Category Archives: Wine marketing

One Night Stands and Surprises

When is the last time that a winery really surprised you?

Photo from Unnamed photographer for Bain News Service. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-Bain

Now I’m not talking about a wine that was unexpectedly delicious (or atrocious), a shocking winemaker departure or an owner selling.

Instead, I’m talking about being genuinely surprised by the way that a winery interacted with consumers.

I’m talking about a “Morton’s Surprise.”

Back in 2011, a hungry businessman boarded a flight destined for the Newark airport. The flight was going to arrive late and in a half joking, half grumbly manner he tweeted out to his favorite steakhouse, Morton’s, that he would really like a porterhouse steak when he landed in two hours.

The Morton’s Twitter account did more than just “like” his tweet.

When he got off the plane and retrieved his bags, there was a Morton’s employee (from a location 24 miles away from the airport) waiting for him with a 24 oz. Porterhouse steak, shrimp and a side of potatoes.

Yeah, that’s a heck of a surprise.

Now I’m not expecting wineries to show up at airports with free wine.

But let’s look at the base elements of this story and compare it to how most wineries interact with consumers on social media.

Morton’s could have responded to the initial tweet with something like:

“Oh thank you! We’re glad you are a fan. Come by and visit!”

Sound familiar? It’s pretty much a word-for-word reply that you see from wineries every day in response to consumers tweeting, Facebooking and Instagramming about wines they enjoy.

That’s not a horrible response. It’s polite and at least something of an interaction–which is undoubtedly better than not responding at all. But it’s so…scripted.

And when you’re competing in an engagement economy–where the goal is to build enduring and lasting relationships with consumers–a scripted response is basically the marketing equivalent of a one-night stand.

Slam Bam, Thank You Ma’am

Photo by Jhaymesisviphotography, Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Um….he thanked me for being a fan with three thumbs up emojis.

One of the critical elements of the Morton story is that they were already dealing with an engaged customer. This was someone who liked their brand and took time out of their day to talk about it. Not only that, but they also made the effort to look up the company’s tag and include them in the conversation.

That kind of customer engagement is hugely valuable. They essentially took the brand to bed and clearly had a good time.

So why is that good time so often greeted with scripted responses?

I don’t think a lot of wineries realize what they have when they’re tagged in a consumer’s post. That might be why we (and the consumer) are so rarely ever surprised by how they respond.

Yet, think about all the investment that wineries put into getting new customers. Now think about how many new customers that Morton’s likely got from going beyond the “one-night stand” engagement of just thanking and liking a consumer’s comment.

How can wineries surprise their consumers?

Let’s say that someone does a post raving about a winery’s red blend. Put yourself on the other side of the computer screen and imagine how you would feel getting a response like this:

“Oh thank you! We’re glad you loved it. You know, our winemaking team puts together that blend in February. If you’re in the area, let us know and you can help us put together next year’s wine!”

Whoa…did this winery just invite me to help make their next blend??? How freaking cool is that!
Photo by Johann Jaritz. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Hmm, maybe we can pull this trick off during harvest? Obviously, it depends on labor laws and restrictions, but back in my winemaking days, we could never get enough volunteer labor during harvest.

And the thing is, the odds of that consumer actually showing up at the winery’s door on a cold February day is pretty slim. This was a low-risk proposal.

Though, if they did show up, damn you’ve got a really engaged consumer and potential brand ambassador who is practically volunteering to promote your wines.

However, the impact of that invitation went far beyond a “one-night stand” response. It was like the winery texted them back in the morning to let them know that they really did have a good time and are wondering when they can meet again.

That’s engagement that leads to lasting relationships.

And this “surprise script” can be adapted to cover so many angles. Do folks think you have a really eye-catching label? Offer to email them the new label design for your latest release to get their feedback.

Did someone post a photo of your wine along with a fantastic dish they cooked? Ask them for the recipe and THEN post on your social media feed, tagging them, your winery team’s attempt at recreating their recipe and food pairing.

Essentially the secret to surprising consumers is to simply go beyond just acknowledging their posts.

It’s acknowledging them.

Now, yes, this type of social media engagement requires time and labor costs. So does everything in business. You can spend a fortune on vineyards, personnel, barrels and equipment but that is all for naught if people aren’t (repeatedly) buying your wine.

Building sales means investing in your consumers and not squandering the engagement capital that you already have. It means building relationships instead of being content with one night of vinous nookie.

Photo by Arnold Gatilao. Uploaded to wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

Enthusiastic and engaged consumers, plus fried chicken. How is this not a win in anyone’s book?

Scroll back up and look at the examples I posted. Now put yourself in the shoes of the consumers receiving those replies, receiving those interactions. Not only will they be super stoked at the thought of getting another bottle of your wine, but do you think they would keep those sentiments to themselves?

No! It’s social media. They’re going to share and talk about how this winery, just out of the blue (in their minds), asked them to help make their wine, give feedback on a label or made Grandma Coury’s famous fried chicken and posted about it.

And you better believe that every time they’re with someone and a bottle of your is wine nearby, they’re going to share their story about your wine.

People don’t talk about one night stands (unless they’re really bad). But they do talk about the ones that surprised them and texted them back in the morning.

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375ml Bottles — A halfway good idea?

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

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

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

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

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

Wait…what?

House wine pride can

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

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

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

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

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

I talked to them.

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what wineries need to pay attention to.

The practical considerations that drive sales trends.

Photo from

Will 2020 herald the new Roaring 20s?

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

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

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

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

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

Author using her Coravin

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

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

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

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

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

But let’s be serious.

Do you really see Lynch-Bages in a can?

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

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

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

Jason Haas of Tablas Creek was especially forthcoming.

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

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

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

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

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

Being ahead of the headwinds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moderation movement is real.

Calorie counting and serving-size awareness are real.

Waste considerations are real.

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

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Why Do Winery Instagram Feeds Suck So Much?

Okay guys, let’s sit down and have a heart-to-heart here for a moment. I’ve been breaking up with a lot of you via Instagram by unfollowing your winery accounts. And, yeah, it’s you and not me.
Photo by Today Testing (for derivative) - This file was derived from: Scroll on Desk.jpg Instagram logo 2016.svg. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Simply put, a lot of your winery Instagrams aren’t worth a damn following.

Now I’m not saying that my own personal IG is gold. Don’t bother going there looking for inspiration or ammo.

But I’m not selling anything. I don’t make a dime from this blog, so my Instagram is purely for my own folly and note-keeping. Plus wineries shouldn’t be comparing themselves to personal IGs anyways. And god knows they shouldn’t be trying to emulate the feeds of so-called “influencers” which are their own kinds of pomp and circum-shit.

Instead, every winery needs to step back and think about what they’re doing on Instagram. What is the point of a consumer following you?

Is it to see a stream of spammy ads and bottle porn?

bottle porn pics from https://www.instagram.com/chateaustemichelle/

So much bottle porn…

Nope. Wrong answer.

If I wanted to see non-stop images of your wine bottles, I’d hijack your delivery truck and take it on a high-speed chase. News flash! People hate ads. That’s why we quickly turn the channel or flip the page.

So why in the world would I want to follow your feed just to see more time-wasting ads willingly? And that is precisely what your lovely, beautifully curated bottle shots in pastel locations are–ads.

Yeah, I can keep scrolling on by (which I do) but there comes a point where I (and other consumers) eventually pause and wonder–why am I following this shit? That’s when we wake up from the IG bubble and start searching for something real.

Give us dirty hands and real people.

Photo by https://www.instagram.com/p/BwkYD6QHP4J/

Great pic from Chimney Rock Winery. Grandma used to say that “Dirty hands are a sign of clean money.”
That’s probably still true, but in marketing to today’s Millennials, dirty hands are a sign of real people making authentic wine.

Wine doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It doesn’t magically appear out of Star Trek food replicators. There were real people who shepherded the land and put in the time, passion and effort to turn bunches of grapes into something meaningful in the bottle. Show us that!

One of the best lines that I heard on my recent press tour of the Stags Leap District was the comment from Chimney Rock’s winemaker and general manager Elizabeth Vianna that “… at least six hands have a role in getting the wine from grape to bottle.” Then she shared some of the stories of those hands like the cellar worker who has trouble clocking in during harvest because the fingerprint reader won’t recognize his print from being so stained and worn by the low-pH of grape must.

That’s a fascinating anecdote that makes me want to see those hands and drink that wine. If I’m going to follow a winery’s Instagram feed, it’s because I genuinely want to know more about it. That’s engagement that wineries shouldn’t squander.

Tell us why we should care. Then you will motivate us to seek out your wines and visit tasting rooms.

Seeing hideously artificial “set-up” shots of people posing with bottles or a random wine sitting alone next to the fireplace, on the beach, in the woods, or whatever does nothing to inspire us to do anything but unfollow your page.

If you’re going to show me “exotic places”, why not show me the vineyard? The winery?

Photo from https://www.instagram.com/p/BuDiUdAAjI9/

Great pic from the South African winery Thistle and Weed.
How many wineries talk about whole cluster fermentation on their back label and website but never bother to show it on their IG feed?

What happens in your vineyard and the winery shouldn’t be relegated to just back label jargon. Show us what happens! Yeah, it may be mundane and routine like budburst or racking, but to most consumers, these are exotic behind-the-scenes peeks into the magic of winemaking.

Every day, every winery has a gold mine of unique and interesting content ready to be featured. In the time you take to set up some plastic presentation with flowers and fruit, you could snap dozens of infinitely more interesting Instagram posts just by following around your vineyard workers and cellar hands and letting consumers see things through their eyes.

And for Pete’s sake stop with the 9 picture “puzzle portrait” spreads!

Photos from https://www.instagram.com/jbookwalterwines/

Ugh…I actually like this winery’s wines a lot but it’s hard not to be annoyed at this colossal waste of time.

My god is this not the most ridiculous waste of space (and likely photographer and marketing fees too)! Seriously, whoever tries to tell you that this is a great use of your Instagram feed should be fired.

Few things get me to hit unfollow quicker than to have my IG feed spammed with nine separate posts featuring fragmented pieces of wine bottles–all with an annoying caption to “Check out our homepage for the whole picture!”

Why?!?!?

Why do you think I want to invest my time in checking out your ad?

The People:Places:Porn Ratio

Photos from https://www.instagram.com/beauxfreres/

A decent PPP ratio from the Oregon winery Beaux Frères.

Every winery should go to their IG feed right now and take a look at their PPP ratio. Is your feed saturated with sad bottle porn or is it alive with personality-driven pictures of the people and places that make your winery interesting and uniquely you?

The wineries that do Instagram right tend to have a People:Places:Porn Ratio of 4:4:1 for every nine pictures. There can be variances in the mix of people and places featured as long as that last number is kept low.

The key to remember is that Instagram is for capturing attention, not commercials.

You want to give consumers reasons to learn more about your story and your wines. Instagram is a great platform to hand-deliver those reasons right to an engaged audience.

You just have to show us stuff that is actually worth our time and attention. Show us stuff that is worth following.

Save the bottle porn for print media. It’s a dying medium anyway.

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Fake Wine and Real Boobs

Does sex still sell? It used to be hard to argue against appealing to one of humanity’s most basic instincts. In many marketing campaigns–after hunger and security–a little titillation was the salt that added spice to a brand’s identity.

Photo by Tania Saiz - originally posted to Flickr as red lips isolated in white, CC BY 2.0

But recent trends suggest that we are slowly moving away from these Cro-Magnon conventions.  Several studies have shown diminishing returns for ad campaigns that focus on overt sexual imagery. In some cases, they can even promote a backlash against brands.

Part of this is changing demographics with those pesky Millennials once again causing trouble.

They never want to follow the old playbook, don’t they? Even Victoria Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch have found that reaching Millennial consumers is a bit harder than the hot bods that they have splashed over their ads.

It’s probably because those sexy ads feel so fake. With around 90% of Millennials valuing authenticity in brands, it’s clear that selling fantasy is not always the best approach.

So why are there still folks in the wine industry clinging to these outdated marketing ideas?

Booth Babes and Nonsense

Earlier this month, the Bâtonnage Forum on Women in Wine conducted a panel where the topic of how women’s sexuality is used to sell wine was debated. According to Jess Landers of Seven Fifty Daily, one of the most “controversial” statements came from esteemed vintner and former UC-Davis professor Carole Meredith.

“…when I go to wine events, I see women who are overtly selling sex under the pretense of selling wine. I sometimes see women who show up to pour wine wearing very tight clothes, very short skirts, their boobs hanging out. I have to wonder, Do you feel that you have to dress like that because the wine you’re pouring just isn’t very good? Doesn’t that diminish the wine? And if it doesn’t diminish the wine, doesn’t it diminish you?” — Carole Meredith, How Women’s Sexuality Is Used to Sell Wine, May 6th, 2019

Preach it, Carole!

The scare-quotes around controversial is intentional because I honestly don’t see anything contentious with what Meredith said. In fact, I often have the same thoughts when I’m at a tasting with tarted up “booth babes” who don’t know a thing about the wine they’re pouring. It actually angers me that rather than invest in training on their products that the wineries and marketing firms that employ these women are encouraging them to use their other assets to sell wine.

I’m not angry at the women. They’re just trying to do a job. I’m angry at the mindset that thinks this schtick works.

But it only works in convincing me not to buy your wine.

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

Gratuitous side booby.

Any winery that has to resort to using sex to sell is raising the white flag.

They’re sending out the message loud and clear that what they’re putting into the bottle is as fake and vapid as their marketing. It’s a boob move.

I get that same message from brands promoted by so-called “influencers” posing with bottles on Instagram as well.

They might not have their boobs hanging out, but they’re certainly not selling you on the story or quality of the wine. Instead, they’re selling you on fakeness and parlor tricks. They want you to “hey, look over here!” while the magician pockets your card (and hopefully your money).

Maybe those tricks worked in the past. But today, misdirection is anathema to consumers craving authenticity and substance.

If you want me to buy your wine, put your clothes back on and tell me what’s in the damn bottle!

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Sculpting Soapstone in Napa

I wrapped up my week-long press tour of the Stags Leap District yesterday. You can look forward to me spending the next couple months working through my notes in between other writings and reviews. For those that want a sneak peek of some of the insights and themes that I’ll be writing about check out the SpitBucket Instagram page. There I’ve posted pictures and thoughts from many of the wineries that I’ve visited.

Photo By Lysippos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Before the trip, I wrote about some of the questions and expectations that I had going in. A large part of my role in Friedenreich’s research entourage was to bring a Millennial perspective with an eye towards what the future of the Stags Leap District could be. While that is a role that I’m apt to fill, the WSET Diploma student and wine marketer in me is also conscious of the present reality of business.

Many times in between my Millennial “what if” questions, I found myself taking a step back to think about what I would do if I were a general manager, COO or president of a Stags Leap District winery.

Honestly? There is not much that I would do differently.

Though I still see challenges ahead, I couldn’t find fault in how well-executed all these operations were. It’s clear that these wineries have found a recipe that works for them and have spent considerable time, thought and capital into honing and perfecting that recipe. They’re all working hard to maximize the gifts of terroir like a sculptor skillfully chiseling away to reveal the beauty of the piece underneath.

However, they’re not chiseling their work into granite.

The nature of the wine industry is inherently transient. It’s an agrarian product that is a consumable good. There will always be factors at play (climate change, demographics, consumer trends) that will weather even the mightiest of edifices. No matter how much care, attention and capital that you invest, everything you do will always be chiseled in soapstone.

Quixote Malbec

There is some sexy Malbec being made in the SLD. These wines combine the spiciness of Argentine Malbecs with the seductive texture of Stags Leap District wines.

Even the fabled European wine regions spent centuries, if not millennia, figuring themselves out.

Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the backbone of the great wines of the Medoc, is still in its adolescence in Bordeaux. The Bordelais have been making wine since the Romans while Cab only appeared on the scene in the late 18th century. And even then, it took some time to catch on. During the 1855 classification, many of the grandest estates of the Left Bank relied heavily on grapes like Malbec and Merlot.

The soapstone sculpture of Bordeaux has changed many times over the years. With climate change, it’s already starting to change again with a growing focus on Petit Verdot and even Malbec making a return.

With Cab barely out of the womb in Napa, why should we not expect its form to change as well?

Now I’m not discrediting the beauty of Napa and, particularly, Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon. I had many delicious examples which I’ll be writing about on this blog. But while not as numerous, there were certainly several “unicorn” wines of other grapes that had me excited about what the future sculpture of SLD could be.

Some strawmen, some strong points.

Now back to those Millennials and the future challenges they may pose.

Often I heard the strawmen assessment that Millennials would come around once they had more money. However, there were also some excellent points which I’ll tackle in future pieces.

One is that education will be paramount in reaching Millennials. That does present the challenge of how do you entice anyone to want to be educated. But I also think it offers a double edge sword. One that can both cut Napa/SLD producers just as much as it can clear the path.

Another strong point is that rather than thinking of demographics, producers should market to “tribes”–i.e., a tribe Cab-lovers. This was argued exceedingly well by Russ Joy, the general manager of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. That tribal spin invites personalization with a sense of community and identity. A sort of “hipster” approach, which is somewhat ironic.

Malk Vineyards

This tiny little patch of vines in the foreground is Malk Family Vineyards. Beyond the dirt road is Steltzner, then Joseph Phelps, then Mary Jane Fay Vineyards (fruit sold to Shafer), then Odette and FINALLY you get to the Silverado Trail.

But probably the point that I could appreciate the most was the blessing of small production.

This was made quite clear at the tiny 2-acre estate of Malk Family Vineyards. With only a few hundred cases, the Malks don’t need to focus on chasing the market. Anyone who finds them (and believe me, the drive to find them is a bit of a hunt), is someone who is already passionate and committed.

That small production provides a bit of cover that will undoubtedly help many producers weather the changes–regardless of what they’re carving.

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Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?

I’ve entered the lion’s den.
Photo By Aaron Logan - from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/albums.php, CC BY 1.0,

This week I will be in Napa assisting Kenneth Friedenreich, author of Oregon Wine Country Stories, with research on the Stags Leap District for the sequel in his Decoding the Grape series.

Surprisingly, no one has written a dedicated book about the district yet. With 2019 being the 30th anniversary of the AVA’s establishment, a deep dive into the legacy and future of this influential region seems long overdue.

That puts me on a fact-finding mission with Friedenreich and two of his other compatriots as we embark on a schedule of winery visits and interviews. In many ways, I am the odd duck in this entourage being not only the only woman but also a Millennial seeing Napa Valley beside the eyes of three Boomers.

Past and Present

The dichotomy will be rich as Friedenreich, Doc Wilson (a longtime fixture in the Oregon wine scene) and Mark, a pediatrician from Portland, represent the bread and butter of Napa Valley.

Photo By LEONARDO DASILVA, CC BY 3.0,

Are legends still exciting?

They are the generation that took with gusto an appreciation for fine American wine. For the last 40 plus year, every Napa vintner that has had an inkling of success achieved that by courting the Boomers.

While the recipe has varied somewhat over the years, the entire business model and marketing of Napa has been oriented towards enticing and exciting this large and lucrative demographic.

And it has remained a lucrative demographic even as the Boomers settle into retirement. They (along with the smaller Generation X) are still the ones buying the high priced and highly prized bottles that have paved Napa’s reputation with gold. That’s a reality that no vintner can ignore.

But what of the Future?

On the surface, I’m probably the ideal Millennial consumer that Napa wineries could hope for. I’m highly engaged with wine and willing to travel. I crave experiences which is something that Napa has spent decades perfecting. And, most keenly, I’m in a position of financial stability where I could afford to join wine clubs and regularly buy $100+ bottles if I wished.

Pritchard Hill at sunset

I will say that the view from Pritchard Hill is awe inspiring.
It does add a bit more character than the highly manicured vineyard lawns of the valley floor.

I might be a minority among my cohorts, but there are other Millennials like me, and we are the future bread and butter.

And with auspicious timing. For just as some industry folks are beating the strawman that Millennials will come running as soon as they have more money in their pockets, here I am representing the best-case scenario that Napa vintners could hope for.

How are they planning to reach me?

While Friedenreich is going to write his retrospection of the Stags Leap District from his Boomer perspective, he’s very conscious of the contemporary. One of the things that I’ll be contributing to the team is being the canary in the vineyards.

Will the Stags Leap District (and Napa in general) still be relevant in another 30 years?

Yes, Cab is King but for how long?

Even if I can afford $100+ bottles, what is the distinct value that makes getting these wines worth buying instead of a nice whiskey or the myriad of other options I have?

I’m from a generation that is notoriously in love with great stories so how are today’s SLD and Napa wineries communicating their stories? Do they feel authentic? Is it presented in a way that I can connect with and relate to?

The old recipe is not going to work.

Photo By Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA - Darioush Winery, Napa Valley, California, USAUploaded by Josve05a, CC BY 2.0,

I mean, yeah, that kind of looks interesting… I guess.

To be brutally blunt, Napa can be really boring.

The marketing to my generation has been trying to sell us a luxurious lifestyle that is rather generic.

Oh, beautiful people in a beautiful place. That’s nice.

Open up Instagram and you see a countless stream of beautiful people in beautiful places. There’s nothing special about that messaging. Been there, done that. Scroll.

Adding a glass of high priced Cab or Chardonnay doesn’t make the #NapaStyle filter feel any more unique or authentic. At worst, with literally hundreds of wineries delivering the same message, it feels fake and basic.

So what Napa will I see this week?

Will I see producers following the old recipe of success that has served them so well? Perhaps. With Boomers and Gen Xers still buying, it would be foolish to abandon it altogether.

But what I am hoping to see is a glimpse of planning for the future. I’d like to see a Stags Leap District and a Napa Valley that recognizes that the old #NapaStyle filter is a recipe for Millennials to keep scrolling past.

What I want is Napa unfiltered.

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The Folly of Price-Blind Scoring

Walk into a grocery store or wine shop and take a look around. You’re going to see tags–lots of tags–with wine scores. Usually, they’re at least 90 points because, these days, getting 90 points is akin to spelling your name right on the exam. Good job, Johnny. Gold star for you.

Photo By Caleb Zahnd from USA - Bobbing for apples, CC BY 2.0,

Now I’m not going to dive into another drivel about the scourge of score inflation or the silliness of points.

Instead, let’s talk about the Apples to Apples trap.

I’ve been banging the drum about the need to highlight value–especially for wineries wanting to capture the emerging Millennial market. These consumers are always looking for the best bang for the buck, so it’s vital to look at what kind of message we are sending them.

Is a 90 point $10 wine a better value than a 90 point $40 wine? Or what about an $8 wine with 4.2 stars on an app? Is that a better value than an $80 wine with 4.0 stars?

Apples to apples, right?
Photo By Usamasaad - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Both of these fruits have been rated “Outstanding” with superior character and style.

But we know that’s not right. We also know that the typical consumer is not going to look at the details or differences such as one score coming from Joe Schmoe while the other from a respected publication. Nor are they going to bother to learn that one wine is a 100,000+ case bulk wine from a mega-corp while another is a small lot production from a family winery’s estate vineyard.

So what happens when our value-minded Millennial consumer grabs that 90 point $10 Cab and are just “ho-hummed” by the experience? What messaging will ever make that other $40 wine worth trying? Certainly not that the message that it got 90 points!

On the flipside, what if they absolutely loved the $10 wine but thought the $40 wine was crap. Then we get back to the lovely “No wine is worth spending more than XX because of blah” circle of Dante’s Inferno.

Sure, education is always the easy answer but, as an industry, we have to accept that education is not the elixir that we so desperately wish it was. Lots of consumers, if not most, are not interested in education. They want short-cuts and the security blanket of stars and numbers.

They want an apple to be an apple–not an orange, not a coconut.

So what do we do?

Get rid of “price-blind” scoring

Go ahead, keep your scores, stars and numbers. But put some teeth and reality behind them. Let an apple still be an apple but point out when it is a Braeburn (your daily value drinker) versus a Pink Lady (something more of a treat). And don’t be afraid to compare them to other apples. Yeah, this Pink Lady is not worth the money compared to the Honeycrisp or Fiji.

Of course, you can’t do this blind (in any fashion) but maybe that’s not such a bad thing?

I expressed this sentiment about judging wines based on value in a recent Twitter thread where wine writer Robert Joseph countered with a very astute point.

He’s right. Just as some tasters would judge expensive wines more harshly, there are others who would be more inclined to give them an easy pass. However, the fact that two types of biases exist doesn’t mean that both are equally valid. If one benefits the consumer (judging on value) while the other doesn’t (judging on faux merit), then the answer is to root out the afflicting bias.

The critic who automatically thinks that a high price=great score is wrong and should be called out on that. While they aren’t likely to admit that bias (and it may be self-conscious), patterns always emerge. Instead of accepting this, we should be challenging these judges to actively and consciously rethink their biases.

Being “price-blind” doesn’t work in the real world.

By InterestingPics - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sometimes you don’t need an “Outstanding” apple. Sometimes you just want to get an apple that you can use to both bake a pie and have as a snack. Or a wine that you can cook and serve with dinner.

A consumer standing in front of a wall of wine is not “price-blind.” They have a budget and an expectation for what they can get within the limits of their wallet and credit card. We have to recognize and respond to this.

However, one of the biggest hindrances is that most professional writers receive the wines they review as free samples. I understand why it benefits wineries to put their bottles in front of people who will write about them. And I definitely appreciate the benefits to writers who often can’t afford to buy all the wines they review.

But samples still remove the writer from having to deal with the realities of the consumer–how they actually think and shop–when they write their reviews. That’s an obstacle that we have to work to understand and overcome.

There are reasons why a consumer may want to buy a Braeburn and reasons why they may want to buy a Pink Lady. Likewise, there are different reasons and expectations for buying a $10 wine for pizza and a $40 wine to take to dinner with the in-laws.

Even if a critic is receiving their wines as free samples, they need to at least acknowledge that “objectively” judging the pizza and nice dinner wine on same scale is foolish.

So let’s stop being foolish.

Bottle of Petrus

While I don’t regret spending $2600 on this bottle of Petrus, I would much rather buy multiple bottles of Ch. Angelus than buy another.
Beyond a one-time “Super Bowl” experience, it’s simply not worth it. I feel like it would be hard to be that honest if I had this wine as a free sample.

Let’s stop pretending that price doesn’t matter and that we can objectively review a wine based solely on the merits of what’s in the glass. For god sakes, how many decades have we spent playing this charade?

Yes, there are going to be bias but let’s tackle those biases head-on and put them in their place.

The onus of every critic and wine writer should be to first acknowledge their own biases with price. They need to step back and think of how often their eyes automatically go “oooooh” at the sight of an expensive bottle and wonder “why?” that is so. Conversely, if the thought of tasting a “value wine” makes us recoil, we need to own up to that too.

The second onus we have is to put ourselves into the consumer’s shoes as much as we can. And the best way to do that is to start comparing apples to apples.

So you’ve received a $50 bottle of wine as a sample. Great.

Now how does that wine compared to the other $50 bottles of wines that you may have purchased yourself at some point? Or the $30 bottles, $20 bottles, $200 bottles whatever.

The number one question that every critic should ask themselves when reviewing a wine is–how would I feel buying this with my own money? Would I feel like I got a good bang for my buck? Or would I feel like I’d rather had spent the money on something else?

Now, wait, how does this solve our “Apples to Apples” trap from above?

Come on Amber! If we’re grading on the curve of value then doesn’t that mean we’re still going to have those $10 wines that someone thinks is drinking pretty good for a $10 wine and those $40 wines that someone else thinks is drinking pretty good for a $40 both get 90 points?

Yes, and that’s precisely the point.

Instead of painting critic scores as an “objective” assessment of intrinsic quality, we’re letting it be a subjective assessment of value. A $10 wine that drinks pretty good compared to other $10 wines should be highlighted as worthwhile just as a $40 wine should be assessed among its peers.

Instead of being a trap, we turn our bounty of 90 point wines into bushels–each with their own kinds of apples. That’s certainly preferable to the wine industry’s current gig of tossing all these apples into a tub filled with water and wishing the consumer “Good Luck!”

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The Wine Industry’s Millennial Strawman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo By Sideways11 - Own work, Public Domain,

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

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

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

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

But why would we?

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

Henry Mckenna Bourbon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Avocado Toast Test

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

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

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

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

Why do people like avocado toast?

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

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

Does your wine offer any of that?

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

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

By Agne27, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Box Wine Envy

Right now, I am sipping on a glass of French Muscadet that I paid the equivalent of $3.86 a bottle for. With its medium intensity nose of citrus and green apple, crisp acidity and moderate finish, I would peg this wine in a blind tasting as something in the $8-10 range.

Muscadet box wine

It’s simple, refreshing and eminently drinkable. But instead of paying $8-10 for a bottle that I won’t finish by myself, I’m savoring this glass over lunch with many more opportunities over the next 3-5 weeks to repeat the experience. All for a grand total of 13.79 euros ($15.44 USD).

Such is the beauty and potential of boxed wines.

Unfortunately, this is an experience that is difficult to repeat in the US. Back home, while the selection is improving, the usual options for many wine drinkers are the mass-produced (and often highly manipulated) supermarket brands of Black Box, Bota Box, House Wine, Bandit or (shudder) Peter Vella, Almaden, Carlo Rossi and Franzia.

While Australia and parts of Europe have enthusiastically embraced the benefits of box wines, there is a chicken and egg conundrum in the US about them. Box wines have a poor reputation among US consumers. Therefore, quality minded producers don’t want to bother with them.

But why do US consumers associate box wines with poor quality?

Perhaps, because the quality of box wines that we’ve been exposed to has been shit?

The French Paradox

Corsican box rose.

Admittedly, not all of them are winners.
I’m sure 6 to 8 months ago this Corsican rosé was lovely. But now it is definitely on its wane and is just ho-hum.

How can a country with a reputation for snobbery be so ahead of the US in embracing box wines?

They’re everywhere and account for more than a third of retail wine sales in France. At the cafés, American tourists pair their Parisian memories with glasses of vin rouge and vin blanc.  Many go home none the wiser that their 25 and 50 cl carafes were filled via a plastic spigot.

Walk into a French grocer and at least half an aisle is dedicated not to the Franzia and Black Boxes of the world, but rather to things like Macon-Village, Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone, Provençal rosé, Anjou blanc and Côtes de Bordeaux–in the box! Ranging in price from 12 to 20 euros ($13 to $22), these aren’t Franzia-level cheap but on-par with the pricing of “premium” Black and Bota Box offerings.

I have yet to visit a BiBoViNo, a French wine bar that specializes in box wines, but there I will have the option of trying old vine Cinsault, Cru Beaujolais and even Condrieu (!) sold by the box.

That would be akin to having an old vine Dry Creek Zinfandel, a Dundee Hills Pinot noir or a high-end Walla Walla White Rhone available to consumers in a box.

Can you imagine how wonderful that would be?

Why US Producers Should Give Box Wines Another Look

No one is arguing that we need to completely disregard bottles. Nor do we need to turn everything into bag-in-box. There is always going to be a place for fine wine and cellar-worthy treasures.

But the vast, vast majority of wine consumed is not cellar-worthy wine. Most wines that are consumed at lunch, dinner or relaxing on the couch with a book are young wines that do not benefit from the gradual aging of cork in a bottle.

Why have so many other parts of the world caught on to this before the US?

Maraval white bag wine cooking

Box and 1.5L bags are excellent for cooking–such as when you need just a splash to deglaze a pan or add flavor to steamed veggies.
However, you never want to cook with something you wouldn’t drink. Hence, the importance of needing a good quality box options.

With the changing market dynamics of Millennials and the upcoming Generation Z, the last thing that US producers want to do is rest on their laurels. What worked for selling wine to the Baby Boomers and Generation X is not guaranteed to work on these consumers.

Just as the wine industry has done for millennia, US producers are going to need to adapt or perish.

Not every solution is right for every producer, but it’s always wise for a winery to look at how their current production is fulfilling consumers’ needs.

1.) Moderation

While I’m skeptical of the scare-mongering reports that Gen Z is going to be the abstinence or teetotaling generation, I do think that moderation is firmly en vogue. Anyone that plans on selling wine over the next 40 years should probably take note.

Millennials and Gen Zers have seen too many of their peers lose jobs and college prospects over unflattering photos, tweets and videos that stem from over-indulgence. While Boomers and Gen Xers had the privilege of their college keggers and booze cruises going undocumented, we now live in an era of social shaming. Undoubtedly, that kind of negative reinforcement is going to influence behaviors.

But instead of the wine industry throwing this consumer base into the arms of “mocktails” and alcohol-removed Franken wines, they should be trumpeting the same mantra that has been preached since the days of the ancient Greeks–moderation.

It is best to rise from life as from a banquet, neither thirsty nor drunken. — Aristotle

Throw moderation to the winds, and the greatest pleasures bring the greatest pains. — Democritus

Think Outside the (750ml) Bottle.
Belgian beer

The lunchtime quandary — get snockered on a bottle of wine in one sitting or try to save it to finish at dinner (assuming you even want to drink the same thing).
Or…..you can have a beer.

What’s one big advantage that beer, cider and hard seltzers have over wine right now? Their go-to packaging is usually single-served options like 12 to 16 oz cans and bottles.

With spirits, they have the benefit of longevity after opening which still allows convenient single-served shots or cocktails without excess waste.

Now, yes, the wine world is playing catch-up with single-serving cans and tetra paks. Also, thankfully, more producers are giving half-bottle (375ml) another go.

But, usually, when you bring up the problem of opening up a full bottle for just a glass or two, you’re met with either condescending mocking of “Leftover wine? What’s that?” or calls to shell out $200+ for an expensive Coravin preservation system.

Of course, someone may suggest coughing up $10 for a vacuum pump system but, seriously, don’t waste your money.

For the $30+ wine, the Coravin is probably the best advice. But the vast majority of wine drinkers aren’t regularly consuming $30+ wine. For these consumers, who just want a nice glass after work or something to have with dinner, one of the best solutions for moderation without waste is a 1.5 or 3-liter box wine that can last 3 to 5 weeks.

But the quality (and value) has to be there.

2.) Value

As I’ve touted many times before, the wine industry can not let the Millennial Math get away from them. The industry has to deal with the lethargy of value options they’re peddling because other categories are far out-performing them.

However, box wines can be a great equalizer here.

The “filling” of bag-in-box packaging does require changes from the traditional bottling line. But there can be substantial savings in production costs. This is especially true when you consider freight and shipping costs of glass bottles. The typical 3 L box uses 91% less packaging material than the equivalent four (750ml) bottles of wine and weighs 41% less.

Those savings add up. Hopefully, they’re passed on to the consumer.

Guardian news print

The Guardian Newsprint Red Blend is a tasty bottle for $18.
But it would be insanely good as a $40 three liter box wine.

It would be a Millennial Math game-changer if instead of being relegated to the Barefoots, Yellow Tails, Apothics and Clos du Bois’ of the sub $10 world, a consumer could get a Washington red blend in a $40 three-liter box. Or Paso Robles rosé in a 1.5L bag for $20.

Even better, take a page out of the French playbook and give American consumers the chance to enjoy a 6 oz glass of Muscadet for the equivalent of 97 cents a glass. That’s cheaper than soda at McDonald’s.

That’s how you start winning the Millennial Math.

3.) Sustainability

There is no doubt that the upcoming generations of wine consumers has the environment on their minds. Many wineries are responding by becoming more “green friendly” with better farming practices in the vineyard, controlling water waste and building LEED Platinum certified wineries.

recycle bin filled with bottles

Plus, there is only so much that a poor recycling bin can take.

All of those are successes that should be touted and emulated. But none of those things are physical, tangible items that a consumer can hold in their hands and feel good about putting in their cart.

It’s hard to get much feel-good mojo picking up a weighty glass bottle of wine that has the same carbon footprint as driving 3 miles in a gas-powered car–regardless of how many “green friendly” achievements are touted on the back label.

In contrast, a 3L box wine drastically cuts that footprint. In a New York Times opinion piece, Tyler Coleman (Dr. Vino) notes that “switching to wine in a box for the 97 percent of wines that are made to be consumed within a year would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about two million tons, or the equivalent of retiring 400,000 cars.

That’s a lot of feel-good mojo.

The Chicken Needs to Act

Back to our chicken and egg scenario.

Quality-minded wineries are hesitant to invest in producing good quality box wines because of the lowly reputation they have among consumers. Consumers are reluctant to try box wines because of their lowly status and bad past experiences.

Photo by fir0002flagstaffotos [at] gmail.com Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under GFDL 1.2,

Psst….hey you. You wanna try some kombucha?

Something’s got to give.  That something is US wineries taking the lead by putting better quality box wines out on the market. Leading instead of reacting.

The wine industry doesn’t have the luxury of sitting around waiting for consumers to “demand” better box wines. Other chickens are already busy courting them.

If wineries aren’t going to give consumers the eggs they want to make better omelets (moderation, value, sustainability), then craft beer, cannabis, cider, hard seltzers and spirit producers will be all too willing to step into that void.

So it’s time for the wine industry to stop running scared and embrace the box.

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Wine Above Replacement (WAR) Part I — Hard Seltzer

It’s Opening Day for Major League Baseball. Unfortunately, I had to deal with my St. Louis Cardinals sleepwalking through their opener with the Milwaukee Brewers, so I’m looking for a good distraction. Thankfully, that mental break came from revisiting a Facebook thread about my Winery Moneyball article.

Spiked Seltzer

In a tongue-in-cheek comment, the Sierra Wine Guy wondered When will wineries start using WAR [Wins Above Replacement]?

That got me thinking, what would be a good wine industry equivalent to WAR?

What is WAR?

I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty sabermetrics here. But WAR is essentially the calculation of a player’s value to the team above that of the typical bench player or minor-leaguer. Instead of focusing on just one aspect of a player’s game (like offensive stats), WAR aims to calculate their total value including defensive runs saved, baserunning and pitching.

Taking all these metrics together, WAR presumes that having a player like Mookie Betts on your team (10.9 WAR in 2018) is worth almost 11 more wins than signing Joe Schmoe off the waiver wire. In contrast, it may have been better for the Orioles in 2018 to sit Chris Davis and eat his $161 million contract instead of trotting him out on the field to deliver a -3.1 WAR. Ouch!

Though far from perfect, WAR stats have dramatically changed the evaluation of players in baseball (for better or worse). The reason is that, at its core, WAR doesn’t look at each player as a monolith. It tries to look at the bigger picture by recognizing that the needs of baseball teams are multi-faceted (hitting, pitching, base running, defense). It then tries to see how well each player fits into that jigsaw puzzle.

How does this apply to wine?
Photo By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA . Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.0,

And the under $9 category is starting to look really Chris Davis-y.

Like a baseball team, wine consumers are multi-faceted. They have a multitude of needs beyond just being thirsty that wine aims to fill. But wine is also similar to a ballplayer in that it’s not monolithic either. It is more than just a mixture of alcohol and water.

Which makes it kind of ironic that wine is losing “throat share” (particularly with Millennials) to things like hard (spiked) seltzer–which is literally just alcohol and water.

While wine sales in the US are expecting to level out, or even decline, in 2019, producers of hard seltzer like White Claw and Truly are looking forward to a gangbuster year. And why shouldn’t they? They had already seen growth from $85 million in sales between 2016-2017 to more than $250 million in 2018.

In the metric of Wine Above Replacement, the WAR of hard seltzer is rising while that of wine is most definitely falling.

Why?

Photo By Mwinog2777 - Own work, Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0,

Maybe I would have enough to buy a new Goldschmidt Cardinals jersey.

It all goes back to consumer needs and if they’re being met. Admittedly, dissecting the needs of the typical wine consumer is not cut and dry.

It’s certainly not as easy as looking at the St. Louis Cardinals leading the league in errors last year (133), and thinking that maybe they need some defensive help–like, perhaps, a Gold Glover at first base?

Decades of marketing ink has been spilled studying wine consumers and breaking them down into various segmentations based on needs. If I had all the answers, I’d be a wealthy woman. Well, actually no, I wouldn’t be wealthy because no one really pays for wine content anymore.

But, as W. Blake Gray has noted, Millennials are talking about what they want. Maybe the hard seltzer industry is simply doing a better job of listening?

A few of the things that Gray highlights in his piece are Millennials’ interest in healthier products, transparency, our aversion to boredom as well as our cravings for personal experiences. One other item that I would add is the sense of value and getting a good bang for the buck that is important to many Millennials.

Let’s see how hard seltzer is tackling these needs.
1.) Healthy

Believe it or not, a fair amount of consumers actually believe that hard seltzer is healthier than wine. Part of this is slick marketing from the big players in the seltzer industry (including the non-alcoholic leader La Croix). But this is also a failing of the wine industry in not counter punching the recent spate of negative press about wine and health issues.

Rob McMillan makes this latter point extremely well in a recent blog post.

We as an industry have lost our way in our daily quest to sell our production. We stopped talking to the consumer and stopped defending [against] the junk science out there. We stopped supporting the decades of science that proves there are health benefits of consuming wine. Our consumer is reading the press and without a rebuttal, they no longer believe moderate consumption [is] part of a healthy diet. — Rob McMillan, I Can’t Take the Lunacy!, 3/28/2019

Meanwhile, Truly and White Claw are peddling the “Vodka Paradox” that just because something is clear and low in calories, then it must be good for you.

2.) Transparency
Photo By Naotake Murayama - Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0,

Though if more wineries adopted Ridge’s approach to transparency and labeling, that would be a positive step.

Gray does an excellent job of illustrating the dichotomy of back labels between hard seltzer packaging and most wine bottles.

I’m not entirely sold on the idea of extensive ingredient lists and nutritional labeling on wine. Ultimately, I think it will bury small family wineries in bureaucracy more than it will expose mass-produced and additive laden commodity wines. But, I will concede that the labeling (or lack thereof) does provide a stark contrast.

However, the perception of the wine industry as opaque and obtuse is also not helped by our myriad of grape varieties, wine regions and laws that require an insider’s knowledge to untangle. This is another stark contrast with hard seltzer.

Even with the sleight of hand “healthy” marketing, any consumer buying hard seltzer knows what they are getting. Water and alcohol. They don’t need to attend classes, buy books, read blogs, subscribe to magazines or attend special tastings to understand what they’re drinking. That transparency of “getting it” is something that wine is never going to match.

But this doesn’t have to be negative. Keep reading.

3.) Interesting
Photo by Kaitlin Lunny. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

As soon as hard bacon seltzer hits the market, the shark-jumping will commence.

Right now, hard seltzer has the “cool factor.” It’s not boring and it is certainly not what your parents are drinking. It’s the Instagram to wine’s Facebook.

But that shine will eventually wear off, leaving exposed how transparently simple hard seltzer really is. Yeah, it’s water and alcohol with some flavoring added. It’s flavored vodka for newbies. Been there. Done that.

Eventually, Millennials are going to get bored as there are only so many flavors and fancy packaging that the industry can come up with to keep entertaining them. When the market moves on to find something new, wine’s “weakness” of its complexity and diversity can be a strength.

That’s when the wine industry needs to be the heavily tattooed guy streaking on the field in the middle of the game. Folks might not know what the heck is going on, but they know that something is going on. And no one is taking their eyes away until the naked dude gets tackled.

4.) Personal Experience (relatability)

But what do we do when the Millennials’ eyes are finally upon us? How do we bump up our WAR to make wine more enviable over the many options clamoring to replace it?

Show them our tattoos. Tell them our stories. Give them a reason to connect with wine on a personal level.

Here is where wine can smoke its competitors.

This is where we can get WAR separation as an industry. This is where we are more Mookie and less Chris Davis.

The industry is chockful of so many compelling personal stories (check out this terrific write-up of Dirty & Rowdy’s Hardy Wallace for one example) that we don’t need to resort to gimmicks like Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer’s “made-up” female founders.

AB InBev’s SuperBowl commercial featuring Bon & Viv’s “founders” was a big hit. But this quote from an AB InBev vice-president shows how patronizing and nauseating that ad really was.

“It has two females in a founder position and presented in a different way than we have ever seen alcohol present females characters before,” [Chelsea] Phillips says about the fictional founders depicted in the commercial. “The strength of these women is very important to me. As a female VP, I want to see more of that representation in this space, but I didn’t want it to be a trope. I just wanted it to feel natural… versus more of an overt statement.” — Greg Morabito, Eater, 2/3/2019

Instead of actually promoting a brand founded by women, you make up some female founders to show them in this powerful position? Right….

So much for transparency, eh?

5.) Value
Spiked water.

Spiked water–not seltzer, not sparkling. Just boozy water.
Though, is this really that far off from cheap, bulk Pinot grigio?

I can not bang this drum loud enough. The wine industry sucks at Millennial Math.

Not only do we do a poor job of conveying value at all levels of the pricing scale, but we’ve also virtually abandoned the bottom shelf of budget-priced options to craft beer, cider and, now, hard seltzer.

For less than $10, a Millennial can buy a 6pk of dozens of different flavors of various hard seltzers. What kind of sub $10 options is the wine industry giving them? A plethora of mass-produced (and often highly manipulated) Cabs, Chards and Red Blends that all virtually taste the same.

Yeah, eventually all those different hard seltzers are going to start tasting the same too. But then the Millennials can move onto hundreds of craft beer options or cider or cannabis or kombucha or cocktails or who knows what comes next.

The Moral of WAR in the Wine Industry

If you’re not producing–if you’re not fulfilling multiple needs–there is always a replacement.

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