As I noted last week, wine is everywhere in America, or nearly so, and while it is common knowledge that the U.S. is the world’s largest wine market and that wine is produced in all 50 states, the diversity of the wine experience here sometimes comes as a surprise. Case in point …
What if I told you that one of the largest wineries in the U.S., home to what is probably the largest direct-to-consumer winery club program in the world, is based in Illinois, not California?
Illinois? (I can hear you saying this). No way! You’ve got to be kidding? Well, Cooper’s Hawk winery is no joke and learning about it helps us understand how wine is changing in the U.S. and where it could be going.
Top 50 U.S. Wineries
Wine Business Monthly‘s February 2018 issue lists the 50 largest wine companies in the U.S., from #1 Gallo (estimated production 70 million cases) to #50 McMannis Family Vineyards (340,000 cases). Most of the wineries are located in California as you would expect with a few exceptions such as Washington-based Ste Michelle Wine Estates (#8), #13 Precept Wine, and #36 Mesa Vineyards of Fort Stockton, Texas (550,000 cases).
Number 34 on the list with 570,000 case annual production and a wine club that is approaching 300,000 members is Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant of Woodridge, Illinois. All that wine is sold directly to restaurant patrons and wine club members. It is an interesting case study of wine’s growing (and changing) place in American culture.
A Wine-Centered Lifestyle Brand
The first Cooper’s Hawk location opened in 2005 and the chain, which identifies itself as a “lifestyle brand centered around wine” has grown to 30 stores in the mid-west (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin) plus Maryland, Virginia, and Florida. Five new locations are scheduled to open in 2018. A total of 4.4 million guests visited Cooper’s Hawk last year.
A Cooper’s Hawk experience combines several elements. It is a restaurant, of course, with a wide-ranging upscale menu that encourages patrons to think food and wine with a suggested pairing for each dish. Bin 70 (Cooper’s Hawk Pinot Gris) is the suggested match for pan-roasted Baramundi, for example, and red wine braised short ribs are matched with Bin 04 (the Cooper’s Hawk Red, a Cab-Merlot-Syrah blend).
Ordering wine by the numbers rather than listing the wine names on the food menu is a way to keep things simple, rather like many people order by number from an Asian restaurant menu. You don’t necessarily need to speak wine to enjoy it at Cooper’s Hawk.
Each restaurant features a “Napa-style” wine tasting room and an “artisanal retail market,” where various food and lifestyle items are sold along with the Cooper’s Hawk wines. The idea is to bring the feel of a wine-country tasting room and restaurant to customers who are attracted to wine lifestyle experiences.
A total of 47 different Cooper’s Hawk wines are listed on the online wine menu, divided into several categories, including International, Sparkling, White, Red, Sweet Red, Sangria, Fruit Wine, Dessert, Mulled Wine, Barrel Reserve, and top drawer Lux. As the video above indicates, grapes are trucked to the Illinois winery from California, Washington, Oregon, and other regions and the wines made, aged, bottled and shipped to Cooper’s Hawk stores.
Cooper’s Hawk invites its guests to embrace wine and gives them both broad choice and attractive pricing. Bottles of wine sell for what glasses of wine might go for at other restaurants. Retail shop prices begin at under $15 per bottle and top out at $39.99 for the Lux Pinot Noir. Restaurant prices are a bit higher, as you would expect, but the mark-up is surprisingly small. You can have that $40 retail Lux Pinot for $47.99 in the restaurant.
All 47 wines are available by the glass, with prices starting at less than $7. A glass of Lux Pinot Noir or Lux Meritage will cost you $13. How you view these prices depends on context, I think. If you are used to New York City restaurant prices, these wines are incredibly cheap — so cheap you might hesitate to try them. On the other hand, if lower-shelf supermarket wines are your reference, the prices might seem a bit high. It is clear from Cooper’s Hawk’s success,, however, that there is a sweet spot for an upscale casual dining restaurant wine list and they seem to have found it.
World’s Largest Wine Club?
One of the most interesting elements of the Cooper’s Hawk phenomenon is its wine club, which has nearly 300,000 members and is growing at a 25% per year rate. Guests who join the club are offered special “members only” wines plus invitations to various exclusive programs and events. Although there is an option to have monthly wine allocations shipped to your door, the pricing structure strongly encourages members to pick up their wines at the tasting room, which obviously produces repeated visits to the restaurant and reinforces the lifestyle relationship.
I am kind of fascinated by Cooper’s Hawk, which seems to have struck a chord with many American consumers by making wine the central element of a carefully crafted experience. I am therefore disappointed that I have so far been unable to visit one of the locations. Our travels take us many places, but so far the opportunity to belly up to a Cooper’s Hawk tasting room bar has eluded me.
But I have tasted a couple of the wines. The Cooper’s Hawk Lux Pinot Noir was the featured wine at this year’s Screen Actors Guild awards (Cooper’s Hawk is the official SAG wine partner) and we received samples of this wine plus the Lux Chardonnay, which were served at the event’s gala dinner, as part of the promotion of this partnership.
The details of the wines we received are a bit of a mystery — the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are American appellation (not California or Oregon as you might expect). The Pinot was medium-bodied with a strong oak presence on the nose and palate that eventually faded to reveal varietal character. Perhaps the wine needed more time in the bottle to pull itself together or perhaps this is a winemaking decision to feature more oak on the premium product. The oak was nicely integrated in the Lux Chardonnay, on the other hand, and the wine was very enjoyable.
No one reads The Wine Economist for tasting notes, of course, and I’ve only sampled a couple of the wines. It is clear that these wines appeal to Cooper’s Hawk customers, who order them with meals and come back for more. Very impressive.
Cooper’s Hawk has achieved amazing success by creating or expanding a market that few of us imagined could be so large. Cooper’s Hawk recently announced and growing list of collaborations with famous wineries (Francis Ford Coppola, Boisset Collection) and celebrity chefs (Tyler Florence among others) that promise to expand the brand’s lifestyle appeal.
Is Cooper’s Hawk the future of American wine? No — wine is too complicated to have a single road ahead. But the Cooper’s Hawk phenomenon does suggest several important trails to explore — direct-to-consumer sales, focus on experience not just product, innovative marketing structures, and broadening the consumer base beyond the Wine Spectator reader “usual suspect” base to explicitly include Food Network viewers and foodies more generally. I think there’s a lot to learn about the market for wine in America from Cooper’s Hawk.
The Wine Economist will pause for a couple weeks while Sue and I are in France to participate in Terroir and Millésimes in Languedoc and Roussillion from April 15-22 and Val de Loire Millésimes from April 22-25. Looking forward to meeting fascinating people, drinking wonderful wines, and learning as much as we can. Full report to follow when we return and have had time to digest our experiences.