Tag Archives: Diageo

Tracking the Tastemakers

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

I’m reminded of Austrian puppeteer Karin Schäfer often when I walk into a supermarket’s wine department.

Recently Wine Enthusiast released their Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers for 2018–a list highlighting the folks who are “… doing their part to lead the conversation and leave a lasting influence on the world of food and drink for generations to come.”

Admittedly lists like this usually illicit an eye roll response from me because of the feel of puffery that abounds in them. Often when I look more critically at these kinds of list, such as Social Vignerons’ 2018 Top 40+ Wine Influencers which I reviewed in my post Under the (Social Media) Influence, I find an absence of voices and views that actually do influence me to check out a new wine, winemaker or region.

Then there is the cynical part of me who looks at the world of wine through the jaded sunglasses of supermarket shelves dominated by mega-corporations and massive consolidation among distributors which leaves me feeling that the real “tastemakers” in the US sits on the boards of E&J Gallo, Constellation Brands, Diageo, Brown-Foreman, Beam Suntory, Treasury Wine Estates, AB InBev, Costco, Young’s Market Company, Republic National Distributing and Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits.

But that wouldn’t make a very exciting list now would it? Plus, I’m sure the puppeteers that are heading the decision-making at these companies would prefer to keep their strings hidden.

A Taste of Vox Populi

While the geek in me would love to see more people get excited about Pét-Nat sparklers and wines made from unique grape varieties like Trousseau, Fiano, Touriga Nacional, Pošip, Xinomavro and others, I know I’m in the minority.

So I sit by and shake my head as people go nuts over wines aged in bourbon barrels, mixed with cold brew coffee, Frosé cocktails, blue wine or silly packaging with “living labels”–the quality of the contents inside the bottle be damned.

Can’t argue with success even if it is not your cup of tea.


Even trends that start out on a craft level soon get co-opt and commercialized like how making cider from red-fleshed heritage apples became the latest rosé trend. The rye whiskey heritage that pre-dates the Revolution is now “marketable” with the big boys like Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey and Jim Beam hopping on the rye wagon and expanding their portfolios. Patron and Jose Cuervo have their eyes set on the Mezcal market.

And let’s not even get started with what’s become of the sour beer and hazy IPA segments.

But c’est la vie.

If there is a dollar to be made in the beverage industry, somebody will be there to make it.

In vino veritas

Like wine, there is truth in innovation and if history has taught us anything over the course the 10,000+ years that humans have been consuming alcohol it is that we do like a little variety in our tipple–even if that variety is pumpkin spiced flavored.

Photo by Stephen Witherden. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Y’all know its only a matter of time till Apothic PSL comes out, right?


To that extent, I’ll set aside my cynicism to look at Wine Enthusiast’s list and highlight for you some of the folks whose stories I’ve found spark just a bit of hope in my world weary heart.

Maggie Campbell – President/Head Distiller, Privateer Rum; Board of Directors Vice President, American Craft Spirits Association

A female head distiller who has a WSET diploma and is pursuing a Master of Wine certification? Badass! My wife is from the Peabody/Salem, Massachusetts area which is a short drive from Privateer Rum in Ipswich so the next time we’re visiting family back east, I’m definitely putting this distillery on my “Must Visit” list.

Paul Elliot — Founder, Loft & Bear

In all honesty, the vodka industry has been something of a joke the last couple decades with flavors and marketing holding more sway than quality and craftsmanship. I have to tip my hat to the small craft distilleries who try their best to forge a living in this category. While the whiskey, gin, rum and tequila categories have their Goliaths, those mediums at least give the Davids a few rocks of opporunities to differentiate themselves with their ingredients and aging. That’s a tougher task in the craft vodka segment.

Kudos to Elliot and Loft & Bear which not only wants to stand out from the pack but also wants to give back through their charity commitments.

Jim Fischer and Jenny Mosbacher — Co-winemakers, Fossil & Fawn

Photo by  Cornischong . Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

Admit it. You can see Treasury Wine Estates coming out with a “Living Amphora” series of Natural Wines at some point.

While I haven’t always been enthralled with the quality of natural wines, I do respect the commitment and passion behind the people who make them. I haven’t had a chance to try Fossil & Fawn yet but, being Pacific Northwest neighbors, I’ll certainly make an effort to seek them out when I’m in the Portland area.

But, and I’m going to let my cynicism slip in here, I do think that the moment when the Natural Wine Movement has made it will be when wineries like Fossil & Fawn start getting gobbled up by mega-corps like Constellation Brands (a la AB InBev’s mad buying spree of craft brewers).

It will be both a sad and triumphant time for the Natural Wine Movement but I’ll raise a glass and hope that folks like Fischer & Mosbacher still stay part of La Résistance and can make a healthy living doing so.

Maya Dalla Valle – Director, Dalla Valle Vineyards

Dalle Valle has been one of the few Napa “cult wines” that I’ve believed have been worth the hype. It is heartening to see the vineyards still stay in the family and that rather than resting on her name, Maya has gone out into the world to gain real experience at wineries across the globe.

Jésus Guillén — Owner/Winemaker, Guillén Family Wines; Winemaker, White Rose Estate

The last few times I’ve had White Rose wines from the Dundee Hills, I’ve been impressed. Learning about Guillén’s story gives me reason to explore these wines more as well as his own family estate wines.

The windmill that is featured on many of the Long Meadow Ranch wines is still holding the fort on their Mayacamas property overlooking Rutherford.


Chris Hall — Proprietor/Chief Operating Officer, Long Meadow Ranch

Long Meadow Ranch has been one of my favorite Napa estates for a while. Such an under the radar gem with a great winemaking pedigree that began with the legendary Cathy Corison and now features Ashley Heisey (previously of Far Niente and Opus One), Stéphane Vivier (previously of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti’s owners’ California project–Hyde de Villaine) and Justin Carr (previously of Cakebread, Rudd and Hourglass).

But visiting the estate a couple years ago as well as their delicious farm-to-table restaurant really hit home for me the Hall family’s commitment to sustainability and the environment.

Jonathan Hajdu — Winemaker, Covenant Wines

I’m not Jewish but I’ve listened to many Jewish friends over the years lament about the poor selection and quality level of many kosher wines–especially those that are mevushal which are flash pasteurized so they can be handled by non-Jews.

While I know that there are quality minded producers in Israel and abroad making kosher wines, their small productions and the hurdles of importation limits their access to US consumers. Being based in Napa and Sonoma, Covenant Wines does have the potential to fill in a sorely needed niche. It never hurts when you have fruit sources like Rudd’s Oakville Estate and Mt. Veeder vineyards!

Their limited production will make them hard to find outside the Pacific Northwest but if you get an opportunity to try Trout’s VITAL wines, take it.

Ashley Trout — Owner/Winemaker, Brook & Bull Cellars; Head Winemaker, Vital Wines

I’ve been a fan of Ashley Trout since her first project, Flying Trout Wines which is now owned by TERO estates. Recently I was really impressed with her VITAL rosé at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting earlier this year which I documented in my Walla Walla Musings post.

The entire VITAL project is super cool and worth supporting with all the profits from the wine label going to the SOS Clinic of Walla Walla that provides healthcare for under-served members of the community–including many vineyard workers and their families.

I was wondering why Ashley Trout was pictured in her Wine Enthusiast photo op drinking Duckhorn wine until I read that she is married to Brian Rudin the winemaker of Duckhorn’s Red Mountain project, Canvasback. They have two kids who have likely inherited some really good winemaking genes.

Katarina Martinez — Owner/Head Brewer, Lineup Brewing

While no industry is immune, the beer industry has had a lot of light shined recently on the rampant sexism that women working in the industry face. There is even a website called Beer & Sexism which documents stories of women brewers and employees with experiences that range from mild (but thoroughly annoying) mansplaining to severe sexual harassment.

There is no universal blessing bestowed on women that means they’re going to make better beer but with women brewers representing only around 10% of the industry, its worth going out your way to support the underdog.

While it will probably be tough to find the New York-based Lineup Brewing on the West Coast, I’ll keep an eye out for Martinez’s brews.

Krista Scruggs — Vigneronne, Zafa Wines

This entry had me raising an eye brow and going “Whoa!”. Scruggs with her Vermont-based Zafa Wines is experimenting with co-fermenting wine grapes with farmed and forage apples as a sort of a wine-cider hybrid project that sounds crazy cool.

I have no idea how easy her stuff is to find but its worth the search to find what Scruggs describes on her website as “JUST FUCKING FERMENTED JUICE FROM RESPONSIBLY FARMED LIVING FRUIT.

Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen — Winemaker/Co-owner, W.T. Vintners/Raconteur Wine Company; Wine Director, RN74

I don’t hide my affections for W.T. Vintners’s wines like their delicious rosé and very Old Worldish 2015 Boushey Vineyard Rhone blend that beat out (for me) the 2014 Sadie Family Columella (which was nearly 3x the price) at this year’s Washington vs World Blind Tasting Event. Plus, the food and wine experience at RN 74 in Seattle is second to none.

This Madeira flight at RN74 featuring (left to right) a 1988 Malmsey, 1976 Terrantez and a 1948 Bual (!!!) is among my Top 10 lifetime wine moments for sure.


That said, I’m still a bit skeptical at how much influence winemakers and sommeliers have in the bigger scheme of the industry. Yeah, they can make great wine and put together a great list but for the majority of wine drinkers who are picking up a bottle of wine at the grocery store or Costco to take home for dinner, they’re more apt to be swayed by fancy packaging than by “terroir-driven, single-vineyard wines.”

Sorry, my cynicism is leaking out again.

Kelli White — Senior Staff Writer, GuildSomm

For me, personally, I will have to say that Kelli White has been the one figure on this list who has actually influenced my tastes and approach to wine. Over the last year since I’ve discovered her work on GuildSomm, she has become one of my favorite wine writers.

I’ve learned so much from her with this just being a small sampling of some of her outstanding work.

The Devastator: Phylloxera Vastatrix & The Remaking of the World of Wine

The Evolution of American Oak

Photo by εγώ. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under free licenses.

The root of my Xinomavro obsession of late.

Gods & Heroes: Xinomavro in Northern Greece

Brettanomyces: Science & Context

Major Maladies of the Vine

The GuildSomm website is worth bookmarking just for her articles alone.

Hannibal ad portas

These next listings are probably the most realistic inclusions on Wine Enthusiast’s list because these folks actually have the position and power to influence the market in substantial ways.

Neil Bernardi – Vice President of Winemaking, Duckhorn Wine Company; General Manager, Kosta Browne

Duckhorn has grown immensely from it founding as a small Napa winery by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976. It’s becoming a large mega-corp in its own right with a portfolio of brands that includes Paraduxx, Goldeneye, Migration, Decoy, Canvasback, Calera and Kosta Browne. This is a story not that far off from that of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates which started as a small Washington winery and now has a portfolio that includes more than 26 brands like 14 Hands, Columbia Crest, Erath, Borne of Fire, Northstar, Spring Valley Vineyards, Conn Creek, Patz & Hall and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Duckhorn’s growth is on a steep trajectory and I don’t see their strings of acquisitions slowing down. A big question, especially as they acquire more vineyards and contracts, is whether they will continue to keep their brand holdings in the upper premium range or expand more of their value offerings like Decoy.

Katie Jackson — Vice President of Sustainability and External Affairs, Jackson Family Wines

Photo by 	Jim G. uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Vineyards outside Kendall-Jackson’s Wine Center in Santa Rosa.

Yeah, Jackson Family Wines is huge with over 30 brands in California (including La Crema, Siduri, Brewer-Clifton, Byron, Cambria, Freemark Abbey, Cardinale and Copain), a growing presence in Oregon (buying Penner-Ash and Willakenzie among others) as well as wineries across the globe. They make (and have no problem selling) more than 3 million cases a year of their Vintner Reserve Chardonnay.

That translates to a lot of influence and sway in the industry so it is heartening to read about Katie Jackson’s effort to promote sustainability across her family’s empire including the public release of sustainability reports. Just a few days ago it was announced that more than three-quarters of the company’s vineyards (which includes 12,000 acres under the Kendall-Jackson label alone) are certified sustainable.

That’s a significant needle mover that will certainly have a long term impact on not only the wine industry but on the health of the environment as a whole. While I can often be dour on large wine companies, I have to sincerely applaud Katie Jackson and the Jackson family for these efforts.

Maybe there is hope for my cynical heart yet.

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The Winery Twitter Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Twitter work for wineries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say No to Bottle Porn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Great Winery Twitter Accounts to Follow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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60 Second Whiskey Reviews — Dalwhinnie Winter’s Gold

Some quick thoughts on the Dalwhinnie Winter’s Gold Single Malt.

The Geekery
According to Charles MacLean’s Whiskypedia, Dalwhinnie is the coldest distillery in Scotland with an average annual temperature of 42.8 °F (6 °C).

Founded in 1897, Dalwhinnie was sold in 1905 to American distiller Cook & Bernheimer, making it the first Scottish distillery under foreign ownership. The advent of US Prohibition in 1919 ushered its return to Scottish hands. Through mergers and acquisitions, the distillery changed owners multiple times over the years with it eventually ending up in the Diego stable where it is part of the Classic Malts series representing the Highlands.

The Winter’s Gold is a non-age statement bottling sourced from spirit distilled during the heart of winter between October and March. Like others in the Dalwhinnie line, it is crafted with lightly peated malt from Roseisle and water sourced from Lochan Doire Uaine in the Drumochter Hills. The whiskey is aged in mostly ex-bourbon barrels.

A unique expression, the distillery recommends enjoying the whiskey straight from the freezer.

The Whiskey
(Room temperature) Fruity nose, like candied citrus and honey. Some subtle oak spice. No note of peat.

(Freezer) Still very fruity but instead of citrus there is a mix of apple and tropical fruit. The spice completely disappears.

By Andrew Wood, CC BY-SA 2.0 on Wikimedia commons

The Dalwhinnie distillery is often snowbound during the winter.

The palate at room temperature is sweet with the honey and fruit being very prevalent. The peat appears finally but is slight. Very light in body at 43% ABV.

From the freezer, everything gets more muted except, paradoxically, the peat which becomes more of a floral heather peat like a very lightly peated Highland Park.

The Verdict

An interesting dram but I’m not sold on the “enjoy from the freezer” marketing angle and preferred it at room temp. It follows the typical light & sweet Dalwhinnie style and would be a good “Breakfast Scotch”.

At around $45-50, it offers a decent value but, personally, I think the jump to their 15 year in the $70-75 range delivers a lot more depth.

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60 Second Wine Reviews – Benziger Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon

Some quick thoughts on the 2014 Benziger Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Geekery

Brothers Mike and Bruno Benziger founded Benziger Family Winery in 1980 with the launch of their Glen Ellen brand. Based in the Sonoma Mountain AVA, the winery became certified biodynamic by the Demeter Association in 2000. Today it is one of the largest producers of organic, biodynamic and sustainably produced wine in the United States.

In 1993, the Benzigers sold Glen Ellen to Heublein Spirits which eventually became part of Diageo. In 2015, the Benziger Family Winery itself was sold to The Wine Group where the brand is now part of a portfolio that includes Mad Dog 20/20, Cupcake, Chloe, Concannon, Mogen David, Franzia and (once again) Glen Ellen.

In addition to their Sonoma Mountain estate, the winery also sources fruit from the Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast, Carneros and Russian River Valley AVAs of Sonoma County.

The Wine

Medium plus intensity nose. Very jammy and oaky. Dark berry fruits with lots of sweet vanilla.

Most of the aroma notes, especially the oak, carry through the palate with blackberry pie being the dominant flavor. Medium tannins and medium-minus acidity add to the sense of jamminess.

The Verdict

By Photo (c)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Sweet vanilla, baking spice and jammy blackberry fruit sums up this wine very well.


A decent burger wine for a glass pour price around $8. Nothing complex to write home about but drinkable enough to satisfy a thirst.

However, the jump to $17-20 for a full bottle is a bit much for a “burger wine”, in my opinion. Here it is competing with many other New World Cabs and red blends with a similar smooth and jammy profile that deliver much more value in the $10-13 range.

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