What’s Really in your Glass? Transparency, Accountability & Wine

stellaAre you the sort of person who looks at every new garment to see where it’s made (and of what material) and studies the nutritional information on the back labels of the groceries that you buy? Me, too, although I don’t claim to be consistent in these investigations and I am sure that I miss a lot.

FDA Meets TTB

Many people take an intense interest in the products they buy, especially food and drink since they go into our bodies.  Calories per serving, along with sodium, carbohydrates, and protein, are important to many people.

It is interesting – and maybe a problem – that wine and other alcoholic beverages are for the most part exempt from nutritional reporting. Wine labels must tell consumers alcohol by volume and warn them of health dangers, but not display ingredients, calories, or other factors that are required for juices, sodas, milk, and other beverages.

This label from a bottle of Stella Rosa wine is an exception to the current rule — calories, carbs, and so forth are clearly listed. Why? As I understand it the reason is that because  Stella’s alcohol is just 5% abv (below a 7% regulatory threshold) it is regulated by the FDA as food (nutritional facts) as well as by the TTB as alcohol (government health warning). (Note that the product is described as “partially fermented grape must!”)

Label of the Future?

I  am not sure that anyone buys Stella Rosa because of the nutrition information (it is one of the hottest wine brands today), but maybe the lack of such information is already affecting sales of wines in some market spaces.  Consumers purchase a lot of different products and they don’t really need to buy anything that doesn’t take responsibility and own its list of ingredients and nutritional profile.

I believe that wine, beer, and spirits will eventually be required to list their ingredients and nutritional data. I wonder what would happen if wine were to take a voluntary step and be more transparent now as a way to shape the narrative? I know there are some who think transparency would backfire – consumers would turn away if they knew what a bottle of wine really contains or how many calories are in a serving a Chardonnay.  But look at Stella’s sales …

White Claw, the ridiculously popular alcoholic seltzer product, has a nutrition label, too, and it is clear that it uses this to its advantage by exactly hitting the critical “100 calories per serving” number.

Limiting Label Clutter

There are several areas where wine could improve its transparency and I’ve been learning how technology can help. QR codes have the potential to lead consumers to sites where they can satisfy their thirst for more information, for example. I think everyone has a QR code reader on their smartphone, although I am not sure how many people use it.

The Treasury Wine brand 19 Crimes has had success with its special augmented reality app that consumers focus on the labels to animate the 19 criminals, so we know that consumers will use apps to get more content about wine in some cases. Perhaps this is a way to be more transparent and accountable without filling the back label with even more boilerplate.

Giving consumers access to useful information doesn’t have to be very intrusive. For example, Italian DOCG wines and South African Integrity & Sustainability Certified wines feature simple codes that allow individual bottles to be traced back to the producer.

Ferret Out the Fakes

Blockchain technology has the potential to improve transparency and accountability in ways that can be important to the wine industry in the long run. People always think of Bitcoin when I mention blockchain, but it is important to understand that Bitcoin is an application of blockchain, not the technology itself.

It is an oversimplification, but I like to compare blockchain to those tracking codes we use for package delivery. Everyone who touches the package scans in information, which is attached to the package record you view on line. You can see where the package is at any particular moment and — hopefully — track it down if there is a mistake.  Airlines use this technology now to track checked bags and I am always relieved to know that my suitcase full of wine is safely in the hold of my jet as we take off.

The difference with blockchain is that it isn’t just about location. All sorts of information can be attached to the record, which can be analyzed in many ways.

Thus a simple but very useful application of blockchain is to verify the authenticity and provenance of the sort of fine wines that are sold at auction — and to help ferret out the many fakes. A company called Everledger, for example, developed a system to use blockchain to verify the provenance and authenticity of diamonds and colored gem stones and is applying it to wine as the video above shows.

To Authenticity … and Beyond!

Everledger and others who are working in this space use blockchain and other sophisticated technologies to assure the authenticity of wine and other applications in wine are sure to be found because the blockchain blocks can record many types of information.

In response to the Porto Protocol and other initiatives, for example, many wine companies are working to reduce their environmental impact. Blockchain technology can collect this information all along the wine product chain, potentially allowing interested consumers to quickly assess the climate change impacts of their wine choices.

And that’s just the start. I have argued that wine companies need to own their supply chains when it comes to climate change and sustainability. Many companies focus on their own actions plus those of their grape suppliers. But wine’s product chains are pretty long in this day of efficient bulk wine shipments and Made-in-China glass.

This Changes Everything?

I can imagine a blockchain ledger that tracks useful information all along wine’s complex product chain and programs that would allow consumers and others to analyze and evaluate it. And, of course, wine is just one product where such a system would be welcome.

I’m not saying the blockchain and other technologies will change everything, but I will say this: transparency and accountability are only going to become more important in wine as consumer expectations evolve and wine is held to the same standard as other consumer goods.

We might think wine is special — and it is in many ways — but we shouldn’t assume that it is immune to the forces that are making transparency, accountability, and technology more important every day.

Romanian Translation of Wine Wars Wins Gourmand Book Award

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Războaiele Vinului, the Romanian version of my book Wine Wars, has received the prestigious Gourmand award for best wine book translation at a gala ceremony in Macau.

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Congratulations to the Romanian team who made this volume possible including especially Cătălin Păduraru, Lucian Marcu, and Radu Rizea. Here is a photo of Cătălin, me, and the world’s largest copy of Războaiele vinului taken in Iasi last fall.

And thanks to Gourmand for this recognition of my Romanian friends’ efforts. I am grateful to Gourmand  for previous awards including Best Wine Blog (for The Wine Economist in 2015) and Best Wine Writing (for Money, Taste, and Wine in 2016).

My colleagues Pierre Ly and Cynthia Howson interrupted their research in China to journey to Macau to receive the Gourmand award. Here is a photo of Cynthia on the big Gourmand stage.

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Sardinia, Collio, Pennsylvania? Wine Economist World Tour Update

restyling-logo-wine-e-food-01-1-e1522772381248The Wine Economist World Tour is on the road. Here is a quick update.

  • Pennsylvania: Sue and I have just returned from a family wedding near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and we found just enough time to scratch the surface of this surprising wine region. Watch for an upcoming report.
  • Sardinia: Sue and I are in Porto Cervo, Sardinia this week. I am speaking at the Porto Cervo Wine & Food Festival and we will meet as many winemakers and taste as many wines as we can and report our findings here. This is our first trip to Sardinia and we are excited to learn about the island and its wines.
  • Collio: We’ll be in Northeast Italy at the end of the month participating in the Enjoy Collio Experience program.    I will be part of a roundtable discussion on economic sustainability along with Marco Colognese (The Espresso Guides), Robert Princic (Gradis’ciutta), and Roberto Felluga (Russiz Superiore), moderated by Rosaria Amato (La Repubblica).

What’s further down the road? It looks like British Columbia and Chile this summer. Perhaps our path will cross yours somewhere along the wine road?

The Wine Economist will pause while we are on the road and return very soon. Cheers!

Back to the Future of Napa Zinfandel

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Wouldn’t it be cool if you could travel back in time and tweak events just a little so that the past’s future (our present) would be better? That was the idea behind Steven Speilberg’s hit 1985 film “Back to the Future” and its many sequels.

Scientists are not optimistic that this time-bending strategy would work. They question whether a souped-up DeLorean sports car is the ideal time travel vehicle. And they warn of the dangers of changing history even a little. It’s dangerous to tinker with the past because of potential unintended consequences further down the road.

Tweaking the Judgement of Paris?

As I wrote in last week’s column, the present in Napa Valley is intensely focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, crowding out winegrape varieties like Zinfandel and Petite Sirah that once dominated vineyards here. What if we could go back to 1976 and alter the famous Judgement of Paris so that Napa Cabernet wasn’t the surprise victor of that France vs California taste-off? What would Napa Zinfandel be today if Cabernet Sauvignon didn’t so completely over-shadow it?271201_97be_oct17_3820

Zinandel, once the numero uno  wine grape variety in the Napa Valley, now accounts for only about 5 percent of vineyard acreage. Petite Sirah is just half a percent. But some of the wines that are made tell a fascinating “back to the future” story of what could have been.

Sue and I met with two devoted Zinfandel producers, Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores winery in the Rutherford district and Bob Biale of Robert Biale Vineyards in the Oak Knoll district to learn more about Zinfandel’s present and its potential future.

The Curse of Big Zin

Julie Johnson dry farms 40+ year old Zinfandel vines in a foothill vineyard niche that is shaded from the afternoon sun. The wine is aromatic, balanced, medium-bodied, with delicious fruit and spice. Such wines are not easy to grow or make, Johnson told us, and selling them is also a bit of a problem.

Recent Nielsen data reported in the August 2018 issue of Wine Business Monthly shows how far Zinfandel has fallen in terms of retail sales. Zinfandel is the 11th most popular varietal wine on the Nielsen list, wedged between Riesling and Syrah/Shiraz at bottom of the table. White Zinfandel outsells red Zinfandel by a substantial margin. Ouch! That really hurts.

Zinfandel buyers often expect big, ripe, boozy Zin, which is not a style that’s on the Tres Sabores radar. Store shelves are peppered with California appellation Zinfandels that are dark and strong (and sometimes a little sweet, too). They are the market’s idea of Zinfandel.

Wines like this sell in part because they can fit into the popular red blend or dark red category pretty easily. But the Tres Sabores Zin is a horse of a different color and many restaurant wine programs hesitate to take on wines like this, despite their quality, because they differ so dramatically from what they think consumers expect from a Zinfandel wine. The idea of Zinfandel with finesse is fading fast.biale

All In on Zin?

And so you have to be pretty committed to go all in on Zinfandel as Robert Biale Vineyard has done. Sue and I met with Bob Biale at his beautiful winery and tasting room in the Oak Knoll district. Bob’s father Aldo and the family’s heritage as winegrowers are the inspiration for the business, which makes 15 different Zinfandel wines as well as other varietals including a surprising Greco Bianco we were served directly upon arrival.

Bob is devoted to preserving Napa’s Zinfandel DNA through many efforts, including especially his work with the Historic Vineyard Society, which seeks to identify and preserve producing vineyards that are 50 or more years old. Tegan Passalaqua, who specializes in single vineyard old vine Zinfandel at Turley,  is also active in this group.

A few of these historic vineyards provide grapes for Biale’s wines, such as the Valsecchi Vineyards Carneros Zinfandel we tasted.  There’s just an acre or so of 100-year old vines, Bob told us, and they produce just 95 cases of wine. But the wine is very special — elegant and balanced like all the Biale wines. Fantastic. Seriously, some of these old vine Zinfandel wines made me think of elegant Pinot Noir. I wonder if these wines would age like a fine Burgundy? Hmmm.

Occasionally Biale is able to persuade a grower to plant a bit of Zinfandel when it is time to renew a vineyard rather than the more certainly profitable Cabernet . Maybe the site just isn’t right for Cab. Or maybe the winegrower has been influenced by Bob’s obvious devotion to the wine and its history. Doesn’t matter — with a little luck these could be the historic vines of the future.

Back to the Future?

I don’t think I can manage the Marty McFly trick and rewrite the past, so the legacy of the Judgement of Paris is safe. Napa is Cabernet Sauvignon territory and the valley has developed around the production and sale of luxury wines. The history of the pioneers and their Zinfandel and Petite Sirah is there, however, hidden in plain sight and ever-threatened by the Cab boom.

Maybe it had to be that way, but it is interesting to imagine an alternative universe where Zinfandel’s heritage is honored and celebrated to a greaert extent. I am glad that there are people like Julie Johnson and Bob Biale who are keeping the old vines and their memories of Napa days long past alive for us to taste today.

Wine Economist World Tour Update: Italy, Napa, Moldova, Romania

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The Wine Economist returns to the road in a few weeks. Here are some of the stops we plan during the summer months.

June 2018

  • I’ll be speaking about “Around the World in Eighty Wines” and leading a wine tasting as part of the University of Puget Sound’s Summer Reunion Weekend Alumni College. June 8-9, 2018. The good folks at Carpenè Malvolti, the famous Conegliano Prosecco house, have kindly donated some of their fine wine for a tasting. Lucky alumni students!

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  • Sue and I will be in Forte dei Marmi, Italy on June 18 for VinoVIP. I will talk about money and wine in the global market context. I am very excited to join a group of Italian wine luminaries on the program and to meet everyone at this great event at the famous Italian seaside resort. We will stop briefly in Bologna on our way to VinoVIP to see old friends (I taught at the Johns Hopkins/SAIS Center in Bologna many years ago) and to visit Eataly World.

Here is the VinoVIP program:

Money & Wine: A Global Perspective (Mike Veseth),

“Italian challenges” (Angelo Gaja),

“how to manage a wine company: the basics” (Ettore Nicoletto, CEO Gruppo Santa Margherita),

“routes of wine – main markets: what are they buying?” (Denis Pantini from Nomisma wine research unit),

“SWOT of Italian wine industry” (Piero Mastroberardino).  Quite an all-star lineup!

July 2018

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  • I’m happy to speak at a private program featuring “Around the World in Eighty Wines” to support the  Northwest Sinfonietta music organization on July 29.

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  • Sue and I are tentatively planning to participate in the 3rd global wine tourism conference sponsored by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) The conference will be held on September 6-7 in Chisinau, Moldova.

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Outlaw Wine? 19 Crimes Succeeds by Breaking All the Wine Marketing Rules

25162619 Crimes, the popular brand from Treasury Wine Estates, does everything wrong. It breaks all the “conventional wisdom” rules. It is everything that shouldn’t sell in the U.S. market. And yet it flies off the shelves. What’s going on?

19 Crimes is an Australian wine brand, which is the first problem. Sales of Aussie wines have been in decline here in the U.S. for years. The Australian section of my local upscale supermarket’s wine wall has shrunk to a shadow of its former self.

Sad and Doubly Cursed

Although 19 Crimes has evolved into a lineup of 7 different wines,  including Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the core grape variety is Shiraz, and that’s the second problem. American consumers drink plenty of Syrah and Shiraz in red blends, but they don’t seem to want to buy it as a varietal wine. Sales of Shiraz have been sinking right along with Australian wine in general — a double curse!

And then there is the branding. 19 Crimes — outlaw wine! The name comes Australian history (history wine — oh no!). Great Britain once expelled its most hardened criminals to Australia. Any of 19 crimes could get you sentenced to transportation to Australia — banished to the end of the earth. Who wants to buy a criminal wine?

And, each label, of the core brand features a photo of a sad man — the mug shot of a convicted criminal. Who wants to buy a sad man wine? Who wants to associate themselves with a loser? How in the world can a wine like this get on the shelf, much less sell more than a million cases?

 

Wine by Design

Well, the answer is that 19 Crimes seems to have been rather precisely engineered to appeal to an important demographic — millennial men, especially those who see themselves as a bit of a rogue. Outlaws, if you know what I mean, who identify with others who defy convention.  Outlaw wine for self-styled renegades? Now you are beginning to see the 19 Crimes logic.

I bought a bottle of the red blend and, after I stared at the sad man for a while, I tasted it. Sweet and tannic, that was my reaction, and better chilled sangria-style than straight up. Not to my taste, but I am not the target audience.

Some of the most popular brands on the market today totally succeed with tannic sweet red blends pitched at a particular market segment. A friend who seems to have some inside information told me that the 19 Crimes flavor profile is no accident but rather the result of lots of careful research and consumer testing. No surprise there!

Every bit of the package is carefully linked to the brand identity and I’d encourage you to take a close look the next time you buy wine. But you will have to purchase and open the bottle to see my favorite part of the branding system — the cork!

The cork? Well, that breaks another stereotype, of course, since we sometimes think of Australia and New Zealand wines being topped by screwcaps. But there are many reasons why cork is so popular today and 19 Crimes cleverly adds a new advantage to the list: collectibility!

You see each cork is printed with one of the 19 crimes — my cork is #11: stealing roots, trees or plants or destroying them. That seems like a pretty petty crime to get my sad guy shipped to Australia, but it might be just the thing to start someone more into it to buy bottles and pull corks relentlessly until all 19 crime corks are captured.

Virtual Story-telling

19 Crimes is a story wine designed to appeal to a particular consumer category and Treasury has taken the next logical step by creating a virtual reality app that animates the sad men (and the sad woman on the Chardonnay label), so that they can tell their own sad stories.

Bringing the inanimate to life is a feat with a long artistic tradition — think Pygmalion, Pinocchio, or — especially relevant in this context — the scene in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “Ruddygore” where painted figures step out of their frames to deliver a stern warning.

The 19 Crimes figures tell their stories, humanizing their identities, and then step back onto the label. Art may be served by this, but marketing in the form of consumer engagement is the clear intent. If you want to hear all the stories, I suppose, you need to collect all seven wines in the lineup. It must work — I’ve heard that Treasury has  expanded its virtual reality program.

19 Crimes provides many lessons for anyone trying to understand today’s wine market, but perhaps the most important is that it is dangerous to generalize about generations when it comes to specific products such as wine. Many have written that millennials seek authenticity in products and experiences — and this is an important trend. But one size doesn’t necessarily fit all and some millennials (and probably consumers in other generational categories, too) obviously see themselves in a different light.

Identity trumps authenticity. Outlaw! You don’t need no stinking badges. And now there is a wine for you.

Congratulations to Treasury and 19 Crimes for their remarkable success. What’s next? Arrr, Matey. I’m thinkin’ Pirate wine is a pretty good bet!

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Here is that scene from Ruddygore. Enjoy!

Wine Tourism Grows Up: A Visit to Washington’s Chateau Ste Michelle

chateau-ste-michelleI am in Kennewick, Washington today and tomorrow to speak at the Washington Winegrowers Association 2018 Convention & Trade Show.  Tomorrow I’ll share some thoughts about wine premiumization in the “State of the Industry” session, but today’s focus is wine tourism. I’ll give a global perspective on wine tourism as part of a program on  “The Business Side of Your Tasting Room.”

Grape Expectations?

Increasingly the tasting room’s business is not just pouring samples, selling wine, and promoting wine club memberships. Although winery visitors clearly expect to taste wines and perhaps tour the winery or walk vineyard paths, they often come expecting (or hoping for) something more.  That’s because sophisticated winery visitors don’t only visit wineries. They have many interests and develop expectations based upon their broader experiences. Wineries that want to attract these visitors need to step up to meet rising expectations.

Wine tourists and their rising standards have always been a priority at Chateau Ste Michelle, Washington state’s largest wine producer. When the current Woodinville production facility was constructed in 1976 the choice was made to locate it close to the Seattle population center, a few hours’ drive from the vineyards on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. The winery was built on the grounds of Hollywood Farm, the old Stimson Estate, and the main building was designed to closely resemble an iconic French chateau.

“The Chateau,” as we call it hereabouts, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017 and used that opportunity to give its visitor center a major renovation. Sue and I first visited this facility shortly after it opened in the late 1970s, when it was one of the most welcoming wine tourism destinations we found. But as the years have flown by a lot has changed. The number of visitors has increased and they have become more numerous, more diverse in terms of their wine knowledge  and also more sophisticated in terms of their expectations for a tourism experience. Inevitably, the tasting room itself had to change, too. And it has.

When I say that the wine tourism experience here has “grown up” I mean more than that it has matured and is now able to accommodate more visitors. One element of the growing up is to accommodate more diversity of tourist expectations and experiences.  The result is a textured program with many layers of opportunities.

For first time visitors, for example, the free (free!) tour and tasting is available as it has been here for as long as I can remember.  Visitors can upgrade their experience at the tasting room bar, where a variety of elevated tasting options are available for $10 to $15 per person — a bargain by Napa Valley standards.r-919411-1320418583-jpeg

Are You Experienced?

Winery visits in the old days were focused on tasting (and hopefully buying the wines) — a transactions approach. Now the state of the art is about relationships and creating opportunities to draw visitors more closely into the winery and its story so that they become both long term patrons and active brand ambassadors. I wrote in Around the World in Eighty Wines about the huge variety of experiences on offer at the Napa’s Robert Mondavi Winery and Chateau Ste Michelle has programs to match.

The Chateau Ste Michelle wine experience menu includes the above mentioned tours and tastings and moves on to a special small group single-vineyard and limited release tasting ($30 per person or $25 for winery club members), Cabernet-themed food and wine pairing experience ($100/$85), a”Sensory Sojourn” workshop ($65/$55), and a wine blending experience ($125/$95).

Small groups can also arrange to attend a sparkling wine seminar and tasting with food pairings ($55/$45), an opportunity to taste older vintage of Washington Bordeaux blends and Riesling wines ($55/$45), or grab a chance to learn how to blind taste like a Master Sommelier ($125/$95).

It is also possible to schedule visits to the Col Solare Bottega, where Red Mountain wines  produced in partnership with Tuscany’s Antinori family can be sampled, or a visit to the Enoteca, which highlights wines from Ste Michelle Wine Estate’s wineries and partners in Washington, Oregon, California, and around the world. I was pleased to see some famous Torres wines from Spain on the shelves when we visited. SMWE imports and distributes Torres wines in the U.S. as it does for Antinori, New Zealand’s Villa Maria, and French Champagne house Nicholas Feuillatte among others.

Bottom line: visitors cannot help but be impressed by the beautiful, welcoming grounds and imposing chateau facility and the delightful array of programs on offer. No wonder about 300,000 of them come each year both to visit the winery and to attend outdoor concerts on the big lawn behind the visitor center. Chateau Ste Michelle was conceived as a destination winery that’s what it is today.

The recent remodel has made it possible to expand the offerings to wine tourists so that they can custom-tailor a visit to get the experience that they seek.  Is this a model for the wine industry generally? No … and yes.

The No is easy. Most wineries don’t have the scale of production, volume of visitors, and the financial resources to make the sort of investment we see at Chateau Se Michelle possible. Only a few wineries around the globe can provide this level of service. In the last year of our travels, for example, I think only four wineries in Spain were at the same level: Freixenet, Codorníu, Torres, and Marqués Riscal.

But, Yes, this model is important for the industry to consider. Smaller wineries can offer a smaller range of experiences that are closely linked with locale, their history, and identity. Many visitors will appreciate the taste of authentic engagement as much as they do the wine itself.

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Congratulations to Chateau Ste Michelle on their 50th anniversary and wonderful new visitor center. Special thanks to Lynda Eller and Linda Chauncey for their hospitality during or visit and to Hermes Navarro del Valle for his insights.