blind tasting, I’d probably confuse it with good quality sparkling Vouvray from a producer like Francois Pinon or Huet.
BTW, the Around Hermitage folks made a fun short video about the dinner (3:20) which features an interview with me.
With a blend of 63% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot noir and 18% Pinot Meunier, this is another bottle that is following the traditional method and recipe. Sourced from the cool-climate Orange region of NSW, which uses altitude (930m above sea level) to temper the heat, this wine spent almost two years aging on the lees. Lots of toasted brioche with racy citrus notes. It feels like it has a higher Brut dosage in the 10-11 g/l range. But it’s well balanced with ample acidity to keep it fresh.
Hollydene Estate 2008 Juul Blanc de Blancs – $69 AUD
Hollydene Estate Winery in Jerrys Plains is about an hour northwest of the heart of the Hunter Valley in Pokolbin.
Made in the traditional method, this wine is 100% Chardonnay sourced from the cool maritime climate of the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. It spent over 60 months aging on the lees and, whoa nelly, you can tell. Hugely autolytic with yeasty, doughy notes to go with the lemon custard creaminess of the fruit.
Peterson House 2007 Sparkling Semillon – ($60 AUD)
If you love sparkling wine, make sure you book a trip to Peterson House. Each year they release more than 30 different sparklers. Beyond just the traditional varieties, they push the envelope in creating exciting bubbles. You’ll find sparklers made from Verdelho, Pinot gris and Sauvignon blanc as well as Chambourcin, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
I’m generally not a fan of overly tertiary sparklers. But this wine made a big impression on me during the conference.
Wow! A vintage sparkling traditional method Semillon that spent 11 years on lees. 11 years!
Robert Stein NV Sparkling Chardonnay and Pinot noir – $25 AUD
I raved about the Robert Stein Rieslings in my recent post, Send Roger Morris to Mudgee. But there are so many good reasons to put this winery (and the Pipeclay Pumphouse restaurant) on a “Must Visit Bucket List”. The entire line up is stocked with winners–including this Charmat method sparkler.
At first taste, I had this pegged for transfer method. It wasn’t as aggressively bubbly and frothy as many tank method sparklers can be. However, the considerable apple blossom aromatics should have tipped me off. If this ever made its way to the US for less than $30, I’d recommend buying this by the case.
Gilbert 2019 Pet Nat Rose – $25 AUD (Purchased additional bottles at winery)
Gilbert’s Sangio Pet-Nat was just bloody fantastic. I wish I brought more than one bottle home.
It’s always trippy to have a wine from the same year (2019)–especially a sparkler. Gilbert harvests the Sangiovese in February and bottles before the first fermentation is completed each year. Released in July, this wine was surprisingly dry and is teetering on the Brut line with 12.5 g/l residual sugar. Very clean with no funky flavors, this wine had a beautiful purity of fruit–cherry, strawberries, watermelon and even blood orange.
The Christie’s Encyclopedia notes that Domaine Chandon shot out of the gate partly because of the lessons that Tony Jordan learned at Napa’s Domaine Chandon. In particular, Jordan was well aware of the challenges of dealing with grapes from warm climates. In Australia, Domaine Chandon casts an extensive net by sourcing from cool-climate vineyards in both Victoria and Tasmania. They have vineyards not only in the Yarra Valley but also in the King Valley, Macedon Ranges, Whitlands Plateau and Strathbogie Ranges as well as the Coal River Valley region in Tasmania.
For the fruit that comes from Tasmania, Domaine Chandon follows the tact used by many Australian sparkling wine producers. They press the fruit at local press houses in Tasmania before transporting the must in refrigerated containers to the mainland. This helps maintain freshness and ward off spoilage organisms.
The 2013 vintage Brut is 47% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot noir and 3% Pinot Meunier. As in Champagne, Domaine Chandon ages their vintage sparklers at least 36 months on the lees. Fully fermented in the same bottle, it tastes very similar to other Moët & Chandon sparklers with rich, creamy mouthfeel holding up the ripe apple and citrus notes. An enjoyable bottle priced in line with its peers.
Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz (tasted in London at the WSET School) – Around 15 euros
I’ll admit that the color of sparkling Shiraz is always very striking.
Admittedly I’m still on the search for a genuinely impressive sparkling Shiraz. But this Bleasdale came close. Like the Paringa I’ve reviewed previously, it’s sweeter than my ideal though I get the winemaking reasons behind that.
Sparkling red wines are notoriously tricky to pull off because you have to balance the tannins. This is why many of these wines often have more than 20 g/l sugar.
Most sparkling reds come from the same regions as premium Australian still reds. Think places like the Barossa, McLaren Vale or the Langhorne Creek (Bleasdale). Interestingly, producers will harvest these grapes at the same time as those for still reds wine. Instead of harvesting early to retain acidity, producers want the extended hang time for riper tannins.
However, these sparklers sorely need acidity to balance both the intense fruit and sweetness. While secondary fermentation does add carbonic acid, I suspect that these wines are routinely acidified.
Still, this Bleasdale had enough balance of acid to go with the dark plum and delicate oak spice. That got me wondering how well this would pair with BBQ pulled pork.
Or, if I’m brave, maybe I’d pair some of these Aussie sparkling unicorns with steak de cheval.
While I’m a huge baseball fan, I never really followed the Mariners much. However, working at wine shops along the I-5 corridor connecting Vancouver to Seattle, I was always acutely aware of when the Blue Jays were in town.
Because then I would get a massive run on J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon and Kim Crawford Sauvignon blanc.
It was bizarre how cases I would be sitting on for weeks would suddenly vanish in a mist of maple leafs and excessive politeness. When I talked to these customers to understand why these two wines seemed to be the national drink of Canada, I would hear a familiar response.
“Oh, you won’t believe how expensive these are up in Canada!”
Or $23 in Toronto
When I traveled to British Columbia and Toronto with the wife for curling tournaments, I saw first hand how right they were.
That $13 bottle of J. Lohr Cab back in the US? $24
That $11 bottle of Kim Crawford? $18-20
That $5 bottle of Yellow Tail Shiraz? $12
That $7 bottle of Ch. Ste. Michelle Riesling? $16-18
Now some of that is obviously because of the exchange rate (currently 1 USD to 1.31 Canadian). But that would only make those J. Lohr and Kim Crawford bottles around $17 and $14. A significant contributor to the disparity is the local taxes and various tariffs that the Canadian government imposes on wine.
Canada has had a long history of protectionist tariffs–which used to be much higher. This CBC broadcast from 1987 when the original NAFTA negotiations were taking place is well worth the 6:38 to watch. There were stark fears that lowering tariffs (which were as high as 66% in Ontario) would be the end of the Canadian wine industry.
Note: I wanted to embed the video directly, but apparently CBC’s website and WordPress don’t get along.
Of course, those concerns were unfounded.
And, in fact, Canadian wines got better because the increased competition pushed producers to improve. You can see a microcosm of this quality movement in the CBC video (4:33) when they interviewed Harry McWatters at his Sumac Ridge Estate vineyard.
As they showed McWatters working in the vineyard, my eyes popped at the 5:01 mark seeing the overhead sprinkler system they were using for irrigation. This is something that California and a lot of major wine regions started phasing out back in the 1970s as drip irrigation became more widely available. Moving away from wasteful overhead systems towards understanding the importance of controlled deficit irrigation has been a harbinger of quality improvement in many regions.
But you can also see from the interview that McWatters was convinced that he could compete with small, quality-minded producers in California. Clearly, over the next couple of decades, he put that faith into practice as evidenced by Master of Wine James Cluer’s 2012 visit to Sumac Ridge (7:46).
Starting at the 1:40 mark, Cluer interviews McWatters’ daughter, Christa-Lee McWatters Bond, who described many of the changes her dad did in response to the free trade agreement–including pulling out hybrid varieties to plant more vinifera.
However, there is still more work to do.
While the quality of Canadian wine is rapidly improving, the high prices of foreign wine continue to be a crutch that holds them back. This is always the folly that comes with limiting competition.
Think about this. In the minds of many Canadian consumers, J. Lohr Seven Oaks is the benchmark standard of a $24 wine. So how much effort then do Canadian wineries need to put in to make a better $20-25 bottle? Certainly not the same amount that producers in Washington State, Oregon and California need to do where consumers who are looking to spend $20-25 aren’t thinking about J. Lohr Seven Oaks.
It’s hard to imagine paying $20 retail for Kim Crawford when stuff like Gramercy’s Picpoul (or $10-15 French Picpoul de Pinet) exists.
Or, for a few dollars more, J. Lohr’s Paso Robles Hilltop Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
That’s before you even get to loads of compelling values from Australia, South America and Europe as well.
Yes, there is always a risk that consumers will choose these better value options from somewhere else. But the answer to that problem is to raise the bar, not artificially lower it with protectionist taxes and tariffs.
The US is at risk of making the same mistake.
There’s been lots of ink spilled over the recent threat from the US government to slap 100% tariffs on European wines such as Champagne. The primary justification for these threats is “unfair” trade practices, with some thinking that domestic American wineries will benefit from consumers turning away from more expensive European wines.
Already wine writers are penning posts about how folks can “drink around” the tariffs–noting many domestic options as well as countries that are not yet being hit by tariffs.
Lett brings up numerous excellent points about the impacts of retaliatory tariffs in other markets (which is already being felt in China). However, he touches on the pratfalls of limiting consumer choice.
Here Lett looks at it from the angle of distributors being hampered in providing a diverse portfolio. However, the lessons of those Blue Jay Weekends in Seattle still echos.
US wines are better when they’re striving to be the best.
Things like Roederer L’Ermitage from California already out-drink many Champagnes. Using tariffs to push up the price of Veuve Clicquot to $60 is not going to make this sparkler more outstanding.
From the fanatical quest of Martin Ray and Robert Mondavi to make wines on par with the greats of Europe to the legendary Judgement of Paris wines that beat them, the American wine industry has succeeded by raising the bar and not settling.
It’s the high benchmark of Savennières and the Mosel that encourages folks like Tracey & John Skupny and Stu Smith to make some of the best white wines in California.
Likewise, Anna Shafer of àMaurice in Walla Walla doesn’t need the bar artificially lowered with more expensive French white blends to have a reason to chase after the heights of Condrieu with her Viogniers.
It’s a trap to get complacent and think that pricing or placement is going to win the day. Yeah, that protectionism might give you a short term buffer, but it comes at a cost.
After all, how much of a victory is it to have consumers singing your anthem in another stadium if they’re drinking someone else’s wine?
On Reddit, there’s an interesting thread by a retail manager seeking advice about what consumers want in a wine shop. There’s a lot of replies focusing on selection, staff training and holding frequent tastings–which all good wine shops should do.
But the biggest mistake that wine shops make, regardless if they’re a boutique indy or big box retailer, is not hiring the right people.
Too often wine shops think they need to hire either: A.) “Wine People” who are super knowledgeable about wine and love sharing that passion with customers.
B.) Salespeople with smooth selling skills that can sling bottles to anyone.
But what they really need is C.) People who genuinely like LISTENING and helping other people.
What makes or breaks every wine shop (or winery tasting room for that matter) is the abundance or lack of empathic listeners.
Wait! What’s wrong with hiring “wine people”?
Wine people are great. They’re my tribe and this post isn’t a criticism of them. But I’ve spent a lot of years working retail and many more as a consumer. While I’ve encountered many wine people and salespeople at shops, only around a third of them knew how to engage me enough to open up my wallet and eagerly want to come back to their stores.
Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good listener?
That’s because wine and salespeople spend far too much time talking than they do listening. It becomes all about sharing their passion and their knowledge about the wine instead of cultivating the customer’s own passion.
As the famous Diogenes quote begins, “We have two ears and only one tongue…”. Even though the tongue is so important to us in the wine industry, sometimes we do need to give it a break.
Yes, it’s great that you’re passionate about wine and want to share that passion with customers.
But knowing all the crus of Beaujolais is not going to help you connect to a customer who would probably be happier walking out of your store with a fleshy California Pinot or Spanish Garnacha.
Only empathetic listening–asking more questions instead of telling more details, seeking to understand the customer rather than trying to get the customer to understand the wine–truly “builds relationships.”
And isn’t that the goal of every wine shop? To build enduring and lasting relationships with customers?
An empathic listener is worth more to a wine shop than an MW or MS.
Wine knowledge can be taught. Good wine shops should never scrimp on their staff training programs.
Thankfully not how passion for wine is spread.
And while, yes, passion is contagious, it’s not an airborne contagion. It doesn’t get picked up in the mouth spray of words.
Passion needs to be ingested. It needs to be consumed–which requires a deliberate action on the consumer’s part. But that action is only going to be taken after developing genuine trust in the person trying to share that passion pill with you.
And how much do you trust someone that is a poor listener?
A tip for pegging the empathic listener in your wine shop.
Whether you’re doing a hiring interview or staff evaluation, my favorite trick is to do a blind tasting with them. But the key is to tell the person that you are blinding them on one of your absolute favorite wines.
The Wine People will be caught up in the blind tasting part. They’re going to be trying to guess what it is and maybe showing off their knowledge.
The Salespeople will be zeroing in on what they think are the best parts of the wine. That’s because they’re looking for angles and thinking of how they would be selling it.
The Empathic Listener will be focusing on figuring out what you like about the wine and asking questions about it.
The good news is that empathetic listening can be taught. Though I’ll admit it’s not easy. As a wine person myself, it took me a long time on the sales floor to retrain my instincts. I always wanted to go full throttle in sharing all the fantastic details and stories about the wines I was passionate about.
The best tool I’ve found is to keep that Diogenes quote top of mind and regularly repeat it.
“We have two ears and only one tongue in order that we may hear more and speak less.”
But the biggest eye-opener for me was when I started noticing my elderly (70 year-plus) consumers buying canned wines.
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.
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.
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.
At @TablasCreek 375s cost ~2/3 of a 750ml bottle, and cause headaches w/ keeping distributors in stock of the same vintage. And w/ the increase in by-the-glass lists there are fewer restaurants with good half-bottle programs. Still, we feel it’s worth it for the exposure. Barely.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 thatsaline 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.
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.
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.
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:
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