People in the wine business tend to look at each other and see rivals like in the old Mad Magazine Spy vs Spy comic strip. In the battle for shelf space, consumer attention or critical praise, it usually seems like it is wine versus wine.
But hardly anyone lives by wine alone and these days the biggest competition is often less from other wineries (or wine regions) than from other products like craft beer, craft cider and craft spirits that have captured consumer imaginations. The battle for shelf space is real, but its not the only battle.
Keys to Craft Beer’s Success
Craft beer in particular has enjoyed great success in recent years and many of us see the unexpected fall in demand for wines priced at $8 per bottle and below here in the United States as one consequence of the craft beer boom.
Craft beer has many advantages. The margins can be great, for example, and you are not limited to one vintage per year. You can crank out new batches every week or so and it is possible and even desirable to experiment with seasonal recipes or riffs on classic styles from around the world.
Innovation is hot on the craft beer aisle, with literally dozens of different styles, blends and mixes that are constantly rotating in and out of the market. It is kind of fascinating. Wine comes in a world of assorted grapes and styles, too, but innovation tends to take the form of unusual wine brands or packaging, for example, more than experimental products.
Rocky Wine: Don’t try this at home!
Jamie Goode wrote about the time that Randall Grahm experimented with adding “minerality” to his wine by tossing some rocks to the barrels. There was an interesting effect, Grahm said. The stones added “far more complexity and greater persistence on the palate.” But the health department shut the operation down.
Winemakers are like brew-masters in that both groups are constantly experimenting and trying new things, although not all of them are as extreme as Randall Grahm’s rocky vintage. The brew industry seems to be more open to the commercialization of these products.
Maybe wine can bring more of these experiments to market in small or large lots to add another layer of complexity and interest? Well, what about the barrels themselves? Barrels come in many types and are used in a variety of ways in wine.There is a history of product and process innovation both with barrels (think Gaia in Piemonte) and without them (the current popularity of unoaked Chardonnay).
Barrels are a source of innovative inspiration in other parts of the beverage market. I have seen oak-aged ales and ciders and I have seen spirits that were aged in sherry barrels, for example. Working with barrels has always been a legitimate if sometimes controversial variation on wine tradition. Maybe we can do more with them?
Jacob’s Creek Experiments
Jacob’s Creek, the Australian winery that is part of the Pernod Ricard empire, has released two new wines that explore this notion. They are called Double Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon and Double Barrel Shiraz. The wines are first aged in traditional oak and then they get a relatively brief second aging in used spirits barrels — Irish whiskey for the Cab and Scotch whisky for the Shiraz.
The idea isn’t to make the wine taste like booze — if you want to taste whiskey (or whisky) the obvious thing to do is to taste whiskey (or whisky) — but as with oak barrels in general, you use them to see what subtle influences they bring to the finished product.
Sue and I were invited to participate in an experiment with these wines and so we received bottles of the two Double Barrel wines plus samples of each wine before the whiskey barrel treatment. We sampled the wines last week with Jacob’s Creek winemaker Ben Bryant via video link-up.
It was interesting to compare the “before” and “after” wines. The “after” Cab (made from grapes sourced from Coonawarra) was richer on the palate than the “before” wine — the biggest difference was more texture than flavor. The delicious Barossa Shiraz was more dramatically transformed and our clear favorite of the two (I think the Cab simply needs to age a bit longer and both wines were probably still a bit shaken up from shipping). I thought I could detect a subtle Scotch whisky influence in the Shiraz, but I suspect that was the power of suggestion. In any case it was an interesting experience.
“I thought this might be just a gimmick,” Sue remarked when we were finished with the tasting. But she concluded that the whiskey/whisky barrel aging did make the wines more interesting and different without fundamentally altering their identities. Something new — which is just what many (but not all) wine consumers are looking for.
The Next Big Thing?
So are whiskey barrels the next big thing in wine? Should you rush to try to corner the market on used Bourbon barrels just in case? (Too late — Fetzer makes a Bourbon barrel-aged Zinfandel called 1000 Stories.)
No. But these wines are an interesting addition to the menu, don’t you think? I see them as a thoughtful attempt to experiment within the tradition of wine much as the craft beer producers have been doing in their space.
Winemakers have long experimented in the privacy of their cellars and labs. Barrel tasting with a winemaker never fails to uncover something out of the ordinary. It would be interesting to see more of these products reach the market for us to try and to provide wine with an even more dynamic presence.
I guess I am calling for the broader commercialization of what you might call “craft wine.” Fresh ideas, small lots, variations on the traditional themes but with some added flair. Not for everyone, that’s for sure, but the craft beer and spirits boom shows that there are many consumers who are interested in a more dynamic concept and some of them are being drawn away from wine.
Beer has made an effort to learn some of the secrets of wine’s strong appeal. I think those of us on planet wine should return the compliment. Done thoughtfully, innovations like Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel can help wine compete with beer for the palates and pocketbooks of today’s consumers — and do it without undermining the fundamental idea of wine.
Craft Beer Raises the Stakes: PicoBrew
There is even more competition coming from the craft beer world! Earlier on the same day as the Double Barrel tasting I attended a presentation by Bill Mitchell, the CEO of a start-up company called PicoBrew, and angel investor Karl Leaverton.
PicoBrew uses advanced technology to allow home brew-masters to create their own professional-quality craft beers, either using their own recipes or those provided by other users or famous craft breweries. Quality, precision and control are selling points, but so is convenience — the magic happens in a sleek web-enabled counter-top brewing appliance. Wow.
But making distinctive beer is only part of the attraction. PicoBrew uses the web and social media tools to allow home brewers to share their discoveries and their stories. Seems to me that the sort of person who would have a geeky interest in fine wine might fall in love with the advanced DIY possibilities of this product.
Beer has made big strides from the bad old days of the 1970s. Cider has surged and craft spirits are very hot. Wine, as I have written before, needs to up its game to compete in this dynamic market environment, but do it without sacrificing the fundamentals that make wine so special.
Thanks to Jacobs Creek and Vanessa Dones at the thomas collective for inviting us to participate in this web wine tasting event.