Tag Archives: Rob McMillan

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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Zinfandel — The “Craft Beer” of American Wine

Photo from the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons with no known copyright restrictions

In 1915, on the eve of Prohibition in the United States, there were over 1300 breweries across the country. Collectively, they produced around 60 million barrels. While the growing behemoths of Anheuser-Busch and Pabst Brewing Company had national scale, the vast majority of these breweries were small regional players.

In 1940, seven years after the repeal of the Volstead Act, that number of breweries was nearly halved to 684. Yet the country was still producing almost 55 million barrels. However, production and distribution was rapidly being consolidated around the big breweries.

By 1980, there were only 101 breweries in the United States cranking out nearly 200 million barrels. The ten largest breweries were responsible for nearly 94% of that.

This was the state of the beer industry on the eve of the Craft Beer Movement. And it truly was a movement–one spearheaded by folks who only wanted something different from the mass proliferation of American lagers.

Chanpuru — “Something Mixed”

I’ve been binge watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, trying to get through all eight seasons on Netflix before it leaves their listings on October 1st.

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

Also good to know that the Okinawan diet includes plenty of beer!

The Season 6 episode on Okinawa, introduced chanpuru. Bourdain described this as the Okinawan idea of eating something different every day and enjoying the richness of variety.

Considering that the Okinawa diet and lifestyle is legendary for promoting long life and contentment, this was certainly a concept that resonated with me–especially being part of a generation that is notoriously “…open to new experiences, new regions and new grape varieties.”

Which brings us back to Zinfandel and the lessons of craft beer.

The craft beer category in the United States has evolved to encompass envelop-pushing styles and new ideas. However, at the root of the movement was a desire of beer lovers to get back what was lost before Prohibition.  They wanted to reclaim the traditional styles and varieties of beers that existed before.  All across the country were unique brews that were influenced by local German, Austrian, Irish and Latin immigrant communities.

The majority of beer drinkers had “moved on” and were content with their mass-produced lagers. But a tiny segment of passionate beer lovers knew that this country’s brewing heritage was a worthwhile story to explore. If the big brewers weren’t going to explore it, then these beer lovers were going to take the mantle themselves.

They not only found their chanpuru but made it their own.

Heritage Vines — Heritage Wines

Photo by Simon Davison. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Zinfandel vineyard first planted in 1910 in Saratoga, California. Even the “young” 1976 vines are over 40 years old.

First introduced to California during the Gold Rush of the 1850s, Zinfandel has always been an American wine with an immigrant’s story–likely coming to the US as a Croatian vine (now known to be Crljenak Kaštelanski/Tribidrag) that was part of an Austrian nursery collection.

Once the grape reached California, it was spread widely across the state–particularly by Italian immigrants who established numerous old vine vineyards in the North Coast that are still treasured today.

The Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy, the “Father of California Viticulture,” didn’t bring Zinfandel to the US. However, as Thomas Pinney notes in his A History of Wine in America, Volume 1, Haraszthy did much to propagate and promote the variety.

By 1888, Zinfandel was the most widely planted wine grape in California with around 34,000 acres. Even after Prohibition, Zinfandel still maintained significant plantings with Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin noting in Claret and Cabs that in the mid 20th century, Zinfandel far outpaced Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley with many Napa “clarets” actually being Zin-based.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Chardonnay (and in the 1990s Cab) eventually surpassed Zinfandel as the most widely planted variety in California. However, with over 44,000 acres, Zinfandel remains the third most widely planted grape in California.

A Sleeping Giant

Master of Wine Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co. and Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars both serve on the board of the Historic Vineyard Society. Here they are giving a presentation on old vine vineyards at the 2018 Hospice du Rhone.

Interwoven within those 44,000+ acres are plots of old vine Zinfandel that are increasingly being highlighted by wine producers and organizations like the Historic Vineyard Society.

Scattered across the state of California–from Sonoma to Amador County, Lodi to Paso Robles, Santa Clara Valley to Cucamonga Valley–each of these old vine vineyards are planted with stories that span several decades. In the case of the Zinfandel vines in the Grandpere Vineyard in the Sierra Foothills, those stories have been shared for nearly 150 years.

For a generation of consumers that crave experience and authenticity, connection and chanpuru–few wines can craft a better calling card for Millennial wine drinkers than Old Vine Zin (the real stuff, not the marketing fluff–which is fodder for another post).

But are Millennial drinkers interested?

Perhaps.

Two articles that came across my Twitter dash today provoked this post. In one, Mike Veseth (@MikeVeseth) examined trends in the US Wine Market highlighted by Nielsen data was reported in Wine Business Monthly. In the other, Winesearcher.com’s Liza B. Zimmerman wrote about the big takeaways from the recent Silicon Valley Bank’s State of the Wine Industry report.

I found it curious that this grocery store display of “Beginner’s Wines” under $20 didn’t feature any red wines–only Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Riesling.

After noting Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay’s sustained dominance in both case volume and sales value, Veseth was surprised to find that the number one variety regarding average bottle price in the United States was Zinfandel at $11.19 a bottle–beating out Pinot noir’s $10.43 average. Along with his surprise, Veseth expressed a desire to see more research into this development.

Of course, correlation does not imply causation and all that. But maybe there is a link between this and the  Millennial “frugal hedonist” described in Zimmerman’s WineSearcher.com piece.

While the under $9 category of wines is slumping, adventurous Millennial drinkers are branching out more into the $8-14 range. Like craft beer drinkers before, Millennial drinkers are willing to spend a little bit more. But it has to be something that appeals to their wanderlust hedonism and cravings for what new and interesting.

Few varieties offer a better (or more frugal) bang for the buck in quality than Zinfandel.

Yeah….I’ve been low on Merlot. But given these options, you really can’t blame me for heading over to the Zin aisle.

There is not a huge quality gap between an $8 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Pinot noir and a $14 example. However, when you get to Zinfandel, there is a much more noticeable jump in quality. Try tasting a $8-9 Bogle and Seven Deadly Zins against $12-14 examples from the Sobon and Maggio-Reynolds families. Even relatively large wineries like Ravenswood, Klinker Brick and St. Francis make tremendous Zins in that range.

The jump to $15-25 Zinfandels also offers exponentially higher quality than you find in Cabs, Merlot and Pinots. Offerings from wineries like Rosenblum, St. Amant, Seghesio, Truett Hurst, Carol Shelton, Ridge and Renwood are drenched in value.

Then when you start exploring the character-driven wines of single vineyard, old vine Zinfandels from producers like Turley, Bedrock, Carlisle, Bella, Robert Biale and the higher-end Ridge wines, you find heaps of wines in the $40-60 range that would blow most $100+ Napa Cabs out of the water.

Even Turley’s entry-level Juvenile Zin at $30-38 offers more character and complexity than a lot of Cabernets twice its price.

Zin-ful Thoughts Part II

Now I’m not saying that cheap, crappy Zin doesn’t exist.

If there is a dollar to be made and a brand to be mass produced, you know that one of the big mega-corps are going to capitalize on it.

Just look at what has happened to the craft beer segment which has become a feeding frenzy of acquisitions by the big beer firms trying to conquer the craft market by gobbling up brands like old European powers colonizing Africa and the New World. Just as beer drinkers have to be open-minded, but weary, so too should wine drinkers. They will always be well served by frequently asking who made the wine that is in their glass.

Still, these mass-produced (and sometimes “faux old vine”) Zins aren’t all bad. A mass-produced cheap Zin is on par with a mass-produced cheap Cab, Merlot or Pinot. If not better.

Above all, what I am saying is that there is a special heritage here in the United States with Zinfandel. It’s a heritage too valuable to be lost to the dust bin of history.

Just like craft beer drinkers reclaimed their heritage, we also have an opportunity to reclaim a bit of ours. We can stick with the same ole, same ole or add a little chanpuru to our drinking options.

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