Down the Rabbit Hole: Wine Takes the Virtual Plunge

alice02aThe recent pivot to on-line and virtual programs, events, and communication presents challenges and opportunities. How well has the wine industry responded? What does the future hold? Join me on a trip down the virtual rabbit hole to find out.

Can’t Un-Ring a Bell

It has been fascinating to see how quickly we and our wine industry friends and colleagues have adapted to using technology to overcome necessary distancing and business and travel restrictions. There are costs, for sure, in terms of lost personal interactions, but gains, too. They say that you can’t un-ring a bell, and I don’t think we can (or should) completely un-do the recent pivot towards virtual communications.

So Sue and I have decided to embrace the opportunities of virtual wine for the time being and to appreciate the many creative ways that wineries are using online platforms to get their messages out and connect with customers. Herewith several examples from our personal explorations. There is still a steep learning curve, but as you will see below, lots of progress, too. Please use the comments section below to give more examples  of successful virtual programs and events from your personal experience.

 

People, Places, Things

Let me start with an example of a simple idea well done.  Promotional videos are not a new thing and, with the rapid advance of technology, they are easier to make and to distribute via the web. But they seem to be very difficult to do well. Videos are the perfect opportunity to tell first-person stories, but so many winery videos seem to forget what their story is once the camera light comes on and default to generic “four seasons in the vineyard” images.

So we celebrate when someone gets it right and tells the story of the people, the places, and the wines and how they are all connected, as the video above from Andrew Will Winery does.  Andrew Will is located on Vashon Island, just a short ferry ride from our home base, sourcing grapes from some of the best sites in the Columbia Valley, including the Two Blondes estate vineyard.  The wines are elegant, distinctive, delicious — we are big fans.

The video is very effective in introducing the people, Chris Camarda and his winemaker son Will, their views and values, the role of terroir, and the nature of the wines.  You will know if you would like the wines after seeing the video and why they are special. And the winery is using the video effectively just now to maintain connections with customers during the current crisis.

BDX In the Rocks

The virtual space can be as interactive as you want it to be (up to a point!) so many wineries are experimenting with virtual tastings. Our friends at Reynvaan Family Vineyards in Walla Walla show one effective approach.  Winemaker Matt Reynvaan went live on Instagram several Friday afternoons in April and May, talking about his work and tasting interesting pairs of Reynvann wines.

One thing that made these tastings especially appealing was that wine-list members were invited to taste along with Matt by purchasing the library wines at their original release prices, a terrific and unexpected opportunity.

We focused on the May 1 tasting of Cabernet Sauvignon and BDX blend wines from the Reynvaan’s In the Rocks vineyard. These are very special wines that surprise many people because Reynvaan and that region are best known for their outstanding Syrah. Sue and I tasted the Cab wines when we visited the Reynvaan family last year and they are really memorable. Honestly, I couldn’t wait to relive that tasting via the internet.

If you watch the video (even if you aren’t able to taste the wines) I think you will get a sense of Matt and his family and what drives and inspires them.  Toward the end of the tasting Matt opened up the conversation to questions from his on-line audience, adding a small but important interactive element.

The Reynvaan tastings achieved many goals. It got scarce wines into the hands of people who enjoy them and probably replaced to some extent lost sales to restaurants. Most of all, however, it created and nurtured personal relationships, which everyone believes are at the heart of the wine business, and allowed Matt and family to tell their story in the most natural way.

fhw2Virtual Release Party

Mike and Karen Wade, the proprietors of Fielding Hills Winery in Chelan, Washington, had planned to host a big release party this spring for their new line of white wines.  Mike, the founding winemaker of the family operation, is famous for his distinctive red wines, but as the winery grew and winemaker Tyler Armour joined the team, it was clear that white wines and maybe a Rosé needed to be added to the mix.

The Rosé and a Chenin Blanc from the estate Riverbend Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope came first and this year they are joined by a Chardonnay and Roussanne. It’s a big deal for the winery. But the coronavirus crisis made an in-person celebration impossible. With daughter Megan’s help they organized a Zoom-fest instead and brought together friends of Fielding Hills from across the country to taste the wines and learn about them from Mike, Karen, and Tyler.

fhw3Because of the Zoom platform’s flexibility there was the opportunity for more interaction with the audience. Tyler also gave a mini-tour of the wine-making facility and Mike used Google maps to take us to the vineyards, which Sue especially appreciated.  I think everyone enjoyed the delicious wines and appreciated the opportunity to taste them together and learn about them.

Will virtual release parties like this replace in-person events after the crisis is over.  I hope not! But I hope the virtual is retained because it can reach a different and broader audience in a different way, expanding the local to the regional, national, or even global.

The Virtual Tasting Room

boedeckerBy far the most personal virtual experience that Sue and I have had happened last Tuesday, when we Zoomed to Portland to talk wine with Stewart Boedecker and a couple of other wine friends. Stewart and Athena Pappas run Boedecker Cellars, an urban winery that sources grapes from some of Oregon’s best sites. They have been trying many initiatives to connect with customers and supply them with wine while the tasting room was shut down.

One of the clever offers was a trio of “Happiness on a Tuesday” wine packages — six-packs and cases of wine put together from small quantities of interesting products Stewart rescued from the warehouse. Sue picked out an all-Pinot six-pack for us (plus another 6 bottles of her favorite Pinot Blanc) and we will be working our way through them in June and July. Our affordable six-pack included a 2014 Pinot Noir from the famous Stoller Vineyard, so there is no chance of coming away disappointed.

We like the idea of Tuesday night wines and so we couldn’t resist Stewart’s invitation to attend a Tuesday evening virtual tasting. The group was small enough that Stewart just opened up the microphones and we all chatted and learned about the wines just as if we were sitting at the tasting room bar with the winemaker. It was great and reminded us of how much we have missed such previously normal moments during the pandemic crisis.

Virtual Trade Events

It is easy to think about virtual wine events just in terms of consumers and direct sales opportunities, but the coronavirus pandemic has done much more than just shutter cellar doors. Wine fairs and trade events around the world have been canceled or postponed, depriving many producers of the opportunity to present their wares to potential importers, distributors, restaurants, and retailers.

It isn’t the same, but virtual pitches can at least partially replace the wine fair booth and give wineries an opportunity to get their messages out. That’s what I found at the On-Wine Fair, where 45 Italian wineries were each given twenty minutes to tell stories to a virtual U.S. trade audience.

I attended the webinar of Tenuta Montemagno, a producer in Monferrato (Piemonte) that specializes in wines made from local indigenous grape varieties.  The brief and well organized presentation was very effective.  Place, personality, emotion. These characteristics came through clearly. This won’t replace the traditional wine fair — the opportunity to taste and talk in person is very important — but it goes a way toward filling the gap in the current crisis and expanding opportunities in the future.

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Vinarium Becomes TeleVinarium

The virtual world really is a rabbit hole. One you dive down there’s no telling where you might end up. The only limit (besides bandwidth, I guess) is imagination.  So when the Romanian organizers of Vinarium, the International Wine Competition Bucharest realized that it might be possible to shift on-line for their annual wine competition, they took the fateful first step. First time anyone has tried  to organize a virtual wine competition, but changing conditions provoke innovation.

A typical wine competition is a coronavirus nightmare. Five jurors sit close together around a table, spitting and dumping repeatedly while sommeliers fill glasses from masked bottles in a specified secret order.  There’s a certain close-quarters logistical choreography here that, when done well, would make Balanchine smile but earn a frown from Dr. Fauci today.

Virtual Vinarium aimed to get the results, but without the risk, and on-line platforms meant that jury members could be safely isolated.

The 36 international judges from 12 countries (including 4 Masters of Wine) were divided into juries of 5 or 6 persons. Getting them zoomed-up and their OIV judging software connected was probably the easy part (although I am glad I didn’t have to figure it out). Bringing the physical world along for the journey came next. That meant taking each of the 853  entered wines and decanting them into small coded sample bottles that could be shipped away to wherever the judges were. Then, of course, they needed to be tasted in the correct order and all the usual protocols followed.

I have only judged a couple of wine competitions and I’ve always been impressed with the complexity of the logistics involved. TeleVinarium went to the next level. Outrageously ambitious!

These are just a few of the hundreds of virtual events and projects. They begin as supplements to real world activities, sometimes replace them, and have the potential to transform them. Where will it all lead? Only one possible answer. Ask Alice!

Global Rosé Market Q&A

rose

Interest in Rosé wine is on the rise. The most recent Nielsen numbers (as reported in Wine Business Monthly) show that sales of Rosé wine in the U.S. market is growing by more than 40% per year — the fastest growth rate of any category.

Producers want to better understand the Rosé phenomenon, which explains why both the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium and the Washington Winegrowers convention featured specialized Rosé seminars this  year.

This column aims to add to the discussion by bringing together what Sue and I have learned at the Unified and during recent visits to France, Spain, and Italy, some insights from Elizabeth Gabay‘s recent book, Rosé: understanding the pink revolution, and a 2015 report on the global Rosé market produced by the OIV and the Provence Wine Council (CIVP). Here is a pdf of the OIV/CIVP report.

Who Makes the Most Rosé Wine?

Rosé is made pretty much wherever wine is made and sometimes accounts for a remarkable share of a region’s production (think about how important Mateus and Lancer’s Rosé were for Portugal during their peak years).

France is the largest producer by far today followed by Spain, the United States, and Italy. Production has increased dramatically in Australia, Chile, and South Africa, according to the OIV/CIVP report.

Who Buys It?

Let me answer this question three ways using three different figures from the OIV/CIVP report. The data are from 2014, so current data will differ, but the patterns are still relevant.

oiv1

Rosé wine sales are significant just about everywhere wine is consumed, but France is the market leader. Rosé accounted for 30% of all wine sold in France in 2014 according to the study, consistent with other reports that Rosé outsells white wine in French supermarkets, which feature large sections devoted solely to the pink stuff.

Although France is the largest Rosé producer in the world, it actually imports Rosé from Spain, which is the largest Rosé exporter. I think there is a pattern of inexpensive Spanish imports, which fill supermarket shelves with box wine, although that is only part of the story.oiv2

Is Rosé a wine for women? I have heard this said many times and never really believed it. The OIV/CIVP study casts doubt on this stereotype. Although women drink significantly more Rosé than men in some markets such as Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK, there doesn’t seem to be a strong gender bias in other markets. especially in France but also in the U.S., Russia,  and Canada. Men drink more Rosé than women in Brazil, according to the study.

oiv3

Finally, consider the distribution of sales by age group. Winemakers today are very interested in breaking into the millennial market. So it is significant that the OIV/CIVP study finds a strong youth bias in Rosé consumption.  Young people in every country surveyed here have a higher Rosé consumption than older people. France is noteworthy because all age groups consume Rosé in substantial quantities, even if the younger ones drink a bit more.

Bottom line: the market for Rosé seems to be both broad and deep. No wonder everyone is so interested.

How Much Does Color Matter? Is Rosé Just a Summer Wine?

Wait — that’s two questions. I wrote about color in an earlier column, so I will make that answer short. The conventional wisdom is that pale Rosé sells better than darker Rosé wines. But the fact is that Rosé from around the world comes in many different hues (as Sue’s photo above from a tasting in the Loire Valley shows).

I agree with Elizabeth Gabay that the color issue is exaggerated, but I don’t expect to convince anyone. If someone makes a darker Rosé and it doesn’t sell, I am sure that the color (not other factors) will be blamed.  They used to say that nobody ever got fired for buying IBM equipment and no one’s going to get a pink slip for making too pale a Rosé wine.

The summer wine question is quite interesting and can be answered in two ways. Yes, Rosé is a summer wine in the sense that there is a strong seasonal component in sales. Consumers drink more Rosé in warmer months. But Rosé is not just a summer wine as sales are now significant throughout the year.

Is There Easy Money in Rosé?

The answer to this question is related to the seasonality question above. It is easy to imagine that Rosé is a Chateau Cash Flow kind of wine. You pick the grapes, make the wine, ship the wine, cash the check — all in just a few months. The money pours in on a timeline only a little longer than Beaujolais Nouveau, which is the ultimate cash flow wine.

But there’s a hitch in the easy money Rosé game — you have to sell out to make it work. The residual seasonality of Rosé sales means that moving your product in February is more difficult than in July or August. And although I have had some Rosé that has benefited from a few years of bottle age, the conventional wisdom is that last year’s Rosé is over the hill — Rosé passé!

The consumer preference for fresher Rosé (which is also true for some other wines, such as Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc) creates a problem for producers. If you don’t sell out, then last year’s slow-selling wine is likely to clog up the supply chain, discouraging orders for this year’s wine.  Reliable supply is important to developing customer loyalty, so you want to have enough, but excess supply is hard to get rid of. Rosé producers must navigate complicated currents!

That’s all there is space for this week. Please leave comments with more Rosé questions and answers.

Deconstructing Rosé: Simplicity is Complicated

rose“Here in France, restaurant wine lists now have a separate rosé section. And this is not confined to Provence … The world seems to have gone pink, perhaps one small sign of an increasing desire for simplicity when we sit down to eat and drink.”

(Peter Mayle, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence, 2018 – emphasis added.)

The world does seem to have gone pink, as Peter Mayle says. Rosé wine is the fastest growing wine category by far here in the United States and Rosé is now transcending the idea of wine by entering other products as a color, aroma, or taste. You can munch on a Rosé chocolate bar, chew on Rosé gummy bears, lick your lips with Rosé lip balm, anoint yourself (or someone else) with Rosé body polish, and … well, Rosé your way through the day and night, too.

The New Pumpkin Spice?

Rosé is the new pumpkin spice. Or maybe it just looks that way from here. Peter Mayle was on the money when it came to Rosé. And while he might or might not be right in thinking that Rosé is a simple beverage choice for over-whelmed consumers, I think it is wrong to think that Rosé is itself quite a simple thing.

Or at least that’s what I think I learned from attending a professional seminar on Rosé wines at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento (which was followed two weeks later by another seminar at the Washington Winegrowers Convention that I was forced to miss when a snowstorm caused my flight to be cancelled).

Rosé is hot, so wine business people want to learn more about growing, making, and selling it. Sue and I got a heavy dose of Rosé last year when we visited Languedoc and the Loire Valley and met Elizabeth Gabay whose book, Rosé: understanding the pink revolution, is the best resource we have found for understanding everything pink. Herewith some observations as I try to deconstruct the Rosé phenomenon.

A Paler Shade of Pink?

I cannot think of any other type of wine where color seems to matter as much as for Rosé. This is a fact that was stressed in all the presentations we attended. Although the first Rosé wines I can remember tasting here in the U.S. were dark pink in the Tavel style, the fashion today, according to conventional wisdom, is that paler is better — to the point where one wine we sampled could have passed for a white wine!

I don’t know if it is true, but the word on the street is that consumers think pale is dry and darker is sweeter.  Pale and dry is associated with Peter Mayle’s Provence and those wines seem to fly off the shelf.

It is not the case that all French wines fit this profile — Tavel remains a noteworthy outlier, for example. And Rosé from Languedoc and from the Loire Valley come in a range of hues, as Sue’s photo from a Loire tasting makes clear. Rosé wines made here in the U.S. range from dark to light and I was once served a deep dark “Rosé” that was not a Rosé at all in my view — I think it was an attempt at saingée Syrah gone badly wrong.

One Hue to Rule Them All?

Does one (pale) hue really rule them all? I was interested in the presentation by Jason Haas of Tablas Creek at the Unified Symposium that provided some insights into consumer attitudes. Tablas Creek Vineyard makes two Rosé wines, which makes sense given its association with the Perrin family, which make a lot of Rosé wine in France. Together they account for about 20% of total production. One is a pale pink dry wine made as a Rosé using purchased grapes from the local area. It’s a big hit in the by-the-glass on-trade market.

The other wine, made in much smaller quantities, comes from estate grapes and is made using the saingée method, which means that some of the juice is drained off while still pink leaving a more concentrated red wine behind. You might say that the Rosé is a by-product of red wine making, but I prefer to think that the pink and red are co-produced. This wine has more structure and character and demands food. Sue and I thought it was the best wine of the tasting.

The darker wine, which might be a tough sell if it went into distribution because of its color and higher price, is reserved for tasting room and wine club purchases. It sells out every year in part, I suppose, because tasting room buyers can sample the wine and not just look at the color. And also, frankly, because it is different and a bit special and that’s something people look for. Haas thinks having two pink wines, each crafted for its own market, works pretty well.

Hitting a Moving (Color) Target

So pink isn’t as simple as you might think when it is time to sell the wines and it isn’t simple either when they are made. One speaker said that his Rosé was the hardest wine in his portfolio to make. I am not enough of an enologist to appreciate all the technical details that were presented (there were plenty of experts in the room all nodding their heads), but it was easy to understand how color makes things more difficult.

You might think that pink is pink and once you have the color you want, that’s that. But apparently you would be wrong. The color you achieve in the tank, we were told, is just the beginning and as time passes, and especially as SO2 is added at bottling, the wine gets paler and paler. So you need to begin darker than you want and then control the process pretty closely in order to coast into the shade of pale you are aiming for.

This is something that Elizabeth Gabay finds disturbing because it means, at some point, winemakers may sacrifice what’s necessary to make the best wine in order to get the right color of pink. Rosé wines in general might be better, she suggests, and more popular and drinkable, if color wasn’t such a central concern.

Simplicity is Complicated

The complexity increases when other issues such as grape varieties and viticultural practices are considered. Here in the U.S the Rosé wines are made from easily recognizable grape varieties. Barnard Griffin, a Washington State producer, makes a Rosé of Sangiovese that wins gold (and double gold) medals in competitions and flies off the supermarket shelves. Sangiovese is easy to understand and to like even if it isn’t part of the standard Provence recipe. But in the Loire we discovered wines made from unfamiliar grapes that are in fact only grown for Rosé! Who knew?

I guess Rosé is like any other type of wine. It can be as simple (or complex) as you want it to be. Will consumers revolt if and when they discover Rosé’s hidden geeky side? Yes, if Peter Mayle is right and they are fleeing what they see are unnecessary complication. But I’m not really sure that’s true.

Is the Prosecco Boom Sustainable?

Is the Prosecco boom sustainable? Or is it a bubble that’s eventually going to pop? That’s roughly the question that an Italian journalist asked me a few weeks ago and it is easy to appreciate the concern behind it. The market for Prosecco has blossomed, especially in the U.K., U.S., and Germany, the three largest export markets, and Prosecco producers are both excited and anxious about their future prospects.

U.S. Sparkling Wine Imports January-June 2018

usimports

A quick glance at data for U.S. sparkling wine imports January-June 2018 as reported by Wine-By-Numbers (see above) shows strong growth. Italian sparking wine (mainly Prosecco) imports grew 16% by volume and 28.3% by value in the first six months of the year despite rising average dollar import price. Only the Rosé import category is growing faster than Prosecco.

Beyond Bubbles for Birthdays

I am a wine-glass half-full kind of person, so my answer to the journalist’s query was optimistic. The question isn’t so much why U.S. and U.K. consumers are drinking more sparkling wine (and especially Prosecco) now — it is why they didn’t embrace bubbles more ardently in the past? Sparkling wine has always been an attractive option, but for some reason it became associated with special occasions. Bubbles aren’t just for birthdays and New Year any more.

But booms often contain the seeds of their own demise — either in the form of bust, fizzle, plateau, or something else. Prosecco may be no different. Having just returned from a quick visit to Prosecco-ville to speak at an award ceremony in Conegliano (see next week’s column), I can report that there is concern about this possibility within the industry.

Most of the Prosecco on the market is DOC Prosecco produced by makers that range from the very large such as La Marca, which is distributed by Gallo, to the relatively small. There are economies of scale in Prosecco-making, so bigger can be better from a profit standpoint. La Marca, for example is a second level cooperative — a cooperative of cooperatives — and its many members keep its pressurized tanks, used for the secondary fermentation, efficiently supplied with a river of base wine.

Pretty in Pink?

When quantity is the driving force, the focus can easily become one of chasing the market to increase sales, raise production, increase scale economies, and lower cost. Thus there is an incentive to look for incremental sales wherever they can be found.

This might be part of the movement to certify DOC Prosecco Rosé.  Bubbles are hot. Pink  wine is hotter. Pink bubbles should set the market on fire. The Glera grape that is used to make Prosecco is white, not red, but production rules allow the use of up to 15% of other approved grape varieties. If  those grapes are Pinot Noir, which is grown in this region,  the result is a pink sparkling wine. Pink Prosecco isn’t a thing yet, since the rules don’t allow this designation, but it might be permitted very soon.

Pink Prosecco — who could object? Well, many people, actually. The concern is that Prosecco’s identity is not well established — many consumers think Prosecco is the grape name and others are not certain exactly sure where it comes from. Prosecco’s success may come in part from the fact that consumers don’t fret about these things and simply enjoy the experience.

No One Laughed

tap

But some producers worry that by broadening the Prosecco category with a pink wine, winemakers will further dilute the brand identity to the point where it is just a generic sparkling wine, one of the ingredients in Aperol spritz, unable to command a price premium. The slope that runs down the commodity wine hill can be slippery.

At one point during our visit I joked that, since blue wines are getting some attention these days, maybe some Prosecco producers would move in that direction. Pink, Blue, White — all colors of Prosecco for all occasions. No one laughed. I guess blue Prosecco is nothing to joke about. It’s part of that slippery slope.

The concern that Prosecco’s brand may be undermined seemed particular strong in the Prosecco Superiore DOCG zone between Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Supply is more limited in the DOCG zone and costs are higher because, unlike the valley vineyards where much DOC Prosecco is grown,  the hillside terraces aren’t all suitable for mechanical harvesting or as easy to maintain generally.

What a Mouthful!

Prosecco Superiore is therefore about value more than volume and maintaining product differentiation — of Prosecco versus generic sparkling wine and of DOCG Prosecco versus DOC production — is very important.  Wine marketing guru Paul Wagner, who led our small press tour, never got tired of pointing out what a challenge the DOCG producers set by branding themselves as Prosecco Superiore Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG . What a mouthful!

Prosecco Superiore suggests a premium product and is probably the right brand to try to build, although Americans have little experience with the Superiore designation for wines generally. The Conegliano-Valdobbiadene reference is meant to indicate that these are wines of origin — grown in a particular place, but most consumers don’t know what that place is or exactly how to pronounce the place names either.

Glass by Glass by Glass

I have done Prosecco tastings for non-profit groups and I note that consumers are often surprised when they taste the DOCG product, especially DOCG Brut. They like Prosecco a lot, but think of it generically as defined by DOC Extra Dry wines. They are surprised when they can taste a difference. (I’ve had the same reaction in tastings of Argentina Malbecs from different production zones).

Based on my very limited personal experience, it seems to me the key to differentiating Prosecco from other sparkling wines and DOCG Prosecco from the DOC wines is going to involve a lot of hard work. Consumers won’t understand the differences if you just tell them. You can’t tell people how something tastes. You have to show them, and let them experience it for themselves one glass at a time.

Is the Prosecco boom sustainable? Yes, I think it is, but it will take work to shore up its foundation and simply chasing market share, as tempting as that it, may not be the best long-term strategy.

Wine Book Reviews: Colorful Rosé & Dynamic New Zealand

Elizabeth Gabay, Rosé: Understanding the Pink Wine Revolution (Infinite Ideas/Classic Wine Library, 2018). Reviewed by Sue Veseth.

rose

Once upon a time, “proper” rosé was French, very pale pink, dry, served young and fresh, and not serious. Today, rosé is serious. Consumers can find rosé from all over world; from the palest pink to almost red in color; made from grape varieties that may be familiar or unfamiliar; made in a variety of styles and sweetness levels; and that range from simple to complex. How is a wine drinker supposed to navigate the world of rosé?

A good start is Rosé: Understanding the pink wine revolution by Elizabeth Gabay, MW. This comprehensive study of rosé will open your eyes — and your palate — to the infinite variety and pleasure of rosé. Her book covers the liberal arts of rosé: history, geography, science, political science, economics, art, and literature.

It is impossible in the wine business these days to dismiss rosé, as Gabay makes clear in the chapter of her book on the business of rosé. In the United States, rosé is the fastest growing category and is now a year-round option, not just a summer wine. And, like it or not, what happens in the U.S. wine market can affect wine production worldwide.

The issue of color permeates the book because of the traditional notion that paler is better. And, after all, the name “rosé” is all about color. Gabay’s explorations demonstrate that color does not indicate quality, but style. She goes as far to say, “I am no longer so sure that our division of wine into red, white and pink is appropriate. With some rosé wines almost red in colour and style, and others almost white, the divisions are blurred. Add in rosé made in an orange wine style, and the blurring increases. The obsession with the colour pink should perhaps start to take a back seat.”

Gabay describes her book as a journey of exploration, and she transmits this journey for both the serious wine student and the casual consumer. An early chapter on viticulture and winemaking, for example, has a lot of detail for the science-minded and is also accessible to the more casual reader. Similarly, her discussions of rosé from various parts of the world are presented in detail, with specific examples from the region. More maps would be helpful for the novice rosé drinker.

Rosé: Understanding the pink wine revolution is a valuable addition to the library of any wine lover who is ready for a journey of exploration.

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Rebecca Gibb,  The Wines of New Zealand (Infinite Ideas/Classic Wine Library, 2018). Reviewed by Mike Veseth.

kiwiRebecca Gibb’s The Wines of New Zealand is “designed to provide a comprehensive overview of the New Zealand wine scene,” according to its author, “a reference for locals, international visitors and students alike.” Gibb gets it right on all counts — what a great resource for anyone who wants to learn about New Zealand and its wine industry.

The book’s 300+ pages are packed full of stories, personalities, facts, and figures. The organization is conventional: history, climate and grapes first, then a survey of the regions (10 of them, which will come as a surprise to those who only know Marlborough and its Sauvignon Blanc), then a final pair of chapters on tourism and current issues.

Gibb’s mastery of this material is easy to appreciate, but it is her contagious enthusiasm that comes through most clearly. A chapter on grape varieties could easily become mundane but not here. Each grape is an excuse to talk about history, geography, vine science, and to introduce or reprise some of the noteworthy characters who shaped Kiwi wine history.

What do I like best about this book? The sense of energy and dynamism that permeates it in both style and content. The story of New Zealand wine is a story of change, starting from the early British and French pioneers through the Dalmatian gum-diggers and on to today’s multinational corporations. Gibb sees dynamism everywhere in New Zealand wine and she doesn’t think this is likely to change.

What would I change about The Wines of New Zealand?  Well, the beginning of the book, a fantastic historical overview, is so strong that it makes the end feel a bit weak. Gibb’s final chapter does a great job informing the reader about Kiwi tourism opportunities — both wine and otherwise. But it doesn’t bring the book together the way I would like.

What I’d really like to see — and maybe it will appear in the next edition? — is a chapter that draws together the many strands and looks ahead to where New Zealand wine is headed and what might stop it from getting there. That would end the book on the same dynamic note I enjoyed throughout.

It would also make it a bit less of a reference book, which is its intended function. Maybe the best solution is to DIY — read this excellent book and then make up your mind where you think New Zealand wine is headed next! Highly recommended.

Can Sherry Be the Next Big Thing?

tioCan Sherry be the “Next Big Thing” in wine? I know what you are thinking. Sherry? C’mon! That’ll never catch fire in a big way. And you may be right, but give me a chance to make my case before you close the door on the Sherry cabinet.

One of the things that Sue and I wanted to do during our recent visit to Spain was learn more about Sherry. But the itinerary seemed to work against that. No time to jet south to Jerez de la Frontera in Andaluca, Sherry’s home. We would have to piece together our education in other wine regions. With a little luck and some helpful friends, we managed quite well.

Stumbling on Sherry in Madrid

Madrid is a long way from Jerez, but we found Sherry all around us, suggesting just how much it is a part of Spanish culture. Walking the aisles of the historic San Miguel market near the Plaza Mayor, for example, we stumbled upon a market stall called The Sherry Corner where dozens of different wines were offered by the glass at bargain prices. We had fun trying new Sherry wines and revisiting old favorites.

sherrycorner

The Sherry Corner offers a fun self-guided audio tour of Sherry wines. For €30 you get six glasses of different Sherries in a special carrier, coupons for six matching tapas from various market stalls, and an audio program available in six languages. It is quite a bargain when you do the math and it lets you both get to know the wines, experiment with pairings, and take advantage of the amazing tapas on offer at the market.

We found a completely different experience at the restaurant Zahara de Osborne in the Plaza Santa Ana, which was close by our hotel. The restaurant is owned by the Osborne wine group that is famous for its Sherry wines (you can see the Osborne bull staring down from hilltops all around Spain).

The idea of the restaurant was to bring the food and culture of Andaluca to Madrid. We challenged our waiter to create that experience for us and he did a great job choosing the dishes and helping us with pairings. Gosh, the Fino was delicious with a delicately fried whole fish!

Indigenous Sherry Culture

Not that Madrid does not have its own indigenous Sherry culture. There are Sherry bars in several parts of the city. Friends guided us to one called La Venencia, where the Sherry is served en rama, fresh and unfiltered, right from the barrel, which is a style I like a lot. My university colleague Harry uses La Venencia as his office when he is in Madrid (which is a lot) and he made introductions to José and Gabriel who worked the bar that day.

La Venencia has as much depth and character as the wines that are served there.  If you have any pre-conceptions, you must check them at the door and accept the bar for what it is, which is true of Sherry wines, too. And then, well, it is a complete pleasure. Sherry really isn’t like anything else you will ever drink and La Venencia is just the same.

I have seldom been anywhere that was so totally itself and I will always associate that strong impression with the dry Manzanilla Sherry wines we enjoyed at La Venecia.osborne

A Little Help from our Friends

We got a little help from friends at Osborne and Gonzalez Byass wineries in our quest to learn more about Sherry. Santiago Salinas arranged for a tasting of Rare Old Sherries when we visited Osborne’s Montecilla winery in Rioja. These were wines for philosophers and poets. It is stunning to discover what great Sherries can become with time. We were inspired by Santiago’s passion for the wines and, of course, by the wines themselves.

Our visit to Finca Constancia near Toledo was organized around a rather extravagant seminar and tasting of Gonzalez Byass wines ranging from their signature Fino, Tio Pepe, on to a special Tio Pepe en rama bottling, and then carefully and thoroughly all the way through the line-up to the sweet, concentrated Pedro Xeménez.

Marina Garcia, our guide on this Sherry tour, was not afraid to draw out the complexities of the wines, which is great. As I told my audience at the General Assembly, sometimes complicated things need to be understood in complicated ways. Our favorite? We discovered the Palo Cortado Sherry style and it made us think. I love it when a wine does that.

Sherry doesn’t have to complicated … or sweet either, for that matter, although many people put the wines in that category. A chilled bottle of very dry fino or Manzanilla is pretty pure pleasure and will change many minds. But you’ve got to try it yourself to be persuaded and that’s a  challenge.constancia

Sherry’s Moment?

If you look at the fundamentals, it is easy to conclude that this could be Sherry’s moment. The wines are great and well-priced. They come in a range of styles that variously make great aperitifs, pair well with food, or help unleash that inner poet. Apparently Sherry works really well as a cocktail base, too. Gotta check that out.

Tourism in Spain is on the rise and Spain’s tapas culture cuisine, which matches up so well with dry Sherry, is increasingly popular. Sherry, as much as any wine I know, is a product of time and place, and wears its authenticity proudly.  Authentic, affordable, food-friendly. Aren’t these the things that wine drinkers are looking for today?

Sherry’s burden is its reputation as that sweet old wine that grandma drinks. There is so much more to Sherry for those who pull the cork. If enough curious wine drinkers pull enough corks, perhaps Sherry’s “Next Big Thing” potential can be realized!

Is Sherry going to be the next big thing? Probably not. But it doesn’t have to be. It is a timeless wine waiting to be re-discovered by a new generation of wine drinkers.

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Thanks to everyone who helped us with our Sherry research. Special thanks to Susana, Mauricio, Marina, Santiago, George, Cesar, Greg, Harry, Jensen, Gabriel, and José. Thanks to Sue for these photos of the big Tio Pepe sign in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, the menu at The Sherry Corner, the rare old Osborne Sherries, and the many hues of the Gonzalez Byass Sherry wines.

Refreshing On-Premise Wine Market Strategies (without Jumping the Shark)

shark-week-000How does a traditional craft product innovate to be competitive and relevant in today’s marketplace, but do so without losing its soul? I think about this a lot both in my job as an economist studying the wine industry and, in my other life, as the trustee of a liberal arts college.  Both wine and college need to change with the times while staying firmly rooted to those timeless qualities that make them so valuable. Not an easy task!

Sharking Jumping Risk

Sometimes I am jealous of those folks over in the beer space. They seem to find ways to innovate without “jumping the shark” with ridiculous over-the-top ideas too often. (See shark jumping video below.) Lots of new products and variations on classic brews.

The rapid proliferation of craft breweries and brew pubs here in the United States and around the world means that while beer is clearly a global industry, it often has an intensely local feel and flavor.

I can’t even count the number of on-premise craft beer operations here in Western Washington, each different to fit into a specific neighborhood niche. When a German-themed craft beer hall opened recently in Tacoma it literally had lines out the door. It might be just good beer, but I believe that it is the total experience and that strong beer sales are as much affect as cause.

Wouldn’t it be great if wine could innovate like that, I have sometimes thought, somehow connecting global and local, tradition and new, casual and elegant. I’ve recently learned about two very promising but completely different innovative initiatives tat give a sense of what might be possible without “jumping the shark.”

An Urban Winery in La Jolla

There actually are sharks in South Africa — the Great Whites that you see on TV during the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. I first met Lowell Jooste in South Africa — his family owned the historic Klein Constantia winery for twenty years before moving to La Jolla, California in 2012.

Jooste’s wine is made up north in Napa and Sonoma, but as the video above shows, he trucks the barrels down south to beautiful La Jolla where he operates L.J. Crafted Wine, a kind of cross between a brew pub and an urban winery. The wines are drawn straight from the barrels and tanks using a propriety technology that keeps them fresh and clean. Customers can drink hand crafted single-vineyard wine by the glass, fill the elegant wine “growlers” or take away cork-sealed bottles.

Barrel tasting on La Jolla Avenue. Who could resist the opportunity to drink fine wine in an elegant yet casual atmosphere like this? Add in cheese and meat platters and finish off with a glass of 2009 Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia (of course). Perfect.

Lowell Jooste’s La Jolla winery raises the wine bar bar, if you know what I mean, giving wine consumers the sort of intimate experience that beer lovers sometimes find at their favorite local brew pubs. The concept and design are innovative and so is the clever barrel thief device that makes it all work. Tests show that the last glass from a barrel is as fresh as the first, which is quite an achievement.

If the goal is to draw upon wine traditions to make meeting with friends for a glass of wine as appealing as hanging out at a brew pub, this is might be an answer. It is certainly going to be on my itinerary the next time we are in La Jolla!

And Now for Something Completely Different

London’s Pall Mall is pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum from La Jolla Avenue. This is an area you might associate with stuffy private clubs — the sort of places that are the home to what I have called (with apologies to Thorstein Veblen) “conspicuous non-consumption.” The wines here are the very best, but they exist to be collected, not enjoyed in the glass. Drinking them — that would be revolutionary! I overstate the case, but you know what I mean.

I was delighted, therefore, when my globe-trotting friend Ken sent a report about a private club called 67 Pall Mall. This club looks as elegant as I imagine the others are — and the sample menus make it sound like a nice place to dine. But the point of the club isn’t to eat or to, well, club. The point is to actually drink great wine, choosing from a quite large number offered by the glass and many more by the bottle.
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Ken gave his visit to the club with a member friend high marks. Richard Hemming MW‘s account of his drinking experience at 67 Pall Mall makes thirsty reading:
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None of it is cheap, with 125 ml glasses starting at around £7, but this is precisely the point of the place. The most expensive glass is £426 for Screaming Eagle (I missed the vintage), then £425 for Ch Latour 1961. We drank a glass each of Condrieu, Montlouis, Réné Rostaing Côte Blonde 2003 Côte Rôtie, Mountford Hommage à l’Alsace 2011 Waipara, a 1991 Vin Santo from Santorini and Quinta do Noval 2007 port. All excellent, and cost a total of £98. For an illustration of value, the Rostaing is currently being retailed for £110 a bottle, making 125 ml worth £18; at 67PM this was £23.
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 Both these innovative initiatives change the wine experience in a good way for their clients, I think. Different as they are both have at their core technological innovations that allow these wines to be served and preserved.

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Here is the “jumping the shark” scene from Happy Days. Enjoy.

The Rodney Dangerfield of Wine


Petite Sirah is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine. Like the famous comedian, this grape variety “can’t get no respect.”

For a long time nobody really knew much about Petite Sirah (PS), except the fact that it produced “the biggest, toughest, brawniest red wines in California” (according to The New Connoisseurs’ Guidebook to California Wine & Wineries). It’s true identity was a hotly disputed mystery. DNA tests finally settled arguments about its parentage — it is the Durif grape from France, a combination of the Peloursin and Syrah varieties discovered by Dr. Francoise Durif in the 1880s when he was searching for solutions to Syrah’s powdery mildew problem.

PS: The Prohibition Grape

It never caught on in Europe, but PS was quickly embraced in California and South America, where it thrives. Many of the early California vineyards included Petite Sirah along with Zinfandel and other heat-loving varieties and it figured prominently in field blends. If you’ve tasted Ridge Lytton Springs (71% Zinfandel, 21% Petite Sirah, 5% Carignane in the 2008 blend) or Frog’s Leap Napa Zin (80% Zinfandel, 19% Petite Sirah, 1% Carignane in 2008) you have some idea of what I’m talking about.

Petite Sirah took center stage during Prohibition. Most people don’t realized that wine consumption in the U.S. actually increased during “The Great Experiment,” through bootleg sales, of course, but mainly because millions of families took advantage of a loophole that allowed up to 200 gallons of legal homemade wine per household.  Rough, tough Petite Sirah grapes survived the long railroad trips necessary to get the grapes to home winemakers across the country. Bootleggers liked it, too, according to Jim Lapsley’s Bottled Poetry. Petite Sirah could make a wine so strong and deeply colored, Lapsley writes, that illegal sellers could stretch it out without fear of detection by adding up to 20% water! (I am tempted to make some sort of lame “water into wine” joke here, but it don’t want to be sacrilegious.)

So valuable was Prohibition Petite Sirah that in 1934 PS vines accounted for 4400 of Napa Valley’s 11,000 vineyard acres! The total for all of California was 7,285 acres in 1938. Petite Sirah went into decline again in the postwar years, as winemakers realized that it was not really Syrah after all as some supposed and moved in other directions. The spike in the 1960s and 1970s in the chart above is driven in part by the increase in generic jug wine sales (think Gallo Hearty Burgundy). A lot of the “Burgundy” in those blends was really Petite Sirah.

Do you see the “I can’t get no respect” angle here. Poor, misunderstood, mislabeled Petite Sirah.

But Petite Sirah is experiencing a renaissance today as a varietal wine as well as a blending component. PS vineyard acreage is up as is the number of wineries making varietal PS.  There is even a very dynamic advocacy group called PS I Love You that promotes the wine.

PS Renaissance: Why Now?

Why Petite Sirah now? Well, one reason is that it is different at a time when a lot of wines taste the same. Many of the old PS vineyards survive, so old vine PS is available, which is a special treat. Sue and I enjoyed a bottle of 2005 Arger Martucci Petite Syrah made from 140 year old Calistoga vines for our last wedding anniversary. That’s not an experience you can get with many other wine varieties.

But there is more than longevity to Petite Sirah. I asked Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores to explain the appeal and here’s what she said.

The old timers planted PS because they loved it and it happened to blend particularly well with Zinfandel.  That’s why I planted it:  a really old timer shared with me that he remembered it being planted on our property long, long ago.

I’m determined to continue making PS in an open and fruit forward style—some versions have gotten quite alcoholic and leathery  (not unlike Zinfandel) but I think that people are loving the depth and zest that the grape puts forward (sort of like Syrah +). … But in general, I think it’s a perfect wine for the rather amazing charcuterie and “all things from every animal” cuisine that’s so the rage right now.

People are discovering that it can be made without terribly extracted tannins as well so that helps the pairing—even with cheese.  At the winery–I offer guests a tasting choice–they can taste PS with a rich chocolate (70% +/-) cookie/cracker (not very sweet, nice texture) or a lovely piece of salumi. It’s kind of fun for people to delve into why aspects of each food pair well.   My main source of PS is up in Calistoga.  Dry farmed and always in need of a major taming of the crop —I love it.

A Certain Smile

Another reason for the PS Renaissance is that makers of this variety have come out of the closet, so to speak, and begun to celebrate the grape and their wine through the PS I Love You advocacy group and events like Dark & Delicious, which was held at the Rock Wall winery in Alameda, California a few weeks ago. I couldn’t attend the big tasting (I was in Argentina), so I asked my  good friend Lowell Daun to fill in for me. Here is his report.

If turnout is any indication, I think Petite Sirah production will have to get back to the 1970s numbers – the place was not easy to find, the weather was abysmal, tickets cost $63, yet the place was absolutely packed! I would estimate between 800 – 1000 people participated. And of the many wine tasting events I’ve attended, this group seemed more enthusiastic than any I’ve seen. And it wasn’t a “drunk-fest”, rather oenophiles whom seemed to know what they were looking for,enjoying and analyzing.

“Accidental Pairings” was my assumption upon finding some unusual wine-food combinations set throughout the Rock Wall facility. In retrospect, I think the organizers are too smart to have not had some design as to where each winery and food purveyor were located.  … Many chocolate pairings made sense, but I was surprised to find wonderful cupcakes worked with the wines, too. The most unusual food being paired with P.S., was spicy bacon and almond caramel popcorn, by HobNob Foods, set next to Tres Sabores’ pouring station. As it turned out Tres Sabores poured my favorite wines and the spicy bacon-almond-caramel popcorn was my hands-down favorite food, and they paired perfectly!!

In addition to hands-down favorite, Tre Sabores, other very interesting pourings were: Biale’s Punisher, Clayhouse, Rosenblum’s Rock Pile, Silkwood, Aver Family and Cecchetti.

Lowell did have one reservation. A health professional, he was concerned about all the purple smiles he saw at Dark & Delicious — Petite Sirah is famous for its ability to stain tooth and tongue. Is PS a threat to your tooth enamel?  Click here to read the 30 Second Wine Advisor on red wine and your teeth.

I think that all this proves that Petite Sirah really is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine — and I mean that in a good way. It may not be The Next Big Thing, but that’s not the point. Different and not to everyone’s taste, but with a large, loyal and growing fan club, that’s Petite Sirah.

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Thanks to Jo Diaz of Diaz Communications for information about the PS I Love You program and for the charts above. Thanks as well to Julie Johnson for her comments on PS and to Lowell Daun and Miller Freeman III for representing The Wine Economist at the Dark & Delicious tasting.

Washington Wine’s Identity Crisis

The title of the seminar was provocative: “In Search Of: Washington’s Singular Style.” Moderator Bruce Schoenfeld of Travel + Leisure magazine wanted to talk about regional wine identity. What does “Washington wine” mean in the wine glass and to consumers in the marketplace?

Schoenfeld’s search for a definitive Washington wine identity was cleverly conceived (I have pasted the details of the seminar including the list of wines we tasted at the end of the post). We began by tasting wines from three regions with clear identities: Chablis, Ribera del Duero and Barolo.

An Identity Crisis?

These wine regions have strong brands, if you think of it from a business angle. Does Washington have a strong brand in this sense or does it suffer from an identity crisis that limits its market potential? Well, there are many ways to try to answer this question and Schoenfeld deftly guided the discussion to consider several of them.

Can Washington wine be defined by grape variety?  Well, not exactly. Over the years Washington has embraced and then abandoned a string of “defining wines” from the varietal standpoint. First it was Riesling, then Merlot, then on to Cabernet Sauvignon and now Syrah and soon maybe Malbec (the featured “emerging variety” at last year’s conference) or Grenache (highlighted this year).

The problem is that none of the wine identities have stuck, so Washington must seem a bit schizophrenic to outsiders who pay attention to these things. Washington Riesling, the first attempt to define the state’s wine identity,  can be great here, but it is a white wine and red wines get most of the attention in the wine world today. Young wine regions like Washington want that attention, so Riesling fell off the radar despite its high quality and strong sales.

Multiple Identities

Merlot was The Next Big Thing and Washington Merlot can be great, too. Washington makes some of the best Merlot in the world, Jancis Robsinson once wrote, sending hearts hereabouts fluttering with excitement. But, so what? she added. Merlot isn’t a serious wine, or so some  say, and the search for that defining variety continued.

Cabernet Sauvignon was next up and Washington has produced more than its share of 95+ point Cabs. But Napa Valley seems to have the Cab identity locked up. First rate Washington Cabs sometimes sell for half the price of second-tier Napa products. That Napa reputation seems to be invincible.

So now Washington wants to show off its Syrah wines, and they can be wonderful, too. But the damn Aussies have messed up the Syrah bonanza. I think it is easier to make quality Syrah in Washington today than it is to sell it. So the search for a wine identity goes on.

A Certain Style

Maybe it’s not a grape variety that defines Washington wine, Schoefeld suggested, but a style of wine. Bob Betz agreed in principle, suggesting that Washignton wines at their best combine Old World structure with New World fruit — a tag line that a lot of us in the audience liked, even if it might be difficult to communicate to consumers.

Tasting through the Washington wines (from Riesling to Merlot, Cab and Syrah), Schoenfeld asked the panel and audience, “Can you tell that this is a Washington wine — does it have the Washington style?” He certainly thought so, but I never saw more than half the hands go up.

This was a pretty serious  winemaker, consumer, trade and journalist audience. They’ve tasted a lot of wine and a lot of Washington wine. All the wines Schoenfeld selected were interesting, but did they individually or collectively outline a Washington style? I didn’t think so. I’ve tasted wines similar to these from other regions and I have tasted very good Washington wines with completely different styles from these. I don’t claim to be a skilled wine taster (which might for once be an advantage since I am on a par with many consumers in this regard), but I can’t find a definitive Washington style.

What did I conclude from this interesting (and delicious) investigation? Having a successful regional wine identity is an advantage in the marketplace, but Washington doesn’t have one. Bob Betz may be right about Old World structure and New World fruit, but I don’t think wine style is easily understood by many consumers.

No Strong Identity. No Crisis Either.

Grape variety is easy to understand and communicate, but that leaves the question which one? If I had to choose, I would select Riesling on the basis of market penetration. Chateau Ste Michelle is the largest producer of Riesling wines in the world (yes, the world!). More Riesling grapes were crushed in 2010 (33,500 tons according to USDA data) than any other Washington variety. Washington Rieslings  (including the widely distributed Eroica, Poet’s Leap and Pacific Rim wines) can hold their own with the best in the world. What more do you want in a wine identity?

But there’s that status thing (red trumps white) and many of Washington’s iconic producers don’t make Rieslings, so focusing on this variety to the exclusion of others would in some ways be counter-productive in terms of regional identity.

So where does that leave us? Washington may lack a strong wine identity but I don’t think it has an identity crisis. Better no single identity than a bad one (think Brand Australia). Better to produce many types and styles of good wine and simply celebrate that!

[Thanks to the Washington Wine Commission for inviting me to attend the Taste Washington seminars.]

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Taste Washington Seminars / March 26, 2011

In Search Of: Washington’s Singular Style

Moderator:
Bruce Schoenfeld (Travel & Leisure Magazine)
Panelists:
Bob Betz MW (Betz Family Winery)
Shayn Bjornholm MS (Washington State Wine Commission)
Sandy Block MW (Legal Seafoods)
Drew Hendricks MS (Pappas Brothers)
Wines:
2008 Louis Michel “Montée de Tonnerre” 1er Cru Chablis, FR
2004 Bodegas y Viñedos Alion, Ribera del Duero, Spain $70
2001 Cavallotto “Riserva Vignolo” Barolo, Piemonte, Italy $75
2009 Chateau Ste. Michelle/Dr. Loosen “Eroica” Riesling, CV $24
2007 Hightower Cellars Merlot, CV $28
2007 Abeja “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, CV $80
2007 Cadence “Ceil du Cheval” Blend, RM $45
2008 Betz Family Winery “La Serenne” Syrah, YV $50
2008 Cayuse Vineyards “En Chamberlin” Syrah, WWV $65

What’s The Next Big Thing in Wine?

Is Moscato The Next Big Thing (TNBT) in wine? That’s the question Liza B. Zimmerman asks in an article in the March 2011 issue of Wine Business Monthly titled “A New White Zin is in the House.”

Moscato wines sales soared by 91.4 percent by dollar value according to Zimmerman’s article, compared with 4.9 percent overall market growth (Nielsen off-premises survey data for the 52 weeks ending October 16, 2010).  That’s a big surge in sales, albeit from a relatively small base.

Move Over White Zin

Some of the increase probably comes as consumers switch over from White Zin, as the article’s headline suggests. The decline in White Zinfandel sales is accelerating as measured by Nielsen, with a 7.4 percent decrease in the most recent month reported in the same issue of WBM. Since White Zin sales are huge (almost double the sales of Red Zinfandel, for example, and slightly larger than Sauvignon Blanc in the Nielsen rankings), it wouldn’t take many consumers switching from White Zin to Moscato to generate big growth numbers.

Wineries have been quick to respond to the trend. Sutter Home, the White Zin king, has a popular Moscato Alexandria. Robert Mondavi Woodbridge and Gallo’s Barefoot Cellars are in the market, too, and yesterday I saw an advertisement for a Moscato from Columbia Crest. Now that I have started to pay attention, I am seeing Moscato everywhere.

I associate Moscato with low-alcohol fizzy Moscato D’Asti wines from Italy, but Zimmerman points out that Moscato can be made in a variety of sparkling and still styles, which she sees as a plus. The fact that the wines do not typically cost an arm and a leg is an advantage, too. I will be interested to see to what extent Italian producers will benefit from the Moscato boom or if American wineries will capture much of the market growth.

TNBT Effect

Now to be honest, I don’t really care if Moscato becomes The Next Big Thing — I’m more interested in TNBT wine phenomenon itself.  Many of the winemakers and winery executives I talk with around the world display an understandable fascination with TNBT. White Zin, which once defined TNBT here in the United States, shows that fads and trends can at least sometimes develop staying power, as the huge sales figures make clear. But TNBT of today cannot afford to get too comfortable — there’s always another NBT on the horizon.

Some of my contacts in Italy worry about Pinot Grigio (PG), for example, which was TNBT for a while and continues to grow in the U.S. market. Nielsen reports sales of Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris totalled $751 million in the sales vectors they monitor in the 52 weeds ending January 8, 2011 — much higher than White Zin’s $425 million for the same period. The Italians are glad that PG sales are growing, but they worry that their share of this market may be crowded off the shelves by U.S. PG wines (from Sutter Home, Barefoot Cellars, Columbia Crest and Woodbridge, for example).

And, of course, they are concerned that the market will swerve and TNBT will shift in some other direction entirely, leaving behind a smaller market niche.

Is Torrontés TNBT?

So when I was getting ready to visit the wine country in Argentina I found two groups interested in the question, is Torrontés TNGT?  — the hopeful Argentinean producers and fearful makers of Pinot Grigio back in Italy!

Torrontés is an interesting candidate for TNBT. Some people see it as Argentina’s signature white grape variety, ready to take its place along side Malbec in the market place. While Malbec has its roots in France (it is one of the classic Bordeaux blend varieties), Argentinean Torrontés is thought to be theirs alone —  a cross between Muscat (think Moscato) and the Criolla or Mission grapes planted by the early settlers. It is or can be intensely aromatic and some of the wines I’ve tasted (the Doña Paula, for example) seem to be all about flowers more than fruit or minerals. Distinctive, but everyone’s cup of tea.

Having read so much here in the U.S. about the amazing TNBT potential of Torrontés, I was a bit surprised at the reactions I found in Argentina. Some of the wine people we talked with were clearly enthusiastic and ready to ride the wave if and when it came, but others had doubts.

The optimists view Torrontés as the next wave of distinctive “Blue Ocean” Argentinean wines. Malbec paved the way, then Torrontés broadens the market, then Bonarda and so on each filling a unique market niche.

More than one person talked about the potential for Torrontés in Asia, pointing out how well it pairs with Asia food. Of course everyone in the world who makes white wine with good acidity dreams about selling their wines in Asia, so this is hardly an uncontested market. And it is also useful to remember that while you and I might like the taste of Torrontés (or Alsatian Pinot Gris) with Pad Thai or Kung Pao Chicken, most Asian consumers believe that wine should be red and that it is not necessarily meant to be consumed at meals. So caution is warranted.

Parallel (and Ambiguous) Universes

I was surprised at the number of wine people who were Torrontés sceptics. Some were concerned that Torrontés lacks the quality to be an important grape varietal. They would rather focus on quality international varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, to complete directly based on quality and price rather than trying to develop a new but possibly marginal market segment.

Torrontés is like Pinot Grigio, only it’s good, one expert told us with a grin — and  with obvious disdain for both wines.  Although Italian Pinot Grigio can be excellent, its reputation is influenced by simple basic products that flood the market and I think there is  concern that this could happen with Torrontés in Argentina.

The parallels with Italian Pinot Grigio are interesting. The best of the Torrontés and Pinot Grigiot wines come from particular geographic areas (Salta in Argentina, for example, and Alto Adige in Italy), but expanded production would probably  come from other zones where the quality is not as high.  As TNBT effect strikes, if it does, the initial quality could be undermined as output expands. The concern is that Argentina is not as established as Italy in world wine markets and its reputation might not be able to withstand a wave of mediocre wines.

But perhaps it is the nature of TNBT phenomenon that hot products simultaneously exist on many levels, simple and complex, highest quality and no-so-good. Perhaps that is the key to their success. Maybe it is the diversity (or is it ambiguity?) that allows fads or trends to evolve into TNBT.

Although wine snobs almost universally reject White Zinfandel, for example, some good wines of this type have been made, including an early vintage by Ridge Vineyards that I talk about in Wine Wars.

If this is true, then maybe Moscato and Torrontés have a chance!