Category Archives: Wine marketing

Cristal Clarity


On November 29th, Esquin Wine Merchants in Seattle hosted a tasting featuring the Champagnes of Louis Roederer. The event featured 7 wines that was highlighted by a sampling of the newly released 2009 Cristal and curated by Roederer brand ambassador Cynthia Challacombe and Esquin’s Arnie Millan.

It was a wonderful evening of trying some truly outstanding Champagnes. I left the event not only with several bottles but also with two important lessons learned.

1.) The Roederer vintage Brut and Blanc de Blancs are some of the best bang for the bucks not only in the Roederer portfolio but also among all premium Champagne.

2.) Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to open their Cristal too soon.

The Geekery

There is a big dichotomy in the world of Champagne between the huge mega-corp producers like Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), which produces tens of millions of cases across its various brands like Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, Moët and Chandon, Krug, Ruinart and Mercier, and smaller growers and producers.

While the wines of huge négociant houses like those of the LVMH stable aren’t bad, some, like Ruinart, in particular, are outstanding, it is a fair argument that sometimes the produce of these Goliaths can lack some of the character, heart and excitement of what you can find in the Champagnes of smaller growers. I say sometimes because magnificent wines can be found in many different incarnations–including in the cloths of Goliaths–but there is a reason why the marketing of the big mega-corps is more about the image and the brand than it is about the story of the vineyards and the people behind it.

As a sommelier friend of mine once aptly noted, “You buy the big houses for the name, you buy the growers for the wine.”

That said, while the house of Louis Roederer and its MTV-ready prestige cuvee of Cristal is often grouped as one of the big Goliaths, I can’t help but admire the twinkle of a “grower’s soul” that peaks out underneath the glitzy exterior of these wines.

The Champagnes tasted


Founded in 1733, the house is still family owned with Frédéric Rouzaud, great-grandson of Camille Olry-Roederer, being the 7th generation of the Roederer-Rouzaud family to run the estate. While officially a négociant, Louis Roederer owns a substantial amount of vineyards including nearly 600 acres of Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards that supply the vast majority of their needs. I was very pleasantly surprised to hear from brand ambassador Cynthia Challacombe that the only Champagne that Roederer uses purchased grapes for are for its entry-level non-vintage Brut Premier and even that is 70% estate fruit.

While Roederer does make around 3 million bottles of Champagne a year (or 250,000 cases), that doesn’t even crack the top 10 in production/sales in the Champagne region–lagging behind not only Pommery and Piper-Heidsieck but also far behind the 48 million bottles combined produced by the LVMH mega-Goliaths of Moët and Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.

This relatively small scale of production and majority control of grapes allows Roederer to be more hands on throughout the winemaking process from grape to bottle. This can also be seen in the house’s push towards converting eventually all of its vineyards to biodynamic viticulture. By 2012, they were Champagne’s largest biodynamic grower with around 160 acres (65 ha) being farmed under the system. Ms. Challacombe noted that the estate is now 41% biodynamic (around 246 acres) with the rest still being farmed organically and sustainably.

The Wines
Prices listed were the event pricing for the evening at Esquin.


NV Brut Premier- ($49) A blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot noir and 20% Pinot Meunier that is aged 3 years on the lees and bottled with 9-12 g/l dosage. Considering that the minimum aging requirement for non-vintage Champagne is only 15 months on the lees, it is admirable that Roederer holds their entry-level non-vintage to the same minimum of 3 years aging that is expected of vintage Champagnes.

The extended aging does pay off with a medium-plus intensity nose with aromas of tree fruit, candied ginger and apple pastry tart. On the palate, the mouthfeel is round and smooth with more apple notes coming out. It’s a tasty Champagne but my qualm is with how quickly the flavors fade and how short the finish is. I was expecting more persistence on the palate with how aromatic the nose was. For a sub $50 Champagne it is solid but I wouldn’t pay above that price.

2009 Brut Nature (Philippe Starck edition)- ($79) A blend of 66% Pinot noir/Pinot Meunier and 33% Chardonnay that is aged 5 years on the lees and bottled with no dosage. Sourced from a single vineyard in the village of Cumières in the Montagne de Reims, with a label designed by French designer Philippe Starck, this wine stands out from the rest of the Roederer line-up in both aesthetics and in profile. With its zero dosage and intense acidity, this was a sharply controversial wine at the tasting with many people not preferring this style.


I, on the other hand, absolutely adored this wine. It was by far the most mineral-driven and complex wine of the evening. High intensity aromatics of spiced pears, white flowers coupled with Turkish figs and graham cracker crust. On the palate, another chapter of the story unfolds with apple peels, water chestnuts and white pepper all backed by a bracing streak of rocky minerality. Even after the glass was empty, you could still smell the intense aromatics of the Champagne inside the glass. Stunning wine. It’s not for everyone but, for someone like me, it is a remarkable value for how much complexity it delivers.

2010 Blanc de Blancs- ($79) 100% Chardonnay from declassified vines in the Grand Cru villages of the Côte des Blancs, particularly Avize, that are usually allocated for Cristal. The wine is aged 5 years on the lees and bottled with 9 g/l dosage. Again going above and beyond the minimum aging for a vintage Champagne (3 years), the Blanc de Blancs is treated like a Tête de cuvée and, in many ways, this bottle of Champagne outshines many houses’ Tête de cuvée–even Roederers!

Essentially a “baby Cristal”, the medium plus intensity nose is extremely floral and fresh. It smells like Spring time with a neighbor baking cookies next door and the warm air bringing you a waft of that aroma intermingling with flowers and fresh cut grass. On the palate, the floral notes continue with an incredibly satiny mouthfeel that actually feels like you are drinking flower petals. The cookie notes on the nose morph into more brioche on the palate, still serving as a back drop to the overwhelming floral notes. Liquid lillies. Considering that this wine outshone the $200+ Cristal, and easily puts many other $100+ Champagnes to shame, this wine is an absolute steal for its quality level.

Tasting Sheet


2011 Brut Rosé- ($67) A blend of 63% Pinot noir and 37% Chardonnay that is aged 4 years on the lees and bottled with 9 g/l dosage. For the rosé color, both short maceration and blending with red Pinot noir wine is used. The keynote of “freshness” being part of the Roederer house style strikes through with this rosé taking me back to Plant City, Florida outside Tampa for their Strawberry Festival held every March.

Medium intensity on the nose with fresh strawberries and an intriguing streak of basil as well. Unfortunately the aroma fades rather quickly which made it a bit of a let down following the downright intoxicating bouquets of the Brut Nature and Blanc de Blancs. The mouthfeel is smooth and well balanced with the strawberry and basil notes carrying through. But, again, it fades with a short finish. There is always a bit of a premium when it comes to the pricing of rosés but this one is a bit of a stretch for delivering quality that matches its near $70 price point.

2008 Vintage Brut- ($70) A blend of 70% Pinot noir and 30% Chardonnay that is aged 4 years on the lees and bottled with 9 g/l dosage. Like the Blanc de Blancs, this Champagne also gets some of the declassified lots (presumably Pinot noir) that are allocated for Cristal as well as being sourced from it owns dedicated estate vineyards in the Grand Cru villages of Verzy and Verzenay.

Medium plus intensity nose that was only bested by the 2009 Brut Nature for best nose of the night. Cream puff pastry and hazelnuts. What was most enthralling was how it evolved over the short sample tasting to show the many different stages of making cream puff pastry from the fresh dough to baking the golden puffs and filling them. The freshness of the cream is also quite noticeable on the nose and carries its way to the palate where it is met by a little orange zest.


The mouthfeel was knee-bendingly silky, bested again only by one other wine–the 2010 Blanc de Blancs. Between the nose and mouthfeel, this Champagne was as close to a complete package as you could get and overall was my wine of the night. At around $70, this is an absolute steal that should leap frog on any Champagne lover’s purchasing list many, many Champagnes that are much more expensive.

NV Carte Blanche Demi-Sec- ($44) A blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot noir and 20% Pinot Meunier that is aged 3 years on the lees and bottled with 38 g/l dosage. As any sommelier or retailer who inwardly cringes when consumers request dry Brut bubbles to be served with their sweet wedding cake will tell you–the Demi-Sec category of sparklers is often woefully overlooked. I truly think it is because most people haven’t experience these wines and have painted a picture in their mind of wines that taste much more overtly sweet than they actually do.

The key to demi-sec wines is balance and the Roederer Carte Blanche is one of the most exquisitely balanced demi-sec bubbles that I’ve ever had. Medium intensity note redolent of fresh peaches with apple pastry tart mixed in. Focusing on the tip of your tongue, you can pick up the sweetness but it is so subtle and balanced by the acidity and bubbles that I would wager that even many experienced tasters would think it was more in the 12-17 g/l Extra Dry category than a Demi-Sec. Many Proseccos taste far sweeter than this elegant and exceptionally well made Champagne.


Unlike the premium pricing for rosés, this under-the-radar category is exceptionally undervalued with the Roederer Carte Blanche being a screaming good deal for under $60 much less under $45.

2009 Cristal ($232) A blend of 60% Pinot noir and 40% Chardonnay that is aged 6 years on the lees and bottled with 8 g/l dosage. Sourced exclusively from Grand Cru vineyards in the villages of Avize, Aÿ, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Cramant, Mesnil-sur-Oger, Verzenay and Verzy this is the crème de la crème of the Roederer portfolio. It’s a wine with a legendary history that was created for Russian royalty and is featured in music videos, movies and the Instagram pics of anyone wanting to show off. It elicits “oohs and ahs” whenever it is brought out. It truly is one of the Champagne world’s top prestige cuvees.

It’s also one of its most disappointing.

To be fair, this is because Cristal’s Veblen and “bling-worthy” status encourages people to pop and pour them almost as soon as they hit the market. Despite wine writers and Champagne lovers repeatedly urging people to hold onto their Cristals, these wines are often opened far too young. As Antonio Galloni of Vinous noted in his survey of Cristals from 1979-2002, this behavior is “… ironic, if not downright tragic, considering Cristal is a wine that starts peaking around age 15-20, and that can last much longer under ideal storage conditions.”

Now my experience with Cristal is no where near as extensive as Galloni’s but the opportunities I’ve had to taste of now four different vintages of Cristal (the 2004, 2006 and 2009 soon after release and the 1994 when it was 12 years of age) have followed a consistent pattern. The newly release Cristal Champagnes that I tried when they were 6 to 8 years old were very underwhelming with my tasting notes littered with descriptors of “short” and “simple”. While the 1994, which was still relatively too young and from a rather sub-par vintage, was vastly more intriguing and has ranked as one of the best wines that I’ve ever had.

This 2009 Cristal, while undoubtedly well made and with immense potential, ranked only above the entry NV Brut Premier in its showing at the tasting. And that’s not an indictment on the wine. It’s just a reality of tasting a wine that is miles away from it peak drinking window.


But it is not like the wine was undrinkable. It was just exceedingly simple. Medium minus intensity nose with vague floral and tree fruit notes. Some slight pink peppercorn. Its strongest attribute at the moment is the mouthfeel that shows hint of the silky flower petal texture you with get the Blanc de Blancs. In fact, the whole profile of Cristal is its litany of hints.

It has hints of the nose of the 2008 Vintage Brut.
It has hints of the mouthfeel of the 2010 Blanc de Blancs.
It has hints of the complexity of the 2009 Brut Nature.

If you could combine those 3 Champagnes into one bottle, and tell folks that it was Cristal, you would have legions of happy Champagne drinkers who would gladly shell out $200+ and feel like they’re getting more than their money’s worth. But, instead, you have a bottle that is drinking at this moment on par with what you can get from the Roederer house already for between $49 (NV Brut Premier) and $67 (2011 Brut rosé).

It truly is about this moment.

But, again, the 2009 Cristal is not a bad wine and I’m not saying that this is a wine that you shouldn’t buy if you have the money and inclination. I’m just saying that this isn’t a wine that you should open right now. The pedigree is there. The terroir is there. The care and dedication of the Champagne house is there. But if you are going to invest the money and your personal pleasure into getting a spectacular bottle of Champagne than you have to have patience and/or be willing to splurge for the premium of an aged example of Cristal that has been properly cellared.

Otherwise, do yourself a favor and save a boatload of cash by checking out some of the far less heralded and less “bling-worthy” bottles of vintage Champagnes from Roederer. There is truly some spectacular stuff coming out this house that over deliver on pleasure.

In Defense of Evil Empires


Recently Esther Mobley of The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the blockbuster Pinot noir producer Kosta Browne’s new direction away from their super-lush and highly extracted style to something less “over-the-top, opulent, blow-your-lid-off wines.” The catalyst for this change, according to Kosta Browne’s president Scott Becker, is changing consumer demand, particularly among Millennials.

“We were at the risk of becoming victims of our own success…To be relevant and successful for the next 20 years, we have to recognize that the consumer is changing.” –Scott Becker as quoted by SF Chronicle 11/7/17

A sharp motivation also seems to be a bit of ego bruising that Kosta Browne has taken over the years for being one of the poster child of the high alcohol, super-ripe and hedonistic wines that flooded the market in the last few decades. Mobley quotes founder Dan Kosta concerns over his namesake winery being used by winemakers in Oregon and by organizations like In Pursuit of Balance as an example of what not to do with Pinot noir. The Chronicle article also includes an interesting anecdote about a sommelier at the NYC restaurant Breslin being ignorant that a winery named Kosta Browne even exist.

Quick look–is this Pinot noir or Syrah? Sometimes it’s hard to tell with wines as well.


Let’s set aside how poorly it reflects on the quality of the wine knowledge for a restaurant’s program when their sommeliers are completely ignorant of a winery that has not only won Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year (and been featured in their Top 100 list numerous times), is regularly in the top half of most collectible wines from California according to Vinfolio’s Collectibility Index and is, for all practical purposes, part of the pantheon of “cult producers” of Pinot noir in California with a 2 to 5 year long waiting list just to be able to buy a bottle.

Even if you don’t like Kosta Browne and don’t feature them on your wine list, it’s beyond pale to shrug your shoulders at the name as if you never heard of them.

I say that as someone who really doesn’t like Kosta Browne’s wines and would roll my eyes at seeing them on restaurant wine lists with their exorbitantly marked up prices just waiting for an expense account ego to order them.

Particularly a big-fish whose name rhymes with “Stiancarlo Ganton”


But even if Kosta Browne is not my style, I’m a bit sadden to read about this “change in direction.” It’s not that I don’t think pursuing more balanced wines isn’t a worthwhile goal. But seeing Kosta Browne trying to become “more restrained” in style is a bit like following the Hot Stove League in Baseball in the post-Steinbrenner years as the New York Yankees aim to be more “fiscally restrained”. Yeah, you’ve got the LA Dodgers and Boston Red Sox’s trying to fill in the gap with their best Belle Glos and Sea Smoke like efforts but as a fan of an old school small market Joseph Swan-like team (the St. Louis Cardinals), the excitement of potentially landing a big-fish is not quite a thrilling when one of the Goliaths of the game is sitting on the sideline. David isn’t David if the sling shot is never used.

“Good is a point of view…. Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power. ” — Chancellor Kofi Parker, Jr.


Likewise, how exciting would the Star Wars movies be if the Galactic Empire changed philosophies all of the sudden and started espousing Kofi Annan style diplomacy?

The world needs Evil Empires like the New York Yankees and Kosta Browne because the little guys, the outsiders, the rebels, the hipster snobs need something to aim for. The world needs balance between good and evil and you can’t have one without the other. So why should we root for Kosta Browne to shed it evil ways and try to become something….else? Do we think that people will suddenly stop wanting to drink lush, full-bodied and highly extracted Pinot noirs? Of course not! Just like matter can be neither created nor destroy, so too, is evil and the taste for residual sugar in wines constant.

And as we’ve seen from history, when a vacuum of evil is created, there can be consequences when a new force tries steps in.

You can argue that a lot of the world’s recent problems can be traced to the Chicago Cubs winning the 2016 World Series by trying to out-Yankee the Yankees.

If I could photoshopped him twerking on the Camaro, I would.


They went from being the lovable, lowkey Eraths of the Pinot noir world to the big budget and crass-commercialized Meiomi. They changed their style, trying to become the “New Evil Empire” and it messed up the cosmic order. Now we have women twerking on top of cars, folks dropping turkeys from planes and idiots launching home-made rockets trying to prove the world is flat. Yes, the world is out of whack and I place the blame squarely on Ben Zobrist.

A New Hope.
AKA winemakers of the Eola-Amity Hills.


Sure, big over-the-top wines can be boring and lack “character” just like big, cash-rich organizations that can buy or trade for any stud player can be infuriating and soulless. But doesn’t knowing the fact that these Evil Empires exist make it all the more satisfying when you find the gem of a bottle that tells a story to your palate or when your plucky rag-tag team of no-names finally scale the summit?

Sure, we want to root for the underdogs. But we also need those Big Dogs to still be casting their long shadow of evil like the Death Star. The world works better this way. It’s has balance even if that balance is dripping with sugar, extract and alcohol.

There is a place in the world for the Kosta Browne Yankees just like there is a place for my Joseph Swan Cardinals, the Merry Edwards Twins, the Beaux Freres Giants, the Argyle Mariners and the Williams Selyem Braves.

There is even a place, begrudgingly, for the Meiomi Cubs. Well, once they’ve been dethroned and relegated to the bottom of the shelf.

Behind the Curtain

By The Wonderful Wizard of Oz / By L. Frank Baum; With Pictures by W.W. Denslow. Published: Chicago ; New York : G.M. Hill Co., 1900. - From the Library of Congress Online Catalog. The image page is here and the description page is here., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3090042Harvey Steiman of Wine Spectator did a write up about the unique marketing approach of a new Oregon winery, Alit. With the pedigree of Evening Land Vineyard’s co-founder, Mark Tarlov, and winemaker Alban Debeaulieu, formerly of White Rose Estate, Domaine Drouhin Oregon and Maison Joseph Drouhin, this new project was already guaranteed intrigue but, as Steiman notes, Alit upped the ante by releasing their Pinots for the absurdly low price of $27.45 a bottle.

Yeah, you read that right. $27.45 for a premium Oregon Pinot noir from one of the Evening Land guys and a former Drouhin winemaker?!?! Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

The idea behind Alit Wines is transparency with the winery’s website (and Wine Spectator article) going into great detail to describe how they break down the cost figures that brings them to charge $27.45 for a bottle of Pinot noir sourced from acclaimed vineyards in the Dundee Hills, McMinnville (including Momtazi Vineyard) and Eola-Amity Hills. The hope for Tarlov and Co. is that they’ll be rewarded for their transparency with consumers, empowered with the knowledge of the nuts and bolts cost of production, seeing the advantage of bypassing “the middlemen” and buying directly from the winery.

Alit's breakdown of the cost of wine. Credit: https://medium.com/@MarkTarlov

Alit’s breakdown of the cost of wine. Credit: https://medium.com/@MarkTarlov

On the surface this sounds like a solid strategy and I was intrigued enough to put in an order myself. Potentially great wine at a great price is always a plus and its exciting to think about what could happen if more premium wineries followed suited with this focus on transparency. But as both a consumer and as someone who has spent over a decade in the wine industry (both production and retail), I don’t see this as a yellow brick road leading to a revolution in wine pricing.

I also can’t escape the nagging feeling that instead of just empowering consumers, that this peek behind the curtain of production costs will have the same effect on consumers that Dorothy’s glimpse behind the curtain at the Wizard had on her. Yes, it is nice to see what’s behind the curtain but do you lose a bit of “magic” when everything doesn’t seem to be what you once thought it was? Are you going to enjoy as much that $60 Pinot you enjoyed before now that you can add up in the back of your mind that it may really only cost the winery around $15 to make?

Pay No Attention To The Conspicuous Consumption of Wine.

Wine is weird. On one hand, it is a consumable agricultural good just like any foodstuff. So drilling the price of a bottle of wine down to the price of the raw materials, labor and cost of production and transport sounds like a simple endeavor. Yet, wine is also much more than that and, especially in the United States, it can also be considered a Veblen good–an item whose price and value often drives demand, instead of just necessarily the demand driving the price.

This is a big reason why I doubt that you’ll see Alit’s marketing model being readily adopted by other wineries. Of course, nearly every winery in the world would wholeheartedly support encouraging consumers to buy most, if not all, their wines direct from the winery. Not only does it allow them to control the consumer’s experience, making sure that they are getting their wines in the best condition possible, it’s also how wineries make the most money. That last point is key. Look at the prices that you see at a winery’s tasting room and then compare them to what you would be paying at a typical retailer. Are you getting the savings of “cutting the middleman”?

Most likely not.

In the Wine Spectator article, Alit’s Tarlov explains that this is because wineries don’t want to hurt their distributor and retail partners by drastically undercutting them in price. There is certainly truth to this because the wheels of the wine industry are greased by trust and relationships. However, the one thing more valuable than relationships in the wine industry is the perception of your brand. This is why retailers sometimes get in trouble if they price a winery’s wine “too low”. It impacts the “brand”. Wineries are loathed to ever lower the prices of their wine because it can lower the prestige and value of the wine in the eyes of consumers.

A heart is not judged by how much you love; but a wine is judged by how much it is loved by others.

By Man vyi - Own work (own photo), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7907924

And men are judged by how they wear fanny packs


Consumers are weird. We all want a great deal, but not too good or there must be something wrong. The placebo effect is alive and well as our brains are hardwired to get more pleasure from things that we perceive as being more expensive and ergo more valuable.

Now as wine lovers, who presumably want to get the most for our money, what should we do? Do we just chuck it all out the window and drink Two Buck Chuck from here on out?

By Jeffrey Beall - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16607189

“Seriously??? 5 missed FG and 4 missed xp…costing us 2 games. Yeah…sounds like a keeper…”(11/29/2016) — Kyra Olson, author’s Facebook friend and Bengals fan since 1981


Let me ask a different question. If you’re a fan of American football, what is more appealing to you? Spending around $50 or less for a family of four to see a local high school football game or spending an average of around $131.93 per person to see a team like the Cincinnati Bengals play home games against the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills? No offense to the Bengals, Browns or Bills fans among my readers but there are certainly games where you can argue that maybe the high schoolers would field a better product for the money.

Now we can argue about the nuts and bolts of the talent and skills of football players, the quality of equipment, the stadium atmosphere and then craft metaphors about how that relates to vineyard terroir, winemakers, new oak barrels and such. But I think we can drill it down to a much more simple question: What experience gives you more pleasure?

What experience fills you with more sense of excitement and anticipation as you enter the stadium before the game? If you were given a gift of tickets, opening which set (to the HS game or the NFL one) would quicken your heart more? For most people, it’s the latter and that is a huge reason why seeing an NFL game is often 12x more expensive than seeing a high school football game–regardless of the end quality result on the field. The value of the product is judged by how much it is loved by others. With the typical NFL stadium holding around 70,000 spectators, there are quite a bit of people who are willing to pay top dollar to be one of the few who get to sit in those seats.

The same is true with a bottle of wine. For as solid and tasty that something like a $8-12 bottle of Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon can be, the level of excitement and anticipation of opening it up just can’t match up to opening something like a $60-68 bottle of DeLille Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon. There is the bare nuts and bolts value of the raw materials and cost of production but how do you quantify the value in that sense of excitement, anticipation and pleasure that comes from that? With only around 1,450 cases made each year of DeLille’s Four Flags, there are plenty of people who put high value on being one of the few who get to enjoy that sense of excitement and anticipation.

You, my friend, are a victim of disorganized thinking (as we all are).

While I do applaud Mark Tarlov and the folks behind Alit for being bold with their marketing plan on transparency, I do think it creates an unfortunate impression that wine pricing is a simple affair. It’s not because wine isn’t simple and, more importantly, people aren’t simple. Just as in Oz, when the Wizard chastised the Cowardly lion for confusing courage with wisdom, we also shouldn’t confuse the value of our pleasure and enjoyment of wine with the nuts and bolts cost of things. Just as our perception of taste is personal, so too is our perception of value. A wine is good is if it is good for you and a wine is worth its price if it is worth it to you.

If an $8 Cabernet gives you pleasure and is worth $8 to you, Enjoy! If a $28 Pinot does the same, drink up! But, likewise, don’t devalue your pleasure and sense of the wine’s worth if your mouth drools with anticipation at pulling the cork out of a $60 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot noir. It’s your palate, your wallet and your pleasure.

And if paying around $131 to watch Mike Nugent miss fields goals and extra points gives you pleasure, well you can talk to my friend Kyra about that.

Whiskey and Wine

As I’ve admitted before, I can be a bit skeptical about newfangled wine trends but I always try to keep an open mind. So when I walk into stores and see big displays of Gallo’s Apothic Inferno (“A Wine With a Whiskey Soul” they say) supported with advertising campaigns featuring tatted up and vested hipster bartenders playing with fire, I know I need to try some wines aged in bourbon and whiskey barrels.

By Ken Thomas (KenThomas.us (personal website of photographer)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I love Woodford Reserve in my Old Fashioned, not necessarily in my wine.


But first, a little background

Henry H. Work’s 2014 book Wood, Whiskey and Wine gives a nice backstory on the love affair between wine and wood barrels that extend over two millenniums. He also goes into the sharing of barrel technology with other beverages like whiskeys and beers. I highly encourage folks interested in geeking out more about this topic to give it a look.

In the 17th century, the convenience and availability of excess Sherry barrels from the bustling Jerez to London trade led to a “happy accident” of Scotch makers discovering the rich dark fruit flavors and deeper color that Oloroso Sherry barrels impart on whiskey aged in them.

A Port finished Scotch from one of my favorite distilleries

A Port finished Scotch from one of my favorite distilleries

In recent decades, the concept of cask-finishing for whiskeys has expanded to include barrels that previously housed Port, Madeira, Sauternes, Amarone and even First Growth Bordeaux and premium Super Tuscan and Barolo producers.

Across the pond, American Bourbon and whiskey producers also discovered the interesting flavors and added complexity of aging in former wine barrels. Of course, Sherry and Port casks were popular choices but producers also branched out with California Chardonnay like Woodford Reserve’s Sonoma-Cutrer finish. Even winemakers started getting in on the gig, like Dave Phinney’s partnership with a distillery to create a Bourbon aged in barrels that formerly held his Orin Swift Napa Cabernet Mercury Head. (Not sure what the status of this project is after Phinney’s sale of Orin Swift to Gallo)

Whiskey Returns the Favor (maybe)

A very tasty barrel aged brew from Firestone Walker

A very tasty barrel aged brew from Firestone Walker

Perhaps taking a cue from the beer industry which has seen a huge explosion in popularity of barrel-aged beer, it may have been inevitable that we would see wine aged in whiskey barrels.

The first mentioned of a whiskey barrel aged wine that I could find was back in 2010 when a winemaker in Australia some how got his hands on Pappy Van Winkle Barrels to age his 2008 McLaren Vale Shiraz. What became of his Southern Belle Shiraz, or if you can still find it, I don’t know as there are scant tasting notes on the web. I do find it interesting that the 2010 article from Garden and Gun noted that the expected release price for the 2008 was $25 USD but the average price of the three vintages available on Wine-Searcher (2009, 2011 & 2013) is only $9. If any one has further details about this wine (or know of an earlier whiskey barrel-aged wine), let me know in the comments below.

As with most things in the wine industry, people usually don’t start paying attention to a trend until the big-money players get involved and that is what happened in 2016 when Pernod-Ricard (Jacob’s Creek), Constellation Brands (Robert Mondavi), Concha y Toro (Fetzer) and E. & J. Gallo (Apothic) released their whiskey barrel-aged wines.

Are these wines any good?

I was able to get my hands on 3 brands of whiskey barrel-aged wines–Robert Mondavi Bourbon Barrel Aged Cabernet Sauvignon, Barrelhouse Bourbon Red (made by Bruce and Kim Cunningham of AW Direct) and Apothic Inferno (aged in whiskey instead of Bourbon barrels). Tasting these wines with colleagues in the retail wine industry, I wanted to be as objective as possible so we decided to do this tasting blind and with a “ringer” of a popular dark red blend (which was the most recent hot trend in the industry till the whiskey-aged wines came barreling in). In this case, I chose Cloud Break Black Cloud from O’Neil Vintners.

Three whiskey barrel aged reds with a "regular" red blend ringer. (Not wrapped up in the same order. See reveal below)

Three whiskey barrel aged reds with a “regular” red blend ringer. (Not wrapped up in the same order. See reveal below)

Here are my notes before the reveal:

Wine A- Sweet smelling on the nose. Very ruby port-like nose with figs and dark fruit. Some vanilla.
On the palate, rich fruit, very smooth but with noticeable RS. Yep, definitely very port-like with more overt oak spice flavors on the palate. Medium acidity. Medium-minus tannins.
My guess is that this is one of the bourbon barrels one. Drinkable, good for sweet(ish) red wine drinkers. Actually this may be an improvement over many of the “Dark” blends since the oak spice seems to add some complexity.

Wine B-This smells like a whiskey. But whiskey that smells like burnt rubber. Noticeably sweet nose. Roasted marshmallows and burnt flambe cherries. It smells like someone took a shot of cheap lightly peated whiskey, mixed with a really pungent Pinotage and then added it to someone’s Seagram 7 and Coke.
On the palate, Burnt rubber and roasted marshmallows. Medium-minus tannins and medium-minus acidity, maybe even low acidity. It’s no where near as sweet as I expected it to be based on the nose but I can’t tell if that is a positive or negative at this point.

Wine C- Much more subdued nose, medium-minus intensity but that may just be a scale down effect compared to Bag B. I don’t really smell any oak at all, just some subtle red fruit–red berries, maybe a little red plums.
On the palate, I can get some vanilla but it is still very mellow. Medium+plus acidity, actually has some good life to it. Definitely still red fruit. Medium tannins, very ripe and smooth.
My gut is telling me that this is the regular red blend but I’m a bit confused with the fruit being much more red than dark, knowing in the back of my mind that the “ringer” is one of the Dark Red styles. Whatever this is, its fairly enjoyable and with the medium plus acidity, can actually see this being a decent drinker and food pairing option.

Wine D- Medium nose. Still way more subdued than Bag B and less fragrant than Bag A. Much more overt vanilla on the nose. This has a bit of a “whiskeyness” to it but its not in your face. A little dark fruit but, again, subdued.
On the palate, this has some great texture. Medium+ acidity. Medium + tannins but very velvety and great full body. By far the most impressive mouthfeel. This feels like a decent $15-17 Cab. The flavors are very Cab-like as well, being more black currant with a little tobacco spice. The finish lingers with the vanilla and I do almost feel like I can taste a bit of roasted corn. Not enough to be weird but at this point I’m wondering if my palate is shot.

The Reveal and Final Thoughts

Bag A.) Cloud Break Black Cloud — (The Dark Red blend “ringer”) I was totally fooled on this. The ruby-port aspect had me thinking that THIS is what these Bourbon barrel-aged wines should taste like. Definitely a wine for the smooth, bold (but slightly sweet) red crowd. 3rd favorite of the group.

Bag B.) Apothic Inferno – As you could probably infer from my notes, this was my least favorite wine of the bunch. It certainly had the most in your face “whiskeyness” but, in my opinion, that didn’t add up to a pleasurable drinking experience in the slightest. Personally, I would rather drink any of the other examples in the Apothic stable (the regular red, Apothic Dark, Apothic Crush, etc) than the Inferno. It’s just not my style of wine at all.

Bag C.) Barrelhouse Bourbon Red – This pleasantly surprised me. It definitely wasn’t what I expected from this category. As I noted, I strongly thought this was just a regular red blend. Very solid and very drinkable. Probably the 2nd best of the whole bunch.

Bag D.) Robert Mondavi Bourbon Barrel Age Cabernet Sauvignon – the clear winner of the group and a very solid wine. I don’t think this wine needs the marketing gimmick of the “bourbon barrel age” (neither does the Barrelhouse really) and could easily stand on its own as regular, every day drinker that would do well paired with food or at a party with a crowd.

Or we can just drink some cocktails instead. The Oak Blossom was delicious!

Or we can just drink some cocktails instead. The Oak Blossom was delicious!

So there you have it. It’s worth having an open mind and I would encourage all wine drinkers to give these wines a try and form their own opinions.

Some of these wines, like the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon and Barrelhouse Bourbon Red, are pretty solid and legit red wines. Others…..do have their own unique personality. I definitely recommend trying these wines side by side with either other whiskey barrel-aged wines or just general red blends. That is, by far, the best way to judge the character of these wines and see how they stake up against what you enjoy in red wine.

Cheers!

Can Wine in a Can really take off?

I’ll be honest. I’m a skeptic about canned wine. I look at the craft beer industry where you have numerous benefits of using cans over bottles yet because of negative associations with cheap canned beers, craft brewers have been trudging through decades of getting consumers to (slowly) start seeing the light.

Why would wineries want to dip their toes in that fight? Especially when the wine industry still hasn’t gotten our $hit fully together about screw caps and boxed wines. Yes, wine consumers of the world are slowly coming around to those things as well but is it really the best marketing idea to open up another battlefield theater against consumers’ perceptions with wine in a can?

Apparently it is. According to Nielsen data reported this summer sales of canned wine jumped last year from $6.4 million to $14.5 million with sales in 2016 expected to be even higher. I guess maybe I should start looking for some good canned wine to pair with my crow?

The gold color straw made me feel fancier

The gold color straw made me feel fancier


I know one brand of can wines that I would consider for that pairing would be River Road Vineyards’ We Are California Chardonnay and red blend. Despite my skepticism, I will have to say that the Chardonnay was really, really tasty and quite fitting for sitting out in the vineyard on a warm August evening. I appreciated how cold, crisp and refreshing the can kept the white wine and, yes, my tasting note for this can included the word “delicious” more than a couple times. I could easily picture myself lounging in a floating pool chair, sipping this Chard or sneaking a can of this wine into a church picnic as I may have done a few times with cans of Coppola’s Sophia sparkling wine back in my younger days.

I assume that crow would taste better barbecued so I would probably pair that with the We Are Sonoma red blend. But this is where I’ll also admit that my skepticism is more than just objective wine marketing ponderings. It’s also personal because, to me, the red does taste different in the can as opposed to pouring it in the glass. In the glass, I find this wine very fruity with black cherry and a little floral pepper spice (like fresh pink peppercorns). I don’t know what the exact blend of this wine is but it reminds of Pinot noir and Zinfandel. Sipping it straight from the can, I lose the floral and pepper spice though I can still enjoy the smoothness and dark fruit.

But I want the whole package. I want the aromatics to go with the flavor and mouthfeel. For me, the marketing appeal of canned wines with their grab and go, toss in the backpack style is lost. I still need to find room in that backpack for glassware–just like I would for a bottle of wine or a box wine. So what’s the point?

Yes, there have been times that we've all been the guy up the top. But usually that is only during emergencies or Thanksgiving.

Yes, there have been times that we’ve all been the guy up the top. But usually that is only during emergencies or Thanksgiving.


It’s not snobbishness, it’s about pleasure. The science is well known about how intimately connected our sense of smell and taste is. It is also well known how the exposure of oxygen (decanting or letting the wine “breath”) can positively impact the wine. You don’t need a fancy decanter or aerator for simple everyday drinking wine but even the small amount of agitation and aeration from pouring a wine into glass helps the wine open up a little more. Sipping a wine straight from a can doesn’t give me that.

So, yes, I’m a still skeptic but I’m a reasonably open minded skeptic. I will try a canned wine from a high quality producer like River Road and, as I found with their We Are California cans, will admit when I’m pleasantly surprised at how delicious they are.

Though I still don’t think that wineries have figured out how to market to folks like me. What is the real benefit for me to make wine in a can a regular purchase? Sure, there are certainly occasions (like camping, float trips, etc) where a canned wine is assuredly more convenient than lugging around a bottle or box wine.

But, for those occasions, why don’t I just buy beer?