Green Corner: March 2012 Edition

Posted on | February 27, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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For Newton Vineyard’s fourth annual “Eco- Chic” project, the sustainable Napa Valley winery selected contemporary American designers Bruce and Stephanie Tharp of Chicago-based studio Materious to design a tabletop piece. The result is 100 hand-crafted “Puzzle” trays inspired by Newton’s vineyards and meant to complement Newton’s Unfiltered line of wines. Each piece is made from Forest Stewardship Council certified walnut wood, and retails for $499. Available at and boutiques and wine retailers nationwide this April.



New to restaurants, bars, hotels and retail stores in New York, South Florida and California is Kanon Organic Vodka. Kanon is produced by Sweden’s only EU- and U.S.-certified organic distillery. The entire wheat-to-bottle production process takes place in a three mile radius, using 100% organic wheat sourced from organic farmers and untouched well water. Kanon is then distilled in a four-column, single distillation process, with naturally occurring yeast and starch. Any refuse is reused or recycled with the bottles, which are made of recycled glass. SRP: $26


Based in the Russian River Valley, J Vineyards & Winery has achieved sustainable status through the California Sustainable Winegrowers Alliance (CSWA). This covers all vineyard and winery operations. Says John Erbe, J Vineyards & Winery viticulturalist, “Our estate vineyards have been planted utilizing the latest techniques in water conservation, wildlife habitat corridors, and soil erosion reduction.” CSWA’s program is a third-party verification and certification process, based on 227 “best practices” designed to promote environmental stewardship, energy and natural resource conservation and equitable business practices.


Miniwiz is a Taiwanese design company committed to clever design dedicated to the three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle. Re-Wine offers wine drinkers a reusable wine-carrying case, made from recyclable and partially biodegradable materials, that can be transformed into a desk lamp with the empty wine bottle or into furniture or wall building blocks. Re-Wine’s Polli-ber casing (made from post consumer PE/PET and waste fiber material) ensures the bottle doesn’t break or spill.

WineBuzz: March 2012 Edition

Posted on | February 27, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Robert Oatley’s new TIC TOK label is a tribute to his great-great-grandfather James, who was among the earliest English citizens banished to the penal colony of Sydney. Fortunately for Jim, his clockmaking talents were his ticket out; hence TIC TOK. It’s a nice story, but most important for wine lovers, this line of regional blends is delicious and distinctive—full of flavor but without being over-ripe or heavy-handed. Vivid and food-friendly, the Shiraz, Cabernet and Pinot Gris are standouts; and the entire line offers great value at SRP $12.


French wine is still complicated to many Americans, but the CDR bottling introduced by Domaine Select Wine Estates is especially user-friendly. The wine is a traditional blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault, with streamlined packaging that is thoroughly modern yet has historical roots: CDR pays homage to a 1737 royal edict mandating that all casks shipped from the region carry a “CDR” stamp of authentication. SRP: $15


After being quietly test-marketed in 2011, Kobrand has taken The Seeker wines national as of February 1. Sourced via partner wineries in iconic regions around the globe, the lineup is crafted to be authentic, easy-drinking and affordable. Fanciful flying-machine labels and case graphics strike a tone of adventurous fun, and the website makes clear that this is wine designed for sensible drinkers who want pedigree and quality with a dash of wit—but not a lot of technical data. The Seeker lineup includes: New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, California Chardonnay, French Pinot Noir, Argentine Malbec and Chilean Cabernet. SRP: $13-$14


For the last century and a half, the Marqués de Riscal winery has focused their red wine production on aged reds—the style of wine that Rioja has long been famous for. Now, a sin crianza (or “unaged”) young red joins their lineup, Próximo. Produced from the same vineyards as Riscal’s Rioja Reserva, Próximo is made with 93% Tempranillo, 5% Graciano and 2% Mazuelo. The debut 2009 vintage is a beautiful bright cherry red color, and bursts with aromas of cherries and strawberries. It is youthful and fresh, with just a hint of toast on the finish, thanks to a brief four months in old oak barrels. According to Ricky Febres, National Marketing Manager of Shaw-Ross International Importers, who represents Marqués de Riscal in the U.S. market, Próximo translates as “the next,” as in, the next expression for the winery. “Marqués de Riscal produces some of the most elegant and finest premium wines in the Rioja region,” says Febres. “Due to the global economic recession, the winery recognizes the need to offer their consumer a young/sin crianza Rioja with the same heritage and high quality of its older brothers, at an affordable price point.” It will retail for $9.99.

Brand Profile: True Blue, Blue Nun Gets a Package Upgrade

Posted on | February 24, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Blue Nun is one of the longest-lived, best known and most widely distributed wine brands in the world. Why tamper with the highly distinctive package of such a successful brand?                                                                                                                                      

“Blue Nun has maintained its position by constantly updating its appearance to remain relevant to the contemporary consumer,” explains Nick James, vice president, senior brand manager, Shaw-Ross International Importers. “The new Blue Nun label is clean and uncluttered, yet striking. It has easily recognizable links to the current Blue Nun label, but is less colorful and
more elegant.”

A look back reveals that Blue Nun has sported a number of different styles over the years. It started out in the early 1900s as a simple Liebfraumilch bottled with a plain label. Wanting to stand out from the competition, the winery later designed a label which depicted nuns gathering grapes in vineyards. Customers began asking for the wine with the blue nun in the background, so the winery wisely switched the name to Blue Nun in 1923. Over time, the number of nuns on the labels was reduced and, by 1990, only one remained. Soon after, the bottle color went from brown to blue, and in 2001 the nun was reduced in size and
again modernized.

Attracting Consumers New & Old

The current package is more modern, designed to entice younger consumers to the historic brand. “Blue Nun’s new design will appeal to the more adventurous consumer looking for a change from standard Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs,” says Tony Sapienza, the sales director of U.S. and the Caribbean. “Wine consumers in general have evolved over the years, becoming both more adventurous and more sophisticated, but at the same time looking for simplicity. While the traditional Blue Nun consumer is still important, we are going after a younger audience who enjoy fruiter styled wines. Many younger people do not associate Blue Nun with the wine their grandparents drank and enjoy it for its fresh, easy drinking style.”

But in attracting new consumers, is there a risk of alienating the tried-and-true base who have been drinking Blue Nun for decades? “This is obviously a concern, but we have a comprehensive range of POS materials designed to reassure the existing Blue Nun consumers that in spite of the label change, this is still the wine that they know and love,” Sapienza reassures. “We will also be running trade and consumer advertisements to highlight the new label.”

New Look, Same Juice—Almost

Blue Nun fans will recognize the same fruit-forward, peach- and apple-dominated flavor profile, yet the wine’s slightly more refreshing style can be attributed to a reduction in residual sugar. “One of the reasons for Blue Nun’s longevity is that the character and quality of Blue Nun has not changed significantly over the years,” says James. “But the reduction in sugar adds an attractive freshness to the wine.” Produced primarily from the Rivaner grape which combines ripe fruit characteristics with a Muscat and walnut bouquet, Blue Nun is expressive on the nose and palate.

Moscato Mosaic: Moscato Sales Have Skyrocketed, Thanks to a Whole New Group of Wine Fans

Posted on | February 24, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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As robust as the U.S. wine market has been over the past two decades, it’s hard to remember a phenomenon even closely resembling the recent trajectory of Moscato. “Ten, 15% per year, that’s growth,” says Mordy Herzog, partner/VP of Royal Wine Corp., agents for leading import brand Bartenura. “We need a new word for what’s happening to Moscato.” Lou Capitao, managing partner of Touchstone Wines, which imports Ricossa Moscato d’Asti, compares the rise of Moscato to the rise of Australian wines. “But Moscato is doing in two years what Australia did in ten,” he adds.

The numbers are stunning. For a grape considered one of the oldest in existence, and long featured in low-profile, underappreciated dessert wines, Moscato consumption has exploded since 2009. According to Nielsen data, overall Moscato sales rose over 70% in 2011 over the previous year, culminating in about $300 million in sales (compared to $100 million in 2009). And that is on top of 100% growth for the category in 2010. In fact, the research group Wine Market Council estimates that even if growth in 2012 settles down to 50%, over the course of this year Moscato is on track to leapfrog Sauvignon Blanc and White Zinfandel to become America’s sixth most popular varietal wine.

The Moscato-tization of the nation is impressing even its longtime practicioners. “Our Moscato sales have been doubling the past few years,” notes Emma Swain, CEO of St. Supéry Vineyards and Winery in Napa Valley, which has been producing Moscato since the late 1980s. “It really started taking off in 2009 in the Southeast, with St. Supéry being used in cocktails and as a luxury date night treat.” The winery recently stopped pouring Moscato in its tasting room—and put a four-bottle limit on purchases online.

For further perspective, St. Supery’s Moscatos (they make both Napa Valley estate and North Coast bottlings) represent the luxury end of the Moscato price spectrum, at $25 SRP. The bulk of the action in the Moscato arena is taking place in the $8-$15 range, and while St. Supéry is a still, fruit-forward dessert wine with balanced acids, many of the most popular brands are produced in a simple, sweet, frizzante (gently sparkling) style.

Simple Style, Wide Appeal

Indeed, one of the most amazing aspects of the Moscato story is that it is unfolding outside the parameters normally used to gauge wine categories and trends. Ratings are not driving this bus. The words terroir and Moscato rarely appear in the same article, let alone sentence. It hardly matters that there are some 30 clones of the white Muscat grape, and it grows in almost every major wine region in the world (alternatively labeled Muscat or Moscatel) and that expressions can range from still and perceptively dry to vibrantly bubbly or sticky-rich. Indeed, Moscato is a pop wine in the truest sense; its popularity is fueled by its simple, welcome taste. The aromatics and flavors present a cornucopia of easy-to-love elements, from flowers and honey to tropical, citrus, lychee, melon, apple and stone fruits (especially peach), with upfront sweetness providing an overall family resemblance. Balancing acidity, most keenly expressed in Moscato d’Asti, keeps the wine bright. Moscato is refreshingly easy to say, sip and buy. It’s a happy wine.

While it’s the pop taste that keeps people coming back, there is also no doubt that Moscato’s popularity owes a huge debt to pop culture. Hip-hop culture, to be more precise. Rappers like Drake, Ab-Soul, Kanye West and Lil’ Kim injected Moscato into their lyrics, propelling it to status as a hip-happening club drink. As Ab-Soul sings: When things get hard to swallow / We need a bottle of Moscato.

Urban clubbers represent a significant audience for Moscato, but not the only one. Interestingly, other parts of the fan base are comparable in that they are not the usual wine-drinking suspects. Speaking on behalf of Wine Market Council in January, Nielsen’s Danny Brager characterized the Moscato audience, vis à vis the typical American table wine audience, as younger, more female, non-white and lower-income. Anecdotally, many if not most are first-time wine drinkers.  

While the notion of a large, young, thirsty and previously untapped demographic market may be a marketer’s dream, Moscato’s rapid ascent has made overall analysis of the phenomenon somewhat tricky. Gallo launched its Barefoot Cellars Moscato—the largest brand in the U.S. at about $6 a bottle—way back in…2008. Growth for the California giant has been tremendous—it now has four other Moscato labels (Gallo Family Vineyards, Mirassou, Bella Serra, Naked Grape) and  holds 43% of the market share, but it is only a four-year history. Similarly, Australia’s Yellowtail and Jacob’s Creek, both influential in that country’s surging U.S. sales a decade ago, didn’t launch Moscatos until 2010. And Bronco, a perennial category leader from California, launched its two Allure bubblies just last year.

Getting a Handle on the Moscato Drinker

Hard statistics behind the success of Moscato are hard to come by, according to Trinchero Family Estates Senior Director of Marketing Wendy Nyberg: “The category grew so fast, and was never segmented out in wine category analysis. This year, we expect much more documented consumer data.” Sutter Home’s foothold in the Moscato market has been buoyed by history; it was actually the first wine produced in California by the Trincheros, reflecting the family’s Piemontese roots.

From Nyberg’s perspective, the new Moscato drinker is “urban, young, hip and online. There is a viral enthusiasm for the wine on Twitter and through pop culture.” In terms of sales, “off–premise is the growth driver for Moscato,” says Nyberg, with restaurants slow to adopt Moscato for by-the-glass programs so far. Top markets for Sutter Home include New York, Chicago, Detroit, Northern Virginia, Richmond/Norfolk and New Orleans, she notes, “making us believe Moscato is being served in more clubs.”

There is plenty of optimism that the youth factor will keep Moscato momentum strong. Nearly a third of all professed Moscato drinkers are Millennials in their 20s. Lou Capitao thinks today’s youth are unimpeded by yesterday’s perceptions, aiding in the wholesale adoption of Moscato. “In my day, we used to ‘think dry and taste sweet,’ but they don’t care. They’re much less pretentious, and just want their drink to taste good.” There are also suggestions that the American palate trends sweet and fat during economic hard times.

Affordability is a factor as well. To some degree, rappers have helped supplant Champagne (expensive) with Moscato (affordable) as the drink of choice for clubgoers. The African-American influence on the category can not be underestimated: R&B and hip-hop clubs from Houston’s Club Isis to Atlanta’s Sports Zone Bar & Grill are offering free Moscato as a draw on Ladies’ Nights. If these new consumers are hooked on the flavor profile—and the lifestyle—they could stay with Moscato a long time, the way Boomers took to White Zinfandel and later Merlot.

Demand Aside, What About Supply?

Such dramatic enthusiasm around a millennia-old grape poses serious questions for growers, producers and marketers. Demand is outstripping supply. “We have even top-grafted some Semillon over to Moscato, and are still unable to keep up with demand,” says St. Supéry’s Swain. Other producers in California are reportedly securing bulk grapes from across Northern Italy, or sourcing from Chile.

But how to meet long-term demand, and is it worth it? California is answering a tentative “yes” by stepping up plantings, but not by much. In 2005/’06, the state as a whole planted an additional 380 acres of Muscat of Alexandria over the existing 2,785, then stagnated. In 2008/’09, another 218 acres were planted.

In Italy, new plantings are mostly happening outside the most critically acclaimed source of the sweet stuff, namely the Moscato d’Asti DOCG. “I am worried,” says Enore Ceola, managing director at Mionetto USA. While better known for Proseccos, Ceola says Mionetto has marketed Moscato 10 years (it currently has the “IL” Moscato and Moscato Dolce expressions), witnessing 80 to 90% growth in the past two years. “We’re seeing the category become crowded; everyone wants to be in the game. But quality is always the most important thing.” With broad expansion of entry-level products and producers scrambling to meet demand, Ceola says, “It would be a pity if quality dropped. A good Moscato is a great option for younger drinkers and people who like sweet wines, but they stop paying for it if the quality goes down.”

Because the word “Moscato” refers to the grape, anyone can make a Moscato anywhere, blend and ferment it how they like. While Italy immediately comes to mind, France, California, Australia, South Africa and Chile are all players. (There is even a sparkling rosé Moscato from Moldova—Exclusiv, SRP $9.99.)

There are bound to be some internal debates in coming months, not only on sourcing, but also on stylistic variations. Some larger suppliers are extending their Moscato bottlings (still/sparkling/white/pink), but who knows which format will click best? Australian brand Jacob’s Creek has multiple variations, and parent company Pernod Ricard has even come out with a whole new sparkling pink brand, ZED. Perhaps they are hedging their bets, ready to ramp up whichever style takes off. Meanwhile, Jacob’s Creek chief winemaker Bernard Hickin says, “There is a trend upwards at the moment for still Moscato that is more fruit driven and fresh, fresh, fresh.”

It’s hard to argue with fresh and sweet as a delicious and popular combination.

What’s Next  for the Big M?

Moscato’s breadth of bottlings, novel demographics and not-too-serious orientation suggest a wide range of developments to keep an eye on.

New Shapes, Sizes & Looks.

As brands jockey for shelf share, expect a variety of physical variations to reach the market. Examples include Voga’s signature cylindrical bottle; a frosted white, longneck bottle from German producer Schmitt Sohne’s “fünf” brand; and Bandit in a 1L Tetra-Pak carton. Opici’s Villa Rosa is getting a makeover this spring. Similarly, Bartenura took advantage of a two-month sell-out of its first sparkling pink Moscato to revamp its package and bolster supply (they are making ten times as much under the new design). With bottle sales in lounges and clubs on the rise, we can expect more upscale looks; the curvaceous blue-glass Maschio “PM” is a new frizzante from Banfi, slated for spring release in Atlanta and Detroit. More 187mls and 1.5Ls should crop up, but not 3L bag-in-boxes; bubbly examples will remain in 750ml size, with cork and synthetic closures common. Alice White Lexia Moscato from Australia is available in 500ml cartons; Innocent Bystander, also from Australia, offers a sparkling pink version sealed with a crown cap.

Line & Portfolio Extensions.

An already familiar pattern is larger producers adding Moscato to existing varietal lines and broad-shouldered importers stocking several different labels in their portfolio. For example, Bronco has added Moscatos to its White Truck, Crane Lake, Forest Glen, Coastal Ridge and Motos Liberty labels, and Trinchero Family Estates has just complemented its flagship Sutter Home with a Moscato under Ménage à Trois. Beringer has white, pink and red Moscatos in the portfolio now. Several suppliers, such as Santero, have successfully offered multiple sparkling versions. Palm Bay has Moscato well covered with Cavit, Cinzano Asti, Petalo and Mondoro. Aveníu has not only Santini, but also Umberto Fiore, Belmondo and Voga from Italy and Two Oceans from South Africa.

What may prove very interesting is to see more extensions coming from Italy—both from Asti and beyond. Ruffino recently launched a Moscato d’Asti, priced competitively at $15. Kobrand has extended its own-label Caposaldo brand with a Moscato from Lombardy. Cupcake, while not known as an Italian brand at all, nonetheless has brought two bubbly northern Italian Moscatos to market, one from Asti, one sourced from other vineyards in Piedmont. Winebow extended its Stella line, sourcing Moscato from Sicily. Vision Wine & Spirits’ Montefiore, in response to demand, is complementing its $15 Moscato d’Asti with three $9.99 extensions: a mostly-Moscato “Sweet White” from Piedmont, a Moscato from Puglia and a new pink Moscato delle Venezie due in May.

Not everyone is expanding offerings, however; Cape Classics’ South African brand Jam Jar is a sticking with the formula for success of its wildly popular Sweet Shiraz, and has no plans to bottle more than one (first vintage 2011), which has quickly established itself a leading still Moscato at around $10.

Blends, Hybrids & Cocktails.

Why not? Moscato lovers have already demonstrated that they are not very tradition-minded, so novelty alone should not be a hurdle in the Moscato arena. Conundrum is a classic California example where Muscat adds distinct floral notes to a blend; others include Big House White, Seven Daughters, Amberhill “Secret Blend” and Sokol-Blosser “Evolution” (Oregon). Riunite D’Oro combines Moscato and Trebbiano, both sourced from Puglia. A new release from France, Gérard Bertrand “Muscato,” is half Muscat of Alexandria and Small-Grain Muscat, creating a $15 table wine that expresses itself more as fresh and fruity than sweet. Arbor Mist’s Mango Strawberry Moscato might make a collector cringe, but Moscato-teers are certain to grin and grab it. And Quintessential wine’s new pink frizzante import, “Mochetto”—with 10% red Brachetto enhancing 90% Moscato—breaks delicious new ground at $16.99. Torres “Esmeralda” partners 85% Moscatel with 15% Gewürztraminer. Perhaps the biggest wild card that could be in Moscato’s future is what happens at nightclub bars; one cocktail that has already earned a name is the Baroc, a 4:1 combo of Bartenura Moscato and Ciroc Vodka.

Bigger Bite for Sweet Tooths?

Maybe the sweetest question of all is whether Moscato’s popularity will lend its halo to other sweet wines. Perhaps fans of the light, fizzy style will tilt toward richness. If so, candidates in line to benefit include Australian “stickies” (e.g., Chambers, Yalumba) or traditional French AOC Muscats such as Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (e.g., Jaboulet); Muscat de St. Jean de Minervois (e.g., Les Petits Grains) and Muscat de Rivesaltes (e.g., Château de Jau). Demi-Sec Vouvrays and off-dry Rieslings certainly fit the flavor profile, but still carry reputations of consumer confusion. Then, of course, there are sweet reds, a blossoming category that is already showing signs of Moscato-like explosiveness. And because sweet reds—unlike Moscato—can be created from various grapes, that prospect in particular has many suppliers salivating. 

Changing Attitudes About Long Island — One Glass at a Time

Posted on | February 24, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Juliette Pope, beverage director at Gramercy Tavern

In New York, “Eating Local” isn’t a movement anymore—it’s what’s for dinner. It’s impossible to keep track of how many fine dining restaurants proudly announce the stone’s-throw sources for the seafood, produce and meat they serve. But on the whole, Long Island wines, which are made just 90 miles east of the city—well within the average locavore’s 100-mile limit—have struggled to make a similar impact.

Fortunately, Long Island wines are being poured fruitfully at some of the city’s top restaurants, like Bar Boulud, Blue Smoke, Colicchio & Sons, Craft, Gramercy Tavern, La Bernardin, L’Ecole and Porterhouse.

To them, serving local wine with local food just makes sense. Or as Colichio & Sons’ Thomas Pastuszak, puts it: “With a focus on local ingredients on the menu, I wanted to be sure we represented the same way on the wine list.” Similarly, Juliette Pope, beverage director at Gramercy Tavern says, “Long Island is truly our backyard and deserves some extra consideration for that reason. I feel that all of us—restaurants and wineries—are essentially one community, growing and crafting and serving food and beverage to interested diners and drinkers. Mutual support is important to all of our success and impact.”

Gramercy Tavern has placed local wines on its list since it opened 17 years ago. Pope has seen a change in how customers are reacting to them. “There used to be much more skepticism about Long Island wines, mostly from Californians and from native Long Islanders actually,” she says. “Our guests have come around quite a bit over the last 10 years to be sure. Many ask for Long Island wines at this point.”

What has helped local wines make these inroads? Pouring them by the glass. The same customer who scoffs at the $80 bottle of Long Island Merlot might be willing to try a glass of it for $15. Two of Pope’s current glass pours at Gramercy Tavern are Channing Daughters Mudd Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc and McCall Wines Merlot. She also regularly pours Paumanok Vineyards Chenin Blanc, Lieb Family Cellars Blanc de Blancs, Anthony Nappa Wines Anomaly (a white Pinot Noir) and Shinn Estate Vineyards Brut. “Serving them [Long island wines by the glass] and luring drinkers in that way is vital. A glass of delicious local wine is an excellent introduction to what this region has to offer for a minimal pricetag risk for the guest,” Pope explains. That means that buyers needn’t worry as much about local bottles languishing on the list or in the cellar for years without being ordered.

“Many guests who have been drinking wine for years, and have lived in New York City for their entire lives, have never had a chance to try Long Island wines. They are most often shocked at the quality level of the wines, surprised at how fantastic the wines are. It gives me such a rush to be able to taste a guest on a fantastic Long Island wine and have it be their first exposure to the local wine region,” adds Pastuszak, who is currently pouring Lenz Winery 2005 Cuvee and Lieb Family Cellars 2009 Pinot Blanc by the glass.

He’s also quick to point out that pouring Long Island wines by the glass isn’t just about pushing local wines. It’s not charity or a political statement. It speaks to how good the wines can be. “Cool-climate regions like Long Island make extraordinary, food-friendly wines with great acid and tannin levels to complement food.”

Consumers Pay More For Tongue-Twisting Wines

Posted on | February 24, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Wine tastes better if a winery is difficult to pronounce, according to new research.

In a study by Brock University professor, Dr Antonia Mantonakis, it found English-speaking wine consumers were more likely to buy wine from a winery with a difficult-to-pronounce name.

Participants also rated wine more highly in a blind tasting, and were prepared to pay more money for the same wine, if it had a name that was difficult to say in English.

Dr Mantonakis said: ”Wines associated with more difficult-to-pronounce names are associated with higher ratings.

‘Things that are difficult to pronounce are unfamiliar because they are usually rare,’ she added.

‘Perception of tastes are different if they are associated with a more disfluent winery name and that result is especially pronounced for high wine-knowledge participants.’

Mantonakis admitted the laboratory findings might not be reflected in wine purchases. ‘Whether these results would replicate in a more natural setting is something that we don’t know.’

Source: Decanter

by Rebecca Gibb

February 22, 2012

Port Tries to Turn the Corner: Tawnies Lead Comeback Effort, As the Category Continues to Evolve

Posted on | February 24, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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When your business hasn’t been going that great, even a modest 3.2% uptick in sales growth can look awfully good. At least that’s the thinking these days in the tradition-laden Douro Valley of Portugal, where the last few years, while not the worst of times, have certainly been quite lean.

Production of its primary product—Port—has had a substantial drop-off of about 11% between 2005 and 2010. Big-volume markets such as France, Holland and Belgium have softened considerably. At the same time, sales to the United States, a reliable but smaller consumer market, has seen a steady decline of more than 10.2% during the same period.

But now, the Port industry sees signs that this decline may have bottomed out. “Port sales to the United States and Canada have started to boom again,” says Rupert Symington, whose family owns one of the two largest portfolios of Port brands. “Sales of all Port to the U.S. were up last year. But, then, that’s after we’ve had a few bad years.”

The unanswered question, of course, is whether this one-year increase represents a market correction, such as restocking of inventory, or the leading edge of growth in real demand. “Sales of all Port to the U.S. were up last year. But, then, that’s after we’ve had a few bad years.” The good news as of now is: the better the Port, the better the numbers. IVDP figures on total exports, by market, for 2011, show United States sales up 8% and the premium Port category up 15%; making the United the second largest premium market (232,000 cases) after the United Kingdom (527,000 cases).

Either way—market blip or economic trend—everyone agrees that the Port business continues its path through an evolution, both in the relative importance of each product category in its overall market basket and in the ways customers are buying and enjoying Port products.

For example, even though Vintage Port—the region’s highest-priced and most pedigreed product—is currently seeing good sales response to its stellar 2009 vintage, the category continues to decline in importance relative to other Ports, in part because it is a forceful and tannic product at release that requires several years of cellaring for optimal enjoyment. Today, Vintage sales by volume are only about 3% of total Port sales, being superseded in importance by another quality category that, while less pricey than vintage, still fetches a considerable sum: Tawnies.

Frank Pagilaro of Frank’s Wine Mart in Wilmington, DE, says that he has in inventory 92 different bottlings of Port dating back to a 1970 Dow’s, but “Tawny outsells vintage by at least three times, mainly due to price. Factor in LBVs (Late Bottled Vintage Ports) and Rubies with those Tawnies, and I’d say that Vintage is about one tenth of my Port sales.”

Tawny Time (On-Premise Too)

“The consumer interest is coming from the aged Tawny category that in 2011 grew 7% and, over the last 10 years, by 41%,” agrees Robert Bower of the Fladgate Partnership, the other major producer of quality Port brands. “We would sell 3,000 to 4,000 cases 10 to 20 years ago,” Symington adds, “but now we sell around 20,000 cases.”

Part of this Tawny demand in the U.S. has come from the cultivation of on-premise or restaurant and bar sales. Port-by-the-glass programs favor the ready-to-drink, cask-mellowed Tawnies, whether they are 10, 20, or 30 years old.

Sandy Block, beverage director for the Legal Seafood chain of restaurants, says that only one of his eateries carries Vintage Port, primarily to sell by the bottle at large dinners. By contrast, all of his restaurants sell Tawny by the glass on their dessert menus, he says, “and we have popular tasting flights of 10-, 20- and 30-year Tawnies.”

Some U.S. restaurants and bars have been experimenting with Port-based cocktails, brought on in part by the introduction by Fladgate Partnership in 2009 of the first Rosé Port—Croft Pink. As the after-dinner drink market declines, due in part to stricter drunk driving laws, Port has tried to follow Cognac’s similar move to being a before-dinner mixed drink.

And there are other emerging categories, as well. “Apart from the Rosé or light Ruby style, which is becoming increasingly popular, the whites can now be found as a special category section,” says Louisa Fry of the Instituto do Vinho do Porto or IVDP. Those include “reserve white,” “aged white” and “colheita.”

Additionally, Port has continued to heavily promote its drinks in the U.S., both by individual companies and by the IVDP, which has a variety of co-promotion activities sponsored in conjunction with the Center for Wine Origins. Most of the activities feature wine education programs for trade professionals.

The Fladgate Partnership, whose brands are Taylor Fladgate, Croft and Fonseca, has been working to expand its U.S. lead in entry-level Ports with its flagship Fonseca Bin 27, according to Bower.

For its part, Symington (Warre’s, Dow’s, Graham’s, Smith Woodhouse, Quinta do Vesuvio) recently added Cockburn’s to its portfolio and is giving special attention to refreshing the brand, according to Rupert Symington. Additionally, the Symington company—unlike the Fladgate Partnership—has for the past several years expanded into the growing Douro table wines markets, which are not considered a part of Port production.

Symington, who partners with Bordeaux’s Bruno Prats in Chryseia and some other Douro table wines, often uses the same grapes picked from its prized Port estates or quintas, such as Vesuvio, in the production of both Port and table wines. Industry restrictions on Port production make this alternative especially attractive.

Finally, Port is finally taking agritourism quite seriously, both as a revenue generator in itself and as a way to promote Port overall. Of all of the world’s major wine regions, Port and the Douro Valley outside of Oporto city are famously picturesque but also among the most isolated by geography—it’s not easy to get there.

The relative lack of travel and hospitality infrastructure has begun to change. The region takes pride in the upper Douro being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, and in its membership in the international promotional organization called Great Wine Capitals. Although train travel up the Douro is basic but generally reliable, and travel by cruise boat is becoming more popular, getting up river by car involves driving along precipitous, winding, two-lane mountain roads. “We are building a new highway,” Symington points out, although the economic climate has forced delays.

In Oporto itself, the talk of the town is the Fladgate Partnership’s new luxury Yeatman Hotel, nestled amid the Port aging and blending warehouses of Vila Nova de Gaia on the south side of the Douro with great views of the city across the river.

Of course, Port is not the only wine category to face hard times during the current worldwide recession or the only one to go through historic cycles of boom and burst. Champagne regularly experiences such fluctuations. And sommeliers and retailers are both wondering if the high-end cult wine sales will ever reach pre-recession levels. Add Australia, which has practically fallen off the map but is charting its return.

So Port is happy for its modest increase and has programs in place to build on it. For the moment, it will welcome its 3.2% increase.

Know The Law: When Does a Good Become a Gift?

Posted on | February 24, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Extra caution is in order when cooperating with suppliers on store promotions and placements.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (“TTB”) recently concluded a series of investigations which resulted in charges against members of the supplier tier. In each of these investigations the supplier participated in a retailer-initiated program in which the retailer agreed to give the industry member the most sought-after shelf or display space in exchange for items of value.

Although, as most industry members know, it is a violation of federal law and New York State law for a supplier to provide a retailer with gifts or services, the Code of Federal Regulations (and New York State regulations) contain a list of exceptions. These exceptions include signs, displays costing less than $300 per brand, as well as certain point of sale advertising material.

A national retailer developed a promotional program and offered to give the suppliers preferential shelf and display space in all of its retail locations in exchange for their participation in the program. The suppliers agreed to participate by furnishing the retail licensee with display and advertising material qualifying for the gift and service exceptions.

When the TTB brought charges against the suppliers for participating in the retailer’s program, the suppliers argued that furnishing retailers with items of value that come within gift or service exceptions could not constitute an unlawful inducement under any circumstance. They believed that if the items of value supplied to retailers came within the exceptions enumerated in the regulations and did not exceed the authorized values, they were sailing within the “safe harbor.” The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau disagreed. In essence, the TTB told them: “You cannot use the exceptions to circumvent the intent of the statute.”

Without admitting any wrongdoing, the suppliers paid substantial fines to settle the charges. In order to avoid further misunderstandings, the TTB issued industry circular 2012-01 on January 11, 2012, to provide guidance on tied-house issues.

New Circular Deserves Attention

Because retail licensees generally do not come under the jurisdiction of the TTB, the new circular is directed at wholesalers and suppliers. However, the TTB warnings are also applicable under New York law; and in New York a violation of the tied-house rules results in charges against retailers as well as suppliers and wholesalers. Any retailer who participates in an illegal gift or service program puts his/her license at risk.

The new industry circular warns industry members: “Industry members may not use allowable exceptions as a subterfuge to violate some other provision of the tied-house law or regulations.”

In other words, the TTB believes that it violates federal law for an industry member to give an otherwise allowable gift or service in exchange for the retailer’s promise to purchase the industry member’s product instead of the product of a competitor or to grant the industry member’s products preferential shelf or display space.

A supplier or wholesaler may suggest that a retailer will benefit by placing its displays and products in a specific location, but may not trade the advertising material or condition it upon a promise, expressed or implied, that the retailer will provide the brand with preferential placement.

While the industry member is not permitted to condition its advertisements on promises of future business, in determining the quantity of Subpart D items furnished to a retailer, the Industry Member may take into consideration:

  • The amount of product previously purchased by the retailer
  • A reasonable expectation of new product purchases
  • The seasonal nature of the product
  • Expected changes in market conditions, or
  • The anticipated amount of product to be purchased by a new retail account.

In the new circular, the TTB warns industry members not to give retailers promotional support funds either directly or indirectly. Thus, while a wholesaler or supplier is permitted to use a thirdparty promotional company it would be a violation to use a company related to a retailer. Similarly it would violate law and regulations to require the retailer to return or repay the value of items given to it, because the retailer did not purchase a sufficient quantity of a product.

Although the circular reiterates and explains the rules, the real takeaway is that the exceptions listed in the federal regulations will not protect an industry member if they are used as part of an overall plan to evade the tied-house rules.

Five Women in Wine Observe On-Premise Trends

Posted on | February 23, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Pascaline Lepeltier, New York, NY

In the everyday battle by the wine trade to pinpoint consumer desires, the sommelier is the person on the front lines, answering questions and satisfying tastes every week. Who better to ask about on-premise trends? But more and more often, the person on the front lines is a woman.


National statistics on the increasing number of female sommeliers are scant, but female enrollment in the Court of Master Sommeliers’ advanced course has risen to 30% or more for the past three years, up from 17% in 2003.

As the restaurant wine professional becomes more user-friendly and less stuffy (indeed, fewer and fewer are even called sommeliers), women are finding their place as sensitive, perceptive savants who bring differently tuned senses of smell and taste to dining.

We asked five prominent young “sommelières” for their observations on what their guests are asking for.  

Finding New Flavors

Jill Zimorski, Frederick, MD

Sommeliers around the country, at every level of dining, agree that consumer curiosity about wine is on the rise. Jill Zimorski, sommelier and wine director at Bryan Voltaggio’s seasonal fine-dining restaurant Volt, in Frederick, MD, attributes her guests’ desire to try new wines in part to the fact that she has “more access to more, different and better wines than ever before.”

She also sees guests using smartphones to find out more about wine, and laughs that this keeps the staff on their toes: “We have to know what we’re talking about.” And, Zimorski’s guests care less about wine scores than in the past. They’re showing a greater interest in letting wine speak for itself, which she believes many somms are applauding.

At Rouge Tomate, in midtown Manhattan, wine director Pascaline Lepeltier reports that diners in the age group 22 to 35, especially, are “super curious.” People are trying new grapes like Trousseau and Carignan, she observes. “I have a wine from Georgia on the list and I can sell it.”

At the more conservative Crown, on the city’s Upper East Side, wine director Jordan Salcito, who also appears on the PBS television show Vine Talk and as Rachael Ray’s “wine buddy” on eHow, finds that diners like to take small steps into the unknown. She has an “off the beaten path” section on the Crown wine list, but says it helps if some element of a wine is familiar. For example, people will try the Heitz Grignolino on the strength of the Heitz name.

Economy Spurs New Discoveries

Jordan Salcito, New York, NY

Any trend toward adventurous ordering may reflect a greater caution about wine price, even on dining’s high end. Lepeltier reports that her guests are looking for value: “The more famous wines are just too expensive.” She hears what guests wish they could have, and is able to direct them to something similar, often something new or more interesting

Even at Crown, which Salcito feels is “a bubble,” guests are looking for the great producers’ second wines or “less hallowed” sites instead of the first-growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundies they ordered before 2Preview008.

Tailoring the Wine Experience

The new consumer curiosity seems to breed a greater comfort with sommelier recommendations and a desire to personalize the restaurant wine experience. Tara Gano is sommelier at Pizzaria Mozza (brought to us by Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich) in Los Angeles, and plans to open her own restaurant this year. Of her reception at the casual pizzaria, Gano says, “I find in general that [people are] relieved—they like individual attention to find what they like.”

June Rodil, beverage director at Congress and the more casual Second Bar + Kitchen, in Austin, TX, notices that more and more, on the fine dining side, guests want to pair their wine with their food rather than simply ordering a wine they like. Congress’s tasting menu with pairings is very popular, but aside from that, she says, “The first thing they’re asking me is, ‘This is what I’m eating today—what wine should I have?’” Rodil fields many requests that aren’t on the wine list but often will make a point of tasting those wines, and sometimes add them to the list. She maintains a database of guest preferences to further tailor the wine experience.

Shades of Green

The green and local movements are propelling a growing roster of new products and services around the country, but in on-premise wine, green may still be a niche movement, inspiring strong allegiances—or none at all.

June Rodil, Austin, TX

Rouge Tomate is unique as a destination in that its farm-to-table cuisine is deliberately complemented by sustainable, organic and Biodynamic wines. Lepeltier includes each wine’s status on the list, and passionately believes in the “ecological, political and social choice” represented by these wines, the chance to promote diversity. An increased interest in sustainable and organic is the biggest trend Lepeltier notices at Rouge Tomate, since only a few years ago when organic wine still had a bad image because of quality issues. Eating locally also aligns with the restaurant’s purpose, and Lepeltier lists some 25 New York State wines.

Perhaps more typically, Rodil, in Austin, finds that guests in the casual restaurant, Second Bar + Kitchen, want green, but don’t necessarily distinguish between types of green. Many guests ask for Texas wines, but more out of regional pride or curiosity than a desire to eat and drink local.

The other somms surveyed cited very little guest interest in sustainable and organic wine.

Avoiding Sweets

Off-dry wines may be a growing trend in retail, but it’s one that doesn’t bear out with on-premise consumers, in spite of sommeliers’ best efforts. Lepeltier, for one, wishes guests would recognize that a little residual sugar (RS) can be great with certain foods, but Vouvray, Riesling—it doesn’t matter, they’re hard to sell. She mentions the Montinore Müller-Thurgau from Oregon on her list, which has, “maybe, 5% RS—but when people hear about it, they don’t want the sweetness.”

Zimorski doesn’t get a lot of requests for off-dry wines, either, but she’s hoping to get on board with Paul Grieco’s “Summer of Riesling” as it spreads beyond New York City. Having historically played a part in making the whole notion of “sweet” table wine unfashionable, perhaps Riesling can now stand for all that is good on both sides of the RS fence.

Somm Wisdom

Tara Gano, Los Angeles, CA

With trust in the sommelier on the upswing, somms may have the chance to create their own trends, revealing their secrets to a more receptive public. Given the power to influence the public palate, Salcito gives a broad call-out for terroir, or “wines that embody a sense of place,” and Lepeltier is already spreading the word about the advantages of sustainable and organic wines.

Both Rodil and Zimorski wish Champagne with dinner would take hold. When Rodil suggests this, “[people] look at me like I’m crazy”—consumers still think of it as an aperitif or a splurge for celebrations.

The rosé category may be more accessible, and Zimorski plans to add a number of rosés to her list this spring. She sees an end to the need to explain rosé’s bad rep (in terms of the wicked White Zin), and she hopes to help guests see how versatile it is for pairing. Gano sells lots of crisp, dry whites on her all-Italian list at Pizzaria Mozza and would weight it toward Ligurian wines if she could indulge her preferences.

Ideally, in the fine balance between pleasing consumer tastes and flexing the sommelier’s expertise, the common goal is for guests to leave satiated, with a sense of having discovered a greater knowledge of their own tastes.

Roll Out the Barrel Aged Cocktail: Hands-On Innovation is Catching On at the Bar

Posted on | February 23, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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For the cocktail geek, barrel-aged cocktails are one of the most interesting developments of the 21st century.
For the bar owner, barrel-aged cocktails are an opportunity to grab some hip cachet and pull in extra customers. And off-premise sellers should keep an eye on this trend, because pre-made versions are already available in bottles.

Barrel-aged cocktails are “a big part of our business,” says Shawn Vergara, owner of Blackbird in San Francisco. “We get a lot of people who like to come in and try these: industry people and cocktail enthusiasts.” Blackbird is a two-year-old bar in a city well known for its food and drinks scene. It serves no food, but the barrel-aged cocktail program put it on the map.

When a barrel-aged cocktail is good, it’s like nothing your best bartender can immediately whip up. The spirits have melded together over a period of weeks, yielding a seamlessly smooth drink. Depending on the type of wood used, it might also have interesting accents from the barrel.

Carin Galletta Oliver, president of the word-of-mouth marketing agency Ink Foundry, says having such cocktails as a signature item is a good way to impress. “When consumers come into a restaurant and bar, they want something new and they want some sort of ‘wow’ experience,” says Oliver, whose clients include Outback Steakhouse and California Pizza Kitchen. “A barrel-aged cocktail is something people want to go home and tell their friends about.”

However, there’s a reason barrel-aged cocktails are still found at only a few bars around the country: they take some investment, both in time and money. And if you find out after six weeks (or more) that you don’t like what you made, you have to either sell it anyway or, better, eat the losses. That’s why Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the bartender who imported the trend from London and now manages the bar at Clyde Common in Portland, says in an instructional video for Hudson Whiskey: “Start small.”

A barrel-aged cocktail program like Blackbird’s can be elaborate: the bar does three or four cocktails at a time with different types of aging vessels. But even a single barrel-aged cocktail—perhaps a classic like a Manhattan or Negroni—can get attention.

You can try the concept by sampling High West’s “36th Vote” Barreled Manhattan, made with the Utah distillery’s rye, sweet vermouth and bitters. It’s a steep $57, but it is delicious, with a softer profile and longer finish than you’d expect from a 74 proof drink. But if you’re in the bar business, you’re going to want to make your own.

Nick & Toni’s Café in Manhattan has been doing a barrel-aged Negroni for about a year. Assistant General Manager Richard Scoffier found inspiration on his honeymoon in the Finger Lakes, and uses Seneca Drums Gin as the base. “It took a while to catch on last year,” he says, “but then it sold out quickly at the end of the summer so we had a bit of a gap where we were out of it this fall. It’s a steady seller and I’m getting ready to put my third batch in the barrel now.” Promotion of the cocktail is low-key: “When someone asks for a Negroni we tell them we’ve got a house version. Other people are just intrigued about the barrel aging and want to give it a shot.”

Getting on the Barrel Bandwagon

A few months ago, this story might have said, “The first thing you need is the barrel.” Tuthilltown Spirits in New York, which makes Hudson Whiskey, is the main company selling the small new barrels used to make these drinks. A 5-liter barrel is $96 before shipping. You can and should use the barrel more than once, but it is a startup cost.

However, now there’s an even cheaper way. Blackbird has begun aging cocktails in glass barrels with oak staves, ironically the exact same way that the wine industry saves money on barrels.

“We wanted to offer a lower price,” Vergara says. “A $10 cocktail moves a lot better than a $12 cocktail. If we can use products that allow us to keep the price down to $10, that helps.”

The ingredients list is important. Avoid anything that isn’t spirits-based, such as juices, because they can go cloudy or even spoil. Fortified wine products like Vermouth and Sherry will work, but avoid unfortified wines or beer. Vergara now avoids organic liquors, which may not have the same preservatives. “We used one product that was organic, an organic cordial, and it fell out of the solution,” he recalls.

Consider using white liquors instead of those already aged in wood, so you avoid double-oaking. But before you reach for the vodka, consider this: the cocktail enthusiast tends to favor whiskey-based drinks. Solve this by using unaged “white dog” whiskies.

Make sure to prime the barrel first by filling with water and draining. You can pour the ingredients right into the barrel and stir. There’s no set time for the cocktail to be ready. Morgenthaler suggests you begin tasting it after six weeks, and often after that until you like the results.

At that point it’s important to empty the barrel into a glass vessel so the cocktail won’t absorb any more wood. Morgenthaler suggests leaving some of it behind as an experiment, so you can see if you would have liked it a week or two “woodier.” Filter the drink through a cheesecloth to remove stray bits of wood.

Recipes from Blackbird

Bonnie and Clyde
4 parts High West Silver Whiskey
1 part Dolin Blanc Vermouth
1 part J. Witty Chamomile Liqueur
0.1 parts Bar Code Baked Apple Bitters

El Cumbre del Monte
5 parts Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
5 parts Luna Azul Silver Tequila
2 parts Martini & Rossi Rosato Vermouth
1 part Apricot Liqueur
0.2 parts Peach Bitters
0.1 parts Peychaud’s Bitters

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