Tag Archives: Grocery Stores

Millennial Math — Where’s the value in wine?

A few days ago I wrote about the “Boredom Factor” that is sapping Millennials’ enthusiasm for wine. But engaging Millennials with things that are new, interesting and authentic is only part of the battle. The industry also needs to reframe the discussion about value and pricing.

Photo by Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Let’s face it, wine delivers horrible “bang for the buck”–especially compared to other alcoholic beverages. This is true at all price points, but particularly at the low-end (and ironically titled) “value wine” segment.

For smaller boutique wineries, worrying about “value wine” might not seem like a big deal. But the issues impacting the top shelf take root on the bottom.

If you want to know why $100+ bottles of Napa Cab are in danger, head to your local grocery store and look around.

Millennial Math in the Grocery Store

I’ll get to our boutique and more premium wine brands below. But let’s start with a cash-strapped Millennial who want to spend less than $10 for something to drink. You could go to the wine aisle and find stuff like this.

Yellow Tail and other under $10 wines

Then there are other options as well–like Barefoot, Arbor Mist, Cooks, Andre’s and more. At this one grocery store, I estimated that around 40% of their wine selection was sub $10. So, diversity, yeah?

But they all fall into the same “sameness” of sweet, simple or boring Cabs, Chards and Red Blends. Sure, you have the occasional gimmick of things like the “living labels” of Treasury Wine Estates’ 19 Crimes. However, after the novelty of a cute label wears off, it’s still the same boring juice in the bottle.

Now right next to the wine department in many stores is a beer department which has likely been greatly expanded thanks to the craft beer boom.

Let’s see what under $10 options our Millennial shopper has there.

22 oz Beer bomber singles

These are 22 oz “bomber” sizes of beer which is only a tad smaller than the standard 750ml (25.4 oz) bottle of wine. In this one Albertsons grocery store, I counted over 80 different SKUs of at least 20 different styles of beer among under $10 bombers. And this was a rather small grocery selection for the Seattle-area market.

If you think of beer styles (Belgian Tripel, New England IPA, Oatmeal Stout, etc.) like grape varieties, the beer department has the wine industry smoked when it comes to answering the “Boredom Factor.”

Even among the same style (like IPA), you are far more likely to find distinct personalities and differences (hoppiness) among various brews than you ever would dream of finding among under $10 Cabs, Chards and Red Blends.

I have a fair amount of industry folks who read this blog so I’m going to ask you to step back and take off your “wine hat” for a moment. If you were a young post-college Millennial shopper with no personal connection (like having visited a winery) or long-term relationship with drinking wine, what would you spend your $10 on?

Are we just waiting for better times?

Yeah, things suck right now for the broke 20-something Millennial. But can we really predict their future buying potential based on the habits of their 20s?

It’s true that most Millennials have not entered their peak earning ages. Likewise, most have not reached the ages when previous generations started embracing wine.

Jason Haas, of Tablas Creek, makes that later point particularly well as he points out some of the silver linings amidst the gloom and doom assessments about Millennials.

The median age of a Millennial is 30, but the Millennials at the peak of the demographic bubble are just 24. Were many Baby Boomers drinking wine at age 30, let alone 24? No. How about GenX? Not much. Millennials are drinking more wine than preceding generations were at the same age, which should be a positive enough trend. — Jason Haas, Are the gloomy messages about the state of the wine industry warranted? I say not for wineries like us. 2/4/2019

I concede Haas’ point and appreciate his optimism. I’ve certainly not hidden my affection or admiration for Tablas Creek’s business acumen. Though Haas is a “proud Gen Xer,” he pretty much runs Tablas Creek like a Millennial with a brand that embraces transparency, authenticity and sustainability along with pushing the envelope for new and exciting wines.

Without a doubt, if more wineries followed Tablas Creek’s example, the Boredom Factor would almost be a non-issue.

But what I fret that Haas’ optimism overlooks is the habits and perceptions that are being ingrained into Millennial consumers right now. Haas’ generation (and the Boomers) had the benefit of a promising economic outlook before them–where there was the potential for growth in earnings and career development.

That is a luxury that many Millennials don’t have and this is something that we are all too aware of. Even if things get a little bit better into our late 30s and 40s, it’s going to be very difficult to shake the mindset and spending habits of our formative 20s and early 30s.

Valuing “Value”

While things are not as bad as they were during the Great Depression, social scientists and economists are already drawing parallels to the spending habits and mindset of Millennials with those of the Silent Generation born between 1925-1945.

Even though the Silent Generation benefited from the post-war boom, many kept the spending habits imprinted on them during the hardship of the Great Depression. Prominent among those retained habits was the idea of stretching your dollar–even when you had more dollars to stretch.

Millennials certainly like to be entertained. We want experiences and to feel connected. And we avoid boredom like the plague.

But we deeply value “value.”

The $15-25 Sweet Spot

Let’s go back to the grocery store and look at the more premium $15-25 “sweet spot” range of wine pricing–with emphasis on the sweet.

Meiomi & 7 deadly with cheaper spirits

Usually, Meiomi is not over $25 so, for the sake of argument, I’m including it here.

When you get up to the higher price points, wine’s competition is not just beer (with many interesting six and twelve packs available in this price range) but also spirits as well. But spirits adds another dimension because they’re far less perishable and the servings are much smaller.

With wine and beer, you ideally want to enjoy it the same day that it was opened. But a comparably priced spirit can last weeks or even months.

Now I can hear wine folks scoffing at the idea of Captain Morgan or Deep Eddy taking away throat share from anyone older than 23. Yeah, I get it. The “Fireball crowd” eventually grows up. But for those folks who lose the sweet tooth and want something with more complexity, the spirits department still offers numerous options–especially among whiskeys.

Plus, because of how long a bottle of whiskey last, a Millennial could even stretch their $25 drinking budget to $40 and still get some very compelling value.

Old Forester and Woodford reserve

Personally not a fan of the Redneck Riviera but I’d take it over Meiomi any day of the week.

Granted, you have to sometimes deal with the inconvenience of getting the product out of lockup. Also, in some states (like Washington) there are crazy high liquor taxes to account for too.

However, this is all part of the sum-value Millennial Math that we deal with on every trip to the store. What the wine industry needs to concern itself with is how all these figures are adding up.

Banking on Premium Spenders

I want to embrace the optimism that as Millennials feel financially secure, they will turn to wine and start spending in the premium category. That means not only a strong wine industry but also a strong economy overall.

But I can’t shake the feeling that even if Millennials have more money to spend, that they’re not going to be impressed with the value they see in high-end wines. This is something that I’ve personally experienced myself. I’m very fortunate in my financial situation to where I can occasionally splurge on bottles like Opus One, Silver Oak, Cristal and Petrus.

You know what? I’d rather drink Pappy.

I feel this way even though I’m a highly-engaged wine drinker with a personal connection to wine. I’ve been bitten hard by the bug and have a healthy cellar to show for it.

But if you ask me for my brutally honest choice of whether to spend another $2600-4000 on a bottle of Petrus or something like the 1981 Glenmorangie Pride, I would choose the Glenmorangie every time.

And this is coming from someone that keeps a picture of Petrus as their background banner on Facebook!

However, when I step back and let my Millennial nature take over–when I think about the sum-value of what I’m getting compared to what I’m paying–whiskey beats out wine.

If that’s the case with someone like me, then how do you think the math is playing out with my cohorts?

The Petruses of the World are not the ones that need to worry.

Petrus is not going to have problems selling their wine. Even if Millennials aren’t spending at levels of past generations, wineries like Petrus make so little at such high prices that they only need a few folks to bite the bullet each vintage. There is always going to be enough people like me who shell out thousands to attend our Super Bowl–even if it ends up being a 13-3 snorefest.

The real hurt is going to be felt by all the wineries making NFL regular-season and playoff-type wines. They’re the ones that are going to have to convince Millennials that their wines are worth the price of the ticket.

Let’s go back and look at our supermarket shelf at some of the $50-100 options.
$50 to 100 wine vs spirits

That is an excellent price on the Grgich. The only thing that kept me from pulling the trigger was wondering how long it had been standing upright under the supermarket’s harsh lights.

Again, why spend $50-100 for something that needs to be enjoyed mostly in one night (unless you spend another $200+ for a preservation system like the Coravin) over something you could stretch for months?

Wine’s saving grace has been that only a small segment of drinkers have developed a taste for brown spirits like whiskey, tequila and rum. But those categories are growing–especially among Millennials and women.

If the boredom factor doesn’t kill off the $100+ Napa Cab, brown spirits certainly will.

But it all starts back in the beginning, with the spending habits and perception of value that Millennials are developing now with their under $10 and $15-25 options. Here is where wineries are losing the battle before the war even begins.

Yeah, Millennials wanderlust is great and can definitely help wineries that are offering different and exciting wines. But that same wanderlust also fuels our openness in trying other beverages like craft beer and brown liquors. The more we try them, the more those other options become players in the “sum-value” game of Millennial Math.

And, right now, that math is seriously working against the wine industry.

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Geek Notes — Decanted Podcast Episode 4 with Lenny Redé on Shopping for Wine

With the holiday season upon us, lots of folks will be hitting their local grocery stores and wine shops looking for wines to serve and give as gifts. That makes this a great time to review the Decanted podcast episode featuring Lenny Redé and their tips for shopping for wine (47:41).

Decanted Podcast screen shot

Full disclosure: Lenny was one of my mentors at the Northwest Wine Academy and is a long time friend. Though I’m obviously biased, I sincerely feel he is one of the most brilliant and personable folks in the wine industry. He was also a participant at my recent Joe Wagner vs The Oregon Volcano tasting whose insights were extremely valuable. At the time of this interview he was with Esquin Wine and Spirits, but he’s now at New Seasons Market on Mercer Island.

While I try not to be promotional with this blog, I have no qualms saying that if you want to discover more about wine and your own personal tastes, go visit Lenny and chat him up. It will be well worth the trip.

The Background

I first became aware of the Decanted podcast at this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference (now Wine Media Conference). While I didn’t get a chance to personally meet the duo behind the podcast, Dave Adams and Sandi Everingham, I heard from several of my fellow attendees that I needed to check them out (as well as the Weekly Wine Show which I reviewed last month).

A relatively new podcast, Decanted started earlier this year in February. Episodes are posted monthly with occasional shorter bonus shows in between. Most of the episodes tend to fall into the 30-60 minute range with the bonus shows usually being 10-15 minutes.

While the podcast has featured wines from the El Dorado AVA in California, Fraser Valley in British Columbia and most recently the Douro Valley of Portugal, the primary focus is on the hosts’ hometown Washington wine industry.

Local Washington Focus
Chris Upchurch

The Decanted interview with Chris Upchurch gave great insights on the origins of DeLille as well as Upchurch’s future plans for his own project.

Several of the episodes are inspired by local wine events that the hosts have attended such as the POUR Event of Urban Seattle Wineries (episode 1 with Bart Fawbush of Bartholomew Wines), Northwest Women Stars of Food & Wine (episode 5 with Lisa Packer of Warr-King Wines), Taste Washington (episode 8 with Chris Upchurch of DeLille and Upchurch Wines), The Sisters of the Vinifera Revolution (episode 11), Auction of Washington Wines (episode 15) and the Wine Bloggers Conference (episode 17 with Seth and Audrey Kitzke of Upsidedown Wines).

In addition to highlighting their favorite wines, Dave and Sandi of Decanted share their personal experiences and observations from attending these events. They also offer fantastic advice and practical pro-tips that wine lovers can use when attending events themselves.

A bit unusual for wine podcasts, the interviews are presented in a story-telling style with voice-over narration and background given by the hosts spliced in-between the answers of the guests. While I’m sure this adds quite a bit of work and editing, it enhances the value and professionalism of the podcast. Listening to the interviews feels like you’re watching a story feature on Dateline or 60 Minutes–with less murder and scandal, of course.

Fun Things I Learned and Enjoyed From This Podcast

(4:57) Great tip from Sandi about the value of being adventurous when shopping for wine instead of just getting the same ole, same ole. Dave follows this up with a tip about the importance of paying attention to vintages (especially for white wine) at grocery stores.

As a former wine steward for a major grocery chain (Safeway), I can attest to the truth of this. Often there are white wines that don’t sell very quickly. These wines would get old sitting on the shelf, losing freshness and flavor. While they might not be bad (and still considered “saleable”), they can definitely be past their peak. As a general rule of thumb, especially in grocery stores with white wines under $20, look for the youngest vintage to get the most for your money.

Tricks of the Trade

With endcaps, grocery stores are banking on you making a high margin impulse buy.

(7:50) One tip that I’m going to slightly disagree with is the advice to look for values on the endcaps. That’s not quite true. Again going back to my wine steward days, often these endcaps were paid displays bought by distributors or wineries with contracts negotiated at the corporate level. The grocery stores gets a sweet deal to promote these high volume wines in a high traffic location at the end of the aisle. While sometimes, they will pass the savings they’re getting onto the consumers, mostly these are high margin wines that just pad the store’s bottom line.

(8:32) Another tip that I’m going to disagree with is the advocacy for Vivino. This is just a personal misgiving but I’m highly suspicious of many of these crowd source review apps. They are extremely ripe for gaming–especially by large corporations with big marketing departments that want to promote positive rankings.

Just like with Yelp, companies are going to use these apps to influence consumers. But, unlike Yelp, many of these wine apps haven’t invested millions of dollars into dedicated fraud-detection teams and software algorithms to try to weed out the gaming. Also, these apps tend to revert back to the lowest common denominator with mass-produced and highly marketed wines rising to the top of the ratings while smaller family wineries often get overlooked.

But the idea of keeping your smartphone handy is not bad advice and I’m not completely against review sites.
Wine Searcher screen grab

The Wine-Searcher app is terrific for finding great deals. When I saw that my local wine shop had the Otis Kenyon Matchless Red at $20.99 (before coupon), I jumped on it because this bottle averages $29 at most retailers.

Personally, I think the most valuable app to have on your phone is Wine-Searcher. Not only do they tell you the average price of a wine (so you know if you’re getting a good deal or not) but they link to professional critic scores (which has their own pratfalls, I know) as well as the crowd sourced CellarTracker site.

While Cellar Tracker is also potentially game-able, the average user on that site tends not to be the typical buyers of mass-produced supermarket wines. This seems to make it less of a marketing target for corporations compared to Vivino. Also, you are more likely to have actual written reviews of the wines being rated (instead of vague and useless notes of “Yummy!”). These reviews tend to be much more helpful in figuring out if a wine matches your style.

(9:30) Dave and Sandi conduct a fun exercise of checking out the wine selection at places that don’t really have a wine focus. Well worth listening to see what they found at a Shell gas station, Walmart, Grocery Outlet and others.

Interview with Lenny Redé
Lenny at blind tasting

Lenny, center left, at my recent blind tasting battle pitting the Pinot noirs of Joe Wagner against several Oregon wines.

(19:30) The first part of the interview goes into Lenny’s background–including his work in the restaurant industry and time teaching at Le Cordon Bleu and the Northwest Wine Academy.

(24:30) One key distinction of local wine shops that Lenny highlights is that often the folks working at these small shops are the same people buying the wine. This is a big difference compared to grocery stores and large chains like Costco where the buying decisions are made by corporate buyers.

Essentially this means that when you walk into a small local shop, virtually every wine on the shelf is something that has been personally vetted. Someone tasted that wine and said, “Yes, this is a good wine that I want to bring into my store. This is a wine that I want to share with my customers.” That is a powerful endorsement and is world’s apart from the endcap displays at grocery stores that are there because a corporate buyer got cut a deal to feature them.

Don’t Be Afraid To Be Honest

(27:01) Another great piece of advice from Lenny is to never be afraid to tell the steward (or restaurant sommelier) your budget. The steward/somm’s goal is always to get you the best wine they can for that price point. This is advice that I regularly use myself when I play the Somm Game.

(31:06) Sandi asks Lenny what happens when he makes a recommendation that backfires and what wine drinkers should do. Lenny notes all the different variables involved that can impact people’s tastes and how they experience a wine. All great points but one thing I wished he touched on was the need of consumers to be honest about recommendations they didn’t like.

A steward’s goal is to build a relationship with their guests. In many ways they are detectives trying to figure out your tastes. Every clue you can give them from what you absolutely loved and, especially, what wines didn’t appeal to you is immensely valuable. They’re human and taste is personal. A steward may misinterpret some of your clues and recommend a bottle that just doesn’t work. That is perfectly okay and most good wine shops will gladly accept that return. But they’re going to want to get their next recommendation right on the money so let them know what didn’t work.

Where To Find Value and Quality
Four Graces Pinot blanc

I’ll need to check out Lenny’s recommendation of Left Coast Cellar’s Pinot blanc but I wholeheartedly agree with him that Oregon Pinot blanc is delicious!

(35:55) Lenny is asked about some fun alternatives to common wines like buttery Chards. He makes several great recommendations here including checking out the fantastic Pinot blancs coming out of Oregon.

(41:30) Dave asks Lenny his thoughts on the best budget wines out there, especially under $20. He gives some great background on how the Washington wine industry is different from California and where people can find great value here. Lenny also highlights some of the deals with private labels and second labels from established producers–or “happy hour wines” as he calls them.

(44:40) Lenny is very excited at the quality of white wines coming out of Washington and encourages people to look at the Ancient Lakes area. Among reds, Malbec and Cabernet Franc are high on his list. Yes! Another person on the Washington Cab Franc train.

Final Thoughts

My favorite thing about the Decanted podcast is the “real world” perspective of Dave & Sandi. They approach the tasting events they attend and their interviews in much the same way that most regular, normal wine lovers would. When you get knee deep in the wine world, it is so easy to get caught up in a “bubble” that skews your perceptions. It’s particularly easy to get a bit jaded while looking at the world through the lens of wine being a business.

But at its heart, wine is fun. Wine is inspiring and discovering it is an adventure. The folks at Decanted get that and allow their listeners to get caught up in their own fun and adventure of discovering wine.

Crowds at the New Vintage

Seriously, always scope out a “home base” first thing at a tasting before the crowds hit.
I wished I had taken Decanted’s advice when I attended The New Vintage this year.

However, Decanted is still rooted in the realism of what every day wine drinkers experience hunting for good bottles at reasonable prices–as well as dealing with some of the more frustrating aspects of attending wine events (crowds, palate fatigue, etc). The pro-tips they give on how to maximize your enjoyment at these events and when visiting tasting rooms is solid advice that comes from their own personal experience.

Going Forward

As a young podcast, I hope they continue with their narrative story telling and sharing their experiences at wine events. They seem to have a good pulse on what’s happening and which events are worth attending so, selfishly, I would love to hear in their podcasts about future plans and upcoming events they are planning to attend. That would be a great heads up for tastings that I’d want to check out myself.

One constructive suggestion I have is regarding the audio music that plays during their narrative voice overs. Admittedly I don’t know if it is because of my podcast player (Overcast) but sometimes the music is a bit too loud and competes for attention with their narration.

But that is a small thing and overall I enthusiastically recommend folks check out the Decanted podcast!

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Who makes your Supermarket Wine? (A Running List)

April 2019 update: A lot of brand movement following the huge deal between Constellation Brands and E & J Gallo.

Sept 2018 update: If I come across new connections that haven’t been widely publish I will update this page. But I’d like to direct folks interested in this info to Elizabeth Schneider’s way more user-friendly and searchable list on her Wine For Normal People blog. It’s also regularly updated and is a fantastic resource that is worth bookmarking.

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

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

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

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

Consolidation of Choices
Photo by Tatsuo Yamashita. Uploaded on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

To the best of my knowledge, General Mills and Unilever are not in the wine business….yet.

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

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

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

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

Constellation Brands

7 Moons
Alice White
Charles Smith Wines
Cooper & Thief
Dreaming Tree
Drylands
Inniskillian
Jackson Triggs
Kim Crawford
Meiomi
Robert Mondavi
Monkey Bay
Mount Veeder
Naked Grape
Night Harvest
Nk’Mip
Nobilo
Paso Creek
Red Guitar
Rioja Vega
Ruffino
Schrader
Simi
Thorny Rose
The Prisoner
Woodbridge

E & J Gallo

Alamos
Allegrini
Andre
Apothic
Arbor Mist
Ballatore
Barefoot
Bella Sera
Black Box
Blackstone
Blufield
Bodega Elena de Mendoza
Boone’s Farm
Bran Caia
Bridlewood
Carlo Rossi
Carnivor
Chocolate Rouge
Clarendon Hills
Clos du Bois
Columbia Winery
Cooks
Covey Run
Cribari
Dancing Bull
DaVinci
Dark Horse
Diseno
Don Miguel Gascon
Ecco Domani
Edna Valley Vineyard
Estancia
Fairbanks
Franciscan Estate
Frei Brothers
Gallo of Sonoma
Ghost Pines
Hidden Crush
Hogue Cellars
J Vineyards
J. Roget
La Marca
Laguna
Las Rocas
La Terre
Liberty Creek
Livingston Cellars
Locations
Louis Martini
MacMurray Ranch
Madria Sangria
Manischewitz
Mark West
Martin Codax
Maso Canali
McWilliams
Mia Dolcea
Milestone
Mirassou
Orin Swift
Paul Masson
Peter Vella
Pieropan
Polka Dot
Primal Roots
Prophecy
Rancho Zabaco
Ravenswood
Red Bicyclette
Red Rock
Redwood Creek
Rex Goliath
Sheffield Cellars
Simply Naked
Starborough
Souverain
Talbott
Taylor’s
The Naked Grape
Tisdale
Toasted Head
Winking Owl
Turning Leaf
Vendange
Vin Vault
Whitehaven
Wild Horse
Wild Vines
William Hill Estate

Brown-Foreman

Sonoma Cutrer
Korbel Sparkling wine

Delicato Family Vineyards

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

Terlato Wines

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

Precept Brands

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

Vintage Wine Estates

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

Ste Michelle Wine Estates

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

Crimson Wine Group

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

Jackson Family Estates

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

Vina Concha y Toro

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

The Wine Group

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

Treasury Wine Estates

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

Bronco Wine Company

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

(LVMH) Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey

Bodega Numanthia
Cheval Blanc
Cheval de Andes
Cloudy Bay
Dom Perignon
Domaine Chandon
D’yquem
Krug
Mercier
Moet & Chandon
Newton Vineyard
Ruinart
Terrazas de Los Andes
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Thought Bubbles – How to Geek Out About Champagne

By Joseph Faverot - [1], Public Domain, on Wikimedia CommonsLast week I got into a bit of a tizzy over some ridiculous things posted by a so-called “Wine Prophet” on how to become a “Champagne Master.” See Champagne Masters and their Bull Shit for all the fun and giggles.

But despite the many failings of Jonathan Cristaldi’s post, he did dish out one excellent piece of advice. To learn more about Champagne, you have to start popping bottles. I want to expand on that and offer a few tidbits for budding Champagne geeks.

I’m not going to promise to make you a “Champagne Master”–because that is a lifelong pursuit–but I will promise not to steer you towards looking like a buffoon regurgitating nonsense about Marie Antoinette pimping for a Champagne house that wasn’t founded till 40+ years after her death.

Deal? Alright, let’s have some fun.

1.) Start Popping Bottles!

Pretty much you can stop reading now. I’m serious. Just try something, anything. Better still if it is something you haven’t had or even heard of before. Pop it open and see what you think.

They say it takes 10,000 hours to master anything so take that as a personal challenge to start getting your drink on. Well actually that 10,000-hour thing has been debunked, but mama didn’t raise a quitter.

Though seriously, if you want to make your tasting exploration more fruitful, here are some tips.

Make friends with your local wine shop folks

They pretty much live and breath the wines they stock. They know their inventory. The good ones also have a passion to share their love and knowledge with others. Admittedly not every shop is great but go in, look around, ask questions and see if you find a good fit. Finding a great local wine shop with folks whose opinions you trust is worth its weight in gold for a wine lover. Once you’ve found that, the door is open for you to discover a lot of fantastic bottles that will only enrich your explorations.

Learn the differences between négociant houses, grower-producers and co-operatives
On Wikimedia Commons under PD-US from United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsca.05590.

Online retailers can be helpful as well but sometimes it’s good to have a face to put with a bottle.

In Champagne, you can often find on the label a long number with abbreviations that denote what type of producer made the Champagne.

NMnégociant manipulant, who buy fruit (or even pre-made wine) from growers. These are the big houses (like the LVMH stable of Moët & Chandon & Veuve Clicquot) that make nearly 80% of all Champagne produced. These Champagnes aren’t bad at all. Most are rather outstanding.

But the key to know is that while there are around 19,000 growers, the Champagne market is thoroughly dominated by several large négociant houses. Chances are if you go into a store (especially a grocery store or Costco), these wines are likely going to be your only options. You should certainly try these wines. However, it’s worth the leg work to find the whole wide world of Champagne that exists beyond these big names. This is a huge reason why making friends at the local wine shop (who often stock smaller producers) is a great idea.

But here is where it gets exciting.

RMrécoltant manipulant, who make wine only from their own estate fruit. These are your “Grower Champagnes” and while being a small producer, alone, is not a guarantee of quality, exploring the wines of small producers is like checking out the small mom & pop restaurants in a city instead of only eating at the big chain restaurants. You can find a lot of gems among the little guys who toil in obscurity.

CMcoopérative-manipulant, who pool together the resources of a group of growers under one brand. This is kind of the middle ground between true Grower Champagne and the big négociant houses. Some of these co-ops are small and based around a single village (like Champagne Mailly) while others cover the entire region (like Nicolas Feuillatte which includes 5000 growers and is one of the top producers in Champagne). Some of these are easier to find than others, but they are still worth exploring so you can learn about the larger picture of Champagne.

An example of a négociant (NM on left) and grower (RM on right) label.

Pay attention to sweetness and house style

While “Brut” is going to be the most common sweetness level you see, no two bottles of Brut are going to be the same. That is because a bottle of Brut can have anywhere from Zero to up to 12 grams per liter of sugar. Twelve grams is essentially 3 cubes of sugar. Then, almost counter-intuitively, wines labeled as “Extra Dry” are going to actually be a little sweeter than Brut. (It’s a long story)

By Kici, Released on Wikimedia Commons under public domain

Though to be fair, if they served Champagne at McDonald’s, I would probably eat there more often. It is one of the best pairings with french fries.

This is important to note because while Champagne houses often won’t tell you the dosage (amount of sugar added at bottling) of their Bruts, with enough tasting, you can start to discern the general “house style” of a brand.

For instance, the notable Veuve Clicquot “Yellow Label” is tailor-made for the sweet tooth US market and will always be on the “sweeter side of Brut” (9-12 g/l). While houses such as Billecart-Salmon usually go for a drier style with dosages of 7 g/l or less. If you have these two wines side by side (and focus on the tip of your tongue), you will notice the difference in sweetness and house style.

The idea of house style (which is best exhibited in each brand’s non-vintage cuvee) is for the consumer to get a consistent experience with every bottle. It’s the same goal of McDonald’s to have every Big Mac taste the same no matter where you are or when you buy it. All the dominant négociant houses have a trademark style and some will be more to your taste than others.

Explore the Grand Crus and vineyard designated bottles

While Champagne is not quite like Burgundy with the focus on terroir and the idea that different plots of land exhibit different personalities, the region is still home to an abundance of unique vineyards and terroir. You can best explore this through bottles made from single designated vineyards. However, these can be expensive and exceedingly hard to find.

Quite a bit easier to find (especially at a good wine shop) are Grand Cru Champagnes that are made exclusively from the fruit of 17 particular villages. There are over 300 villages in Champagne but over time the vineyards of these 17 villages showed themselves to produce the highest quality and most consistent wines. All the top prestige cuvees in Champagne prominently feature fruit from these villages.

To be labeled as a Grand Cru, the Champagne has to be 100% sourced only from a Grand Cru village. It could be a blend of several Grand Cru villages but if a single village is featured on the front of the label (like Bouzy, Mailly, Avize, Ambonnay, etc) then it has to be only from that village. Since the production of the Grand Cru villages represents less than 10% of all the grapes grown in Champagne, you would expect them to be somewhat pricey. That’s not the case. Many small growers have inherited their Grand Cru vineyards through generations of their families and can produce 100% Grand Cru Champagnes for the same price as your basic Champagnes from the big négociant house.

Well worth the hunt

They may be a little harder to find than the big négociant houses, but Grand Cru Champagnes from producers like Pierre Peters, Franck Bonville, Pierre Moncuitt, Petrois-Moriset, Pierre Paillard and more can be had in the $40-60 range.

While not as terroir-driven as single vineyard wines, tasting some of the single-village Grand Crus offers a tremendous opportunity to learn about the unique personality of different villages in Champagne and is well worth the time of any Champagne lover to explore.

2.) Great Reading Resources

Truthfully, you can just follow the advice of the first step and live a life of happy, bubbly contentment. You don’t need book knowledge to enjoy Champagne–just an explorer’s soul and willingness to try something new. But when you want to geek out and expand your experience, it is helpful to have robust and reliable resources. There are tons of great wine books dealing with Champagne and sparkling wine but a few of my favorites include:

A few favs

The Five Essential Books On Champagne, Plus One For the Wine Prophet

Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan’s Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine — The benchmark reference book written by the foremost authorities on all things that sparkle.

Peter Liem’s Champagne [Boxed Book & Map Set] — This set ramps up the geek factor and dives deeper into the nitty-gritty details of Champagne. The companion maps that shows vineyards and crus of the region are enough to make any Bubble Head squeal.

David White’s But First, Champagne — A very fresh and modern approach to learning about Champagne. It essentially takes the Christie’s Encyclopedia and Peter Liem’s opus and boils it down to a more digestible compendium.

Robert Walter’s Bursting Bubbles — Thought-provoking and a different perspective. You can read my full review of the book here.

Don & Petie Kladstrup’s Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times — One of my favorite books, period. Brilliantly written work of historical non-fiction about the people who made Champagne, Champagne. If you ever wondered what was the big deal about people calling everything that has bubbles “champagne,” read this book about what the Champenois endured throughout their history and you will have a newfound respect for what the word “Champagne” means.

Ed McCarthy’s Champagne for Dummies — A little outdated but a quick read that covers the basics very well. I suspect that if the “Wine Prophet” read this book, he wouldn’t have had as many difficulties understanding the differences between vintage and non-vintage Champagnes.

3.) Next Level Geekery

As I said in the intro, the pursuit of Champagne Mastery is a lifelong passion and you never stop learning. Beyond the advice given above, some avenues for even more in-depth exploration includes:

The Wine Scholar Guild Champagne Master-Level course — I’ve taken the WSG Bordeaux and Burgundy Master courses and can’t rave enough about the online programs they have. Taught by Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine, the level of instruction and attention to detail is top notch. They also offer immersion tours to the region.

Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages — This Master of Wine is one of the most reliable sources for information and tasting notes on all kinds of wine but particularly for Champagne.

Allen Meadow’s Burghound — While Burgundy is Meadow’s particular focus, he does devote a lot of time reviewing and commenting on Champagne and, like Robinson, is a very reliable source. But the caveat for all critics is to view them as tools, rather than pontiffs.

Visit Wineries
By Webmasterlescordeliers - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

If you get a chance to riddle, it will be enjoyable for the first couple of minutes. Then you realize how hard of a job it is.

Even if you can’t visit Champagne itself, chances are you are probably near some producer, somewhere who is making sparkling wine.

Throughout the world, producers making bubbly. From African wineries in Morocco, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa; Asian wineries in China and India; to more well known sparkling wine producing countries in Australia, Argentina, Chile, United Kingdom and Eastern Europe–the possibilities are near endless.

Even in your own backyard

In the United States, there is not only a vibrant sparkling wine industry in the traditional west coast regions of California, Oregon (Beaver State Bubbly) and Washington State but also New Mexico, Missouri, New York, Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Georgia, Colorado and more.

While they may not be doing the “traditional method,” there is still benefit to visiting and tasting at these estates. At small wineries where the person pouring could be the owner or winemaker themselves. These experiences can give you an opportunity to peek behind the curtain and see the work that happens in the vineyard and winery. As beautiful of a resource that books and classes are, there is no substitute for first-hand experience.

So have fun and keep exploring!

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Trading Out instead of Trading Up


Seven Fifty Daily reposted an old Jon Bonné article from October about Do Wine Drinkers Really Trade Up?

This is a question that regularly percolates in the wine industry, occasionally bubbling over. Bonné gives lip service to (but doesn’t link) the New York Times op-ed by Bianca Bosker Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine that created a firestorm last year. The op-ed was an excerpt from her book, Cork Dork, which, likewise produced some interesting reactions.

The gist of Bosker’s take is that wine industry folks shouldn’t turn their noses up at so-called “cheap wine” because there is actually quality in these bottles, even if there isn’t terroir. To add seasoning to her opinion, she includes a quote from no less of an esteem source than that of Master of Wine Jancis Robinson.

“It is one of the ironies of the wine market today, that just as the price differential between cheapest and most expensive bottles is greater than ever before, the difference in quality between these two extremes is probably narrower than it has ever been.” — Jancis Robinson as quoted in the NYT March 17th, 2017.

This narrowing in the quality gap has come via technological advances and winemaker “tricks”, several of which Bosker list in her op-ed, like the use of the “cure-all” Mega-Purple, toasted oak chips, liquid oak tannins and fining agents like Ova-Pure and gelatin.

Still despite these mass manipulations, Bosker contended that these technological advances had help “democratize decent wine.”

Needless to say, many folks disagreed with Bosker, few more passionately than natural wine evangelist Alice Feiring in her post to Embrace the “Snobs.” Don’t Drink Cheap(ened) Wine. But my favorite rebuttal had to be from Alder Yarrow of Vinography.

By M.Minderhoud - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

I think Ronald would want to have a few words with Alder.

“[Bosker’s argument] is the wine equivalent of saying that McDonalds deserves the affection and respect of food critics and gourmets the world over for having engineered such tasty eats that can be sold at prices everyone can afford.” Alder Yarrow, Vinography March 23rd, 2017

Some certainly defended Bosker’s view with most of those defenses centered around the idea that these cheap democratized wines introduce people to a less intimidating world of wine. A world that they may eventually trade up from for “better wine”–whatever that may be.

“She seems to share the view that mass-marketed, everyday wines eventually will lead a person introduced to wine through them to step up to more challenging wines. This perception isn’t without precedent.

I have a hunch that industrial wines will prompt neophytes who find that they enjoy wine to search for wines that have more to say.” — Mike Dunne, Sacramento Bee April 11th, 2017

And this is where we get back to the concept of “Trading Up”

Many people in the wine industry are unconvinced that this phenomenon exist. While the Bonné article above tries to paint some nuances around the concept, you will find many writers who doubt that people ever really trade up and instead think that the reason why we are seeing an increase in “premiumization” is simply because older 4 liter box wine drinkers are dying off while newer Millennial drinkers are starting right off the bat with a little more pricier $7-10 wines. In the article linked above, The Wine Curmudgeon expresses skepticism that a Bogle or Rodney Strong drinker would ever “trade up” to a Silver Oak.

Bonné also notes that there is a significant segment of wine drinkers that are risk and change adverse, pointing to Constellation Brands’ Project Genome study that found around 40% of consumers prefer to stick with drinking the same ole thing they drink everyday.

British wine writer Guy Woodward, in another Seven Fifty Daily article, quoted a buying manager at the UK grocery chain Morrisons flat out saying that his customers aren’t interested in trading up, being quite content with their £5 (around $7) bottles.

Maybe the industry should count its blessings that Millennials are even buying $7-10 wines and just cross our fingers that the next batch of wine drinkers in Generation Z start out their wine journey in the $10-15 range?

Or we can stop talking about “Trading Up” and start talking about “Trading Out”.

A major hang up in the “Should we love ‘cheap wine’ debate?” is the focus on the word “cheap”– which means different things to different people. For some, it means the type of mass manipulated wines that Bosker describes from her visit to Treasury Wine Estates. For others, cheap just means…cheap. This is especially true when you are talking about a Millennial generation of wine drinkers saddled with student loans and a lower wage economy. It is a victory for the wine industry when a Millennial reaches for that $7-10 wine instead of a six-pack of craft beer.

By Jami430 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, on Wikimedia  Commons

I mean, seriously, we could get about 7 meals of avocado toast for the price of one bottle of Silver Oak.

But for “natural wine advocates” like Alice Feiring who want wine drinkers to take their wine seriously and folks, like me, who despair at supermarkets monopolized by brands made by the same handful of mega-corps like Constellation, Treasury and Gallo, perhaps the potential of the Millennial market offers the perfect solution to our woes.

Going back to Alder Yarrow’s Vinography post, he references a Bosker rebuttal from Troon Vineyard’s general manager Craig Camp, that aptly notes the abundance of inexpensive but non-industrialize wine on the market. These include under $20 wines made in Beaujolais, the Cote du Rhone, Languedoc, Spain, Portugal, etc. Heck, you can even find tasty wines from these regions under $10. Now you might not find these in a grocery store, but they exist and often just down the road from the grocery at your local wine shop.

But how do we get drinkers to seek out these wines?

I think it is best to start small and encourage wine drinkers to get in the habit of “trading out” which simply means trying something new. Even if you are still shopping at your convenient grocery store looking at the litany of industrialize wines–try a new one. Sure, grab a bottle of your regular “go-to” but also grab something else. Just one bottle of something you never had before. Try it. If you hate it, you still have your ole trusty.

Why? Because drinking the same wine over and over again is like eating the same food. To echo back to Yarrow’s quote, you wouldn’t eat at Mcdonald’s everyday, why would you want to drink the same thing everyday?

So let’s say you try something different but in the same grape or from the same wine region. That’s a good start but it is still like limiting yourself to just one type of cuisine (Italian, Chinese, Indian, pizza, etc). Now granted, you can have a fair amount of pleasure exploring all the delicious possibilities of pizzas or Indian cuisine, just like you could have exploring all the delicious possibilities of the Riesling grape or the wines of Washington State. But you have even more potential for more pleasure when you trade out your standby cuisine for a chance to try something different–like Moroccan food or stuffed portobello mushrooms.

So many Cru Beaujolais….which incidentally goes great with both pizza and Indian food.

Encouraging the wanderlust and sense of adventure that Millennials have demonstrated, is the best path for wine industry folks promoting alternatives to industrialized wines. Yeah, mass produced and mass manipulated wines are probably going to be the starting point for a lot of wine drinkers. Bosker is quite right in that their accessibility and approachabilty has helped democratize wine.

But stop stressing if people reach for bottles of 19 Crimes or Apothic. Instead, keep encouraging them to “trade out” at least one of those bottles for something, anything different.

Perhaps if they keep trading out and exploring new wines, they may eventually find themselves on the wine industry’s holy path of “trading up” into more esteemed quality wine. But even if they don’t end up trading up to a higher price tier of wine, at least their journey is going to be a heck of a lot more interesting than just eating at McDonalds.

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