Terroirists vs Naturalists: Tribal Wine Wars

terroirWine has many tribes — you probably belong to one of them. Last week I wrote about the Martians, who are interested in only the best in wine and are often disappointed with what they find, and the Wagnerians, who promote a more democratic “everyday wine” vision.  They are often disappointed, too, but in different ways. You can read more about these tribes here.

Land versus Brand

I don’t really understand why the Martians and Wagnerians can’t find common ground (Oregon’s A to Z winery says that it offers “Aristocratic wines at Democratic prices”), but the tension endures, which is how tribes work I guess. There are two more tribes that we need to discuss that, on the face of it have so much in common that they might be cousins, but that also have that tribal feeling. They are the Terroirists and the Naturalists.

I wrote about the Terroirists in my book Wine Wars. Terroirists are all about wines of place — they are protagonists in the Land versus Brand battle for the soul of wine that colors much of my analysis. Terroirists can go to shockingly unnecessary extremes to defend their turf as some French terrorist terroirists demonstrated when they sabotaged wine tanks full of cheap Spanish bulk imports. But this is the exception.

I have to admit that, even though I appreciate how important brands are in today’s crowded market, I identify pretty closely with the terroirist tribe. I look for local and single-vineyard wines, I get excited about field blends and old vines, and I seek out wines made from native and threatened grape varieties. My idea of a great day in the Napa Valley takes me to places like Tres Sabores and Robert Biale winery where other terroirists hang out. Think global but drink local — that’s a rule that I try to follow as much as possible.

The Naturals

I have friends (you know who you are) who belong to a different tribe that I guess I will call the naturalists. Their idea of wine seems to be less about where the wine comes from than how it is made. They want wines that are as close to nature as can be, with as little manipulation as possible and often, at least for the white wines, with a lot of skin contact. They hang out in natural wine bars or attend events like RAW wine, where they can contemplate natural wines from all around the world.

Sue and I have had several very positive experiences with natural wine, so I have never thought of terrorists and naturalists as opposing forces. We are big fans of Chateau Musar, for example, one of the early champions of the natural wine movement. And our visit to Georgia, the cradle of wine, exposed us some of the most natural — and quite delicious — wines on earth.

The natural wines we have tried varied, of course, but that’s true of wine generally. Some were more interesting than delicious. We were done with others after the first sip. Meh. The nature of their production didn’t overcome the problems we had with what we found in the glass.

Most of the natural wine makers we’ve encountered have been terrific, too, although I admit we met a couple of naturalists who went a bit over the top. One winemaker, for example, tried (unsuccessfully) to convince us that a “mousey” characteristic is a feature not a flaw. I checked Jamie Goode’s book Flawless and, sure enough, he says it’s a flaw. “Always bad,” according to Dr. Goode. I agree.

Wines of Place or of Style?

Both terroirists and naturalists are attracted to nature, so it seems that they should be allies in the wine wars. But the particular ideas of nature when it comes to wine don’t always match, so there is a tension. I didn’t really appreciate this until we were invited to seminar and tasting of natural wines and a question came up about wines of place (terroirist wines) versus wines of style (a reference to naturalist wines).

“Is this a wine of style or a wine of place?” asked a panel member as he swirled one of the natural wines in his glass. “Definitely a wine of style,” the wine’s maker shot back without hesitation. He makes lovely terroir-driven wines that Sue and I admire a lot, but this wine wasn’t about the vineyard, it was about the cellar, the way it was made, and perhaps the philosophy behind that technique.

Jamie Goode, who was part of the panel discussion, tried to bridge the gap between place and style. Perhaps natural wines do tell a terroir story, he said, but we are just don’t understand it yet because natural wines are so different. Maybe we need more experience in order to pick out the place when the glass in front of us contains natural wine.

The Natural Divide

This is a very sensible perspective, and I look forward to doing some research, but sometimes sensible middle grounds get over-shadowed by tribal conflicts. Jancis Robinson wrote in a recent Financial Times column  about the extreme positions some natural wine proponents take and the extreme reactions to them. Real tribal stuff. It is easy to see how things could get out of hand.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that wine has become this way.  Politics has become more tribal and more confrontational, reflecting general social attitudes.  Wine was bound to become more divided, too.

So what’s the particular problem that divides the terroirists and the naturalists?I think it has partly to do with the word “natural,” which the naturalist wine tribe seems to have claimed (or, in some cases, been labeled with). Natural is a privileged word. To say that something is natural is a powerful statement. If something is natural you almost don’t have to argue its legitimacy. It is just there, like the natural rights cited in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. No wonder Enlightenment scholars claimed it to justify their claims.

Terrorists think they are making natural wine since they seek to draw out the nature of the place where the grapes were grown. Naturalists want more. Easy to see why there is tension, but the the differences seem to cut deeper. Come back in two weeks for a wine book review that might shed some light on this question.

Life Among the Vinos: Making Sense of Wine’s Rival Tribes

snowThe idea that society’s big open melting pots have been replaced to a certain extent by narrow, closed tribal silos is no longer novel, but it is very important. Are we becoming a culture of isolated tribes with fundamentally different beliefs and norms? If so, wine must have its tribes, too.

Snow’s Two Cultures

C.P. Snow’s observation that the intellectual world had  divided into two tribes was shocking in 1959. His essay on “The Two Cultures” (pdf here) argued that science and humanities were increasingly alienated, speaking different languages, thinking in isolation.

Each tribe could exist on its own, I guess, but what about society? How could an increasingly technological society survive if science is not tempered and informed by values and a deeper understanding of the humanity it is meant to serve?  How can the humanities be relevant without an understanding and appreciation of science and technology? These were relevant questions and they are even more relevant today as artificial intelligence advances.

“Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding,” he wrote. “They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground.”

Mutual incomprehension — that sounds familiar. Today, of course, the incomprehension is compounded by digital technologies that permit and even encourage us to only interact with “friends” within our own tribe and to read only news that reinforces our tribal dogma. We hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see.

Life Among the Econ

Axel Leijonhufvud’s 1973 essay on “Life Among the Econ” presented a serious critique of the economics profession and its tribes, the Micros and the Macros, in a satirical form. What if alien anthropologists stumbled into a university economics department, he asked? What would they see? What would they think?

The answer is not so much different from Snow’s two cultures and my idea of tribes, but Leijonhufvud focused on their beliefs or religions. The Micros idolize the supply-demand market cross and build worshipful totems (“modls”). The Macros have nothing whatsoever in common with the Micros except that they worship a Macro-cross (IS-LM) and build rather extravagant modls of their own.

“Some Econographers disagree with the bleak picture of cultural disintegration just given, pointing to the present as the greatest age of Econ Art. It is true that virtually all Econographers agree that present modlmaking has reached aesthetic heights not heretofore attained. But it is doubtful that this gives cause for much optimism. It is not unusual to find some particular art form flowering in the midst of the decay of a culture. It may be that such decay of society induces this kind of cultural “displacement activity” among talented members who despair of coping with the decline of their civilization. The present burst of sophisticated modl-carving among the Econ should probably be regarded in this light.”

historyLife Among the Vinos

Wine has its tribes, too, and many have observed that the divisions between them and mutual deafness among them are a growing concern.

I wrote about some of the Vinos tribes in my book Wine Wars.  I was inspired by Thomas Pinney’s masterful A History of Wine in America (Vol. 2: From Prohibition to the Present, University of California Press, 2005).  If you want to understand how wine in America got the way it is, this is the best general reference I have found.

Pinney devotes the last section of the book to what he sees is a fundamental battle for the idea of wine in America. It is a conflict between Wagnerians and Martians, he says.

Song of the Wine Maidens

The Wagnerians are inspired by the ideas of Philip Wagner, a Maryland journalist, viticulturist, and winemaker who was especially active in the years that bracket the Second World War. Wagner believed that wine should be an affordable part of ordinary life and a constant companion at mealtime.  Pinney writes that

Wagnerians are always delighted to have a bottle of superlative wine, but their happiness does not depend on it, nor are they so foolish as to think that only the superlative is fit to drink. Their happiness does depend upon wine each day … good sound wine will not only suffice. It is a necessary part of the daily regimen.

Wagner founded Boordy Vineyads and was well-regarded by wine people from coast to coast.  He is an important figure in the history of American wine, according to Pinney, and one whose idea of wine lives on in many forms.

Wagner promulgated his populist vision by promoting the so-called French Hybrid grape varieties on the East Coast and elsewhere. I think he wanted America to be Vineland (the name given it by the Viking explorers), a country covered with grapevines and abundant with honest, respectable wine. This is easier said than done, however, as Pinney’s history makes clear.

My Favorite Martian

Martians are inspired by Martin Ray’s idea of wine. Whereas Wagner was disappointed that America lacked a mainstream wine culture, Martin Ray was upset that the standard was so low in the years following the repeal of prohibition.  He persuaded Paul Masson to sell him his once great winery in 1935 and proceeded to try to restore its quality with a personal drive that Pinney terms fanatical.

He did it, too, making wines of true distinction — wines that earned the highest prices in California at the time.  His achievement was short lived, however. A winery fire slowed Ray’s momentum and he finally sold out to Seagrams, which used a loophole in wartime price control regulations to make a fortune from the Paul Masson brand and its premium price points, starting a trend of destructive corporate exploitation that forms a central theme in Pinney’s book.

The Martian view, according to Pinney, is that “…anything less than superlative was unworthy, that no price could be too high, and that the enjoyment of wine required rigorous preparation.”

Two Ideas of Wine

The tribes of Martians and Wagnerians have two very different ideas of wine and it is a shame that one needs to choose between them, but that’s how tribes sometimes works. It seems to me that wine could and should be both a daily pleasure and an opportunity for exceptional expression. The good isn’t always the enemy of the great. But many people see it that way, including Pinney, who reveals himself to be an ardent Wagnerian and expresses concern that the Martians have won the battle for wine in America.

The people who write about wine in the popular press largely appear to be Martians, who take for granted that anything under $20 a bottle is a “bargain” wine and who routinely review for their middle-class readership wines costing $30, $40, $50 and up. Even in affluent America such wines can hardly be part of a daily supper. They enforce the idea that wine must be something special — a matter of display, or of costly indulgence. That idea is strongly reinforced by the price of wine in restaurants, where a not particularly distinguished bottle routinely costs two or three times the price of the most expensive entrée on the menu.

“No wonder, Pinney concludes,” that the ordinary American, unable to understand how a natural fruit product (as wine undoubtedly is) can be sold for $50 or more a bottle, sensibly decides to have nothing to do with the mystery.” So these tribal divisions have serious consequences for the wine industry.

Wagnerians and Martians are not the wine world’s only tribes. Come back next week for my report on the Terroirist and the Naturalist tribes.

Two Cheers for Canned Wine

cansCanned wine has been around for a while, but has gained traction in just the last couple of years.  Some observers  are suspicious that it is just a fad — a flash in the pan — that won’t last for long.  If that’s true, then it is an impressive flash. Canned wine sales in the off-premises channels that the Nielsen company measures were $70 million for the 52 weeks ending June 15, 2019. That’s 69% growth for the year. In a market where growth is hard to find, canned wine is a winner.

(The graph above shows Nielsen data for sales through 4/20/2019. I see more canned wine brands and SKUs on the store shelves every week.)

What’s more, Nielsen research suggests that canned wine sales are weighted toward  younger consumers — the ones that many observers argue are so reluctant to engage with wine.  Fad or trend? I think cans are a thing although there might be some seasonality that will distort conclusions until we have more data.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Cans have many advantages when it comes to wine. Convenience is often cited and it is true that a can of wine is easy to toss into your backpack or picnic basket if you are headed out for an adventure. But cans are more than the trail mix of wine.

Michelle Williams’s Forbes column “Is the Future of Wine in the Can?”   presents an optimistic case for canned wine, giving special attention to wineries in Oregon and Texas, two regions where wine is booming, that have embraced the can.

Amber LeBeau of the Spitbucket blog argues that the traditional 750 ml wine bottle gets in the way for the growing numbers of consumers both young and old who are concerned about limiting their alcohol consumption or avoiding waste. Too much wine to consume at one time can be too much of a good thing.

Smaller bottles are one solution and cans (most of which hold about two glasses each) and premium boxed wine (where you can dispense as much or little as needed) are good solutions. Maybe that’s a reason why the two fastest-growing wine packaging categories are canned wine and premium box wine.

I appreciate the alcohol issue and the fact that smaller container fit a more sober lifestyle. But my friend  Patrick the Wine Guy has the opposite worry — that consumers won’t realize that 375 ml cans hold two glasses until it is too late and they have drained a couple of them as if they were light beer. Yikes!

There’s an App for That

Cans also have potential advantages in the world of app-based food delivery. I am not sure how many UberEats orders include a 750 ml bottle of wine in areas where that would be legal  (not many, I’m guessing), but I can see the potential for single-serve canned wines here. Simplified wine choices, convenient packaging, drop it in the delivery bag, and out the door.

Significantly, delivery orders are the fastest-growing part of the restaurant business, with some entrepreneurs setting up virtual restaurants and “ghost kitchens” focused just on delivery. Add a can of Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc to that order and you are all set.

There is a lot to like about canned wine once you get over the initial shock of the new package. But that’s nothing new. I’m sure canned beer ruffled some feathers when it first appeared. And, switching products, I’ve read that paperback books were once seen as a threat to serious book publishing.  Change is hard — even when it makes sense (Amber LeBeau’s point).

Canned wine has many advantages, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges to be confronted. Here are three problems to consider.

What Goes In Come Out

When we tell people that we are researching canned wines, they almost always ask, “how is the wine?”   Well, the wine you pour out of the can is pretty much the wine that was put into it. That is one thing that canned wine has in common with bottles and boxes of wine. If lousy wine went in, don’t expect anything better to come out.

A recent study of canned wines versus their bottled twins found no significant difference is consumer evaluation. The cans didn’t change the wines in any way that these consumers could notice.can1

Some wineries such as 14 Hands use the same wine brand for both bottle and can, so they leveraging their bottle brand reputation to promote the canned product. They need to make sure that the wine in the cans is the same as the bottles since an inferior experience would reflect on both types of packages.

Many canned wine brands are priced at the entry level ($4.99 or $5.99 per can or less) and are probably filled with inexpensive bulk wine. Some of these are better than others as you would expect.

Only a couple of the canned wines we have tried so far have been “keepers” that we would drink again.  Most have been under-whelming and over-priced. Since the canning process apparently isn’t the problem, the disappointing wines that we are pouring out of the cans must have been disappointing going in, too.

Our favorite out of about a dozen we have tried so far is the C’est Le Vin Rosé from Washington State producer Barnard Griffin. The label says it is “good Washington wine that happens to be in a can,” which I think sends the right message. It’s the wine that counts. The can is just a delivery system.

No (Canned) Wine Before Its Time?

I always look at the “best by” date when I purchase milk, yogurt, and a few other grocery items. Now I have started checking for dates on cans of wine, too.

Sue and I attended a presentation about canned wine packaging technology earlier in the summer and I was interested to learn about the special lining that is the key to the can’s success. Wine’s alcohol and acid don’t get along very well with aluminum, so a special liner is needed to make the can work.

These linings are typically approved for 6 to 9 months, we were told, depending on the chemical analysis of the wine. The wine might be OK at 12 months or longer, but they are intended for shorter shelf-life situations. You really don’t want cases of canned wine to sit a warehouse for months waiting to be delivered to a retailer.

Many (but not all) of the cans I have seen have a “canned on” date or equivalent code printed on the container and from now on I am going to check that out just as I would a quart of milk and look for wines with less than 6 months or so in the can.

We tried a can of a carbonated orange-flavored white wine spritz and it was a big disappointment. It sounded refreshing  (I was hoping for an Aperol spritz kind of experience), but there was no one home, as Sue said. Not much orange. Not much wine. Plenty of bubbles. Was it the product or was it the fact that it was canned a year prior to our purchase and the can liner had failed in some way?

Confusion Corner

Wine is a famously confusing consumer category, with so many brands and varieties and with such an enormous range of retail prices. Canned wine is not much simpler based on a few retail shelves we’ve studied. There are several can sizes, for example, some sold as singles and others in packs. You’ve got to pay attention to know just how much wine you are buying and its cost per serving.

Some of the wine is labeled by grape variety, but this is less common than with bottled wine. And I don’t think I have seen a vintage date (yet) although, as noted above, the canning date may be more important. This may change if the premium canned wine trend picks up steam.

A lot of the wine is red or white or pink or bubbly. So what’s in the can, Sue asks? What variety or blend of grapes went into the red or white? What should she expect when she pops the top?

At this point, I suppose, the wines are targeting consumers who might find grape blend and vintage date TMI, but that should change if this category doesn’t fall victim to arrested development.

Two Cheers!

Canned wine isn’t going to revolutionize wine, but it seems to have the potential to evolutionize it — to help it evolve in ways that are relevant to today’s consumers. That’s worth a cheer or two in my book.

Why not three cheers? Maybe I am being stingy with my ratings, but it looks like it is still early days for wine in a can and there is a lot of headroom left in all areas including wine quality. I think canned wine has the potential to grow up in ways that will please a broader audience. When that happens, I’ll be the first to add the final cheer.

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Thanks to Danny Brager and Genevieve Aronson of Nielsen, Michelle Williams, Amber LeBeau, and Robert Williams for their insights on canned wine. Go to WICresearch.com for updated canned wine market research.

Napa Envy? What’s the Secret for Emerging Wine Region Success?

american_airlines_boeing_707_model_aircraft_kits_1bcd6855-5d3b-43ac-b7e9-e4ce13ea59df_largeW.W. Rostow’s famous 5-step theory of the “Stages of Economic Growth” seemed to present a blueprint for less-developed countries thirsty to move up in the global economy league table.

The key step — “take-off” — invoked the image of a powerful modern jet airliner (probably a Boeing 707 back in 1960 when the theory appeared) rising from the runway and soaring into the bright blue sky.

The reality for those who followed Rostow’s map was problematic because his analysis was based on the experience of a previous generation of soaring economies and both the conditions on the ground and the global market environment were often very different. Take-off proved frustratingly hard to achieve and the mistakes were costly both in dollars and in missed human development opportunities.

The Limits of Imitation

Sue and I have visited many emerging wine regions and they all seem to be looking for a blueprint like Rostow’s and for the jet engine that will propel their own take-off into the global wine market’s stratosphere. Everyone wants to be the next Napa (or fill in the name of your favorite successful wine region).

A lot of energy is spent (and probably wasted) trying to emulate the success of one particular emerging wine region that started to soar more than thirty years ago and hasn’t slowed down since. That region is New Zealand and the key to its take off is widely seen to be its choice of a signature grape variety to rally around — Sauvignon Blanc.

New Zealand’s growth is stunning, to be sure, but I argue that its take-off was the product of particular local and global conditions that are unlikely to be replicated in quite the same way today. There are also unintended consequences to consider. The stunning success of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc has cast a shadow over other NZ regions and wines that deserve more market attention than they typically get.

The Road Not Taken

The signature winegrape varietal take-off strategy is simple and appealing in theory, but difficult and even dangerous in practice. So what works? How do emerging wine regions get up to speed in the fast-paced global market?

My sense is that each case is special and each road different. The only common characteristic I have noticed is quality, which must be found in every bottle or glass. You only have one chance to make a first impression, they say, and reputation is always on the line. With quality much is possible, even if it is not easy or automatic. Sans quality nothing much seems to work.

But that’s a pretty vague road map, so my senses perked up when I heard Jamie Goode talk about the stages growth for new wine regions at a recent British Columbia Wine Grape Council conference and trade show in Penticton, BC.

From Surprise to Enlightenment

Goode has been just about everywhere in the wine world and based on this experience he proposed a five stage evolution (not revolution) development pattern. Surprise comes first, he said. Local winegrowers are surprised when they find themselves making halfway decent wine. Incredible! Maybe this wine thing is possible.

parisCuriosity comes next as dozens of grape varieties and wine styles appear followed by Imitation of famous wine regions and their wines. Imitation leads to Over-Confidence, in Goode’s taxonomy. I suppose this is when those “Judgement of Paris” type events are organized where you elevate your region to the same stage as Burgundy or Bordeaux.

The 1976 Paris tasting is credited with putting Napa on the world stage. If it worked for Napa, how can it fail for everyone else who tries it?

Real Confidence is Goode’s final stage and I am not sure exactly what he means by this but I know what I think it is. Know thyself. Make wines that are yours, not copies of others, that stand on their own, drawing on the practices and influences of others, but not imitating anyone else.

This is a pretty good description of how wine regions evolve, but the stages it proposes are not strictly limited to wine. I’ll bet most artists and musicians go through phases like this before they gain (if they do) the confidence to be themselves. Mozart may have been born a mature musical genius, but the rest of us have to thrash around as best we can until we figure it out.

Significantly, there isn’t a “take off” stage here, which I think is probably a good thing because it avoids the signature varietal dead end and other false trails. Goode’s analysis doesn’t provide much of a road map for an emerging wine region to use to plot their course, only to evaluate where they have been. But then Rostow showed us that road maps can lead to the wrong destination if the terrain has shifted, so maybe this invitation to self-analysis is as good as it gets.

Confidence Game

The stages of growth idea came up again during the Q&A session. You’ve visited British Columbia several times. Where are we in your theory? Which stage of growth best describes us?

Goode thought about this a bit. Between 4 and 5, he said. Between Over-Confidence and Real Confidence. Interesting! That made me stop and think, too. Sue and I have been to the BC wine country many times over the years. Where does the region stand today? Come back next week to find out the answer.

Six Things to Do With Surplus Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes

cabThe wine grape harvest is just around the corner in California and Washington State and, while that’s a great time of the year, it will present economic challenges to some winegrowers. There’s going to be an awful lot of Cabernet Sauvignon harvested this year. Most of these grapes are contracted, but some will be looking for buyers and it might not be so easy.

Cabernet has been the top choice for new plantings for the last several years and it is easy to understand why. It is a noble grape and can make terrific wine. Consumers love it, so growers have responded enthusiastically. The problem, as has been noted here before, is that wine demand generally has slackened just as new supply is reaching the market. For a few years at least there is likely to be a surplus of Cabernet Sauvignon in many regions.

In fact, the surplus is already here, or at least that’s how I read the recent reports from Turrentine Brokerage. Turrentine data show the highest level of Cabernet on the bulk market for many years. Add the 2019 harvest to the current market and you have a problem — not for everyone, but for those who are left with unsold grapes or wine.

Econ 101 Meets Yao Ming

What do you do when you have too much Cabernet? Econ 101 suggests price adjustment — cheaper grapes, cheaper wine, and so on. But there are limits to this strategy, especially since the lower price tiers of the retail market are in decline.

Export sales are another Econ 101 solution and certainly there is an opportunity here, especially if President Trump succeeds in talking the dollar’s exchange value down. But the president’s trade wars have had an offsetting impact on wine exports.

Countries that compete with us in the export markets, notably Australia and Chile, have aggressively sought out free trade agreements to boost sales. The U.S. has recently taken the opposite strategy. U.S. wines are therefore a tough sale today in many export markets including especially China, where Australian and Chilean wines find great success.

Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball legend, has trouble selling his signature Napa Cab back home because of 93% tariffs imposed in response to the Trump administration’s policies. If Yao can’t sell Cab in China, there is not much hope for the rest of us. Export markets are unlikely to absorb very much of the surplus Cab. Other options?

Searching for alternatives, I consulted the most recent Nielsen market figures in the current issue of Wine Business Monthly and found a few ideas to consider if you find yourself holding excess Cabernet this year.

#6 Two Words: Red Blends

Red blends are a useful market category because you can blend away unfashionable or surplus grape varieties without consumers necessarily noticing what’s up. Syrah and Merlot are not as popular as they once were as varietal wines, for example, but blend them together, call the result a Red Blend, and consumers snap them up. Cabernet blends would be very competitive at the right price. This market segment is fairly large but, unfortunately according to the Nielsen data, its growth has stalled a bit this year. That means we need to think about …

#5 Three Words: Sweet Red Blends

See “Red Blends” above but add some residual sugar.  I don’t have a lot of personal experience with these wines, but I see them everywhere. 19 Crimes, which tastes sweet to me, has a successful varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, so this is not uncharted territory. Even better, why not try …

#4 Rosé of Cabernet

Rosé is the fastest growing market segment in the Nielsen table. A lot of that Rosé comes from France, to be sure, but the market is large and fluid.  Picked at the right time, Cabernet makes a nice Rosé and in fact there are a great many produced both here in the U.S. and around the world.

As I noted here earlier this year, there are tricks to the Rosé trade to consider. Rosé is not that easy to make, since color is a concern, and can be tricky to sell because consumers prefer the most recent vintage and demand seasonality is a factor, too. If you like the idea of Rosé of Cabernet, then I think you will also like …

#3 Sparkling Rosé of Cabernet 

Take two fast-growing categories — sparkling and Rosé — make the wines from Cabernet  and you are ready to go. The only thing that could be better is …

#2 Canned Sparkling Rosé of Cabernet 

… because canned wine is also a thing (watch for a report here in the near future) and it is growing fast. Have you seen all the new canned wine displays in the supermarkets? Don’t dismiss canned wine too quickly.

Canned sparkling Rosé of Cabernet leverages three hot trends to use up your excess Cab. It is a perfect storm of wine. What could be better? And while you have the mobile canning equipment hooked up, you might consider …

#1 Canned Sparkling Cabernet + Black Currant Spritz

Seriously!

I am paying more attention to the canned wine displays and one thing I note is that canned wine spritz is generally right beside the other canned wines. These seem generally to be mixtures of wine, fruit flavors, and carbonated water. They sound refreshing and they have less than half the alcohol of regular wine. A Cabernet and Black Currant spritz sounds drinkable to me on a hot day, but you might prefer blackberry or some other fruit flavor.

Since the consumer segment that is interested in low alcohol products is growing, I can see how this trend might persist.  Something to consider.

Seems Like a Stretch?

Bottom line. The U.S. industry is going to need to find uses for its  excess Cabernet Sauvignon if the potential surplus materializes. These examples are ways to take advantage of the small number of growing wine market segments. If it seems like getting Cab products into these segments is a stretch, then it shows how much more pressure there will be on the traditional product markets.

I hope the market can absorb all the Cabernet that’s coming its way. Fingers crossed.

Is Sustainable Winegrowing Sustainable?

Is sustainable winegrowing sustainable? Yes. But there are headwinds and challenges to overcome before this expanding movement will achieve its full potential. Here’s my report.

sonoma

Sustainability is a powerful movement in northeast Italy where Sue and I participated in a program sponsored by the Consorzio Collio. I spoke on a roundtable panel on sustainable winegrowing’s many sides. One of the other speakers had recently converted his family vineyards to organic viticulture and he talked about the experience and his commitment to sustainable winegrowing.

A hand went up. Now that you are spending less on chemicals and so forth, a journalist asked, will be you passing along the cost savings to consumers?

Wow — I didn’t see that question coming. Implicit in the query was the assumption that organic or sustainable wines should be cheaper than other wines, not simply better for the environment. Most winegrowers, however, hope that sustainable practices will be rewarded in the market place — that consumers will be willing to pay higher prices for sustainably-produced wines, not demand a discount. Environmental sustainability needs to be economically sustainable to survive.

Survey Says …

I would like to say that wines that are certified as sustainable or organic or biodynamic do command a price premium, but I don’t have the data to support this broad conclusion. Wine is a complicated product category and it isn’t easy to compare sustainably-produced wines with similar wines made using conventional practices in order to extract the existence and size of a general price differential (more about this below).

Much of the research on this subject, therefore, has involved surveys that ask consumers how much they hypothetically would be willing to pay for sustainablly-produced wines compared to others.

pay-more-for-eco-certified-wines

A good example of this research is a study that Sonoma State Professor Liz Thach MW reported in 2017, which is the source of the graph above. The survey sample of 301 wine consumers, which was weighted towards women (74%) and Millennials (65%), found a generally strong willingness to pay more for wines with sustainable certifications.

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Recently Lullie Halstead, CEO of Wine Intelligence, presented the results of a larger study of U.S. wine drinkers that both reinforced a strong willingness to pay and uncovered significant generational diversity among Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X, and Baby Boom consumers. Millennials in the study, for example, were more than twice as likely as Baby Boomers to say they would be willing to pay a $5+ sustainability premium while 43 percent of Boomers said they wouldn’t pay any extra at all.

The study suggests that consumers would be willing to pay about $3 more per bottle for a sustainably-produced wine. What do you think? How much more would you be willing to pay?

Walking it Back to the Vineyard

Since it is hard to determine if sustainable wine actually receives a price premium in the market, I decided to work backwards. If sustainable wine sells for an average $3 premium, then sustainably-grown grapes should sell for a premium, too. How much? The Law of 100 holds that in general if grapes cost $1000 per ton more, then the wine has to sell for at least $10 more per bottle ($1000/100) to pay the bills. It’s a back of the envelope sort of calculation — a long way from rocket science, but useful here.

Working backwards, the Law of 100 rule of thumb suggests that a $3 higher bottle price should translate into a maximum of $300 per ton grape price premium. That could be a substantial incentive for winegrowers to farm sustainably depending on the region.

What is the sustainable premium for wine grapes? Once again it is hard to generalize because there are all sorts of special cases in grape contracts. But I consulted two well-connected California colleagues and the answers they provided were very consistent. In general, sustainably-farmed wine grapes receive a premium of $15-$25 (average of about $20) per ton. That’s a lot less than I was expecting. It implies a very small potential bottle price premium — nothing like the $3 survey result.

Some contracts provide a premium up to 7.5 percent, I’m told, which can be valuable depending on the underlying grape price and yield. In many cases, however, the premium is exactly zero. Grape buyers specify sustainably-farmed fruit, but are not willing to pay extra for it. Bottom line: growers generally farm sustainably because these are sound practices, not (yet) for the money.

Why is the Sustainability Premium So Low?

Why is the sustainable grape premium so low? One answer is that premiums are low because it is a buyers’ market for some grape categories these days. With surplus grape supplies and wine in tanks from previous vintages, buyers don’t pay more because they don’t have to. That is bad news for growers in the short run but better news in the long run because the supply-demand imbalance is likely to adjust over time and perhaps improved prices will follow.

A second answer is that the grape premium is low because the premium for sustainable wines is low — much lower than the $3 per bottle estimate. How can this be? Are the survey-takers fibbing? Well, sometimes people do give “aspirational” answers to survey questions. But there’s another answer. Consumers may be willing to pay more for sustainable wines, but they can’t tell for sure which ones they are.

Organic and biodynamic are very clearly defined wine terms (although consumers may not fully understand them — especially biodynamic), but sustainable does not have a single meaning or certification standard. Most of the regions we visit have their own sustainability certification programs, each tailored to local conditions. So the term sustainable shows up a lot and doesn’t always mean the same thing. This is one reason why it is hard to calculate the price premium for sustainable wines.

My colleague Danny Brager tells me that his team at the Nielsen Company tries to track sustainable wines (by their measure they account for about 2.1 percent of the table wine market by value, growing at a fast 8.1 percent rate), but the lack of a clear definition means that anything that has “sustainable” on the label gets counted. That’s probably as good as most consumers can do because they don’t fully understand the difference between certified and non-certified wines or the variations among certification programs themselves. But it makes deeper analysis difficult.

Why Can’t Wine Be More Like Fish?fish2

The term sustainable is popular in part because of this ambiguity. I found one wine that boasted “Sustainably Dry Farmed” on the front label. On the back label I learned that this meant that the vines were actually irrigated (which seems like the opposite of dry farming to me) … but only as necessary to sustain the vines themselves. The fluid nature of the term “sustainable” makes all the difference.

Does that mean a one-size-fits-all certification program? No. I actually think that the fact that there are many regional sustainability programs is a good thing, even if it confuses consumers a bit, because it increases the proportion of the industry that adopts sustainable practices.

Sue points out that consumers support sustainable practices in other sectors when they understand them and appreciate their importance. Sustainable fisheries are important, for example, and many retailers and restaurants make a point of featuring sustainably-harvested seafood. The existence of different certification programs doesn’t seem to diminish the impact.

What? How? Why?

We meed to make sustainable wine as transparent and appealing as sustainable fish. Perhaps the key is to focus less on the what and how — what we are doing (certification) and how it is done — and more on the why. The why is pretty clear when it comes to sustainable fisheries. Maybe we can make the why of sustainable wine clearer, too.

Sustainability would be more sustainable from an economic standpoint if we could communicate better with wine buyers so that the sustainability premium is greater and trickles down to growers better than it does today. Sustainable sustainability? That’s a goal worth pursuing.

Rediscovering Collio’s Iconic White Wines

 

Collio, the beautiful wine region in Italy’s upper right-hand corner near Slovenia, along with its neighbor Colli Orientali del Friuli, is one of our favorite places to visit and makes some of our favorite wines, too.  We’ve been there three times and each visit has revealed something new.

Flashback to 2000

We were lucky on our first visit in 2000 because we stayed at Venica & Venica, a top producer that was just getting started developing its hospitality program.  We happened to arrive on Cantine Aperte day when all the wineries in the region were open and welcoming guests. Ornella Venica gave us the key to our room and handed us a map. Get going, she said, You have a lot of work to do today! And so we did. What fun.

A few days later we moved to a rustic cabin at the Sirk family’s La Subida. The cabin was great because we could eat at the famous restaurant when we wanted to but also use our little kitchen to create our own meals. This gave us the chance we were looking for to explore the markets and try even more local delicacies.

The wines we found were a revelation — mainly white wines with a few reds (notably Merlot) mixed in. We were especially drawn to Sauvignon (as they call Sauvignon Blanc here), which had a fascinating brightness and precision. We found ourselves on a beautiful island of great white wines in what seemed like a vast sea of Italian reds.

Fast Forward to 2015

Somehow it took 15 years for us to return to this part of Italy, but we finally found an opportunity when I was invited to give some talks at the Conegliano wine school in 2015.  This time we stayed at BorgoSanDaniele in Cormons and then, at the urging of friends, at Il Roncal in Cividale del Friuli. It was not Cantine Aperte day, alas, but we visited a number of memorable wineries, which I wrote about in articles for The Wine Economist.

A lot had changed in 15  years. Revisiting Venica & Venica we discovered a much expanded winery and an ambitious winery resort hospitality complex.  The region was growing into its potential as a wine tourism destination. We tasted more sparkling wines than on our first visit, a reaction to the changing market conditions created by Prosecco’s success. And we encountered more (and I think better) red wines. Climate change at work, we were told.

We still loved the Sauvignon wines (including one from Tiare that had recently been named the best such wine in the world), but this time we were drawn to the native grape varieties, especially Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, and Tocai Friulano among the white wines and the various varieties of Refosco among the reds.

Enjoy Collio Experience 2019

We vowed not to let so much time pass between visits to this region, so we were delighted to receive an invitation to participate in the Consorzio Collio’s  Enjoy Collio Experience 2019.  We took part in the activities of a press and trade tour and I spoke briefly for a roundtable discussion on sustainability.

We stayed at the elegant Castello di Spessa, which includes vineyards, winery, golf course, restaurants, rooms, and of course a castle all just a few minutes from Cormons. Giacomo Casanova lived here at one point and his name and image are everywhere.

The focus of this event was clearly on Collio, so we were able to explore its special terroir in more depth (see Stephen Quinn‘s excellent video above) and get to know the wines and winemakers at blind tastings led by Richard Baudins and through winery visits, dinners, and other events.

What stood out in these experiences? Well, we were attracted to certain producers we didn’t know before including Primosic, Gradis’ciutta, Livon, Bracco, and Ronco Blanchis. (A tasting of 12 vintages of Friulano at Ronco Blanchis, which has a very special terroir, was memorable.) And we had an opportunity to learn much more about the region’s designated white wine ambassador, which is called Collio Bianco.

Once upon a time Collio Bianco was a simple field blend, but then it evolved into a sort of kitchen sink wine. Winemakers took their native white wine leftovers and mixed them up. I am not sure it was a really bad wine, but it didn’t represent the best that could be done.

Starting in the 1990s, however, there has been a determined effort to remake Collio Bianco into the region’s flagship wine. Winemakers were given more freedom to blend their best grapes in order to produce distinctive white wines that are brilliant when young and have the potential to evolve over time.

The Collio producers are so proud of their Collio Bianco that we devoted one complete morning to blind-tasting 24 of the wines from different producers in different parts of the region, made with different combinations of native and international varieties, and from a number of different vintage years.

How were the wines? And why is Collio Bianco important to the region’s future? Good questions! Come back next week for analysis.

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Video credit: Magic soils of Collio from Stephen Quinn on Vimeo.

Many thanks to the Consorzio Collio for inviting us to participate in Enjoy Collio Experience 2019. Special thanks to Klementina Koren and Matteo Bellotto for their help and hospitality. Cheers to all the Collio winemakers and international journalists we met along the wine road. We hope to see you again!