Category Archives: Wine marketing

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?