Three Faces of Languedoc Wine: Aimé Guibert, Robert Skalli & Gérard Bertrand

rosesAimé Guibert and Robert Skalli — these were the key protagonists in my analysis of globalization and wine in the Languedoc in my 2011 book Wine Wars.  Both Guilbert and Skalli revolutionized Languedoc wine, but in different ways. And they had different opinions of globalization, too.

If I were writing a second edition of Wine Wars today (readers: do you think I should?) I would add a third name — a champion of Languedoc wine who is revolutionizing it in another way today. That name is Gérard Bertrand.  Here’s the story.

Mondovino meets Mondavi-no

Aimé Guibert starred as one of the heros of the 2004 anti-globalization wine documentary Mondovino (flying winemaker Michel Rolland was one of the villians!).  Guibert helped revolutionize Languedoc wine at his estate Mas de Daumas Gassac  Working with Emile Peynaud and others, Guibert produced exceptional wines that changed the way that many viewed the Languedoc and its potential for fine wine. An impressive achievement and a great story.

That’s not the story that Mondovino told, however. The film was more interested in his opposition to Robert Mondavi’s plans to invest in the Languedoc and produce large quantities of branded varietal wine to be sold around the world. The local uproar eventually discouraged Mondavi, who turned his attention elsewhere. Did Guibert and his activist colleagues win? Mondavi was gone, but not the market strategy he represented.

That’s because, as I argued in Wine Wars, Robert Skalli was already at work to revolutionize Languedoc wines in a Mondavi-esque way. Skalli met Mondavi in California and was inspired by both his modern wine-making and by his marketing strategy, which focused on easy-to-understand varietal labels rather than sometimes-obscure appellations. Skalli was so impressed that he opened his own Napa winery (St. Supery, sold a few years ago to French icon Chanel) and invested in clean, modern, market friendly varietal wines at home including especially the popular brand Fortant de France.

Skalli embraced globalization just as Guibert shunned it, but they both drove change in a region that surely needed it and helped set the stage for the emergence of the new Languedoc wine world that Sue and I discovered during our recent visit. They also helped pave the way for the Languedoc’s current global market champion, Gérard Bertrand.

Celebrity Wine?

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It didn’t take long for Gérard Bertrand’s name to come up. We landed in Toulouse and on the road to our hotel in Carcassone our well-informed driver pointed to a vineyard on the right and said that he’d been there the day when the crowds gathered and a helicopter descended carrying Bertrand and his special guests, rocker Jon Bon Jovi and his son. Bon Jovi is famous for his music. Bertrand is possibly more famous (at least in this part of France) for his exploits for club and country on the rugby field.

Sport, music, and wine — a potent mix! Bertrand’s father was in both businesses– wine and rugby.  Besides running the family estate he was a professional referee; his son learned both disciplines from the earliest age.

The helicopter gathering was the launch of a joint Bon Jovi-Bertrand project — a Rosè wine called Diving into Hampton Water. A limited edition celebrity wine, for sure, its first vintage sold out on allocation in short order.  The wine lists for $20-$25 here in the U.S. when you can find it.

I don’t know much about Diving into Hampton Water, which has received mixed reviews, but I’m pretty familiar with another Gérard Bertrand Rosé, the Cotes des Roses pictured above. It’s a lovely wine in a distinctively graceful bottle that is easily found on the shelves of upscale supermarkets and even in Costco bins in my region. There is a red and a white wine in the Cotes des Roses portfolio, according to the website, but I see only the pink one in my market.

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You can think of the Cotes des Roses as an upscale evolution of the Robert Skalli idea of Languedoc wine. It is a wine made for the market, that represents the Languedoc very well, but does so by reaching out to consumers with a clear image and strong brand. That’s kind of how I thought of Gérard Bertrand wine at the start of my visit — and the Bon Jovi connection reinforced that perspective. But I soon learned that there is a good deal more.

The first formal masterclass in Carcassone was devoted to tasting a cross section of Cru du Languedoc wines and one of the favorites was the Gérard Bertrand 2011 La Forge.  This was very different from Cotes des Roses — it was a serious wine of origin and it made me rethink the whole Bertrand project. Bertrand is Cotes des Roses and Hampton Water, but it is also a collection of very well made wines that celebrate and explore the multiple regions and terriors of Languedoc and Roussillon, Gérard Bertrand’s home (he first played rugby for Narbonne).

legendAmbassador Bertrand

Bertrand’s wines appeared twice more in our program, reinforcing this more complex view. Tasting through a lineup of Crèmant de Limoux sparkling wines, I stumbled across Gérard Bertrand Cuvée Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson fell in love with Crèmant de Limoux when he was U.S. ambassador to France and championed the wine, shipping quantities back home to Virginia.

Bertrand’s bottling honors the appellation and its historic connection to Jefferson. I was beginning to think of Gérard Bertrand as more of an ambassador (like Jefferson) of the Langeudoc than a simple celebrity. His project includes many of these terroir wines that together paint a picture of the region.

Then, at a gala dinner at Château de Pennautier, we were served a lovely mature sweet wine, the 1974 Gérard Bertrand Legend Vintage Rivesaltes. What a wine! And a wonderful tribute to this appellation. The Legend Wine series includes select Rivesaltes vintages going back to 1875! Bottled history.

I’ve Got a Little List

And so I think you can see why I have added Gérard Bertrand to my Languedoc icons list. He seems determined to push Languedoc forward, but not just in one direction and always with an eye on his roots. A fine ambassador indeed.

Every emerging wine region needs a brand ambassador to help break into the market and get attention. Napa had Mondavi, for example. Strong brands, if linked to time and place, can open doors a bit wider. As Languedoc and Roussillon re-emerge in their contemporary form, effective ambassadors like Bertrand are especially important.

Languedoc has many faces and these three tell a story of the ways that the region has changed to adapt to new market conditions. Bertrand’s complex inks to and respect for the past make him a particularly interesting addition to my little list. But there are many more faces to consider — you should pull some corks and see for yourself.

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The Wine Economist will pause for a couple of weeks while Sue and I are in Italy. We’ll visit old friends in Bologna (I taught at the Johns Hopkins/SAIS Center there years ago) and tour Eataly World before heading to Forte dei Marmi, where I’m speaking about Money and Wine at VinoVIP on June 18.

State of the Art? Aussie Wine Tourism Invests in Asia & Digital Strategies

unwtoWine tourism is an increasingly important element of wine marketing and sales as both authenticity and identity grow as ways to differentiate products in today’s incredibly crowded and competitive global market. Nothing like the personal experience that wine visitors often receive to turn customers into ambassadors.

Of course wine tourism does more than sell wine because tourists spend time and money on food, lodging, local crafts, and more. With proper planning and broad local participation (which doesn’t always happen), wine tourism can be an engine of sustainable rural development. Or at least that’s the idea behind the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) global wine tourism conference, which will be held this September in Chisinau, Moldova.

So wine tourism is on my mind and I was therefore excited when I received an email from Wine Australia about $7.4 million in grants to support 21 regional wine tourism initiatives. That’s a lot of seed money — what do they hope to grow? And how?

The grants range from the relatively small and focused projects ($20,000 to digitalize the Canberra district’s wine map and translate it into additional languages) to the fairly large and ambitious initiatives (grants of $250,000 each to McLaren Vale, Adeliade Hills, Swan Valley, and Barossa Valley wine growers associations).

The Swan Valley project caught my attention because it appears to be the sort of focused multi-level, partnership-driven approach to regional development through wine tourism that I think often works best. Here is a summary of the grant:

Singapore Visitors to Swan Valley: establish a consortium of industry, government and academia to work collaboratively on: an audit of existing services/products, up-skilling of tourism operators and development of tourism products, with a strong focus on the Singapore market.

There are two themes that run through the Australian projects chosen to receive these wine tourism grants. The first is a focus on Asian tourists and especially Chinese tourists, with Hong Kong and Singapore also in the frame.  The Geelong Winegrowers Association recognizes (as do many others) that a successful program for Chinese wine tourists means more than opening the cellar door. Here is the description of their grant project:

China ready – developing regional and operator capabilities to attract international tourism and increase average spend: development of regional digital and promotional assets; dedicated content for the Chinese visitor to be used across the digital platforms (including WeChat and website) and China-ready workshops encourage collaboration between wineries and tourism operators.

Getting “China Ready” is an important goal for many international wine destinations. When I checked in a few years ago there were only a small handful of Chinese language speaking  winery guides in Napa Valley — most wineries were far from “China Ready” then.

0zChinese visitors are especially important for Australia. Proximity is one factor, of course, but wine market strategy is another. China is now Australia’s #1 wine export market, surpassing both the U.S. and the U.K.

The second theme I see in the Australian grants is an emphasis on digital technology. No surprise there: people spend more and more time fiddling with their smart phones. It seems like screen time is replacing face time everywhere. If you want to get on wine tourists radar, you need to get on their screens first.

There are a number of interesting initiatives on the grant list ranging from simple websites (in multiple languages, of course!) to augmented reality and virtual reality tours. Riverland Wine’s project, seeks to use technology to stir interest in a region that is less famous than the Barossa or Hunter Valleys.

Riverland on the verge: international market research and development of virtual reality (VR) content to give international visitors virtual tours of Riverland wine attractions from local wine centres.

Most of the grants will support marketing projects, as you might expect. I am particularly interested in the ones that also seek to shape what visitors do once they arrive and how those activities can support sustainable rural development projects like those we will discuss in September at the UNWTO conference in Moldova!

Congratulations to Wine Australia on its 21 wine tourism initiatives. I look forward to learning more as the programs unfold.

 

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.

September 2018unwto

  • 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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Navigating the Headwinds for French Wine Exports to the U.S. Market

vintageSue and I recently returned from a press tour to three French wine regions — Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley —  that are benefiting from the current surge in demand for French wines in the U.S. market. As I noted last week, France is back on consumer radar, especially with buyers thirsty for  Rosé and sparkling wines.

A  Lighter Shade of Pale?

I think there is smooth sailing ahead for Rosé, Blanquette, and Cremant producers from these regions at least in the short run, although Elizabeth Gabay MW argued in a rather brilliant masterclass that we attended at the Chateau de Blois that some Rosé producers are sacrificing potential quality in a quest to make their wines fashionably pale, pale pink. This practice might come back to bite them in the future depending upon how the export markets develop.

The conventional wisdom is that Rosé buyers prefer pale rather than robust pink color in their Rosé wines — the lighter the better — and so producers make the near clear wines they think will sell best, even if they aren’t necessarily the best wines they could make. It is the flip side of the over-extracted red wines that so many wineries produce. I’m not sure the conventional wisdom about pale pink holds here on the Pacific Coast of North America, where California not Provence is the reference point for Rosé, but that’s another column.

Pink and sparkling wines from France are selling really well. The makers of other wines, both red and white, face some headwinds and how they navigate around or through them will determine whether they will share the market boom.

Challenging Stereotypes in Languedoc

France is an Old World wine region and this means many things, including especially that most of its regions inherit in one way to another the practices and reputations of the past. Sometimes this is beneficial, but not always. Languedoc and Roussillon have to overcome undesirable stereotypes of their wines in many markets.

The image that Languedoc conjures up for wine drinkers of a certain age is of cheap, strong, tannic red wines meant to fill jugs and bottles at low prices. Languedoc became the cheap French wine lake initially when the railroads connected the South to the industrial and population centers further north and then again when cheap wine imports from Algeria dried up after it gained independence. Quantity not quality defined Languedoc — a reputation that still haunts it.

serresNow I am not going to say that cheap wine production has disappeared, but the momentum has decidedly shifted to better wines made with more marketable grape varieties such as Grenache, Syrah, and Mourverde along with standbys like Carignan.

We enjoyed a delicious AOP Malepere red from Chateau de Serres at lunch one day in Carcassonne. It is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon that displays a Languedoc stereotype myth-busting elegance. Fantastic!

Some producers we spoke with admitted that they tried to downplay their Languedoc roots in order to sidestep the reputation problem in export markets, hoping that the wines will simply speak for themselves.  They hope, too, that younger consumers who have no memory of the old days will have an open mind to trying the wines.

Cheap and Sweet? Not Interested!

The Roussillon producers we spoke with saw old reputation as less of an issue mainly because their region is not so well-known as Languedoc. Roussillon is often lumped in with Languedoc or left out altogether. They see today’s market as an opportunity to build a strong reputation from scratch.

But that doesn’t mean that stereotypes don’t exist in Roussillon. A colleague asked where we were headed one afternoon and when told we were going to Rivesaltes he turned up his nose — “Too bad! I’am not interested in cheap sweet wines.”

romaniWhen we arrived at Domaine de Besombes we met winemakers from the region and shared a delicious Catalan barbecue lunch. And we tasted their delicious stereotype-breaking dry red and white wines, too. Sue was particular fond of the wines made by Laurent Pratx of Serre Romani. The grandson of the man who founded the local cooperative, Pratx returned to Roussillon after working in the Rhone Valley committed to taking his wines in new, independent directions.

We tasted sweet wines at the end of the meal, but these were not the cheap sweet wines of our friend’s memory. They were wonderful, especially the Domaine de Besombes 1949 shown at the top of the page, which has special meaning for us — that’s our vintage, too!

We were fortunate to be invited to a rather special banquet where all the wines were sweet and from this region. I will paste the menu with pairings below. It was a memorable experience. I think my favorite combination was the sea bass with lemon, nuts, and popcorn with the 1990 Maison Cazes Rivesaltes Ambré.

Everyone Loves the Loire

Wine producers in the Loire Valley have a different problem from those in Languedoc. Everyone loves the Loire, which is why it is a hugely popular tourist destination.  The beautiful scenery, historic chateaux, rich food, and fine wines are hard to beat.

But it is not always easy to translate the tourist impression into wine export market sales because the Loire isn’t one thing when it comes to wine, it is many, and it is easy to get lost in this complexity. The Loire is Muscadet, for example, which can be a simple delicious wine and also, as we learned a wine of great character and complexity with extended lees-aging.

The Loire is dry Rosé de Loire and also sweetish Rosé d’Anjou. It is the crisp Sauvignon Blanc from Touraine, Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, Cabernet Franc from Samur, and much more. Altogether the Loire comprises 50 appellations and demarcations, creating a jigsaw puzzle that can be difficult to navigate. Famous appellations stand out, less prominent ones that live in their shadows have trouble getting attention.

One of my favorite discoveries of this trip, for example, were the Sauvignon Blanc wines of Chenonceau, a fairly young appellation in Touraine. Chenoncau is more famous for the chateau of the same name than the wines. Too bad — because the wines can be spectacular. I suspect there is a lot more to discover here among the regions and producers who lack name recognition.

Will these headwinds hold French wine back from advancing in the hyper-competitive U.S. market? The competition is intense, so there are no guarantees, but we found many excellent wines and committed wine makers, too, so a broader French wine boom could be coming.

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Unlocking the Market Potential of Languedoc, Roussillon, & the Loire Valley

pink1What do you think of when you think of French wine? If you are like most people, your thoughts probably stray to the iconic regions of Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne. These regions and their wines are fundamental to the way we understand U.S. French wine and wine generally.

The Rhone and Alsace are probably on your radar, too, as they should be given their wonderful wines. Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley likely show up further down the list. Important wine regions, but not quite in the same league as the others in terms of reputation and market presence.

But the wines Sue and I found during a recent press tour of these regions are so well matched to current market trends that I think this situation is going to change. No, Languedoc isn’t going to replace Bordeaux in anyone’s wine investment portfolio, but I do think these regions are positioned to gain both respect and market share, especially here in the United States. I will use the next several columns to explain how and why and also to explore some issues we discovered along the way and headwinds that could slow progress.

Growth in the overall U.S. wine market has slowed in the last year, but there are two categories that continue to boom: sparkling wines and Rosé wines. Here’s how the wines of Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire fit in.

Blanquette and Cremant

Sparking wine is booming in the U.S. market and while Prosecco is the driving force, wines from other regions are benefiting from the surge. Cava from Spain, for example, is getting more attention in part because of its great affordability. And French sparkling wines from places other than Champagne are in the mix.

The Languedoc’s Blanquette de Limoux is both delicious and historic — it lays claim to being the first sparkling wine made using the classic method. It was Champagne before Champagne. Some say that Dom Perignon, the famous priest given credit for inventing Champagne, actually learned the special method when he worked in Limoux.  Impossible to prove, but fascinating to consider.

The United States in Blanquette de Limoux’s most important export market, accounting for 32% of export sales. No surprise considering the sparkling wine boom and Blanquette’s excellent quality/price offer.

Seven regions of France produce sparkling wines called Cremant, including the Loire Valley and we really enjoyed these wines. One reason might be that Cremant de Loire’s menu of grape variety possibilities include Chenin Blanc, which does so well here and is so delicious in its sparkling form.

The Bubble Boom is much more than Prosecco and Champagne and Languedoc and the Loire are well-positioned to benefit from increased attention to these wines.

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Pretty in Pink

Pink seems to be the new black when it comes to wine sales. Rosè wine sales in the U.S. have increased by more than 66% in the last year according to recent Nielsen figures and the surge isn’t limited to North America. I’ve heard that French supermarkets now sell more pink wines than white wines. Incroyable!

Although many consumers think Provence when they consider French Rosè wines, we tasted delicious versions in the Languedoc and Roussillon. A quick survey of the pink wine section of our local upscale supermarket revealed a good selection of Rosè from these regions at attractive prices. Our standby Gérard Bertrand Languedoc “Cote des Roses” (made from Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah) was abundantly available at Costco on a recent visit.

In fact Languedoc pink wine exports to the U.S. are booming, up 100% in the last year according to one authority we spoke with. Pink Power! The Paul Mas Prima Perla Crémant de Limoux Brut Rosé shown in Sue’s photo at the top of this column, which we enjoyed at a dinner at Chateau de Pennautier near Carcassone in the Languedoc region, is perhaps the perfect wine for this moment. It is pink and sparkling … and delicious!

The Loire produces fantastic Rosè wines, but it is important to pay attention to appellation. Rosè de Loire is always dry while Rosè d’Anjou is always slightly sweet. These are just two of this region’s noteworthy pink wines.

Beyond Bubble and Pink

Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire produce a host of different wines — the list goes far beyond the bubbles and pinks I have referenced here — but these particular wines are key as export emphasis increases to compensate for sagging French domestic wine sales. One reason these wines succeed where other wines from these regions get less attention is that the geography of the typical wine shop display wall favors these wines over the regions’ other products. Here’s why.

If you are looking for red or white wines from these regions, you will probably find them in a “France” section of the wine wall, where they are likely to be tucked away in a corner to make room for wines from better known French regions. Hard to stand out in this crowd, given the importance of reputation in the maketplace. They will be there, but not always in a featured position, and their closest competition will be other, often very different, wines of France, not wines of the same kind from other countries.

Pink and sparkling wines are different. They form their own categories and are increasingly placed altogether in one spot on the wine wall. Rosé wines from around the world sit together on one shelf and bubbles on another, fostering head-to-head comparison and competition that benefits wines from Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire and those consumers who are curious enough to try them.

Will success in sparkling and Rosé wines transfer over to the other fine wines that these regions produce? The positive impressions that these wines make on consumers will certainly have benefits. But there are challenges — headwinds, I like to call them — that must be overcome. That’s what I will talk about next week.

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Sue and I participated in the media programs of Terroir and Millésimes in Languedoc and in Roussillon from April 15-22 and Val de Loire Millésimes from April 22-25 as guests of the regional producer associations. Thanks very much to the Langedoc, Roussillon, and Loire groups who hosted us and to everyone we met along the way. This is the first of a series of columns examining what we learned at these events.

Wine in America: Surprising Idaho and its Diverse Wine Scene

strangefolkThere is a big world of American wine out there, full of surprises. Wine is made in all 50 states, so “Support your local wine industry” is practical advice. Sometimes this requires you to head off the the vineyards, but sometimes they can come to you. Case in point … the booming Boise, Idaho wine scene.

There is an urban winery trail of sorts developing in Boise and our friend Jim Thomssen spirited us away for a quick survey of the scene between sessions of the Idaho Wine Commission meetings in February. His goal, it developed, was to show the diversity that is driving Idaho wine and, I think it is fair to say, American wine today, too.

One Size Does Not Fit All

One size does not fit all in Idaho wine. Idaho is dominated by Chateau Ste Chapelle and Sawtooth winery, which are part of the Precept wines portfolio that also includes Waterbrook, Canoe Ridge, Sagelands, House Wine, and Gruet among others. Precept owns Idaho’s two largest wineries and a huge proportion of its vineyards, whence many smaller wineries source their grapes. Ste Chapelle makes excellent wines (we tasted a vertical of their Tempranillo with dinner one night) as well as a series of “soft” blends that are Idaho best-sellers.sawtooth

In our previous visits we have focused on wineries in the Sunnyslope region of the Snake River Valley, where grapes are grown and wine is made. Some of our favorites include Bitner Vineyards, Huston Vineyards, Koenig Vineyards, and Fujishin Family Wine Cellars. They set a high standard for quality and their wines are delicious.

Given our tight schedule, Jim scheduled appointments at two wineries just outside the downtown core, Telaya Wine Co. and  Split Rail Winery.  The wineries are about the same size in terms of annual production and source grapes from both Idaho and Washington, but that is where the similarities end.

Precision Winemaking

Earl Sullivan is a scientist by training and a former international pharmaceutical industry executive and Telaya winery reflects the precision and systems thinking that comes with that background, both in terms of the wines, which are balanced and structured, and the winery itself, which was strategically located next door to a destination hotel along Boise’s popular river walk.telaya

Production and hospitality spaces in the two-year old winery were custom designed to facilitate efficient wine-making and to provide visitors a warm welcome. The patio by the river is a popular spot in warm weather.

We especially liked the Turas blend of Syrah, Malbec and Petit Verdot from the Snake River Valley and the elegant single-variety  Petit Verdot, too. Precision wine-making can yield delicious results and Earl Sullivan’s well planned and executed wine business is very successful.

Relentless Experimentation

A short drive away, Split Rail Winery is a very different experience. The brightly-painted winery and tasting room live in a former auto repair shop out on the highway. Jed Glavin’s philosophy is to explore his favorite Rhone varieties (including a tasty SGM  field blend that we sampled) and to provide wine in all imaginable delivery systems including bottle, keg (for the on-trade), cans, and take-out growlers. I have included an image io the Strange Folks line of canned wines. Pull tabs, not corks. Pretty crazy, huh?

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Jed’s intention is to experiment relentlessly and he’s OK with it if he never makes the same wine twice, letting vintage variation and other factors rule. It says something about Jed that he’s willing to take so many risks to see what develops.

And it says something about Idaho in general and the Boise area in particular that he has an enthusiast following that is excited to see what he will come up with next.

A Happening Place

In fact Boise is quite a happening place, with crowded restaurants featuring local ingredients, a bustling craft beer scene, and some interesting cider makers, too. In fact, cider was one of the features of this visit. A Basque friend introduced us to Basque cider during a visit to Spain last year and, knowing that Boise has a large Basque population, we sought out (and found!) several of these very dry ciders, including one on draft at the Basque Market restaurant, just across the street from the iconic Bar Gernika.cider

Jim took us to Meriwether Cider Co. out on the highway near Split Rail where a variety of tasty ciders (very different from the Basque products) are made and a loyal local following has developed. Cider has many advantages over wine — you can make it year around from stored apples, not just once a year when the grapes are ripe. And cider making has a tradition of flavorings and infusions that encourages experimentation. We know some winemakers in Oregon who also make cider and are very successful in both markets.

The Leadbetter family that owns Meriwether Cider will soon open a cider house in downtown Boise to feature both their products and those of other local cider makers. I was pleased to meet Gig Leadbetter at the wine meetings, which included cider industry people in Idaho because of the many synergies and, I suppose, the obvious need for producers in smaller markets to work together when they can.

The Idaho wine industry is anything but cookie-cutter in terms of size, scope, and style — and that’s part of what makes it so interesting. The fact that broad local support has developed for this rainbow of wine is inspiring, both for Idaho and for American wine.

 

The Changing Face of Wine in America: The Cooper’s Hawk Phenomenon

As I noted last week, wine is everywhere in America, or nearly so, and while it is common knowledge that the U.S. is the world’s largest wine market and that wine is produced in all 50 states, the diversity of the wine experience here sometimes comes as a surprise. Case in point …

What if I told you that one of the largest wineries in the U.S., home to what is probably the largest direct-to-consumer winery club program in the world, is based in Illinois, not California?

Illinois? (I can hear you saying this). No way! You’ve got to be kidding? Well, Cooper’s Hawk winery is no joke and learning about it helps us understand how wine is changing in the U.S. and where it could be going.

Top 50 U.S. Wineries

Wine Business Monthlys February 2018 issue lists the 50 largest wine companies in the U.S., from #1 Gallo (estimated production 70 million cases) to #50 McMannis Family Vineyards (340,000 cases). Most of the wineries are located in California as you would expect with a few exceptions such as Washington-based Ste Michelle Wine Estates (#8), #13 Precept Wine, and #36 Mesa Vineyards of Fort Stockton, Texas (550,000 cases).

Number 34 on the list with 570,000 case annual production and a wine club that is approaching 300,000 members is Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant of Woodridge, Illinois. All that wine is sold directly to restaurant patrons and wine club members. It is an interesting case study of wine’s growing (and changing) place in American culture.

A Wine-Centered Lifestyle Brand

The first Cooper’s Hawk location opened in 2005 and the chain, which identifies itself as a “lifestyle brand centered around wine” has grown to 30 stores in the  mid-west (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin) plus Maryland, Virginia, and Florida. Five new locations are scheduled to open in 2018. A total of 4.4 million guests visited Cooper’s Hawk last year.

A Cooper’s Hawk experience combines several elements. It is a restaurant, of course, with a wide-ranging upscale menu that encourages patrons to think food and wine with a suggested pairing for each dish.  Bin 70 (Cooper’s Hawk Pinot Gris) is the suggested match for pan-roasted Baramundi, for example, and red wine braised short ribs are matched with Bin 04 (the Cooper’s Hawk Red, a Cab-Merlot-Syrah blend).

Ordering wine by the numbers rather than listing the wine names on the food menu is a way to keep things simple, rather like many people order by number from an Asian restaurant menu. You don’t necessarily need to speak wine to enjoy it at Cooper’s Hawk.

Each restaurant features a “Napa-style” wine tasting room and an “artisanal retail market,” where various food and lifestyle items are sold along with the Cooper’s Hawk wines. The idea is to bring the feel of a wine-country tasting room and restaurant to customers who are attracted to wine lifestyle experiences.

47 Varietieslux

A total of 47 different Cooper’s Hawk wines are listed on the online wine menu, divided into several categories, including International, Sparkling, White, Red, Sweet Red, Sangria, Fruit Wine, Dessert, Mulled Wine, Barrel Reserve, and top drawer Lux. As the video above indicates, grapes are trucked to the Illinois winery from California, Washington, Oregon, and other regions and the wines made, aged, bottled and shipped to Cooper’s Hawk stores.

Cooper’s Hawk invites its guests to embrace wine and gives them both broad choice and attractive pricing. Bottles of wine sell for what glasses of wine might go for at other restaurants. Retail shop prices begin at under $15 per bottle and top out at $39.99 for the Lux Pinot Noir. Restaurant prices are a bit higher, as you would expect, but the mark-up is surprisingly small. You can have that $40 retail Lux Pinot for $47.99 in the restaurant.

All 47 wines are available by the glass, with prices starting at less than $7. A glass of Lux Pinot Noir or Lux Meritage will cost you $13. How you view these prices depends on context, I think. If you are used to New York City restaurant prices, these wines are incredibly cheap — so cheap you might hesitate to try them. On the other hand, if lower-shelf supermarket wines are your reference, the prices might seem a bit high. It is clear from Cooper’s Hawk’s success,, however, that there is a sweet spot for an upscale casual dining restaurant wine list and they seem to have found it.

World’s Largest Wine Club?

One of the most interesting elements of the Cooper’s Hawk phenomenon is its wine club, which has nearly 300,000 members and is growing at a 25% per year rate. Guests who join the club are offered special “members only” wines plus invitations to various exclusive programs and events. Although there is an option to have monthly wine allocations shipped to your door, the pricing structure strongly encourages members to pick up their wines at the tasting room, which obviously produces repeated visits to the restaurant and reinforces the lifestyle relationship.

I am kind of fascinated by Cooper’s Hawk, which seems to have struck a chord with many American consumers by making wine the central element of a carefully crafted experience. I am therefore disappointed that I have so far been unable to visit one of the locations. Our travels take us many places, but so far the opportunity to belly up to a Cooper’s Hawk tasting room bar has eluded me.

But I have tasted a couple of the wines. The Cooper’s Hawk Lux Pinot Noir was the featured wine at this year’s Screen Actors Guild awards (Cooper’s Hawk is the official SAG wine partner) and we received samples of this wine plus the Lux Chardonnay, which were served at the event’s gala dinner, as part of the promotion of this partnership.

The details of the wines we received are a bit of a mystery — the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are American appellation (not California or Oregon as you might expect). The Pinot was medium-bodied with a strong oak presence on the nose and palate that eventually faded to reveal varietal character. Perhaps the wine needed more time in the bottle to pull itself together or perhaps this is a winemaking decision to feature more oak on the premium product. The oak was nicely integrated in the Lux Chardonnay, on the other hand, and the wine was very enjoyable.

No one reads The Wine Economist for tasting notes, of course, and I’ve only sampled a couple of the wines. It is clear that these wines appeal to Cooper’s Hawk customers, who order them with meals and come back for more. Very impressive.

Cooper’s Hawk has achieved amazing success by creating or expanding a market that few of us imagined could be so large. Cooper’s Hawk recently announced and growing list of collaborations with famous wineries (Francis Ford Coppola, Boisset Collection) and celebrity chefs (Tyler Florence among others) that promise to expand the brand’s lifestyle appeal.

Is Cooper’s Hawk the future of American wine? No — wine is too complicated to have a single road ahead. But the Cooper’s Hawk phenomenon does suggest several important trails to explore — direct-to-consumer sales, focus on experience not just product, innovative marketing structures, and broadening the consumer base beyond the Wine Spectator reader “usual suspect” base to explicitly include Food Network viewers and foodies more generally. I think there’s a lot to learn about the market for wine in America from Cooper’s Hawk.

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The Wine Economist will pause for a couple weeks while Sue and I are in France to participate in Terroir and Millésimes in Languedoc and Roussillion from April 15-22 and Val de Loire Millésimes from April 22-25. Looking forward to meeting fascinating people, drinking wonderful wines, and learning as much as we can. Full report to follow when we return and have had time to digest our experiences.