Statistically Speaking: Why Your Customers Might Drink The Way They Do

Posted on | April 1, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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Your mother probably drilled it into you that it’s not nice to judge a book by its cover. But maybe Mom was wrong. While she was right when she said you never know who’s behind those ripped jeans, and that you can’t tell if that guy in the nice suit has the wherewithal to navigate your wine list without any assistance, she neglected to point out the reality of life is that certain people behave in certain ways, and have enjoyed wine and spirits accompanied by particular traditions and experiences for generations.

Your prim elderly aunt wasn’t without her sherry each evening, and Grandpa couldn’t end the Passover Seder without a shot of Slivovitz. Think of clubby leather chairs and walnut-paneled private club rooms and immediately the image of well-dressed men sitting beneath a halo of cigar smoke with a rocks glass of whisky or a snifter of Cognac in hand jumps to mind. Crack open that Red Stripe and your mind wanders back to the waterfall in Jamaica where you got a recommendation for Montego Bay’s hottest new restaurant.  Think spring break and its Jell-O shots, with Tequila and lime sucking thrown in for good measure. Rented Dukes of Hazards from Netflix last week and found yourself craving bourbon sipped on the porch? Wanted to feel daring and so you and your girlfriends skipped the Cosmos and moved straight to the bubbly?  No surprise.

This isn’t stereotyping and profiling.  It is market segmenting and demographics, and it is a perfectly acceptable way to identify an audience and get to the core of what makes them tick so you can sell a brand off the shelves or behind the bar. If you want to successfully get a brand in a customer’s hands it means tapping into the statistics reflecting the behaviors of various segments of the market to create a marketing message that makes the right overtures to your coveted demographic.

Start with a few simple questions: Is it influenced by peers and celebrities (more on this later), family and friends or is it simply regional? David Ozgo, senior VP of strategy and economics at DISCUS, offers up another possibility: “Sometimes drinking patterns are weather related. People tend to not drink piña coladas when it’s freezing outside, meaning rum and Tequila-based drinks could be more popular in warmer climates.”

But it can go beyond the temperature outside. Are they drinking for quality (real or perceived)? Exclusivity? Aspiration? Personal experiences?  Are they emulating the spirit choices their fathers and uncles have made for generations, or selecting a beverage solely to turn heads? Rob MacMillan, manager of Du Vin, an exclusive wine and spirits shop in West Hollywood, notes, “In terms of spending patterns there’s no telling; it’s really across the board. I have wealthy clientele that spend so little money. And then I have young up-and-comers starting their careers in banking, movies. They just broke $100,000 and they are price-conscious unless it’s work-related; then they buy to impress.”

Understanding the drivers for each of these groups, and being able to synthesize that with anecdotal experience, comes from observing the behaviors of consumer groups, and seeing how they are consistent with their peers. Brands like Jim Beam know how it works. “One of the great things about the Jim Beam portfolio is that fans range all across the spectrum of adult males. Jim Beam drinkers are bold and decisive; they’re outgoing and social and look to make bold choices that ultimately define them,” says Rob Mason, U.S. bourbons, Beam Global Spirits & Wine. “We’re focusing on platforms where our consumers are already active, and making Jim Beam something that can be associated with ‘bold choices’ in these arenas.”

The boldest choice many bartenders made for years when it came to creating cocktails for their female guests was deciding what garnish to put on top of pink and fruity concoctions. That is until Sex & the City-influenced patrons started discovering wines and their palates became a bit more enlightened thanks to women like Leslie Sbrocco who drove the message home that exploration of varietals was not only a good idea but something everyone could handle. With her regular columns and television appearances on programs like The Today Show, Sbrocco demystified wines and made them fun and appealing.

Then along comes a brand like Little Black Dress—which tapped into that market niche of women exploring wine—and the sales possibilities were endless, especially considering that 80% of all purchase decisions (not just limited to liquor) are in the hands of women. Since its launch in 2006, Little Black Dress has seen sales triple with 80% at the retail level and only 20% taking place on-premise. For the girls’ night-out or girls’ night-in, the brand has positioned itself as a quality escape from the every day.  Says Kim Charney, brand manager, “We didn’t want to be offensive and whimsical. We wanted a wine that spoke to women through an emotional icon that connects with the female market. We hope that Little Black Dress wines are like the little black dress in your closet; your go-to.”

That same confidence acquired by wearing a black dress and sipping a Little Black Dress wine is also what’s driving them into the scotch market. After all these years of sweet and fruity, women are opening up to the strength and nuance that whisky brings to a glass. Heather Greene, whisky specialist and ambassador for Glenfiddich, notes, “We’re at a place where wine was 15 years ago. It’s a natural progression for women. Whisky is one of the last frontiers of food and wine that women have yet to go and infiltrate; maybe this is the last stop.”

“It’s about having money and wanting to spend it,” notes Du Vin’s McMillan. Michael Muser, beverage director at the Peninsula Hotel Chicago (and James Beard Award semifinalist for Outstanding Wine Service) adds that some of the Asian customers at the restaurant “are very big on first growth Bordeaux, the cult Cabs like Screaming Eagle and Scarecrow.” On the spirit side of the business Matt Biancaniello of Library Bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel finds the Asian market “ordering quite a lot of whiskey.”

Urban purchasing and consumption patterns have been tied to celebrity endorsements for decades, from Billy Dee Williams’ smooth moves back in the 1980s when he didn’t exactly claim you could have a better time with Colt 45 than without it, but cautioned (with a sultry woman by his side), “Why take chances?” to the popularity of hip hop moguls like Busta Rhymes, P.Diddy, Mr. T and Pharrell kindly requesting that you “Pass the Courvoisier.” Cognac and Cognac-inspired brands like Hypnotiq are still popular among this community, with the arrival of new quality products such as Ludacris’ Conjure that keep the masses intrigued. But now it might just be Tequila’s turn with the agave spirit gaining ground thanks to singers like TI plugging Patrón.

Based on the above numbers, you might jump to the conclusion that those not making the big bucks aren’t drinking. Not necessarily. They could be drinking beer, says Chicago-based bartender and beverage consultant, Todd Appel. While “stereotypes could be misleading,” he warns, “people with more money to spend generally have been exposed to vodka and a wealth of other spirits, and they have the resources to make it part of their regular routine.”

The Millennials are fast becoming a marketer’s dream, pushing aside the last big demographic group to impact sales—the Baby Boomers. According to a recent Wine Market Council study America’s core wine drinker population has doubled from 10-20% of the market. Millennials say 25% of wines they consume is +$20 and with better economic times 67% would spend even more. Danny Brager, the Nielsen Company’s VP and group client director, beverage alcohol, knows the buying power Millennials collectively bring to the table. “Over the course of the next 10 years,” he says, “Millennial consumers (those currently aged 21-34) will make up 40% of Americans 21 and older.”

A recent study released by his office reveals:

  • Millennial consumers are more likely to equate product cost with quality.
    (Translation: an audience primed to trade up)
  • They are more likely to explore new and different beverage alcohol products and will be even more likely to buy a locally-made or produced product knowing it may help the local economy. 
    (Good news for everything from vodka crafted from New York apples to boutique Pinot Noir out of Oregon)
  • Millennials are slightly more likely to plan their purchases versus impulse buys in today’s down economy.
    (Despite flashy ad campaigns, brand loyalty is essential)
  • Millennials’ tendency to experiment and try new things will keep them versatile, skipping between a variety of alcoholic beverages.
    (While the majority of Millennials still prefer beer, they purchase relatively more wine and spirits than older generations did at a comparable age.)
  • Nielsen’s research shows that as consumers age, their lifestyle transitions typically result in a relative shift from beer to wine and spirits. Given that current Millennial preferences between beer, wine and spirits diverge from prior generations, future consumption preferences also become less predictable.
    (Does your wine and cocktail list speak out to this experimental demographic?)
  • By 2036, the majority of consumers age 21 and over will be multicultural. Hispanics, in particular, are swelling the ranks of these new legal drinking age consumers, and their tastes are influenced both by cultural factors, such as their degree of acculturation, as well as attitudes that include a willingness to try new things and an openness to be influenced by other consumers’ suggestions.
    (Is it coincidental that Latino culture is hot right now, from churrascarias to cachaça to South American grape varietals?)

Max Kuller, assistant GM at Washington, D.C.’s Estadio, is noticing these trends. “I do think that younger people are more interested in exploring things that they don’t know,” he points out. “Older couples come in probably knowing what they want to drink; they don’t want curveballs.”

The Peninsula’s Muser concurs, “The new generation of wine drinkers are savvy and they are into local wine shops. They are very influenced by Twitter and Facebook and they are not held by the constraints of the old school labels. The younger clients that we have—those in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties—are super blog-savvy. They are into ratings on the Internet; not like the old guard age bracket, the 40-70s, that are Robert Parkerites and adhere to those Top 100 lists.”

With 64% of the population surveyed by Simmons confirming that yes, they are beverage alcohol consumers, it’s clear that understanding the marketplace is key to thriving—and generating sales.

“Drinking is becoming much more a part of our culture,” MacMillan concludes. “People are informed. The door has been opened, and it’s really kind of cool.”

Chile Hits Fast-Forward

Posted on | April 1, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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Wine producers from this diverse South American country leverage their
wine-friendly geography to capture the imagination of the American consumer.

It’s not going out on a limb to say that Chile is one of the most exciting wine regions on the planet right now. Combine some of the best terroir anywhere with a critical mass of talented winemakers, a wealth of emerging new regions, vast quality improvements and an infusion of capital and expertise from abroad, and you’ve got Chile’s recipe for getting attention. The country has increased production (up 12% over the last decade) and dollar-for-dollar, its wines rival those made in regions twice as esteemed.

Consumers have noticed: Chile is the fourth largest exporter to the U.S. in value and volume (for bottled wine). Chile performs well in economies good and bad: in 2009, when imported wines in the U.S. were down 1%, Chilean wines grew 16%—one of the only countries to show growth in the U.S. Chilean wines also increased in 2010 (source: The Gomberg-Fredrikson Report).

The image of Chile as a go-to region for simple, mass-market value wine is no longer a reflection of reality, as the number of ambitious, complex wines from boutique producers continues to grow, and large established producers raise their game. For good reason, Chile has captured the imagination of the American wine drinker. In fact, sommeliers and retailers who are not giving these wines enough space on wine lists and retail shelves are simply leaving money on the table.

The Road from Mass to Quality
What seems like overnight success has been a long time in the making. Few realize that Chile is one of the oldest continually producing wine regions in the Americas. The Spaniards started making wine in Chile in the 16th century, and the commercial industry took off in the late 1800s with the introduction of French vines and techniques. Yet, vintners focused on bulk wines for nearly two centuries, and Chile was happy to consume most of its own production.

The tide turned in the late 1980s as vintners from abroad (as well as a few quality-minded, ambitious natives, like Aurelio Montes) began to recognize Chile’s potential. Miguel Torres, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, the Marnier-Lapostolles, Antinori and Robert Mondavi among others began investing in Chile and/or partnering with local wineries (there are currently more than 20 such international joint-ventures). A handful of legendary wines—many of them high-priced blends—helped spearhead the country’s quality revolution, and by the early 1990s, Chile’s profound transformation was underway. Today, Chile exports 70% of the wine it produces.

The Mixed Blessing of Diversity
It’s not difficult to understand what lured the legions of foreigners. Chile possesses that winning combination of geography, climate and soil that makes vintners all over the world green with envy. Wedged between the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific Coast on the west, Chile is a narrow strip of a country, roughly 3,000 miles long with an average width of approximately 100 miles. Its wine regions are blessed with cool nights and warm days, and its geographic barriers have protected its vines from the devastation of phylloxera.

Chile excels with scores of grapes and wine styles across its 14 distinct wine regions. The nation’s northern Atacama Desert is one of the hottest places on earth while Chile’s southern tip is the frozen, Patagonian ice cap. Its middle spans many micro-climates and Chilean wines reflect this diversity. Chile’s Central Valley with its famous regions of Maipo, the Curicó Valley and the Rapel Valley (which includes the Colchagua Valley and Cachapoal Valley) have fueled the nation’s international success and prestige, but now winemakers are venturing into cool-climate winemaking in regions like Leyda, Casablanca, Limarí, San Antonio and Elquí where Pinot Noir, Syrah and white grapes thrive. If there’s a hidden cost to being good at everything, it’s that Chile lacks one defining wine (the way, say, Malbec has become synonymous with Argentina).

The country’s major quality hurdles, believes Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer, can be chalked up to a savvier region-by-region approach to viticulture: “Chile has cracked the code on where to plant. It took the better part of 20 years to figure it out, but the work has been done and vintners know where to plant each variety to get it ripe (Carmenère) or to retain great crispness and acidity (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc). Because the grape quality is so much better, winemakers are backing off the oak and letting the fruit speak for itself. They are also experimenting with new varieties—like Grenache, Cabernet Franc and Carignan in the interior—which are starting to thrive.”

Moving Beyond the Value Stigma
As wines improve up and down the price spectrum, Chile’s challenge is to shed its value-only image by generating interest in top-tier bottlings. “Chile had become a victim of its own success. They followed the Australian model and marketed their lower tier wines with great results,” says Ed Chan, wine director at Fourth Wall Restaurants, which just opened Hurricane Club, where the wine list emphasizes Chile with many premium offerings. “Once you are ingrained in consumers’ minds in a particular price category, especially those in the lower end of the spectrum, it is hard work to alter their impressions.”

Dexheimer believes this battle must be fought on-premise. As an educator for Wines of Chile, Dexheimer focuses on winning over sommeliers, many of whom are skeptical or outright dismiss Chile: “When I taste sommeliers on the wines of Chile, the number one response I get is that they had no idea these wines were so good. That was my first response when I discovered them.” Chilean wineries present hard-to-beat value at their reserve tiers—sometimes only $5 or $6 above their mid-range wines, stresses Dexheimer: “Most wineries’ Estate Reserve tier offers a spectacular bump in quality that you won’t find elsewhere for the price.”

At every price point, Chilean wines are competitive with regional wines from Europe and Australia, believes Chan. “Compared to domestic wines, they are definitely a better value,” he adds. “The fact that one study on American consumers revealed that Chilean wines have a low level of penetration in the premium on-trade segment is a huge positive,” because of how much potential for growth they have in this channel. Chan continues, “From a sommelier’s perspective, I am seeing a greater familiarity with high-end Chilean brands, and with greater familiarity, hopefully more placements and exposure to the public.” Chan’s approach in his restaurants is to focus exclusively on the premium offerings in order to upend consumers’ perceptions of Chile as low-end. “Staff training is extremely important because we need to explain to our guests why the $65 bottle of Chilean red we are recommending is better than the $15 bottle they bought from Trader Joe’s,” he says.

In a Stonebridge Research Group Report on American consumers of Chilean wines, two key barriers to trying Chilean surfaced: Insufficient opportunities to taste them, and an absence or limited selection of Chilean wines in restaurants and at retail (over 60% said they would drink more Chilean wine if they had more opportunities). Dexheimer encourages restaurants to give Chilean wines a major presence on by-the-glass as well as in the $40 to $60 list range.

Secret Weapon: Social Media
Chile has managed to do what every wine region dreams of: attract the coveted Millennial consumer group. When it comes to wine consumption, Millennials are defined as curious and adventurous, and drink 40% of their wine consumption in imports (compared to 25% for the total population). “Younger drinkers like new, exotic things and Chile seems to fit that profile for Millennials,” reports Chan. “In addition, the wines are fruit-forward and bold with moderate tannins which are all characteristics that resonate with younger drinkers’ palates.”

A big key to communicating with this group has been Wines of Chile USA’s phenomenal success with Twitter, Facebook and blog posts. Wines of Chile boasts 6,000 Facebook fans and 12,000 Twitter followers, which is double most other country’s organizational sites. Twice a year, Wines of Chile hosts virtual tastings with eight winemakers in Chile and over 50 wine bloggers. There are also monthly events across the country and a growing number of opportunities for consumers to taste.

Where to Now?
Considering that the world’s third most powerful earthquake, which struck in February 2010 and caused millions of dollars of damage, did little to slow Chile’s wine industry down, it’s hard to envision anything that could stop the country’s momentum. Chilean vintners have a laser-like focus on the future with ambitious plans for expansion and quality improvements.

Vintners plan to further capitalize on the booming interest in organic wines: Chile’s near organic natural growing conditions (few bugs, no rain during harvest, dry air) enables vineyards to more easily attain organic certification. The industry has also embarked upon a significant sustainable movement, The Wines of Chile Sustainability Program, which is intended to shift wineries towards production methods that are “environmentally friendly, socially equitable, and economically viable.”

Wines of Chile has stated that their objective is for the country “to become the number one producer of premium, sustainable and diverse wines of the New World by 2020, and increasing the value of bottled wine exports over the course of the decade to $3 billion.”

Aggressive export strategies and sophisticated marketing programs only do so much—it is Chile’s wines that are leading the way. “Americans will continue to drink more and more of these wines,” says Dexheimer. “There is simply too much great wine coming out of Chile for people not to recognize it.”

Varietal Focus
SAUVIGNON BLANC: Chile’s Fastest-Growing Wine
Three-quarters of Chile’s production may be red, but the fastest-growing grape here is Sauvignon Blanc, up 16% through November 2010. The growth has everything to do with location, as vintners plant Sauvignon Blanc in cool climate vineyards in Casablanca, Limarí, San Antonia and its subregion Leyda. Although many of these areas are relatively new—most were planted within the last 20 years—they have quickly transformed Chile into one of the world’s best sources for crisp, zesty, mineral-laden Sauvignon Blanc with an unmatched quality-to-price ratio. According to Dexheimer, they have “all the citrus and grass flavors of New Zealand examples with great minerality like those from France—they offer the maximum you can get from an unoaked white.”

CARMENÈRE: Chile’s Signature Grape Finds Sure Footing
Chile’s fastest-growing red is also its most unique: Carmenère is a largely forgotten Bordeaux grape that was mistaken for Merlot for years, yet is finally coming into its own. A better understanding of how to ripen Carmenère combined with an increase in vintners who are taking it seriously in the winery helped boost Carmenère sales 16% last year. Historically, most wineries used the grape only in blends, but producers are letting the grape go it alone in wines across the price spectrum. Carmenère performs particularly well in the warm Colchagua Valley, as well as in Rapel’s Cachapoal zone.

SYRAH: Chile’s Next Great Red
While the American Syrah category continues to suffer, the grape in Chile is generating tremendous buzz. “Chile has taken to Syrah like few other places, and there is tremendous diversity in styles,” reports Dexheimer. Peppery and floral from cool climate regions and full-bodied and juicy from warmer inland areas, Syrah is a relative newcomer to Chile and has quickly shown great promise. “I’m seeing a lot of younger consumers gravitating to Côtes du Rhône and Languedoc wines and I think Chilean Syrah can be nicely positioned in that mix,” believes Dexheimer. It tends to show its greatest potential thus far in Limarí, Casablanca and Elqui and with new plantings on target to mature in the next few years, many see it poised to become one of Chile’s most important reds.

Chile earned its reputation as the “Bordeaux of South America” thanks to its success with Cabernet. The varietal put Chile on the world stage, fetched its highest scores and praise and remains the basis of most top-tier bottlings. Not to mention, it’s still growing. The grape thrives throughout the warm inland Central Valley and its five main subregions: Maipo, Cachapoal, Colchagua, Curicó and Maule.

CHARDONNAY: Better and Brighter than Ever
Much like with Sauvignon Blanc, vintners now know which regions are best for Chardonnay and the resulting wines have never been tastier. Historically criticized for being flabby, hot and over-oaked, an increasing number today are zippy and fresh. The long coastal stretch of Casablanca has emerged as a premier region for the grape, and Chardonnay imports to the U.S. have risen 9% over the last year.

Chile’s Great Purple Hope: Now that it is no longer a ‘forgotten’ grape, is Carmenère capable of raising Chile’s profile in U.S.?

Posted on | April 1, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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Americans have grown comfortable with Chilean wines, thanks to several attributes that are rather simple to appreciate. Pre-phylloxera vines? Check. Clean, well-made varietal wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc? Check. Easy on the wallet? Check. In recent years, though, much of the buzz directed toward South American wine has been diverted to the Argentine Malbec bottlings that continue to gain shelf space and sales.

Enter Carmenère—the so-called lost grape of Chile. With a concerted effort on the part of producers and marketers to build a following for this re-discovered grape, can Carmenère rise to signature-red status for Chile, as Malbec has for Argentina?

Stranger things have happened. In fact, logic suggests that Malbec’s precedence could make Carmenère’s ascent easier today than it might have been 10 years ago. At the same time, the wines themselves are quite distinct, and it seems clear that nothing is automatic. Chilean producers are going to have to focus both on the wine style and quality as well as promotional efforts in order to make Carmenère a familiar name to American wine drinkers.

Dramatic Backstory
Perhaps the most important asset Carmenère has going for it is its simple yet dramatic history in Chile. This deep-purple grape disappeared from European vineyards in the mid-19th century and reappeared among Chile’s Merlot vines more than 100 years later. The rediscovery (confirmed via genetic testing in 1994) gives Carmenère an interesting and unique identity, which is easy to explain, regardless of depth of wine knowledge.

It sounds a bit hard to believe that an important grape could go undetected for so long, considering the attention that winegrowers in general pay to their vineyards. On the other hand, of nearly 219,000 acres of red grapes planted throughout Chile, less than 10% is actually Carmenère, and much of that was interspersed with Merlot. Moreover, Carmenère is very similar, physically, to Merlot. And to Chile’s credit, local growers were long aware of the vines’ distinctiveness; it was typically referred to as “Chilean Merlot” or “late Merlot” because it was slightly slower to ripen.

Yet the “forgotten grape” angle tells little about what the wine tastes like. Nor does it position the wine at a clear price point or even in a stylistic context that ensures traction. Attracting new fans is going to hinge not only on getting people to recognize Carmenère in its own right, but also to buy and like it enough to buy again and seek out different ones, which leads directly to the issue of: Where does Carmenère fit among other, already popular wines?

Like Malbec…But Not Really
Malbec and Carmenère are both red. Both were once prominent in France but are now bit players there. Both were brought to South America in the mid 1800s by European emigrants and have come to exemplify their respective wine industries. That is pretty much the end to their similarities.

Malbec has found its modern spiritual home in Argentina’s Mendoza region, yielding wines with plenty of red fruit, ample body, tannins and spice. There is still no consensus on a standout Carmenère region in Chile. It is not as easy to grow as Malbec and, stylistically, varietal Carmenères tend toward soft tannins and upfront herbaceous notes (revealing its genetic relation to Cabernet Franc). The difference in flavor profile is critical for consumer point of sale; Carmenère is not as overtly fruity as Malbec. Perhaps more important, being so young in terms of varietal bottlings, the wine has not developed a consistency of character.

Don Sritong has an evolving but limited inventory in his Chicago retail store—Just Grapes—where wines are grouped in categories, sometimes by style, sometimes by grape. Last year, demand led him to give Malbec its own section (with six offerings). The sole Carmenère at Just Grapes, Armador is racked under “Adventurous Reds.” He explains that customers respond positively to the story of Carmenère’s identity, and he describes the character as “like Merlot with a little more savory edge.” He deliberately chose the Armador because of its approachability, even while acknowledging the fact that it may not be the most typical Carmenère. In an ideal world, he’d be happy to show a few Carmenères, but shelf space is shelf space, and like Argentine Malbec before it, the Chilean newcomers are going to have to earn their real estate.

Producers are mindful of this potential trade-off as well. Carlos Serrano, export manager for Montes Winery, notes, “By far, Cabernet Sauvignon is the wine we produce the most of in Chile, and wines made with it have been more awarded compared with Carmenère wines.” He compares Carmenère to “a diamond, small and shining.” No doubt every producer and importer of premium Chilean wines is hoping to gain Carmenère placements without cannibalizing their current ones.

Understanding the Grape in the Vineyard
Marcelo Retamal, winemaker at Maipo-based De Martino, is credited with making the first varietally-labeled Carmenère in the 1996 vintage; and the De Martino “Alto de Piedras” single-vineyard recently was named best Carmenère in the eighth annual Wines of Chile Awards. He considers the varietal quite difficult to grow well, insisting that it needs to be situated in the right place, which he specifies as alluvial soils (as opposed to rocky) with low rainfall. At its best, Retamal explains, Carmenère produces a well-balanced wine with spice and tobacco notes and fairly soft texture, but naturally high acidity. Pitfalls when growing Carmenère are easy to stumble upon, says Retamal: planted in the wrong places, the herbaceousness can flare up, and picking too late leads to high alcohol and lower acidity, throwing off balance. Furthermore, being a thin-skinned, slow-ripening grape that is prone to coulore (failure to develop after flowering), it challenges growers to monitor carefully and pick optimally. Vintage variation is an inevitable aspect of Carmenère’s package deal.

Much viticultural research focusing on Carmenère is under way, certain to benefit both existing vineyards in terms of management and new ones in terms of location. Among the most ambitious, Casa Silva is conducting the Genoma Research Project to study 42 different phenotypes of Carmenère in a special vineyard at Casa Silva’s Los Lingues estate in the foothill of the Andes. Head winemaker Mario Geisse is working with experts from several universities and institutes to conduct the research, which will also be shared with the public once the study is completed in three to five years.

Andrés Caballero, chief winemaker for Carolina Wine Brands, summarizes an attitude of realistic optimism: “We know Carmenère has great potential in Chile, but we need more research, expertise and history. Modern winemaking started 30 years ago in Chile. We are still discovering new terroirs, accumulating knowledge, experimenting, understanding the plant’s behavior and defining the ‘Chilean’ style.”

Marketing Challenges, Opportunities
In discussing the current status of Carmenère in the U.S. with various suppliers and marketers, the most salient commonality is a sense of ramping up. Instead of zero to 60 mph, think zero to 60 selections in about 10 years. Gauging how American consumers respond will take years, not months. In fact, most industry people hold a very realistic view of the challenge ahead. Carmenère puts Chile in the unique position of being an established wine industry with a virtually brand new—and exclusive—product to utilize. Few expect it to become a star, à la Malbec, in its own right. Yet many believe that Carmenère might well function like a line extension, drawing fresh attention to Chile overall and, ideally, helping bump American perception of the Chilean wine category above the “value” line.

Clearly there is room for growth. Ed Barden, the New World portfolio manager for Banfi, importer of Concha y Toro and other Chilean brands, oversees the lion’s share of Carmenères currently available in the U.S. He cites positive growth for the varietal in the top 10 metropolitan markets, supported by a gradual increase in consumer awareness (which, he adds, is evident at consumer shows such as the Boston Wine Expo). Barden is also encouraged by the number of on-premise placements in national accounts including Capital Grille (which pours Natura by the glass), Morton’s The Steakhouse, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Legal Sea Foods, The Melting Pot and Texas de Brazil.

New York-based Schwartz Olcott Imports (SOI Wines) recently entered a long-term strategic agreement with Pelican Brands to import and manage the national sales and marketing rollout of (oops) Wines following a successful limited test market. (oops) Wines, produced at the famed Vina Undurraga winery from estate-grown grapes, is one of the oldest wineries in Chile, and produces a 100% Carmenère as well as four individual Carmenère blends with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Norman Schwartz, co-founder and chairman of SOI Wines, says that consumer craving for authentic brands puts (oops) Wines in an advantageous position.

At Palm Bay International, whose range of Chilean brands is anchored by Santa Rita, portfolio director Michael Preis feels that restaurants have been a little slower than retailers to embrace Carmenère, but expects accelerating success with Churrascaria steakhouses and Iberian/tapas restaurants with global wine programs. Palm Bay has been very pleased with the presence of its Carmenères in grocery store chains and club stores.

High Ends, and the Who-Knows Factor
It’s not surprising that producers with multiple Carmenère bottlings usually have ultra-premium offerings. Montes pioneered the category with Purple Angel starting in the 2003 vintage. Fitting right in with the winery’s other top-line bottlings—Montes Alpha M (Bordeaux-style blend) and Montes Folly (Syrah)—Purple Angel (92% Carmenère, 8% Petit Verdot) is a concentrated, serious Carmenère that sees 18 months in new French and American oak barrels.

My impression, having tasted a range of ultra-premium Carmenères, is that they are generally very well-made, favoring power more than elegance. And as a group, they have quite a challenge competing with more-established high-end reds in a crowded field and a tight economy. But these portfolio toppers demonstrate a commitment to the grape, and are bound to help gain the attention of the trade and ensure Carmenère becomes part of the Chilean wine vocabulary among Americans.

Professor Cocktail: Learning is at the core of Derek Brown’s bartending philosophy

Posted on | April 1, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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Derek Brown, who runs two disparate Washington, D.C. cocktail haunts with his brother Tom—The Passenger and Columbia Room—is known for his scholarly approach to making drinks. At Tales of the Cocktail this summer he’ll be leading a seminar, “What Would Aristotle Drink?” But, what exactly do his customers learn when he’s behind the bar?

The Beverage Network: Reservations-only Columbia Room is unique—it’s small, there are no menus and it’s built around a three-course cocktail tasting you primarily determine. What was your mission?

Derek Brown: One of the things I always lament is that it’s hard to offer the exact service and style of cocktails you want in large-scale environments. Some people do it well but to interact, pull out the drink, talk about ingredients and try different iterations, that’s something really hard to do when the bar is three-deep. Columbia Room is a very intimate experience, and we make the time to make the best cocktails and offer great service. With our focus on ingredients, some people compare it to a chef’s table.

BN: Those ingredients seem just as important to you as the bottles with your apothecary set-up.

DB: A lot of times what happens in the bar is the bottles become the focus. Instead of putting just the bottles on the back of the bar I wanted to have it comprised of the ingredients—tinctures, bitters, liqueurs. When customers ask a question about gins, I want to be able to bring down the juniper, crush it, taste it and show firsthand how these ingredients are made. The display has sparked interest.

BN: How does the evening unfold for your guests? They are truly left in the bar staff’s hands.

DB: We start with punch or a Champagne cocktail; something generally seasonal and simple. The second cocktail is changed weekly and determined by the seasons and the ingredients we’re getting in, say a Cynar Daiquri with blackstrap molasses rum, Cynar, lemon juice and cane sugar, that they enjoy with paired food. The third we discuss with the customers, based on their preferences.

BN: And what do they typically request then? Are you seeing that they’re open to new flavors?

DB: Bourbon is a popular call, but by the third cocktail they’ve had a great experience and instead of making a decision based on what they know, they are now more adventurous. Some have never had a real dry martini, so we’ll give that a try. Sometimes we’ll even introduce them to something like a caraway seed aquavit.

BN: As The Passenger has a decidedly more casual feel, do you see much crossover between the guests there and the ones at Columbia Room?

DB: Some customers who go to The Passenger don’t even know Columbia Room exists. You don’t always want to drink one way like you don’t want to eat one way. Sometimes you want a hamburger and sometimes you want a fine restaurant. My perspective is having this 10-foot bar focusing on classic and ingredient-driven cocktails is one experience, and The Passenger, which is a little more raucous and fun and where you get a can of beer, is a different one.  There are seven nights a week of drinking.

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