Category Archives: Shopping for Wine

Wine Shops’ Biggest Mistake

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.

Wine shop photo by Bjørn Erik Pedersen. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

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 years 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.

Diogenes statue in Sinop photo by Michael F. Schönitzer. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

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.

Yes, it’s wonderful that you can describe all the ways that South African Cap Classique is similar and different from Champagne.

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.

Poster from the CENTRAL COUNCIL FOR HEALTH EDUCATION, Ministry of Health, HMSO in UK. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-scan (PD-UKGov

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.”

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375ml Bottles — A halfway good idea?

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

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

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

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

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

Wait…what?

House wine pride can

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

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

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

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

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

I talked to them.

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what wineries need to pay attention to.

The practical considerations that drive sales trends.

Photo from

Will 2020 herald the new Roaring 20s?

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

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

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

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

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

Author using her Coravin

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

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

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

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

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

But let’s be serious.

Do you really see Lynch-Bages in a can?

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

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

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

Jason Haas of Tablas Creek was especially forthcoming.

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

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

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

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

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

Being ahead of the headwinds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moderation movement is real.

Calorie counting and serving-size awareness are real.

Waste considerations are real.

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

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The Sleeping Giant of Italian Wine

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

Mauro Sebaste Roero Arneis

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

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

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

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

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

Luigi Pira's Dolcetto d'Alba

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

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

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

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

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

Seven exciting Italian wine grapes to try.

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

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

Aleatico

Fubbiano Aleatico

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

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

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

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

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

Arneis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbera

Mauro Veglio Barbera d'Alba

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dolcetto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falanghina

Donnachaira Falanghina

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

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

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

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

A great choice for: White Bordeaux fans!

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

Friulano

Schioppettino Friulano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dry Lambrusco

Dry Lambrusco

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

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

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

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

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

Linda Whipple’s SIPPING LAMBRUSCO IN STRAWBERRY SEASON

A great choice for: Pizza lovers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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60 Second Wine Review — Digby Fine English Brut

It’s English Wine Week, so I’m sharing a few quick thoughts on the non-vintage Digby Fine English Brut sparkling wine.

Digby Fine English Brut

The Geekery

American Trevor Clough and Englishman Jason Humphries founded Digby Fine English in 2013 as a negociant house in the style of many Champagne firms. Purchasing wine (and later fruit) from several sources, they released a 2009 vintage brut and rosé that year.

Clough and Humphries named their venture in honor of the 17th-century philosopher and scientist Sir Kenelm Digby.  Also an inventor, Digby pioneered several new techniques in glassmaking–essentially inventing the modern wine bottle.

The wines are made at Wiston Estate Winery by Irish winemaker Dermot Sugrue. Vineyards for the NV Brut were sourced from the North and South Downs region of Kent as well as Sussex and Hampshire.

The non-vintage Brut is 40% Pinot noir, 35% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Meunier with the Chardonnay seeing an additional 18 months of lees contact before being used in the blend. The finished wine was aged 24 months in the bottle and then disgorged with a 12 g/l dosage. Around 25,000 bottles were produced.

The Wine

Photo By Gaetan Lee - originally posted to Flickr as French tart, CC BY 2.0

Some apple tart pastry flavors but not much more.

Medium intensity nose. Appley with some toasted tart pastry.

On the palate, the apple pastry notes carry through with a little subtle earthiness as well. Lively mousse and acidity complement the weighty feel of the wine. However, the flavors and the finish quickly fade.

The Verdict

In general, I’m a huge fan of English sparklers and have had several that go toe-to-toe with quality Champagne. Chapel Down is probably my favorite. But they haven’t been the easiest to find in the US and I will admit that this one (which I got at a Seattle wine shop for $50 USD) was rather underwhelming.

In the UK, this is direct from the producer at £30.99 (about $40 USD) with some merchants selling it closer to $30 USD. That is a much better price point for this quality level. Without a doubt, US consumers are paying a premium for the novelty.

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The Wine Industry’s Millennial Strawman

I have some bad news for wine industry folks like Bob Torkelson, president and CEO of Trinchero Family Estates. You guys are chasing a strawman trying to solve your “Millennial Problem.”
Photo By Silverije - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

At a recent wine industry conference at Sonoma State University, Torkelson and other industry executives shared their thoughts on why Millennials weren’t buying premium wine at the rate of previous generations.

Of course, the substantial college debt and poor job prospects of Millennials made its appearance as the scapegoat du jour with Bill Swindell of The Press Democrat quoting Torkelson:

Maybe they don’t have any money. The prospect of them getting a better job is going to be difficult for a while. We face a lot of obstacles in this area. It will be interesting to see how we approach it. — Bob Torkelson, “Wine executives debate the promise and peril of millennial wine consumers” 04/18/2019

The idea of college debt keeping Millennials from embracing wine is an oft-told narrative. After the Silicon Valley Bank report came out in January, sounding the warning call about waning Millennial interest in wine, many stories ran with the idea that the more than a trillion dollars of Millennial student debt was the culprit.

College debt and poor job prospects are serious issues but let me splash some cold truth on this burning strawman.

Even if you forgave all our college debts tomorrow, Millennials are not going to be running towards wine.

Photo By Sideways11 - Own work, Public Domain,

Seriously, it’s not Rex Pickett’s fault that no one is buying Merlot. It’s because the wines usually make us want to fall asleep.

Millennials are already spending money. That’s not the issue. The issue is that most of us are not spending money on wine.

Instead, we’re spending it on things that we want to spend it on–even if they may seem frivolous to other generations. We have no problem spending around $1200 a year (£904.20) socializing with friends or almost $600 (£441) on a daily treat of coffee.

For around $1800 a year, we could buy more than a case of the 2014 Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot that was Wine Spectator’s #1 Wine of the Year back in 2017. Or more than 7 cases of Duckhorn’s Decoy Merlot at around $20 a pop.

But why would we?

I’m in the minority as a Millennial who does spend money on wine but even I wouldn’t bother with chasing the Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot. No Millennial seriously cares about Wine Spectator’s Top Wine of the Year and while the Decoy Merlot is solid at $20, I could only enjoy one bottle before becoming dreadfully bored.

Henry Mckenna Bourbon.

Millennial Math in action. While the #1 wine of the year is usually $100+, you can buy the #1 whiskey in the world for around $30. And you don’t have to finish the bottle in one night.

Even if we had the money, even if you gave us the money (via debt forgiveness), the industry is still not bothering to answer the fundamental question of why Millennials should care about what they’re offering.

The wine industry just assumes that as soon as Millennials somehow get more money in our pockets that we’re going to eagerly start buying whatever it is they’re peddling.

I’m sorry guys, but that’s a pipe dream.

What the industry needs to realize is that for Millennials, it’s not about the money. It’s about the value (i.e. Millennial Math) and whether or not your product is actually interesting to us.

That’s true whether your wine is $10 or a $100+. It has to deliver on intrigue and value.

A bottle of Ménage à Trois or covering the $7.99 Uber Eats fee?

What I found most laughable about Torkelson’s worry about college debt impacting wine sales is that Trinchero’s most well-known brands are Sutter Home and Ménage à Trois. You don’t need to take out a payday loan or put off buying a house to drink these wines.

All you need is the money you spend on delivery fees. Yet, even with all our debts, Millennials have been enthusiastic consumers of services like Uber Eats, Deliveroo, GrubHub and the like.

Why? Because having someone bring us new and exciting food dishes from a variety of restaurants offers us far more value for an extra $8 bucks than a bottle of Ménage à Trois ever could.

Plus, we can always get an interesting craft beer, cider or even hard seltzer water to drink with our takeout that is certainly less boring than another same ole Cab, Chard or Red Blend.

The Avocado Toast Test

Millennials really don’t eat avocado toast all the time. It’s more of a meme than anything. But still, as an occasional treat, spending around $10-20 for some avocado toast is well-established as not being a big deal for us.

That $10-20 range is a sweet spot for a lot of wineries targetting Millennials. So that leads to an essential question that every winery should ask themselves.

Is my wine more interesting than avocado toast?
By Brenda Godinez cravethebenefits - https://unsplash.com/photos/k4116JZ07S0Image at the Wayback Machine (archived on 28 June 2017)Gallery at the Wayback Machine (archived on 28 June 2017), CC0

Does a bottle porn pic on Instagram make me want to drink your wine more than this picture makes me want to eat this dish? Probably not.

Why do people like avocado toast?

It’s different and definitely not something that our parents ate.

We can customize it and have it in a variety of ways (sliced, smashed, brioche, bagels, flatbread, baguette, tortillas) and with numerous toppings (bacon, cherry tomatoes, sesame seeds, balsamic, fried egg, grilled shrimp, toasted almonds, pomegranate, etc). Even loaded with all those goodies it still feels relatively healthy and a treat.

Does your wine offer any of that?

Does it offer us something interesting or unique? Or is it just the same old boring stuff that our parents drank?

Does it seem relatively healthy? Or is it sourced from conventionally farmed vineyards and highly manipulated in the winery with oak chips, mega-purple additives, and residual sugars?

By Agne27, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Hey, look! Another sub-$20 oaky, buttery Chardonnay. Lovely…..

Regardless of the price, does drinking your wine actually feel like a treat? Does buying your wine feel like a good value worth spending money on?

Yeah, Millennials do have a lot of college debt and shitty job prospects.

But wineries that are using this as a scapegoat to explain why we’re not buying their wines are fools.

Millennials do spend money on things beyond the bare essentials of food & rent. Like every generation that has come before us, we want to live and enjoy life even when so much around us royally sucks.

If your wine offers us that little bit of joy that our daily latte, going out with friends, a new outfit, getting take-out from a favorite restaurant or avocado toast does–then we’re going to buy it.

But if you’re peddling the same ole wines that we see everywhere, then no, you’ve lost us.

You could snap your fingers like Thanos and make all our college debt disappear, but that’s not going to change the fact that your wine is more boring than avocado toast.

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The Farmers Market Conundrum

This College Humor skit (2:37) about farmers markets perfectly sums up some of the struggles that small family wineries have in competing against supermarket brands.

Yes, everybody loves the idea of shopping local and buying wines from small family wineries. But, gosh darn it, why does it have to be so hard?

Why do I have to actually go to a winery or a small wine shop to find their product instead of picking it up with my toilet paper at Costco?

Why do they charge $25-35 for their few hundred case lot Pinot noir when you can get one of the 6 million-plus bottles of Meiomi made every year for $15-20?

How come these wineries don’t just sell to Olive Garden where they can pour me a sample at my table?

It’s a hard truth that the best of intentions often hit a wall when they run up against convenience and price.

Photo by Sarbjit Bahga. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0

Rain or shine, farmers tend to their produce and sell their wares.
Similarly, wine growers are in their vines come rain or shine doing their best to craft a product worth putting their name on.

Wine consumers may love the idea of shopping small but, just like the folks in the farmers market parody, they often end up eating fat, greasy McDonald’s instead.

The Supermarket (brands) advantage

As with supermarket produce, the big mass-produced brands take advantage of their near-monopoly of distribution channels. You don’t have to search the big brands out. They’re readily available not only at the grocery stores but at Costco, big-box retailers, chain-restaurant wine lists and even gas stations.

Like McDonald’s, you see them everywhere with that omnipresence giving a halo effect of reliability and consistency. I mean, these wines wouldn’t be everywhere if they weren’t good, right?

Small wineries will never have this type of visibility or convenience at their disposal. With the massive consolidation of distributors, many wineries are finding retail channels choked off. Even those that do squeeze themselves into a distributor’s book, often find their wines gathering dust in a warehouse as sales reps focus on their most prominent portfolios.

To find these small brands, consumers usually have to visit the winery (or their website) directly or shop at wine shops with curated wine selections. This requires “work” on the consumer’s part which is, unfortunately, an inherent disadvantage.

The $5 Onion versus the $5 Bottle.

Photo by Jim Heaphy. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

The original Charles Shaw actually set out to make high quality, hand-crafted wine but ended up going bankrupt.
That allowed Fred Franzia of Bronco Wine Co. to scoop up his label on the cheap.

Another advantage of the big brands is that their mass-production gives them an economy of scale. When you’re sourcing from thousands of acres and cranking out millions of cases at industrial warehouse-sized wineries, you can make a $5 bottle of wine–or even a $2.49 one.

The mom and pop wineries who are hand harvesting their grapes from a few acres, fermenting them in small lots with family members handling the bottling and packing line could never come close to that scale.

The price of their wines is going to reflect the smaller-scale production value of their labor. So, yeah, they’re going to be more expensive than a whole bag of onions at the supermarket.

Can you taste the difference?

Perhaps. Sometimes the difference is dramatic like comparing farm-fresh eggs to the factory produced supermarket eggs. But other times noticing the differences only comes after you’ve been exposed to them repeatedly.

If all you regularly consume are conventionally-grown leafy greens, then you might not notice at first the big difference between those and the organic greens from the farmers market.

But spend some time eating those locally sourced, fresh greens. Then go back to the cheaper supermarket stuff. The drop in quality becomes quite apparent.

Photo by Autumn Mott autumnmott. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Seriously, fresh eggs are AMAZING. They will rock your world like a Syrah from the Rocks Districts of Walla Walla.
Try comparing that to a YellowTail Shiraz and the difference is night and day.

Likewise, if you regularly consume mass-produced supermarket wine, your palate becomes used to the sneaky sweetness of residual sugar and mega-purple or the artificially lowered acid and added oak chips. Comparing that to a small production wine made without those tricks and manipulation may provide a stark contrast at first. But it may not.

However, if these small production wines were your go-to wines, the difference would be way more noticeable when compared to the supermarket stuff.

It’s “kinda” not that bad, though.

Shopping small is hard. There is always going to be access issues and a cost difference compared to the mass-produced brands.

The joke of the College Humor skit is that people only “kinda” support farmers market when it’s easy and convenient. But you know what? “Kinda” is better than nothing.

Even an “only when it’s easy” commitment to shop small makes a difference–in many different ways.

The competition of farmers market and people being more concerned about where their food is coming from has increased the overall quality of choices at supermarkets. Successful retailers know that they can’t wholly skate by on just convenience and pricing.

And while I use the term “supermarket wine” as a catch-all for big, mass-produced brands, there are a lot of supermarkets that have upped their game–carving out a little bit of shelf-space for wines from smaller family producers.

The Moral of the Story

My best advice to consumers who want to keep their heart in the right place is to keep doing what you can. When you are at a restaurant and notice unfamiliar names on the wine list, give them a try–even if they may be a couple of dollars more than your regular choice.

I can guarantee you that the sweat, tears and passion that went into that small production wine was more than a couple of dollars worth to the family that put their heart into making it.

19 crimes

Though sometimes you should be skeptical of the “real people” behind the wine too. Especially if they’re long dead and are talking to you as part of a marketing gimmick.

If you’re at a wine shop or even a grocery store that has a wine steward, ask them about what new wines have come in and if they know the backstory of who produced it. While the big, mega-corps come up with new labels and brands virtually every week, they rarely have a backstory or real people behind them. They’re usually just fancy, colorful labels with gimmicky promotions.

A good steward will know if a wine has real people behind it.

And if they don’t, you asking questions will encourage them to learn more and improve their selection.

When you get a chance to visit the “farmers market” of wine country, skip the tourist trap locations and seek out the small family wineries along your way. You’ll be amazed at the hospitality and behind the scenes insights that you can get when its the owner, winemaker or another family member on the other side of the tasting bar.

Anything you can do, when you can do it, helps in the grand scheme of things. Even if it’s only “kinda,” small family wineries will take all the support they can get.

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The Practical Guide to Picking Out Wedding Wines

If you lurk around on Reddit’s r/wine sub, you’ll often see posts like this one looking for wedding wine suggestions. Back in my retail days, February would be the start of “wedding season” where almost daily through September you’d get customers coming in asking about wedding wines.

Wedding cake

While I understand the sense of not knowing where to start, I actually don’t think going to an online board looking for specific wine recommendations is a great idea. Nor do I think googling “wedding wines under $10” or whatever is worth your time either.

That’s because every wine market is different in both pricing and selection. These lists and helpful suggestions often send you on a wild goose chase looking for something that you might not even be able to get in your area.

Also, the suggestions that focus on mass-produced and widely distributed options (i.e., supermarket wines) may steer you towards wines that you end up feeling self-conscious about serving at your wedding. (More on that down below)

Instead, the best online advice for picking wedding wines is going to be more general. Both Wine Folly and The Knot have good guidelines that are worth a read. I disagree with a few of their suggestions, but they’re solid starting points.

Below I’m going to lay out the practical approach to picking out wedding wines. This is the same advice that I’ve given hundreds of wedding customers during my career and it all begins with the most important rule.

1.) Don’t Stress About the Wine

Photo by Tracy Hunter. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-2.0

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

Seriously. There is SOOOOOOOO much about wedding planning that you’re going to be stressing over. Picking out the booze should be at the bottom of the worry list.

Take a step back and think about the weddings that you’ve attended. How many of them can you remember the wines from? Most likely you’re not going to remember much–maybe the varietals at best. That’s because you weren’t attending the wedding for a wine and dining experience. You were there to celebrate the couple getting married. That is what you remember.

Even though I was in the business of selling wine, my number one advice to couples was to always focus more on the things your guests will remember–the ceremony, venue and maybe the music and food. Those are worth stressing over far more than picking out the perfect wine that will please everyone and pair perfectly with every dish.

Because, frankly, that wine doesn’t exist.

What does exist is a bounty of enjoyable wines that will fit whatever budget you have. That should be your starting point.

2.) Start Planning Early and Have Fun

Picking out the booze should be the fun part of wedding planning. It certainly should be more enjoyable than getting measured for tuxes and dresses or deciding seating charts.

Photo by Geoffrey Fairchild. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Starting early also gives the wine shop time to order any additional quantities needed. Keep in mind, even in big stores with multiple skus, they may have less than a case of a particular wine at any given moment.
But with enough time, they can usually order more in.

The best way to keep it fun is to start early by visiting a good wine shop that is staffed by stewards you can talk to. This is key because a real live person is going to be able to listen to your wants and concerns. They’re also going to know what wines are available in your price range that the online “Best under $XX” lists can’t cover.

Most importantly, though, you can ask them the very pointed question “What would YOU serve at your wedding?”

If you’re dealing with a good wine steward, a question like that gets the wheels cranking. They’re going to pick out gems (maybe different grapes or unique regions) at whatever price point you give them. You are essentially borrowing their expertize to make you look like a wine expert.

People still probably aren’t going to remember exactly what you served. But if you want a better chance of having “wowzer wines” that impress, this is where you’ll find them.

Don’t be afraid to give a budget–and don’t feel like you have to bust it either.

Again, there is so much good wine out there at all price points. Maybe not blow-your-mind level great but good, solid and enjoyable. Any wine steward that is worth their salt is going to find you the best bottle at your budget that they would feel comfortable serving at their wedding.

But if you are starting early, you don’t have to take their word for it. Take home bottles of a few options. Open them up at a dinner party with friends or family. This is where the fun part of wedding planning comes in.

If you want to add a twist (and are worried about your budget), do the tasting blind and include wines at different price points. Go a little under your budget and a little over. Taste through them and see if you or your friends can notice a difference. That will help you zero in on if your budget is reasonable. It will also let you know if the wine steward you’re working with is a good one.

If all the wines are duds, try a different wine shop or steward. Starting early gives you that flexibility to have fun and explore your options.

3.) Keep It Simple

Mauro Sebaste Moscato d'Asti

I like combining the something slightly sweet and something bubbly together.
A nice Moscato d’Asti or a Demi-Sec sparkling wine is a far better pairing with sweet wedding cake than a bone-dry Brut.


I would hope that the wine steward would also be giving you this last piece of advice. Don’t go crazy with multiple options and multiple varieties. Not to sound like a broken record, but your guests aren’t there to attend a wine tasting experience. They’re there to celebrate you! You don’t need to try and cover all the bases to please every person.

For nearly every wedding, you only need 3 to 4 options.

Something red and something white.
Something slightly sweet and/or something bubbly.

Rosé wine is also a popular substitute for one of those last two. The idea of a dedicated sparkling wine for a toast is falling out of fashion so many couples just have people use whatever is in their glass for the toast.

Whichever direction you go with is up to you but you should always default back to Rule #1–Don’t Stress About the Wine!

Addendum: If you’re self-conscious about your wedding wines, avoid the mass-produced brands

Now, this last one I’m including because even though I bang the drum on not stressing, I know there are folks who will stress over everything. (My wife is one of them!)

By far, the biggest stressor regarding wines seems to be the fear of what the wine selection “says” about the couple. (It doesn’t say anything, really!) Often that fear centers on the cost of the wine and if the image it projects makes the couple look like cheapskates. This can lead to the temptation to bust your budget and spend way more on wine than you need to.

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

But if you’re not self-conscious about your wedding wines and are in a last-minute pinch, Costco is a good source for a large quantity of cheap booze.


With all the things that you’re going to get nickel and dimed on with wedding planning, I would discourage falling for that temptation. Again, the vast majority of your guests are honestly not going to care and just want to celebrate with you. (Plus, it’s free booze!)

But I can empathize with not wanting to look like you’re “cheaping out” on your big day. Even though you’re not really cheaping out–you’re being reasonable and working within a budget.

However, if you know that is going to be an issue for you, avoiding the big mass-produced names is the easiest way to skip that stress. Because then your guest really won’t know how much you paid for your wines.

Picking a big name wine that is widely distributed at every grocery store, gas station and Costco is like leaving the price tag on a gift.

It’s also like serving McDonald’s at your wedding. Everyone knows the price of a Big Mac and where you got it at. Likewise, anyone that drinks wine or shops at a grocery store has gone by the huge displays of these big name wines and have seen the shiny SALE tag on them. There are no surprises. They will know pretty much exactly what you spent.

Again, this shouldn’t be a big deal. But if you are truly self-conscious about the image that your wedding wines are going to project, avoid the “McDonald wines”.

If you’re working with a good wine steward, they should be able to recommend wines from smaller producers or less widely known grape varieties/wine regions that are going to over deliver on the price. You can get an under $15/10/5 wine that doesn’t taste like (or that everybody knows is) an under $15/10/5 wine.

That way you can remove another stressor from what should be one of the best days of your life. Most importantly, it lets everyone get back to focusing on what really matters on your wedding day.

Figuring out what the flower girl is putting up her nose.

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Millennial Math — Where’s the value in wine?

A few days ago I wrote about the “Boredom Factor” that is sapping Millennials’ enthusiasm for wine. But engaging Millennials with things that are new, interesting and authentic is only part of the battle. The industry also needs to reframe the discussion about value and pricing.

Photo by Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Let’s face it, wine delivers horrible “bang for the buck”–especially compared to other alcoholic beverages. This is true at all price points, but particularly at the low-end (and ironically titled) “value wine” segment.

For smaller boutique wineries, worrying about “value wine” might not seem like a big deal. But the issues impacting the top shelf take root on the bottom.

If you want to know why $100+ bottles of Napa Cab are in danger, head to your local grocery store and look around.

Millennial Math in the Grocery Store

I’ll get to our boutique and more premium wine brands below. But let’s start with a cash-strapped Millennial who want to spend less than $10 for something to drink. You could go to the wine aisle and find stuff like this.

Yellow Tail and other under $10 wines

Then there are other options as well–like Barefoot, Arbor Mist, Cooks, Andre’s and more. At this one grocery store, I estimated that around 40% of their wine selection was sub $10. So, diversity, yeah?

But they all fall into the same “sameness” of sweet, simple or boring Cabs, Chards and Red Blends. Sure, you have the occasional gimmick of things like the “living labels” of Treasury Wine Estates’ 19 Crimes. However, after the novelty of a cute label wears off, it’s still the same boring juice in the bottle.

Now right next to the wine department in many stores is a beer department which has likely been greatly expanded thanks to the craft beer boom.

Let’s see what under $10 options our Millennial shopper has there.

22 oz Beer bomber singles

These are 22 oz “bomber” sizes of beer which is only a tad smaller than the standard 750ml (25.4 oz) bottle of wine. In this one Albertsons grocery store, I counted over 80 different SKUs of at least 20 different styles of beer among under $10 bombers. And this was a rather small grocery selection for the Seattle-area market.

If you think of beer styles (Belgian Tripel, New England IPA, Oatmeal Stout, etc.) like grape varieties, the beer department has the wine industry smoked when it comes to answering the “Boredom Factor.”

Even among the same style (like IPA), you are far more likely to find distinct personalities and differences (hoppiness) among various brews than you ever would dream of finding among under $10 Cabs, Chards and Red Blends.

I have a fair amount of industry folks who read this blog so I’m going to ask you to step back and take off your “wine hat” for a moment. If you were a young post-college Millennial shopper with no personal connection (like having visited a winery) or long-term relationship with drinking wine, what would you spend your $10 on?

Are we just waiting for better times?

Yeah, things suck right now for the broke 20-something Millennial. But can we really predict their future buying potential based on the habits of their 20s?

It’s true that most Millennials have not entered their peak earning ages. Likewise, most have not reached the ages when previous generations started embracing wine.

Jason Haas, of Tablas Creek, makes that later point particularly well as he points out some of the silver linings amidst the gloom and doom assessments about Millennials.

The median age of a Millennial is 30, but the Millennials at the peak of the demographic bubble are just 24. Were many Baby Boomers drinking wine at age 30, let alone 24? No. How about GenX? Not much. Millennials are drinking more wine than preceding generations were at the same age, which should be a positive enough trend. — Jason Haas, Are the gloomy messages about the state of the wine industry warranted? I say not for wineries like us. 2/4/2019

I concede Haas’ point and appreciate his optimism. I’ve certainly not hidden my affection or admiration for Tablas Creek’s business acumen. Though Haas is a “proud Gen Xer,” he pretty much runs Tablas Creek like a Millennial with a brand that embraces transparency, authenticity and sustainability along with pushing the envelope for new and exciting wines.

Without a doubt, if more wineries followed Tablas Creek’s example, the Boredom Factor would almost be a non-issue.

But what I fret that Haas’ optimism overlooks is the habits and perceptions that are being ingrained into Millennial consumers right now. Haas’ generation (and the Boomers) had the benefit of a promising economic outlook before them–where there was the potential for growth in earnings and career development.

That is a luxury that many Millennials don’t have and this is something that we are all too aware of. Even if things get a little bit better into our late 30s and 40s, it’s going to be very difficult to shake the mindset and spending habits of our formative 20s and early 30s.

Valuing “Value”

While things are not as bad as they were during the Great Depression, social scientists and economists are already drawing parallels to the spending habits and mindset of Millennials with those of the Silent Generation born between 1925-1945.

Even though the Silent Generation benefited from the post-war boom, many kept the spending habits imprinted on them during the hardship of the Great Depression. Prominent among those retained habits was the idea of stretching your dollar–even when you had more dollars to stretch.

Millennials certainly like to be entertained. We want experiences and to feel connected. And we avoid boredom like the plague.

But we deeply value “value.”

The $15-25 Sweet Spot

Let’s go back to the grocery store and look at the more premium $15-25 “sweet spot” range of wine pricing–with emphasis on the sweet.

Meiomi & 7 deadly with cheaper spirits

Usually, Meiomi is not over $25 so, for the sake of argument, I’m including it here.

When you get up to the higher price points, wine’s competition is not just beer (with many interesting six and twelve packs available in this price range) but also spirits as well. But spirits adds another dimension because they’re far less perishable and the servings are much smaller.

With wine and beer, you ideally want to enjoy it the same day that it was opened. But a comparably priced spirit can last weeks or even months.

Now I can hear wine folks scoffing at the idea of Captain Morgan or Deep Eddy taking away throat share from anyone older than 23. Yeah, I get it. The “Fireball crowd” eventually grows up. But for those folks who lose the sweet tooth and want something with more complexity, the spirits department still offers numerous options–especially among whiskeys.

Plus, because of how long a bottle of whiskey last, a Millennial could even stretch their $25 drinking budget to $40 and still get some very compelling value.

Old Forester and Woodford reserve

Personally not a fan of the Redneck Riviera but I’d take it over Meiomi any day of the week.

Granted, you have to sometimes deal with the inconvenience of getting the product out of lockup. Also, in some states (like Washington) there are crazy high liquor taxes to account for too.

However, this is all part of the sum-value Millennial Math that we deal with on every trip to the store. What the wine industry needs to concern itself with is how all these figures are adding up.

Banking on Premium Spenders

I want to embrace the optimism that as Millennials feel financially secure, they will turn to wine and start spending in the premium category. That means not only a strong wine industry but also a strong economy overall.

But I can’t shake the feeling that even if Millennials have more money to spend, that they’re not going to be impressed with the value they see in high-end wines. This is something that I’ve personally experienced myself. I’m very fortunate in my financial situation to where I can occasionally splurge on bottles like Opus One, Silver Oak, Cristal and Petrus.

You know what? I’d rather drink Pappy.

I feel this way even though I’m a highly-engaged wine drinker with a personal connection to wine. I’ve been bitten hard by the bug and have a healthy cellar to show for it.

But if you ask me for my brutally honest choice of whether to spend another $2600-4000 on a bottle of Petrus or something like the 1981 Glenmorangie Pride, I would choose the Glenmorangie every time.

And this is coming from someone that keeps a picture of Petrus as their background banner on Facebook!

However, when I step back and let my Millennial nature take over–when I think about the sum-value of what I’m getting compared to what I’m paying–whiskey beats out wine.

If that’s the case with someone like me, then how do you think the math is playing out with my cohorts?

The Petruses of the World are not the ones that need to worry.

Petrus is not going to have problems selling their wine. Even if Millennials aren’t spending at levels of past generations, wineries like Petrus make so little at such high prices that they only need a few folks to bite the bullet each vintage. There is always going to be enough people like me who shell out thousands to attend our Super Bowl–even if it ends up being a 13-3 snorefest.

The real hurt is going to be felt by all the wineries making NFL regular-season and playoff-type wines. They’re the ones that are going to have to convince Millennials that their wines are worth the price of the ticket.

Let’s go back and look at our supermarket shelf at some of the $50-100 options.
$50 to 100 wine vs spirits

That is an excellent price on the Grgich. The only thing that kept me from pulling the trigger was wondering how long it had been standing upright under the supermarket’s harsh lights.

Again, why spend $50-100 for something that needs to be enjoyed mostly in one night (unless you spend another $200+ for a preservation system like the Coravin) over something you could stretch for months?

Wine’s saving grace has been that only a small segment of drinkers have developed a taste for brown spirits like whiskey, tequila and rum. But those categories are growing–especially among Millennials and women.

If the boredom factor doesn’t kill off the $100+ Napa Cab, brown spirits certainly will.

But it all starts back in the beginning, with the spending habits and perception of value that Millennials are developing now with their under $10 and $15-25 options. Here is where wineries are losing the battle before the war even begins.

Yeah, Millennials wanderlust is great and can definitely help wineries that are offering different and exciting wines. But that same wanderlust also fuels our openness in trying other beverages like craft beer and brown liquors. The more we try them, the more those other options become players in the “sum-value” game of Millennial Math.

And, right now, that math is seriously working against the wine industry.

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Total Wine and the Amazon of Liquor

Followers of the SpitBucket Facebook page know that I’ve been closely watching the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association vs. Blair Supreme Court case. It just wrapped up oral arguments on January 16th.

Photo by Miosotis Jade. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

It’s been my hope that the Supreme Court would issue a broad ruling that would expand on 2005’s Granholm v. Heald, opening up online sales of wine across state lines. Few things frustrate me more than trying to locate a wine that none of my local shops carry. If I could buy freely online from out of state retailers, that wouldn’t be an issue.

This was a large reason why I also donated and signed onto Wine Freedom’s Friend of the Court Brief for Byrd.

As oral arguments were finishing, it wasn’t long before analysis from in court observers trickled out. While it seems likely that the Court is going to strike down Tennessee’s residency requirement for retailers (which is at the heart of the case), legal experts like Sean O’Leary, the Irish Liquor Lawyer, predicts that the ruling is going be narrow and not tackle the broader issue of consumer freedom.

And that likely will be because of one of my former employers–Total Wine & More.

The Amazon of Liquor?

I have no particular knowledge about Total Wine & More’s involvement in Tennessee or the Supreme Court case apart from what has been publically reported.  When I worked there, I was only a sales floor associate, wine class educator and new store trainer. Essentially just a worker bee, if you will.

But even with my very limited insight, there was one Supreme Court exchange that O’Leary related to Forbes contributor Liza B. Zimmerman that jumped out to me.

O’Leary also thinks that the scope of the case has also remained narrow as the attorney for Total Wine—a large enough chain that interstate shipping is not key to their profit model—refused the invitation to go towards a discussion of direct-to-consumer sales. He adds that “Justice Gorusch challenged him and said ‘But isn’t the next business model just to try and operate as the Amazon of liquor? ‘ ”

In response, O’Leary says that “Total Wine’s attorney indicated that his client wanted to operate as a bricks-and mortar [store] and wants to be subject to Tennessee’s laws.” The long-term goal for the chain would be to “not to be discriminated against.” — Liza B. Zimmerman, Forbes.com 1/20/2019

Sidestepping or Something Else?

This “Amazon of Liquor” exchange has been featured in multiple reports on the case. It is often coupled with surprise at Total Wine’s demuring from aggressively fighting for online consumer channels. The initial response seems to be that Total Wine was sidestepping the issue.

The New York Times even noted Justice Elena Kagan’s skepticism to the answer of Total Wine’s attorney that those broader issues could be debated another day.

“Well,” she said, “we’re leaving a lot of things for another day, but they all seem to be demanded by the principles that you’re asking us to adopt.” Elena Kagan, as reported by Adam Liptak of The New York Times, 1/26/2019

While I’m disheartened at the likelihood of a narrow ruling, Total Wine’s stance doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. That’s because the mythos of Total Wine having eyes on being the “Amazon of Liquor” is way off course.

In fact, their entire business model is actually seriously threatened by a broad ruling opening up online sales.

Face-To-Face Contact

Shelf at Total Wine

Many wine lovers don’t know about David & Karen Dunphy’s 16 x 20 Wines. They only make a few hundred cases and have limited distribution.
Total Wine trains their associates to listen for clues so they can add-on bottles from small producers like this.
So if they hear that a customer enjoys Paul Hobbs’ winemaking, they may suggest the Dunphy’s wine.

Again, these are just the observations of a former worker bee. But from my past experience, the strength of Total’s business model doesn’t translate well to online sales.  Total Wine only succeeds if people physically walk into their stores and interact with their associates.

Total Wine’s model is built around three pillars–low prices, large selection and customer service. They utilize the first two pillars to get people into the store. Then they rely on their staffing to deliver on that third pillar of service.

Associates are trained from day one to work on building relationships with customers, listening to their likes and dislikes. They are instructed to use that feedback to “build the basket”. This is essentially recommending new wines that the customer may not have had yet and to keep adding bottles.

If someone comes in looking for a particular wine, the goal is that they don’t leave with just that one wine. Hopefully, they will have at least 2-3 more bottles of something new to try as well.

Often these extra bottles will be small producers and limited releases that Total Wine seeks out to bolster their selection. It’s the associate job to listen to the customer and make strong recommendations of wines they’ll like.  The hope (and key to Total’s success) is that the customer returns looking for these new wines.

But That’s Hard to Do With Online Sales

Total Wine’s best leverage of their large selection is by having customers fall in love with wines that they can’t find easily elsewhere. That’s not likely going to happen without face-to-face contact and relationship building by their staff.

While I don’t have any concrete data, I strongly suspect that people who go to a website for a particular wine likely only buy that one wine. Anecdotally, this was often how the online orders received at the stores I worked at played out. As an associate, these “in-store pick up” and later Instacart delivery orders were sources of endless frustration since our ability to build relationships with these customers was near non-existent.

Without building relationships, learning customer’s tastes and being able to “build the basket”, Total Wine’s strength as a major retail player is significantly reduced.

In fact (and, again, I have no special insight here), I would wager that the management of Total Wine actually dreads the idea of an “Amazon of Liquor”. Because such an entity would be their fiercest competitor and neutralize most of their strengths.

Low Prices
Wine Searcher screen grab

Since I can’t buy freely online, right now I use WineSearcher.com to get a general idea of how competitive the pricing is of the retailers in my market.

Take out your phone and look for a particular wine on WineSearcher.com. Not only can you easily find the average retail price but you can shop around to find the retailer with the lowest price.  That’s not always going to be the same retailer or even one that is local.

If you open up the floodgate for more online sales, retailers will be competing with more than just their local market in pricing. While that’s great for consumers, that’s not great for retailers like Total Wine who aim to have the lowest price in their market.

Large Selection

The typical Total Wine store leverages their large retail footprint to carry thousands upon thousands of wines. This is often far more than their local competitors. But that’s only a pittance of the amount of wine that could be available if consumers could shop freely online.

There are only so many skus that a physical retail store can carry. Total Wine might be the “big dog” now in markets. But online sales tosses that calling card out the window.

More like the Argonauts of Liquor

Total wine class

With online sales potentially neutralizing the strength of low prices and large selection, retailers like Total Wine would have to up their game to get people to shop in stores with more in-store education classes and tasting events.

Far from desiring to be the Amazon of Liquor, the Supreme Court testimony of Total Wine shows that they are more like Jason and the Argonauts trying to carefully navigate away from Themiscyra.

Right now things are going really good for Total Wine. Over the last 20 years, they’ve seen explosive growth with nearly 200 stores in 22 states.

Their business model of low prices and large selections makes their brick-and-mortar stores destinations for consumers. The relationship building and customer service of their staff keep those consumers coming back.  But that all begins with customers physically shopping in stores.

This is the irony in Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association vs. Blair.

Total Wine clearly wants to win the case, keeping their Knoxville location and opening up more stores. However, winning with a broad ruling could be worse for them than losing.

Many local retailers and governments try to keep Total Wine out by clinging to protectionist and discriminatory laws. They think these laws hurt Total Wine and will slow their growth. Yet it is the antithesis of these laws–allowing more consumer freedom–that would deliver the hardest blow to Total Wine.

In many ways, protectionist laws actually end up protecting Total Wine.

 

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The Hits, Misses and Mehs of Wine Reviews

Earlier this week The Seattle Times published an article about the top Costco Kirkland wines as selected by a local wine blogger.

Kirkland brand Champagne

One of the wines featured was the Kirkland Signature Brut Champagne that I picked up for $19.99. Throughout the month of December, my wife and I like to open up a bottle of sparkling wine each night. That can get expensive with Champagne so we make sure to stock up on plenty of Proseccos, Cavas and Cremants.

Needless to say, I was pretty excited at the idea of trying a true Champagne for the price of a Crémant de Bourgogne.

Reading Owen Bargreen’s review of the wine intrigued me. The Champagne certainly had pedigree with fruit from the Grand Cru village of Verzenay. Also, unusual for Kirkland branded wines, the back label listed who actually made it as Manuel Janisson of the négociant firm Champagne Janisson.

“The Brut Champagne by Kirkland Signature is a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier sourced from vineyards located in Verzenay. The wine starts off with lovely diatomaceous earth followed by lemon curd and brioche on the nose. The palate shows really nice citrus fruit with kumquat, lemon oil, sourdough bread and a light musty earth flavor. Dense and layered, this is a simply outstanding effort that is a one-of-a-kind value. Drink 2018-2024.” — Owen Bargreen as quoted by Tan Vinh for The Seattle Times 12/7/2018

Unfortunately my experience didn’t quite live up to that glowing review.
label of kirkland champagne

The back label of the Kirkland Brut Champagne.

I was originally planning to share my thoughts about the Kirkland Champagne as a 60 Second Review. But instead I think I need to talk about the risks of buying blindly on the recommendations of critics and wine writers.

At the end of this post I’ll give my take on the Kirkland Champagne. But I’ll blanket it with the same caveats that I’m going to discuss below.

First, let me say that this is not about bashing another blogger.

While I’m going to be disagreeing with a bit of Bargreen’s assessment of the Kirkland Signature Brut Champagne, I’ve been a big fan of his work on the Washington Wine Blog.

Among some of my favorite posts have been his interviews with wine industry insiders like:

Kit Singh of Lauren Ashton
Benjamin Smith of Cadence
Jason Fox of Lagana Cellars
Master of Wine Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards
Brooke Robertson of Delmas
Nina Buty of Buty Winery

And many more.

Bargreen has a terrific sense of what’s happening in the world of wine–particularly in Washington. He seeks out the people who are shaping the scene and produces content that is well worth following.

My intent is not to quibble about differences in tasting notes. Taste is highly subjective and personal. From one taster to the next, you are just as likely to agree with someone as you are to disagree.

And that’s precisely the point.

Photo by James Suckling. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

This is especially true with professional critics. It doesn’t matter how esteemed their careers or opinions are. The tastes of critics like James Suckling (pictured) may be quite different than yours.

When you buy a wine based on a newspaper, magazine or blog review, you’re essentially gambling on how likely your tastes will align with the reviewers. And I’m not talking Somm Game gambling here. Because with written reviews (as opposed to personal recommendations from a sommelier or wine steward), you really are going out on a ledge.

The author of a wine review is writing solely from the perspective of their tastes and their opinions. They’re not standing in front of you, listening to you describe the kind of wines that you like or don’t like. They’re not acting like a sommelier or wine steward, piecing together clues to recommend something that they feel confident that you’re going to enjoy.

The reviewer may have a tremendous palate with lots of experience tasting a vast array of wines. But when it comes to recommendations published in articles, blogs, “Best of…” and “Top Whatever” lists, your tastes and your opinions do not enter the reviewer’s equation whatsoever.

Yet it is your wallet that is buying the wine. Plus, either your mouth or your kitchen drain is going to end up with the contents of that bottle.

When you buy off of reviews, what are the odds that you’re going to absolutely love the wine?

I would say about 25% or a quarter of the time. For another quarter, it’s likely to be a complete whiff.

But for the majority of the recommendations you buy, the results will be in the middle of don’t love, but don’t hate or what I call “Meh wines”.

Photo by Katy Warner from Orlando, FL, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD text

And then you got to figure out if it’s worth eating at McDonald’s again to redeem your small fry.

Getting a “Meh wine” is certainly not the end of the world.

It’s kind of like playing McDonald’s Monopoly where you pull off a tab and win a small fry. You didn’t lose per se, but you really didn’t win either. You essentially got a token of a prize and with a “Meh wine” you end up with a token of an experience–something drinkable but not much more.

Now ask yourself. How much money and time do you want to spend on “Meh wines”?

Can You Hedge Your Bets?

You most definitely can. But to do that, you need to think more like a bettor at the horse races.

1.) Do Your Homework. Admittedly, a good chunk of this is trial and error. The only way to increase your odds for successful drinking is to learn how your palate aligns with the reviewers. Paying attention to how many Hits/Misses/Mehs you get with a certain reviewer will key you in on if it’s worth the gamble. Even this is not absolute. There still may be wines that you don’t completely jive with. But, at the very least, you’ll be able to weed out more of the misses and the mehs.

Photo by Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford, United Kingdom. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

Though there is some truth to the old Will Rogers’ quote: “You know horses are smarter than people. You never heard of a horse going broke betting on people.”

2.) Pay Attention To The Jockeys–i.e. the wineries who made the wine. Often this is even better than betting on the horse. If you’ve had past experiences enjoying a winery’s wines, your bet just got a whole lot better. Because now you’re not really taking a blind recommendation from a reviewer but rather letting your own palate and experience have a say.

3.) Don’t Bet Big On An Unknown. Buying blindly on a review is never an occasion to buy a case. It doesn’t matter what high score or glowing review it got or how killer of a deal it looks like. It could still wind up being a colossal dud. You’re far better off taking a flyer on a single bottle to try first. Even though I really loved the idea of a $20 Champagne to drink all month, I am so grateful that I only spent $20 on the Kirkland Brut instead of a couple hundred.

4.) Spread Out Your Risk. Don’t bet it all on one wine. While I’m a huge supporter of trying new things, it’s always a good strategy to spread your bets out between long-shots mixed with a few favorites. Go ahead and take a chance on that new bottle, but also pick up something that is more of a sure bet just in case.

A Personal Note

Since I do reviews here on the blog, I hope all my readers take the above to heart and apply these strategies to my recommendations as well.

My favorite wines might only hit a 25% jackpot with you–or even less. Our tastes could be polar opposites and that is perfectly fine. My hope is that with the Geekery tidbits and other posts, you’re still finding resources that’ll help you find bottles you enjoy.

In the end, finding great wines that give you pleasure is the only thing that matters. Life is too short to drink “Meh wines”.

Now About That Kirkland Champagne

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

Lots of citrus notes in this Champagne but they’re more on the bitter green side like unripe pomelos.

Medium intensity nose. Definitely citrus driven but more bitter green citrus notes like unripe pomelo and Bergamot orange. Noticeable yeasty notes reminds me of raw Pillsbury buttermilk biscuit dough.

On the palate, those green citrus notes carry through but they fade pretty quickly. It’s definitely the dough notes that dominate but they taste much sweeter than the nose would have suggested. I couldn’t find the exact dosage but it’s certainly on the sweeter side of brut–likely 10-12 g/l.

The sweet dough with citrus flavors makes me think they were trying to go for the Veuve Clicquot style. However, the medium-plus acidity and moderate mousse has a tangy edge (like Bargreen’s sourdough) that doesn’t quite match the creamy mouthfeel that trademarks Veuve. The finish does have a hint of dustiness but is very short.

The Verdict

At $20, this isn’t a horrible wine. It’s definitely drinkable. If it’s aiming to be a budget Veuve Yellow Label for half the price then it’s not that far off. But it certainly tastes like a half-price “Meh” version of Veuve.

Levert Freres

While I might slightly give the nod to the regular Brut, the rose Cremant de Bourgogne from Levert Freres is also quite delicious for less than $20.

However, this is not “a one-of-a-kind value” by any stretch of the imagination.

There are so many stronger bottles of sparkling wines under $20–most notably the many available Cremants from Burgundy, Alsace and the Loire. These include wines like Levert Freres, Louis Bouillot, Albrecht, Gratien & Meyer and Champalou. Often these wines are aged as long as nonvintage Champagne (15 months) and many times much longer.

These Cremants may not have the magical “C-word” on the label like the Kirkland Brut but they are far more Champagne-like.

Then in the US, we have producers like Gruet, Jacqueline Leonne, Trevari and Roederer Estate who make very solid bottles in the $15-20 range. And, of course, Cava has some tremendous bangs for the buck with the Insito, Juve & Camps and Anna de Codorniu being highly reliable sparklers.

Champagne Dreams With a Budget-Friendly Reality

If you want to go Champagne, paying just a little bit more will give you huge quality dividends above the Kirkland Brut.

Bargreen’s article mentions the Feuillatte Blue Label that is often around $27-29 during holidays. Then there is the Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial ($33-36), Petrois Moriset Cuvee ($30-33), Moutard Grand Cuvee ($30-33) Chanoine Frères Grande Reserve ($33-35), Montaudon Brut ($32-35), Pommery Brut Royal ($33-36) and Laurent Perrier La Cuvee ($33-36).

And if you really want a slightly cheaper Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, the Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top hits those notes better than the Kirkland Brut does in the $33-36 range.

I’m sure you can find even more under $40 Champagne or under $20 sparkling wine options checking out your local wine shop. Plus, you can talk with a wine steward and let them know what you like or don’t like.

That way you’re more likely to go home with a Secretariat, Justify or American Pharoah than you would betting on “Meh”.

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