Category Archives: Wine marketing

Naked and Foolish

Photo By Randy OHC - originally posted to Flickr as After the Tasting, CC BY 2.0

It’s been a busy couple weeks for travel so I missed the latest brew-ha on the Wine Twitterati over online UK wine retailer Naked Wines with their ad campaign on the “5 golden rules to choosing a good bottle of wine”.

The original post has since been made private but Oliver Styles at WineSearcher.com and Joe Roberts at 1WineDude have good write-ups with details about the post and the fall-out.

The brunt of the dust-up was over the insinuation that trusting “real customer reviews” (like those of CellarTracker, Vivino and, of course, featured on Naked Wines) is better than relying on medals awarded by wine competition or those of professional wine critics who “…need to seem useful, or they’ll be out of a job! So they invent trends and get paid to push you toward certain wines.”.

I’ve made my feelings about wine competitions known in my post Wine Competitions — Should Wine Drinkers Care? and I think Styles and Roberts more than ably dispel the notions that wine critics “create trends” to seem useful—which frankly is ludicrous.

Some of the biggest trends in wine today are the use of virtual/augmented reality labels like those pioneered by Treasury Wine Estates for their 19 Crimes, The Walking Dead and Beringer wines as well as can packaging for wine, bourbon barrel ageing and wine-hybrid infusions like Apothic Brew. None of these are trends that professional wine critics would touch with a 10 foot poll–much less invent and “push”.

However, I do want to talk about the trusting “real customer reviews” part and ask if this is really a great idea?

Maybe? Because “wine people” aren’t normal.

I say that with the upmost affection as a self-proclaimed “wine geek” but it’s true. We’re not normal. While 95%+ of wine drinkers just want to open up something tasty to drink or have with dinner, we obsess over the minutiae of minerality, typicity and terroir. We seek stories when regular wine drinkers just seek satisfaction. We desire depth and complexity when the average consumer wants value and consistency.

Photo by Petrovsky. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Some of us even taste with puppets. (Austrian performer Karin Schäfer)

We’re two different beasts and considering that professional wine critics and writers literally surround themselves with wine for a living, it’s almost like we’re living on two different planets when you listen to “wine people” versus “wine drinkers” talk about wine.

Then you add in the inherent air of snobbery that permeates throughout the wine industry and it’s not hard to see how “regular people” can be incline to ignore the critics in-favor of the opinions of regular Joes and Janes like themselves.

I can sympathize with this view and touched on the value (or lack of value) of expert opinions in wine in my post Jamie Goode is a tool so I’m not really going to get into a debate here about “Real People” vs “Real Experts”.

Instead, I’m just going to lay naked my skepticism and cynicism about “crowd-base reviews” because of how easy it is for wineries and mega-corps to game and manipulate them–and, in general, how useless ratings tend to be.

Have Internet, Will Troll

There are litany of online resources and stories about how businesses can game Yelp’s review system to improve their ratings and rankings.

The most common method is creating “fake reviews” which Yelp, being a multi-billion dollar company, dedicates millions of dollars in labor and technology resources to combat. But it still happens. Oh and never mind the potential ethical quandary with advertisers.

And it’s not just Yelp, but virtually every user-based review platform is susceptible to people playing games like TripAdvisor for restaurants and hotels or any online poll ever created.

Now ask yourself, do you think wine user-based review platforms like CellarTracker or Vivino have even a fraction of Yelp or TripAdvisor’s resources to combat gaming, rating manipulation or fake reviews?

Of course, they’re going to try their best but the Internet will always be better and any winery or mega-corporation with a little time/marketing budget/interns/desire can draft a plan to create enough accounts and reviews to drive the narrative they want told.

It’s not all bad, but it’s not all good either

Confession time–I regularly use CellarTracker. I don’t post reviews there but I’ll read the reviews of friends I know and sometimes use their feedback to make purchasing decisions. I’ll also use it gauge drinking windows of wines that I already own since the likelihood of a fake winery review saying “Yeah, you better wait 2-3 years before opening this up. It was super tight”–is pretty low.

I downloaded and played with Vivino a few times (and still have the app on my phone) but the amount of eye-rollingly bad 3.5-4.0 rated wines has dismayed me of its usefulness. I do agree with The Wine Daily though that most of the wines with very low ratings (like 2.5 or less) tend to bear out.

But I’ve had tons of truly stellar wines in that “no-man’s land” rating of 2.6 to 3.4 that are often overlooked because 3.5 is the “new 90 points”. This is one of the many reasons why I personally eschew the use of numerical ratings and instead evaluate wines on value.

And then there are 29,000+ people with different tastes in wine.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way (that I know of) on apps like Vivino to personalize ratings and filter out people who give high scores to wines you don’t enjoy.

Even when we let the masses of “regular wine drinkers” indulge in their inner Robert Parkers, we still end up with the same pratfalls that we get with professional critics with good wine being overlooked only because it didn’t achieve some magical number.

That’s not democracy, that’s duplicity.

Moral of the Story — Trust yourself

The only fail-safe method of buying wine is to accept that there isn’t a fail-safe. A highly rated wine (regardless of who or what is giving the rating) is not a guarantee of anything. It’s kind of like finding out Santa isn’t real, I know, but instead of despairing, this instead should be freeing. Life is about trying new things and if you’re not beholden to rankings or ratings then you literally have a whole world of wine in front you to explore.

Here’s one universal truth to cling to–everything, and I mean everything, that you ever fell in love with started out at one point as something you hadn’t tried yet.

Your favorite experience, food, musician, movie and, yes, wine began at some point as something new to try. The only way you ever discovered these joys and pleasures was by putting a foot forward and taking a chance.

Sure, a review or word of mouth recommendation may have steered you towards that path. That’s fine. There is nothing wrong with that. But ultimately in deciding that this new thing was now a personal favorite you didn’t default back to their judgement. No, you made up your mind that this was something wonderful that you wanted to experience again.

That is why you shouldn’t be afraid to branch out and try something that hasn’t been reviewed or doesn’t have the magical 90+ points/3.5 ratings. Whether the wine is reviewed by 1 critic or a 1000 internet strangers, none of them are going to have the exact same palate as you and not a single one is going to be giving you their wallet to make the purchase.

Everything always fall back to you and that is why you, and only you, are the best judge of what you should be drinking.

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The Winery Twitter Dance

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

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

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

They don’t think it’s worth the money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by No machine-readable author provided. Ile-de-re~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=931732

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

Making Twitter work for wineries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say No to Bottle Porn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Great Winery Twitter Accounts to Follow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who makes your Supermarket Wine? (A Running List)


Beverage Dynamics released their report this month of The Fastest Growing Wine Brands and Top Trends of 2017.

One of the most glaring features of the report is how often you see the names Constellation Brands, E & J Gallo, The Wine Group and more appear in the rankings with their multitude of different brands. As I described in my post The Facade of Choice, when you walk the wine department of your typical grocery store the vast majority of the wines you see are going to be made by the same handful of companies.

It’s important for consumers to be aware of just how artificially limited their choices really are–especially because consumers should have choices when there are over 4000 wineries in California, over 700 each in Washington and Oregon and tens of thousands more across the globe.

Yet the average wine drinker is only ever going to see a fraction of a percent of these wines–especially those of us in the US. This is not just because our archaic three-tier distribution system severely limits consumers’ access to wine but also because of the wave of consolidations among large wine distributors.

For the sake of efficiency (and profits) these large distributors tend to focus on the big clients in their portfolios–the Constellations and the Gallos. They can back up a trailer to a warehouse and load in pallets of “different wines” with different labels from all across the globe and then take that trailer right to the major grocery chains. With about 42% of the “off premise” wine (as opposed to on-premise restaurant purchases) in the US being bought at supermarkets, every consumer should take a hard look at how limited their options really are.

In some cases, you have more true options in the yogurt section than you do in the wine department.

For a couple years now I’ve been keeping an Excel spreadsheet of the various brands I’ve came across and which mega-corporation they’re made by. This is FAR from an exhaustive list and has room for a lot of expansion. Plus with the way that winery brands get bought and sold almost like trading cards it will probably be outdated by the time I hit publish. If you know of any additions or errors, please post in the comments.

Note some of the names are linked to the companies by exclusive distribution agreements.

Constellation Brands
7 Moons
Alice White
Arbor Mist
Black Box
Blackstone
Charles Smith Wines
Clos du Bois
Cooks
Cooper & Thief
Diseno
Dreaming Tree
Drylands
Estancia
Franciscian Estate
Hogue
Inniskillian
J. Roget
Jackson Triggs
Kim Crawford
Manischewitz
Mark West
Meiomi
Robert Mondavi
Monkey Bay
Mount Veeder
Naked Grape
Night Harvest
Nk’Mip
Nobilo
Paso Creek
Paul Masson
Prisoner
Primal Roots
Ravenswood
Red Guitar
Rex Goliath
Rioja Vega
Ruffino
Schrader
Simi
Simply Naked
Taylor Dessert
Thorny Rose
Toasted Head
The Prisoner
Vendange
Wild Horse
Woodbridge

E & J Gallo

Alamos
Allegrini
Andre
Apothic
Ballatore
Barefoot
Bella Sera
Bodega Elena de Mendoza
Boone’s Farm
Bran Caia
Bridlewood
Carlo Rossi
Carnivor
Chocolate Rouge
Clarendon Hills
Columbia Winery
Covey Run
Dancing Bull
DaVinci
Dark Horse
Don Miguel Gascon
Ecco Domani
Edna Valley Vineyard
Fairbanks
Frei Brothers
Gallo of Sonoma
Ghost Pines
J Vineyards
La Marca
Laguna
Las Rocas
Liberty Creek
Livingston Cellars
Louis Martini
MacMurray Ranch
Madria Sangria
Martin Codax
Maso Canali
McWilliams
Mia Dolcea
Mirassou
Orin Swift
Peter Vella
Pieropan
Polka Dot
Prophecy
Rancho Zabaco
Red Bicyclette
Red Rock
Redwood Creek
Sheffield Cellars
Starborough
Souverain
Talbott
The Naked Grape
Tisdale
Winking Owl
Turning Leaf
Vin Vault
Whitehaven
Wild Vines
William Hill Estate

Brown-Foreman

Sonoma Cutrer
Korbel Sparkling wine

Delicato Family Vineyards

Black Stallion
Bota Box
Brazin
Diora
Domino
Gnarly Head
Irony
Night Owl
Noble Vines
Twisted Wines
Z. Alexander Brown

Terlato Wines

Boutari
Bodega Tamari
Chimney Rock
Domaine Tournon
Ernie Els Wines
Federalist
Hanna
Josmeyer
Il Poggione
Luke Donald
Markham
Mischief & Mayhem
Rochioli
Rutherford Hill
Santa Margherita
Seven Daughters
Sokol Blosser
Tangley Oaks

Precept Brands

Alder Ridge
Browne Family
Canoe Ridge Vineyard
Cavatappi
Chocolate Shop
Gruet
House Wine
Pendulum
Primarius
Red Knot
Ross Andrews
Sagelands
Sawtooth
Shingleback
Ste. Chappelle
Waitsburg Cellars
Washington Hills
Waterbrook
Wild Meadows
Willow Crest

Vintage Wine Estates

B.R. Cohn
Buried Cane
Cameron Hughes
Cartlidge & Browne
Cherry Pie
Clayhouse Wines
Clos Pegase
Cosentino Winery
Cowgirl Sisterhood
Delectus Winery
Firesteed
Game of Thrones
Girard
Girl & Dragon
Gouguenheim
Horseplay
If You See Kay
Layer Cake
Middle Sister
Monogamy
Promisqous
Purple Cowboy
Sonoma Coast Vineyards
Swanson
Windsor
Wine Sisterhood

Ste Michelle Wine Estates

14 Hands
Chateau Ste Michelle
Col Solare
Columbia Crest
Conn Creek
Erath
Merf
Northstar
O Wines
Patz & Hall
Red Diamond
Seven Falls
Snoqualmie
Spring Valley Vineyard
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
Stimson
Tenet/Pundit wines
Vila Mt. Eden
Villa Maria

Crimson Wine Group

Archery Summit
Chamisal
Double Canyon
Forefront
Pine Ridge
Seghesio
Seven Hills Winery

Jackson Family Estates

Arrowood
Arcanum
Byron
Cambria
Cardinale
Carmel Road
Copain
Edmeades
Freemark Abbey
Gran Moraine
Hickinbotham
Kendall Jackson
La Crema
La Jota
Lokoya
Matanzas Creek
Mt. Brave
Murphy-Goode
Penner-Ash
Siduri
Silver Palm
Stonestreet
Tenuta di Arceno
Yangarra Estate
Zena Crown
Wild Ridge

Vina Concha y Toro

Almaviva
Bonterra
Casillero del Diablo
Concha y Toro
Cono Sur
Don Melchior
Fetzer
Five Rivers
Jekel
Little Black Dress
Trivento

The Wine Group

13 Celsius
Almaden
AVA Grace
Benzinger
Big House
Chloe
Concannon
Corbett Canyon
Cupcake
Fish Eye
FlipFlop
Foxhorn
Franzia
Glen Ellen
Herding Cats
Insurrection
Love Noir
Mogen David
Slow Press
Pinot Evil
Stave & Steel

Treasury Wine Estates

19 Crimes
Acacia
Beaulieu Vineyards
Beringer
Butterfly Kiss
BV Coastal
Cellar 8
Ch. St Jean
Chalone
Colores del Sol
Crème de Lys
Dynamite Vineyards
Etude
Gabbiano
Greg Norman
Hewitt Vineyard
Lindeman
Matua
Meridian
New Harbor
Once Upon a Vine
Penfolds
Provenance
Rosemount
Rosenblum Cellars
Seaview
Sledgehammer
Snap Dragon
Souverain
St. Clement
Stags’ Leap Winery
Stark Raving
Sterling
The Walking Dead
Uppercut
Wolf Blass
Wynns Coonawarra

Bronco Wine Company

Black Opal
Carmenet
Cellar Four 79
Century Cellars
Charles Shaw
Crane Lake
Colores del Sol
Estrella
Forest Glen
Forestville
Gravel Bar
Great American Wine Co.
Hacienda
Little Penguin
Montpellier
Quail Ridge
Rare Earth
Robert Hall
Sea Ridge
Stone Cellars

(LVMH) Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey

Bodega Numanthia
Cheval Blanc
Cheval de Andes
Cloudy Bay
Dom Perignon
Domaine Chandon
D’yquem
Krug
Mercier
Moet & Chandon
Newton Vineyard
Ruinart
Terrazas de Los Andes
Veuve Clicquot

Trinchero Estates

Bandit
Charles & Charles
Dona Paula
Duck Commander
Fancy Pants
Folie a Deux
Fre
Joel Gott
Los Cardos
Menage a Trois
Montevina
Napa Cellars
Newman’s Own
Pomelo
SeaGlass
Sutter Home
Sycamore Lane
The SHOW

Deutsch Family Brands

Cave de Lugny
Clos de los Siete
Enza
Eppa
Fleurs de Praire
Hob Nob
Joseph Carr
Josh Cellars
Kunde Family
Peter Lehmann
Ramon Bilbao
Ruta 22
Skyfall
The Calling
The Crossing
Villa Pozzi

Guarachi Wine Partners

Black Ink
Castillo de Monseran
Guarachi
Kaiken
Nobilissima
Santa Ema
Surf-Swim
Tensley
Tenshen

Foley Family Wines

Acrobat
Awatere Pass
Butterfield Station
Chalk Hill Winery
Chalone Vineyard
Clifford Bay
Dashwood
EOS
Firestone
Foley Johnson
Four Sisters
Goldwater
Guenoc
Lancaster Estate
Lincourt
Lucien Albrecht
Merus
Nieto Senetiner
Pebble Row
Pepperwood Grove
Piccini
Poizin
Roth
Sebastini
Smoking Loon
Tahbilk
The Four Graces
Three Rivers Winery
Wayne Gretzky

Pernod Ricard

Brancott
Campo Viejo
Graffigna
Jacob’s Creek
Kenwood
Stoneliegh
George Wyndham

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Knowing Rioja — A Look at the New Rules

Photo by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0
This month, the Consejo Regulador of DOCa Rioja unveiled a new marketing campaign around the slogan Saber Quién Eres “‘Knowing who you are” to coincide with several changes in the wine laws taking effect in the Spanish wine region.

The idea behind the 11 million euro ($13+ million USD) campaign is to reconnect consumers with Rioja by highlighting the traditions and values behind the region’s wines that, according to the marketing director for the Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja, “rises far above short-lived trends”.

The Drinks Business‘ Patrick Schmitt break down several of the new rules in a recent article of which I’ll highlight three–one that I’m thrilled to see and two that I think are bad ideas.

Viñedos Singulares — Single Vineyard Wines

First announced in June 2017, this is probably the most exciting change for wine lovers. As fans of Burgundy and the many spectacular vineyard designated wines in the US know, having the name of a single vineyard on the label connects the wine to a distinct story and terroir. While often the regional name has more marketing power, having a single vineyard designation is one way for a winery to stand out from its peer as well as charge a premium for the extra distinction.

But where Rioja’s Viñedos Singulares is unique (especially compared to the US) is with the added quality restrictions that vineyards and wineries must abide by in order to use the single vineyard designation. Most notable are:

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

Vineyard in Rioja Alavesa.

*The vineyard (not necessarily the vines) must be at least 35 years of age.
*If the grapes are being purchased by a different winery, that winery must have had a commercial relationship with the vineyard for at least 10 years prior to using the Viñedos Singulares designation.
*All the grapes must be hand harvested
*Along with more restrictive yields and periodic quality checks.

In contrast, in the US the only restriction on vineyard designation is that the wine be composed of at least 95% grapes sourced from the named vineyard on the label.

I think this is a fantastic change and one that I would love to see adopted by other regions. A clear benefit for wine drinkers in seeing a Viñedos Singulares designation on a label of Rioja is that you can be fairly certain that the vineyard is relatively established and that the winery working with the grapes have had a reasonable amount of time to learn about the terroir and personality of the vineyard. While no label designation is ever a concrete guarantee of quality, this is one designation that does put a considerable amount of commitment behind its use.

Changing Joven to Genérico

Seriously?

Photo by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-Zero

I suspect many wineries will just drop the term “Genérico” in lieu of putting no aging designation on the wine.

Are you telling me that while you can spend over $13 million on a marketing campaign, no one could spend more than $50 to figure out that having a quality level of wine called “Genérico” is not a stellar idea? I don’t speak Spanish but I have to feel that the term “Genérico” is just as unsexy in its native tongue as it is in English.

In trying to figure out the logic behind this move, the closest I found was this post by CataVino that referenced John Radford’s 2006 book The New Spain: A Complete Guide to Contemporary Spanish Wine. Here Radford notes that “new wave” winemakers were adopting the term to break free from the typical “oaky” connotation of the traditional Crianza/Reserva/Gran Reserva designations.

With Joven already being fairly well established to mean a wine with little to no oak character, the need to change to something so….generic seems pointless and detrimental from a marketing perspective.

Do the folks at the Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja really see people asking “Waiter, I think I’ll have a glass of Genérico, please”?

Espumosos de Calidad for Sparkling Wines from Rioja

While not as bad of an idea as the Joven/Genérico debacle, I don’t see much benefit moving away from the clearly established name of Cava to something that is more difficult for English-speaking consumers in the UK and US to ask for.

I will admit that Cava does have a little bit of an image problem with the mass produced bottles of Freixenet and Codorníu painting a broad brush of Cava being nothing more than “cheap fizz”–far better than the Cooks, Andre’s and Korbels of the world but not much more. But quality minded Cava producers (and even Freixenet and Codorníu) are aware of that problem and have been making moves to elevate Cava’s images with the designations of Premier Cru and Grand Cru sites with more restrictive yields and aging requirements.

Photo by Pamela McCreight. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Cava vineyards in Penedes.

Rioja’s Espumosos de Calidad designation does add on its own restrictions, mandating a minimum of 15 months of aging (as opposed to 9 months for standard Cava) with the designations of Reserva (min. 24 months) and Gran Añada/Reserva (min. 36 months) likewise going above and beyond their Cava counterparts in Catalonia and elsewhere.

I applaud the idea of wanting to elevate the image and quality expectations of Cava–and for the winery’s benefit, the average cost of a bottle–but I definitely think this is a case where “a rising tide lifts all boats”. It seems far more fruitful to work with the greater Cava Consejo Regulador to raise the quality level and image of Cava across the board than it is to try and carve out your own little niche and identity.

I understand that thinking is counter intuitive to regional boards like Consejo Regulador of DOCa Rioja whose whole purpose is to promote Rioja’s niche and unique identity but Cava’s identity as Spain’s sparkling wine has long ago superseded individual regional identity (even that of its base in Catalonia). The likelihood of restaurant wine lists or wine shops separating out and distinguishing Rioja Espumosos de Calidad from its Spanish sparkling peers is slim to none. Likewise, the odds of most consumers making a mental distinction between the different bubbles is also slim to none.

While wine geeks like me might encounter a Rioja Espumosos de Calidad with some excited curiosity, it’s really not going to be that different of a reaction to encountering one of the new Cava de Paraje Calificado Grand Crus.

But while the later can build off the marketing of a “higher quality Cava” and association with the Grand Crus of Champagne, the former seems destined to get lost on the label–not really serving its purpose of helping the consumer “know Rioja”.

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Apothic Brew Wine Review

Last night I did a very mean thing.

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

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

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

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

The Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blind Tasting

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

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

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

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

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

My (non-blind) Notes

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

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

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

The Aftermath

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

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

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

Should You Buy It?

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

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

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

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

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Wine Geek Notes 3/16/18 — Pinot Meunier, 2015 Bordeaux and Cali 2nd Wines

Photo by Igor Zemljič. Released on Wikimedia Commons under PD-user

Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

Pinot Meunier Goes Beyond the Blend in Champagne by Jameson Fink (@jamesonfink) for Wine Enthusiast (@WineEnthusiast). Brought to my dash via Frank Morgan (@DrinkWhatULike).

I absolutely ADORE Pinot Meunier so I was thrilled to see Fink give this unheralded grape of Champagne some much needed love. While Chardonnay and Pinot noir get all the attention, Pinot Meunier is often the backbone of some of the most powerful and evocative Champagnes made in the region. Echoing David Speer of Ambonnay Champagne bar (@AmbonnayBar) in Portland, Oregon, Fink notes that the flavors that Pinot Meunier brings to the table includes “… white flowers, herbs (in a good way), blueberries, spices, earth and meaty notes—[a] ‘fascinating mix of sweet, savory and spicy tones.'”

A few of my favorite Pinot Meunier-dominant Champagnes include Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve NV and Duval-Leroy NV Brut with the grape often playing equal billing with Pinot noir in the wines of Pol Roger and for Charles Heidsieck’s Brut Reserve. But what excites me the most about Fink’s article is the emergence of single varietal Pinot Meunier Champagnes with Fink’s providing a nifty shopping list of producers to seek out. Several of these growers (such as Jérôme Prévost and Laherte Frères) have been on my must-try list since I reviewed Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles and this just gives me more incentive to hunt them down.

Photo by PA. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Château Paloumey in Ludon-Médoc

Here We Go Again: Value Bordeaux 2015 by Neal Martin (@nealmartin) of Vinous (@VinousMedia).

The 2015 and 2016 vintages are going to be a smorgasbord of goodness for Bordeaux lovers. While, yes, there are going to be the outrageously priced top estates, there is also going to be an abundance of value. In this article, Martin list several top finds under $25 that are very intriguing. I’ve had Château Paloumey from the less than stellar 2011 vintage and was rather impressed so I would be very interested in trying the 2015 of this Haut-Medoc estate. Another wine that Martin highlights is the 2015 Eva from Château Le Pey that is 25% Petit Verdot!

All these wines look to be well worth exploring. Other sub $25 Bordeaux from the 2015 vintage that I’ve personally had and would also encourage Bordeaux lovers to explore include:

Ch. Lanessan (Haut-Medoc) Wine Searcher Ave $25
Ch. Chantegrive (Graves) Wine Searcher Ave $19
Ch. Vrai Canon Bouche (Canon-Fronsac) Wine Searcher Ave $25
Ch. de la Huste (Fronsac) Wine Searcher Ave $19
Ch. Ferran (Pessac-Leognan) Wine Searcher Ave $19

Berger on wine: Parallel brands allow room to grow by Dan Berger for The Press Democrat (@NorthBayNews)

The concept of Second Wines is well known for Bordeaux lovers. It allows an estate to be more selective in both the vineyard and winery, limiting their top cuvee to just the “best of the best”. The remaining juice is still very good but often doesn’t merit being premium priced so estates would create a second label to sell the juice. The benefit to the consumer is that they get the pedigree of the Grand Vin’s viticulture and winemaking teams but are only paying a fraction of the price of the top cuvee.

In California, the wineries are also very selective in limiting their top cuvee to just the “best of the best” but would instead sell off the declassified juice as anonymous bulk wine to other producers. California négociants like Courtney Benham often make off like bandits buying premium lots from top wineries and selling them under their own label.

But the consumers still don’t know where the juice came from which is why I’m encouraged by Berger’s article that more wineries are starting to create their own second labels to bottle their declassified lots. I’m particularly intrigued by Cathy Corison’s Corazón and Helio labels and Ramey’s Sidebar wines.

Hide yo kids, Hide yo wife

I really wish this was an April Fool’s Day joke but I fret that it is not. So consider this a public service warning because soon your local grocery stores and gas stations are going to be inundated with displays and marketing for Apothic Brew— a “cold brew-wine” hybrid created by Gallo.

While I was able to find some redeeming factors in the whiskey barrel aged wine trend that Apothic helped popularize, I really have no clue what Gallo’s marketing team is thinking with this. But, it’s Gallo and they didn’t become a billion dollar company by coming up with stupid ideas so who knows?

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Wine Geek Notes 3/1/18 — Brexit Wine, Stouffer Cocktails and Sexist Marketing

Photo by Evan Swigart from Chicago, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-2.0
Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine and alcohol.

Interesting Tweets and Links

Brexit And Wine: How Political Change In The European Union Impacts The Wine Industry from Vinfolio’s blog (@Vinfolio)
Very fascinating look at how the economics of Brexit (with its influence on the pound sterling) caused a mad buying spree in the UK and the potential trickle down impact that it had on fine wine pricing.

Portman Group Joins Calls To Stamp Out Sexist Drinks Marketing by Lauren Eads (@Lauren__Eads) at The Drinks Business (@teamdb) which made its way to my dashboard via Latest Wine News (@LatestWineNews)
While not as big of an issue in the wine world as it is in beer and spirits, in light of the #MeToo Movement, this is something worth keeping an eye on. From another angle in the article, I’m concerned about over reach from the UK government in their “immoderate consumption” guidelines.

Stouffer’s Lost Cocktails Empire by Wayne Curtis (@waynecurtis) at the Daily Beast (@thedailybeast) which made its way to my dashboard via MacCocktail (@MacCocktail)
This was a “WTF” link for me as I had no clue that the frozen dinner Stouffers of today was such a big player in cocktail culture in the 1950s. Incredibly interesting read that I guarantee you will learn something from!

Other Rabbit Holes I Need to Explore

Today I discovered that one of my favorite rosé wine, Château de Fabrègues from the Costières-de-Nîmes, is apparently made by the large Les Grands Chais de France who make the supermarket wine JP Chenet and are a huge player in France. Looks like I need to do more research on them.

The roles of consultants in wine is always controversial. The Drinks Business has a nice slide show that I want to find more material on.

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Wine Competitions — Should Wine Drinkers Care?

While the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang have wrapped up, the medals will be flowing all year long in the wine world.

So far this year we’ve had the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition give out over 4000 gold, silver and bronzes while the American Fine Wine Competition announced 14 pages worth of winners. Oh and the Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition also gave out a hefty haul of hardware.

Still to come:
Finger Lakes International Wine Competition (March)
Sommelier Wine Awards (March)
California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition (March)
Seattle Wine Awards (April)
International Wine Challenge (April)
International Rose Championship (April)
Decanter World Wine Awards (May)
Los Angeles International Wine Competition (May)
Dan Berger’s International Wine Competition (May)
Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (May)
International Women’s Wine Competition (July)

And oodles and oodles and oodles more.

There are so many competitions out there giving wineries boatloads of awards that I’m honestly surprised that Oprah has not gotten in on the action with her own wine competition.

YOU get a medal! YOU get a medal! Everybody’s getting a MEDAAAAAAAAL!!!

God knows how many medals the the Tasters Guild International Wine Judging gives out.


Unlike the Olympics where there is a finite amount of medals awarded for each event, wine competitions can give out virtually a limitless number–which really stack the odds in a winery’s favor.

In 2015, Victoria Moore of The Telegraph noted that of the nearly 16,000 wines that were entered in the Decanter World Wine Awards, around 70% won some kind of award. At the International Wine Competition (IWC) they gave out 490 golds, 2,110 silvers, 3,426 bronzes and 3,668 commended awards.

For their 2012 event, W. Blake Gray of Palate Press highlighted that the San Francisco Chronicle Competition (one of the largest and most recognized wine competitions in the US) gave medals to more than 80% of the wines that were entered.

Who benefits from all these competitions?

I don’t think you can be more blunt than Master of Wine Sarah Jane Evans in her article “So you want to be a wine judge?”

Remember that ultimately you are doing the judging for the winemaker and brandowner. They want to enter or remain in your market, and the medals and scores enable them to do so. Like a good parent or teacher, try to find the good points in any wine. — Sarah Jane Evans 2/20/2018 WSET Blog

Wine competitions are all about marketing for wineries. Paying a $55-175 entry fee per wine and sending in 4 to 6 bottles is actually pretty darn cheap economics if you happen to strike gold (pun intended). Even a lowly bronze medal has benefit for wineries, mostly by playing off the ignorance of wine consumers who assume that winning a bronze medal meant that the wine was the 3rd best out of thousands rather than just being a wine that was “not mortally flawed”–as Lenn Thompson of The Cork Report describes in his post on why he and his team no longer participate as judges for wine competitions.

Plus, you can take that obscure award you won 7 years ago and use that sticker for everything.


Think of how much mileage that Gallo has gotten off of touting the 2000 medals that their Barefoot brand has won from entering practically every wine competition in existence? It doesn’t matter if they were gold, silver, bronze or whatever. Likewise Constellation Brands widely advertises their 50+ gold medals (from whom?) for their Black Box wines.

Gallo and Constellation didn’t become multi-billion dollar companies by throwing away money. They know there is benefit in flooding wine competitions with their wines.

There is also a strong argument that the competitions themselves are the biggest beneficiaries–generating revenue from not only entry fees but also sponsorship & naming rights (for instance, the San Francisco Chronicle Competition is not ran by the newspaper, they’re merely a sponsor), tickets to tastings featuring award winners and selling medal stickers to wineries.

Is there any value for consumers?

A little…

The shiny stickers are very pretty though.


You have to start with acknowledging that, as Ronald Jackson notes in Wine Tasting: A Professional Handbook, the purpose of wine competition is to increase market awareness for wineries–to get your attention. They don’t exist for the benefit of giving you an unbiased and objective recommendation of what to drink.

It’s fine to give them that attention and maybe even buy their wines to try. Just like with everything in life, you will never know how much you like something until you try it. If being curious about a medal winner is a reason for you to trade out your same ole, same ole for something new then go for it.

But you should keep a few considerations in mind.

1.) Know that it’s okay to disagree with the results — because most likely the judges themselves disagreed after 30 minutes

Any post about wine competitions would be remiss without acknowledging the studies by Robert Hodgson into how inconsistent judging is at competitions and how seemingly random the results are. Wines that were gold medal winners in one flight of tasting were just as likely to be scored as bronze winners in the next flight by the same judges.

Tasting wine is highly personal and extremely subjective. There are so many things that influence how we perceive a wine and whether or not it gives us pleasure from the ambiance of the room, the glassware, our mood that day, the wine we just had before, etc. Wine itself is also a moving target that not only changes in the bottle but changes in our glasses as well. Plus, just as some of us weren’t great “test takers” at school, some wines simply don’t show well being “tested” on their own and often need the context of food and social occasion to give pleasure.

That is why you really have to view wine awards (as well as critic scores) as only a single snapshot of how that wine tasted at that moment to that particular judge. Just like if your friend had this one really great bottle of wine at dinner that you have to try, take a wine competition result with the same “your mileage may vary” caveat. While that wine may have been great for them at that one moment, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be great for you and your moment.

2.) Pay attention to who gave out the medals

A Platinum winner that was likely judged by at least 2-3 MWs and Master Sommeliers might be worth taking a look at.


With no offense to Podunk State Fair, there is a bit more cache to having your wines judged by a panel of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers that competitions like the IWC, Decanter World Wine Awards, TexSomm and a few others regularly have.

Even if the juries aren’t stacked with MW & MS credentials, there is still something noteworthy when you look at the lists of judges for competitions like San Francisco Chronicle Competition and Seattle Wine Awards and see acclaimed writers, sommeliers, educators and winemakers.

Yes, these events still give out way too many medals and the judging of even highly trained professionals is subject to vagaries, but if you are going to pay attention to the results of any competition, it’s worth having an idea of who was doing the judging. Be extremely skeptical of any competition that doesn’t have a published (and updated) list of who their judges were and their credentials.

In the Seattle market, the high esteem of the judges and caliber of wines that are entered into the Seattle Wine Awards gives their Double Gold and Best of Class winners a fair amount of cache.

3.) Give Double Golds a double look

While all the caveats above about wine competitions being just a single snapshot of a wine hold true, there is something to be said when that snapshot involves all the judges of a panel unanimously thinking that a wine is worth a gold medal–making it a Double Gold.

Some competitions do allow the judges to have discussions and “sway” the other judges to give more points but a single judge can still hold their ground and keep a wine as just a gold medal winner. At the very least with Double Golds, you know that the wine had some level of quality to be able to impress 4 to 5 different people.

Then you have “Sweepstakes Winners” and “Best in Show/Best of Class” that often require the wines going through another round of judging with different tasting panels. This is like a second snapshot being taken and if a wine does well there, you know that it had to have impressed around a dozen or so people.

The wine still might not be your personal style but the odds of a Double Gold/Sweepstakes winner from a reputable wine competition being “junk” is fairly low.

So have fun exploring. Don’t be afraid to try the highly touted “Award Winners” but still keep a healthy amount of skepticism–especially if someone is trying to give you a hard sell on their bronze medal winning wine from the Podunk State Fair.

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Wine Geek Notes 2/27/18 — Wine Competitions

Photo by Javaongsan. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0I’m doing research on how effective wine competitions are for wineries and how much they may benefit consumers. This is what I’ve been reading today.

Interesting Weblinks

Understanding Wine Competitions (Nov. 2006) by Lisa Shara Hall at Wine Business Monthly.
Great PDF file at the end with listings of several major American Wine Competitions.

The truth about wine awards: why medals don’t mean great bottles (May 2015) by Victoria Moore at The Telegraph.
Interesting stats about the medal award rates at the Decanter World Wine Awards and International Wine Challenge (IWC)

Marketing Matters: Wine Competitions That Help You Sell (October 2007) by Tina Caputo at Wines & Vines.
A pro-wine competition slant, especially in the case of regional wine competitions.

We Won’t Participate as Judges in Wine Competitions: Here’s Why (August 2010) by Lenn Thompson at New York Cork Report.
Talks about some of the behind the scenes vagaries with judging. The story about different judges responding to Brett in wine had resonance for me.

How American Consumers Select Wine (June 2008) by Liz Thach at Wine Business Monthly.
Downplays the role of medals in influencing American consumers’ decision to buy wine. The fact that the #1 influencer for both retail and restaurant consumers is previous tasting experience with a wine is something worth exploring more. Bookmarking this link because this has a lot of good info.

Photo by Concoursmondial © Concours Mondial de Bruxelles - Giuseppe Napoli. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Tasting at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles competition in 2010.


Wine Competition: For Whom the Medals Toll? by W. Blake Gray at Palate Press.
More behind the scenes judging insight and differences in American vs European competitions. Also pointing me in the direction to read more about Robert Hodgson’s studies.

An Examination of Judge Reliability at a major U.S. Wine Competition by Robert T. Hodgson on wineeconomics.org.
The aforementioned study with interesting charts.

Good Ole Fashion Books

Wine Tasting, Third Edition: A Professional Handbook by Ronald S. Jackson.
Chapter 6: Qualitative Wine Assessment goes into the value of wine competitions for wineries and the importance in having judges who are trained in sensory evaluation and experienced in the wine styles they are judging.

The Business of Wine: An Encyclopedia by Geralyn and Jack Brostrom.
Section F: Festivals, Trade Shows and Competition goes into the usefulness of wine competitions for marketers and retailers. Also emphasizes the importance and qualification of the judges.

Wine Marketing & Sales, Second edition by Janeen Olsen, Liz Thach and Paul Wagner.
Chapter 8: Wine Budgets and Pricing goes into the cost associated in entering competitions and their potential impact on wine pricing. Also makes the interesting point that for supermarket wines, having a floor stack is far more valuable than a gold medal.

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What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines

Photo by www.Pixel.la Free Stock Photos. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Veganism is described as one of the fastest growing lifestyle movements in the world. Some estimates claim that in the United states alone, there was a 500% increase between 2014 and 2017 in the number of Americans (around 19 million) identifying as vegan.

For the wine industry, that is a sizable demographic that retailers and wineries have value in marketing to.

So what makes a wine “vegan-friendly”?

For the most part, veganism is a code of conduct that avoids using any animal products or by products as well as anything that has been tested on animals. There are various reasons why people adopt veganism but often ethical concerns about the treatment of animals and impact on the environment are cited.

While wine is often assumed to be vegan, the use of animal-based fining agents such as casein (milk protein), albumin (egg whites), isinglass (fish bladders) and gelatin (animal collagen) in winemaking is problematic for many vegans.

Let’s Talk About Fining Agents

As Alison Crowe notes in The Wine Maker’s Answer Book, fining agents are used to help clarify and stabilize wine by binding to molecules such as proteins and excess tannins. These are items that can cause unsightly haze in the bottle, aggressive bitterness on the palate, off odors and flavors. The agent binds to the target molecule to form larger structures that eventually precipitates and settles to the bottom of tank or barrel as sediment.

Bruce W. Zoecklein et. al in Wine Analysis and Production classified the various fining agents into 8 categories based on their nature.

Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

Isinglass and bentonite fining trials.


1.) Earths like bentonite and kaolin
2.) Proteins like the animal based ones above
3.) Polysaccharides like gum arabic and Sparkolloid
4.) Carbons like activated carbon
5.) Synthetic polymers like polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (or PVPP)
6.) Silica gels like silicon dioxide or Kieselsol
7.) Tannins often derived from insect galls on oak leaves though oak chip fining can also fall into this category.
8.) Others which includes both enzymatic fining (more fining aids rather than fining agents) and chelators that assist in the removal of metals such as “blue fining” with potassium ferrocyanide (illegal to use in the United States).

The different fining agents work on principles of electrical charge (like positively charged gelatin reacting with negatively charged tannins), bond formation (like the carbonyl group of PVPP bonding with the hydroxyl group of tannins) and by absorption/adsorption (like activated carbon absorbing off odors or bentonite adsorbing proteins).

There are positive and negative attributes to each fining agent with no one fining agent being perfect for every situation.

Animal-based Fining Agents

Egg whites (Albumin) Used primarily to remove excess tannins. Works by forming hydrogen bonds with the hydroxyl groups of tannins. Compared to other fining agents like gelatin, albumin tends to remove less positive flavor and aroma traits. Egg whites have a long history of use in winemaking in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy. The usual addition is 1 to 3 egg whites per 225L (59 gallon) barrel.

Casein (Milk protein) Used primarily to remove browning or pink color in white wine. Can also be used to remove some off odors. Works by adsorption and attracting negatively charged particles. Like with egg whites, it has a long history of use in wine production, particularly with the great white wines of Burgundy. It also has the benefit of reducing the concentration of iron and copper in wine. In red wines, it can negatively impact the wine by removing the polyphenol resveratrol that has been associated with various health benefits.

Gelatin (derived from the boiling of animal tissues like bones and tendons) Used primarily to remove excess tannins. It has a positive charge that reacts to the negative charge of harsh tannins. It can be prone to over-fining that can strip a wine of positive flavors and aromas.

A heat stability trial for rose wines that have been fined with isinglass.

Isinglass (derived from the air bladder of fish like sturgeons). Used primarily to help clarifying wines, remove excess tannins and to “unmask” or bring out varietal character.

Chitosan (derived from chitin in the exoskeleton of crustaceans) Used primarily to remove haze causing proteins from white wines. A positively charged agent, it often needs to be paired with a negatively charged fining agent like Kieselsol to be most effective.

Blood Albumen (derived from the blood of ox and cattle) historically used but illegal in the United states, France and several other countries.

Vegan-friendly Alternatives

The website Barnivore is a database of wines and other liquors that have been vetted by users to be either “vegan-friendly” or not. In answering queries about their use of animal based fining agents, many wineries share their alternative methods.

Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

Letting the wine settle and clarify on its own before racking into another container is one method to avoid using fining agents.


One common method is the use of time and gravity to let the wine settle and clear out on its own. This is the technique used by Baldacci in the Stags Leap District and many other wineries. Depending on several factors like the health of the grapes, method of pressing, pH and temperature, this method could take several months and even then the wine might not be completely stable. Some wineries facilitate this method with the use of mechanical centrifuges and ultra-filtration but these carry the risk of being overly aggressive and potentially stripping the wine of positive flavor and aroma attributes.

Along those lines, many wineries adopt a hands-off method of not fining or filtering their wines at all. This is the method used by many high-end wine producers like Black Cordon and Kapcsandy in Napa Valley. This does carry the risk of haze and sediment developing in the bottle but the risk is often presented to consumers as a trade-off for having potentially more complex and flavorful wines.

The most used “vegan-friendly” fining agent is bentonite, a type of clay that can dramatically swell in size to adsorb protein molecules. This is the method used by wineries like Chinook in Washington State, Ideology in Napa Valley, Spier in South Africa and many others. One big drawback is that it causes significant loss of wine volume due to the heavy sediment it creates. As much as 5-10% of volume could be lost. Roger B. Boulton et al notes in Principles and Practices of Winemaking that these voluminous bentonite lees also create a large amount of solid waste that can have an environmental impact (such as sealing percolation ponds) if not properly disposed. In red wine, there is also a risk of color loss.

Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The lees sediment and volume loss from bentonite can be significant (between 5-10%). Using counter-fining agents like isinglass can help with lees compaction but would obviously make the wine not vegan-friendly.

Some wineries like Amici use the technique of “yeast fining” for wines like their 2013 Russian River Pinot noir. This involves adding fresh yeast to a wine where their cell walls (which are about 30% positively charged proteins) can adsorb many polyphenols and compounds that can cause off odors. It brings the risk of the yeast breaking down as lees, releasing sulfur compounds and enhancing reductive notes. Also, if not removed by filtration, the yeast in the bottle can start re-fermenting any residual sugars–causing spritziness in what is, otherwise, supposed to be a non-sparkling wine.

PVPP is a synthetic polymer that can remove bitter tannins and brown discoloration from white wines. Like casein, it can remove the polyphenol resveratrol from red wines. There is also a risk of overfining with the PVPP binding to desirable tannins and anthocyanins needed for structure and color.

Sparkalloid is a blend of polysaccharides and diatomaceous earth (fossilized algae) that can be used to clarify white wines. It does take significant time to eventually settle and creates a fair amount of waste with the DE that requires proper disposal.

Activated Carbon can be used to remove off-odors such as mercaptans (rotten eggs, burnt match). It does have the risk of overly oxidizing wine as well as stripping color and resveratrol from red wines.

New Developments on the Horizon

Ronald S. Jackson notes in Wine Science that fears about the prions potentially in gelatin and “Mad Cow” disease, encouraged studies into the use of plant proteins like wheat gluten as a substitute for gelatin. (Note: most gelatin used in US winemaking is derived from pigs rather than cows) Likewise, a New Jersey company has been experimenting with using pea proteins in conjunction with bentonite and silica as an alternative to gelatin.

Interest in food allergies have also spurned innovations with Scott Labs developing a technique to isolated chitosan from the fungus Aspergillus niger (instead of shellfish and crustaceans) that can be used as a fining agent.

The California based ATP Group has developed a way to extract tannin powder for fining from white wine grapes instead of insect galls to help soften tannins.

In 2016, a Swiss company announced that they were experimenting with the use of UV light to soften tannins in lieu of using animal-based protein fining agents.

The Biodynamic Quandary

While wineries can avoid using animal products in the winery, there is a question of whether wines produced from fruit sourced from biodynamic vineyards are truly “vegan-friendly”. This is because several of the “preparations” used in biodynamic viticulture require the use of animal products such as cow horns (BD 500 and 501), stomachs, intestines and bladders.

In an anecdotal account of a visit with the vineyard manager of the biodynamic Pinot noir producer Sea Smoke, Kirsten Georgi (The Armchair Sommelier), describes how the “Biodynamic approach” to removing gophers without the use of poisons or chemicals involves trapping several gophers, killing them, burning their ashes and spreading those ashes over the vineyard during winter solstice as a means to “scare off” the rest of the gophers. This method of “peppering” vineyards with the ashes of pests is not unique to Sea Smoke with recipes on biodynamic websites recommending its use for everything from weeds, snails and insects to mice, rats, rabbits and opossum.

Photo by Mark Smith. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Manure composting at a biodynamic vineyard in Tasmania.

Despite these practices, organizations like PETA recommend biodynamic wineries as “vegan friendly”. The UK website Vegan Wines Online notes that while “…natural animal products can however be used in the growing process all the biodynamic wines they sell are somehow suitable for vegans.

Even organic viticulture could be problematic with the use of animal-derived bone and blood meal being used in lieu of chemical fertilizers. There is even debate if manure, as an animal by-product, is acceptable. Like honey and milk, manure doesn’t require killing the animal but still often requires farming to acquire.

There is also the question of whether the increased presence of insects in healthy and vibrant vineyards that eschew the use of chemicals can make a wine less vegan-friendly due to the higher incidence of insects as MOG (material other than grapes) getting caught up in the harvest. On the Barnivore website, Calcareous Vineyard in Paso Robles expressed this reservation though their wines were still classified as “vegan friendly”.

More Manipulated=More Vegan-friendly?

With the concerns of high insect MOG, biodynamic viticulture and organic animal-derived fertilizers, is it possible that the vineyards that can produce the most “vegan-friendly” wines are really the ones being farmed with heavy saturation of pesticides (no insect MOG there) and chemical fertilizers? Mass produced wines like the PETA recommended Sutter Home and Moët & Chandon often employ these conventional, chemical dependent styles of viticulture.

While avoiding using animal-based fining agents to remove excess tannins and haze forming proteins, big mega-corps can use other tricks to manipulate the wine with things like lab designed enzymes, oak adjuncts and Mega Purple which will “smooth out” bitter tannins and cover up off-flavors.

Just a single drop of Mega Purple had this white Riesling looking and smelling like a Grenache rose. Crazy stuff.


Sure, Charles Shaw reds (Two Buck Chuck), Sutter Home Cabernet Sauvignon, Meiomi Pinot noir and Yellow Tail reds are made without animal fining agents but should vegans (and really all wine drinkers) be concerned with what other products are being used to make these wines?

And while it can be exciting to see advances in the use of pea proteins and fining agents derived from fungi like Aspergillus niger, its worth asking if these are only adding to the laundry list of the 60+ (and counting) additives that can be used in winemaking–taking it even further away from being just “fermented grapes”?

Now What?

While I’m not vegan myself, I wholeheartedly support anyone that chooses to live their life by convictions that eschews the use of animal products. I respect their ethical concerns for the treatment of animals and the impact on the environment that using animal products have. It’s also not my wish to stress out vegans who just want to relax and enjoy a nice bottle of wine.

But I do believe it is fair to think about the big picture involved in many seemingly “vegan-friendly” wineries that utilize viticulture and winemaking practices that may not align with the ethical and environmental concerns of many vegans.

However, it is clear from sites like Barnivore that there are tons of environmentally conscious wineries (many of which are even owned by vegans) that are producing vegan-friendly wines. They may not be the easiest to find at grocery stores or restaurant wine lists that can be dominated by the portfolios of the large mega-corps but these often small family-owned wineries are well worth seeking out and supporting.

And that’s something that I think both vegans and non-vegans can drink to.

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