How Sweet It Is

Posted on | May 31, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Americans’ Tendency to ‘Talk Dry but Drink Sweet’ Continues to Evolve, Making Sweet Reds the Hottest Category of the Moment.

Just a couple of years ago, sweet red wine inhabited the same place in the wine world that it had always inhabited—on the retailer’s bottom shelf, in the same purgatory with the big jugs and five-liter boxes.

So what happened in the past 18 months? Why is sweet red wine perhaps the hottest category in the wine business, with more oomph than even Moscato? Why are some of the biggest producers in the world investing in a category that was once, not all that long ago, mostly known for its Kosher wines?

No one really knows. As a category, sweet red is so new that most of the major sales tracking consultancies don’t know that they’re tracking all of it. The category is still such a puzzle that it includes wines that are labeled as sweet and wines that are labeled as red blends, as well as wines with residual sugar as high as 9% and as low as 1.5%. Hence, sales figures must be interpreted with those caveats.

The one thing that everyone does know? That sweet reds are selling, and in numbers that never seemed possible. Sales, says Nielsen, grew at triple-digit paces for a string of 13-week periods in the first quarter in 2012, outpacing Moscato during the same period. E.&J. Gallo’s Apothic (one of the smooth, juicy blends that is not technically sweet, nor is labeled as such) was one of the best-sellers in the U.S. in the $8-$13 category in 2011, while Beringer—which knows a thing or two about sweet wine—expects to sell one-half million cases of its Red Moscato this year.

Breaking the Rules

Sweet red has long been a pariah in the U.S. wine business. One respected winemaker, hardly a traditionalist himself, was asked about sweet red wine, and he just rolled his eyes. Even at the end of last year, when sweet red was recording serious sales numbers, one well-known wine critic dismissed the category because it wasn’t important enough to warrant his consideration.

That perspective is changing quickly. Nielsen data found that sweet red grew 172.5% in the 13 weeks ending Jan. 7th, and 148.3% in the 13 weeks ending March 3rd.


Christian Miller of Full Glass Research, whose company has started researching the trend, believes that there are a variety of reasons why this is happening now, including luck. “Wine is hip and red wine is popular,” he notes, “and these wines are hitting the market at the right time to take advantage of that.”

Dig deeper, say the experts, and sweet reds seem to benefit from:

  • Strong merchandising muscle that ensures wide distribution for near-sweet red brands that have been successful, like Ménage à Trois Red from Trinchero, Apothic Red from Gallo, and Cupcake Red Velvet from The Wine Group, says Miller. These wines are also priced in the very popular $8-$15 range, which doesn’t hurt either.
  • Long-term trending toward greater experimentalism by wine consumers, who are increasingly less afraid to try something different. “The stigma around sweet wine has been blown up,” says Bavaresco, who directs brand development for VinMotion Wines, the company that makes Pacific Rim Riesling and which will introduce the Sweet Bliss line, including a sweet red, later this year. “There isn’t a shroud of pretension over the category.”
  • Groundwork done by regional wine, which has been successfully selling sweet red for years, says wine blogger Jeff Lefevere, who has written extensively about the subject. “I think the big boys saw the success in regional wine, and also viewed it as a competitive threat,” he says. Regional producers like Oliver in Indiana, St. James in Missouri, St. Julian in Michigan, Hazlitt in New York, and Duplin in North Carolina have sold hundreds of thousands of cases of sweet red, and their products regularly show up in sales tracking data in their home states.
  • Greater flexibility for grape sourcing at a time when grape prices are increasing, and supply—especially in California—is falling behind demand. Sweet red wine is relatively easy to make and can be made with almost any red grapes (along with white grapes, for that matter). This is in contrast to a varietal wine like Moscato, which is in tightening supply. It’s also probably not a coincidence that the USDA reported that prices for California table grapes increased 26% in 2011; most California wine is sweetened with grape juice concentrate, since it’s illegal to use sugar.

Sizing Up the Sweet Red Customer

Another area of confusion? No one is quite sure who is drinking sweet reds. Some sales data suggests that sweet red consumers are women, beginning wine drinkers and Millennials. “Why is everyone so surprised that Millennials, who drink Coke for breakfast, would want to drink sweet wine?” says Barry Sheridan, vice president of marketing for Treasury Wine Estates, which  owns Beringer.

Fred Franzia, owner of Bronco Wine Co., agrees that the new generation of wine drinkers is content to view wine as an extension of Pepsi or Coke; in fact, he believes, many welcome the carbonation in their wine. Similarly, those who prefer table wines are turned off by sourness and tannins typically associated with red wine; they are looking for a soft texture in reds.

Facebook information from Pacific Rim, says Bavaresco, identifies its sweet wine drinkers as overwhelmingly women but not necessarily as Millennials. The people who are fans of Pacific Rim seem be evenly split between the three age groups between 25 and 54.

Confusing the issue even more is that Nielsen figures point to a sweet red drinker who is 45-54 and not only more Hispanic than the typical wine drinker, but more Hispanic than the general U.S. population.

Also unclear, says Full Glass Research’s Miller, is why consumers are buying sweet red wines. The assumption is that sweet wines match the U.S. consumer palate, which has traditionally been about talking dry and drinking sweet. So it’s not surprising that Bavaresco says Pacific Rim’s sweetest Riesling accounted for 70% of its Riesling sales over the last two vintages.

But if that’s the case, why the success of near-sweet brands like Ménage à Trois Red and Apothic Red—neither of which say anywhere on the label that they’re sweet, but which have about 1.5% residual sugar?  This is in contrast to other successful brands, including those from Sutter Home, Barefoot and Smoking Loon, which declare themselves as Sweet Red on the label.

That’s because there still seems to be uncertainty about how consumers are approaching sweet reds, says Miller, and wineries are treading carefully. They may not want to alienate consumers or even retailers, who may not be quite sure what do with a red table wine labeled sweet.


“Some of the people who buy these wines may be deliberately seeking sweet,” he notes, “but some may just think they like the style and not think of them as sweet wines. Some might even think they don’t like sweet wines but like Brand X, which may have some RS [residual sugar] but is not labeled as sweet.”

On the other hand, Ruinite, which once positioned its red as “soft,” purposely avoiding the term sweet, now puts “Sweet Red” front and center on the label. House Jam leaves little room for a shelf-brower’s doubt, labeling itself a “Sweet Smooth Red.” Bronco, which now has six entries in the category, uses “Sweet Red” on all of them, in keeping with Fred Franzia’s belief that “if they want to taste it, they want to read it.”

Not to be underestimated as we watch this nascent category develop: Sweet reds are being launched by the industry’s biggest players, and many have multiple labels. Bronco, as mentioned, has six different sweet reds. Constellation has Black Box and Woodbridge. Treasury has Beringer and Lindeman’s. Trinchero has a Sutter Home sweet red and Bandit Sangria. E.&J. Gallo has Gallo Family Vineyards and Barefoot on shelves nationwide, while test-marketing Turning Leaf “Refresh” Red Moscato.

Palm Bay now has two sweet reds: Blue Fish “Reel Red” from Germany and a fizzy red, Roscato, made in Italy by Cavit. Roscato actually launched at Olive Garden, recommended both as an aperitif and for pairing with Italian cuisine and spicier dishes; now it’s heading to off-premise as well.

Perhaps as a sign that the conscious marketing of sweet reds will soon ramp up, Yellow Tail came up with the name Sweet Red Roo via a Facebook competition. And, aiming to help the new “Roo” jump off the shelf, so to speak, the bottle sports a prismatic label—which importer Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits claims is the first of its kind.

Gateway Wines?

In all of this, the underlying question is whether sweet red is a fad that will go away, or a trend that is here to stay. Are sweet red drinkers shifting from other categories, like White Zinfandel (which has seen sales consistently decline over the last several years) and the fruity California red blends and varietals—the so-called critter wines—that often have grape juice added back after fermentation to give the impression of sweetness? Or will the sweet red impact be as significant as White Zin was in the 1990s, bringing new drinkers to wine? Many producers and analysts think that could well happen.


“The difference is between making a red wine that happens to be sweet, and making a sweet wine that is red,” says Bavaresco. “It’s about making a well-crafted, thoughtful sweet wine. That’s what will make this a gateway wine for women, young people and Millennials.”

And there does seem to be evidence that is happening—though perhaps not in the way many think. The Nielsen data, though far from complete, suggests that sweet red drinkers have lower-incomes (which makes some sense given the wines’ lower prices and the Hispanic demographic). However, the low-income effect is much more extreme than with other categories, including Moscato. Given that lower-income consumers are usually not wine drinkers, we can theorize that sweet red wines could be bringing new drinkers to the category.

Only time will tell. But it would be good news for a wine business still sorting its way out of the recession.

Many Wines, Several Names

Sorting out the wave of sweet reds is complicated. Residual sugar and alcohol vary significantly. Labeling is rather freestyle, ranging from no references at all to sweetness to a creative embrace (e.g., Opici’s “Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice” on their Rose’s package). Most important of all, taste perception of sweetness is very personal; many consumers who enjoy truly sweet reds may also enjoy the blends which are not technically sweet.

The variety of sweet and near-sweet red wines entering the market (and no one seems to know exactly how many there are) fit into three broad categories:

  • Sweet(ish) wines labeled as red blends. Typical of these are Apothic, Red Velvet, Gnarly Head Authentic Red and Ménage à Trois, which deliver more jamminess than outright sweetness (as befitting residual sugar [RS] levels topping out around 1.5%, or 15 grams/liter [g/L]). Consumers drinking these wines taste lots of sweet fruit, but also sometimes tannins (though lighter than in dry wines) and other red wine characteristics. Brand new entrants of note in this category: Scoops, marketed by Carriage House; Epica, made in Chile by San Pedro; DFV’s new RedVolution Bota Box; Diageo’s Ensemble; and Beringer Founders’ Estate Smooth Red. Wente’s success with the “Double Decker” blend under the Iván Tamás label recently led them to rebrand the wine simply as Double Decker Red.
  • Sweet wines labeled as sweet. This is a much more confusing label than it would seem, since it includes red blends, traditional varietals and sweet varietally labeled wines like Red Moscato (which in actuality is a blend as well). Sutter Home’s Sweet Red is a good example of the first, while the Jam Jar “Sweet Shiraz” was a pioneer in the traditional varietal area. The Red Moscatos, often blended with Zinfandel and Petite Sirah to gain color, include the Beringer, which has a surprisingly bracing acidity to balance the sweetness.
  • Traditional sweet wines re-branded. The Italian Montefiore, Sweet Red, made of 100% Brachetto has a bit of fizz to go with the sweetness.


Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how the sweet red trend parallels the recent revival of sangria, which is known to even the most casual wine consumer as being sweet but is rarely labeled as such. Established brands like Reál and Yago have been joined by a number of new labels—Ed Hardy, Opici, Bandit, Igardi, Plaza Real, Olé—sporting chillable, fruit-enhanced character, low alcohol and modest pricing.

Tasting Corner: Greek Wines Go Mainstream

Posted on | May 31, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Led by restaurants on both coasts, Greek wines are earning attention.

Santorini is both a gorgeous destination and source of gorgeous white wines.

Bucking the trend in the broader economy, but in step with America’s blossoming wine culture, wines from Greece are experiencing a dramatic upswing in the U.S. The New York trade office reports that Greek wine imports were up 5.6% in 2011, reaching value of just over $10 million. That follows a 10% increase in 2009. So, who or what pulled the trigger on this new-found popularity?

 The first suspect is the sizable group of higher-end Greek restaurants that have opened in recent years, most notably in New York City; Estiatorio Milos, Molyvos and Avra are among the best-known. Not only do many of these restaurants have entirely or largely Greek wine lists, they also have well-trained staff capable of guiding diners through unknown wine territory.
However, the story is no longer restricted to their presence in Greek restaurants. Mainstream restaurants are on board as well. Pedro Goncalves, wine director of Oceana in Midtown Manhattan, says, “I’ve found out how wonderful these wines can be, they are a great match with seafood. In the ’80s and ’90s you would have to go to Greece to enjoy these wines, but now the general wine-drinking population has discovered just how awesome they are.”

Michael Madrigale, head sommelier at Boulud Sud and Bar Boulud, also in Manhattan, does a brisk business in Greek wines at his two Lincoln Center area restaurants. He notes, “People come in and say, ‘Oh, remember how beautiful Santorini was? Let’s relive those memories with a glass of that wine that was so great.’” Also, Greek wines have been getting the sympathy vote lately; some diners order a bottle because they think Greece could use the help. But for Madrigale, the reason he offers a broad range of Greek wines, is quite different. “I’ve trained the staff to recommend Santorini [a dry white wine based on the Assyrtiko grape] if they have a table with one person ordering fish and the other lamb,” he says. “Santorini is the bridge wine; it’s the red Burgundy of white wine. It always holds up, never overpowers and has great acidity. I offer six different Santorinis at Boulud Sud.” Six! “I’m kind of obsessive with it,” he admits.

Hand-Selling Reality

And what about the off-premise—have sales there been as robust? Retailers around the country report mixed results with Greek wines. While many have noticed increased sales, most still admit that they are a hand-sell. And, of course, not every retail wine jockey is equipped—or has the time—to give the kind of hand-holding that sommeliers can engage in tableside.
Dan Marshall, owner of Du Vin Fine Wines in Alameda, CA, is a notable exception. “All of my clients are aware of quality Greek wines,” he asserts. “It’s up to us to educate the consumer; people love the wines once they have tried them. As far as I’m concerned, the consumers are way ahead of the trade on this point.” Du Vin carries 75 Greek wines, and Marshall says that Santorini is by far the biggest seller: “Without question, the wines of Santorini are on the radar. The white wine prices from Santorini are within reach of most people and the wines clearly over-deliver on quality, making them a pretty easy hand-sell.” He finds other appellations to be more challenging.

Not surprisingly, the Greek wine trend appears strongest on the two coasts. In the Midwest, Bob Calamia, a wine buyer for Binny’s Beverage Depot in Skokie, IL, finds his customers a bit less receptive—and very price-sensitive, with a soft ceiling at $10-$12 per bottle. He thinks his store is typical of suburban retailers, noting, “customers in the city tend to be far more adventurous.” Still, Calamia reports, “I have no plans to give up on the better Greek wines.”  
The number of theories as to why Greek wines have come into the spotlight seems greater than the number of Americans who can pronounce Xinomavro [ksee-NO-ma-vro]. One can point to the passion of many influential buyers; a fascination with the  long history of winemaking in Greece; the exceptional efforts of a new generation of winemakers; renewed attention from dedicated importers; EU-sponsored export programs; and heightened attention by the press.

Whatever the root cause, the promotion of Greek wines in the U.S. is beginning to bear enough fruit to be noticed, and the warm support of the trade bodes well for the wines moving forward. Says Madrigale, “These wines are so good, more people should be paying attention. That’s the duty of any good somm—you have to help these farmers who are doing it not for the money, but for the tradition and out of passion. They deserve a little bit of love.” And they seem to be getting it.

Brand Profile: House Jam, It’s All About Fun, Inside and Out

Posted on | May 31, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Brands aren’t created overnight—even if they spring from sudden inspiration. The genesis of WineWave’s House Jam line came back in 2007, out of owner Jack Cacciato’s desire to be bold and unique. “I felt we needed a concept that was very innovative,” he recalls. “No company at the time was really targeting new wine drinkers, who were coming of age.”

To come up with that innovative edge, Cacciato first reached back in time. “I thought back to my youth, and what we were drinking…Lambrusco, sangrias, Boone’s Farm. The common factor in this list was sweetness. Looking at trends in beverages today, most Americans from childhood up are accustomed to drinking soft drinks and sweet drinks.”

To bring the concept into the current day, he borrowed a phrase found close to home. Very close to home, in fact: the name House Jam came from hearing his teenage daughters and friends say to one another, “Where’s the jam tonight?” As in, “Where’s the party?” The word jam also held two other important connotations: musical, as in bands jamming, and ultra-fruity, as when describing wine.

From there, Cacciato, explains, House Jam was a matter of carefully sourcing a wine that fit a clear profile—sweet, cold and sparkling—but with a solid wine pedigree. “WineWave was a pretty traditional company,” he notes. “This was a leap for us. It was important to have quality in the bottle.”

Now We’re Jammin’

The first two House Jams—a red and a white, based, respectively, on Bonarda from Emilia-Romagna and Malvasia from Northwest Italy—were both made frizzante (slightly bubbly) via the Charmat method that captures CO2 from the second fermentation, rather than via carbonation. The end result: two tongue-tickling, lipsmacking, sweet yet refreshing wines. The Sweet Smooth Red delivers plummy fruit, with soft tannins and a sweet, juicy character. The Sweet Chillin’ White showcases Malvasia’s natural robust sweetness, with the gentle fizz enhancing pear and peach notes.

Most important of all, the label had to express fun, just like the sweet, fizzy wines. “It’s a jam,” Cacciato says with a grin. “It’s about having fun! We were the first to be very specific, very intentional about putting together the right formula—the name, the taste and the look.” The labels needed to echo the idea of a party: “House Jam. The name says fun, easy…a wine you can hang out with.” The colorful package design evokes—but actually preceded—the iPod campaign’s dancing silhouettes.

Pump Up the Volume

Within six months of launch in early 2008, Stew Leonard’s Wines (in only two locations) sold 1,000 cases of House Jam. Cacciato recalls telling Jerry Martarello, the wine director, “Let me send over 25 cases. Try stacking them.” Martarello called back on Monday and said, “I’m down to three; send 50 more.” The key, according to Cacciato, is sampling: the wines generate an 80% purchase rate. “People taste it and love it,” he says. “The red is a great pizza wine, and Sweet Chillin’ White is light and fresh, not just sweet.”

Growing at double- and triple-digit rates in every market where it was available, House Jam reached 35,000 cases as of 2010, in just ten states. This led WineWave to set sights on expanding. On the product front, they added a second red—100% Lambrusco—and a white, 100% Moscato (both also frizzante). Coinciding with the new releases, last September WineWave appointed Shaw-Ross International as the official U.S. importer. The two companies now work hand in hand developing the brand, utilizing Shaw-Ross’s well-established national reach.

To keep up House Jam’s momentum, WineWave recently introduced a new tag line, “Pick Your Jam,” which essentially amps up both the music analogy and party imagery of the brand, line-priced at $7.99. POS materials align Sweet Smooth Red with jazz and blues, Sweet Chillin’ White with Latin beats, Lambrusco with classic rock, and Moscato with hip-hop and dance music. And a new on-premise push includes food-pairing suggestions and even drink recipes—a bold idea that helps separate the fun, casual identity of House Jam from more “serious” wines.

In a fitting full-circle development, Jack Cacciato’s daughters—the original “jammers”—are now both working at WineWave, helping to keep the party going.

Brand Profile: Avión Reaches New Heights

Posted on | May 30, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Wider Distribution and Television Campaign Play Key Roles in Brand Development

“When it rains, it pours,” says Jenna Fagnan, referring—in this case—to all the good things that have been happening in avalanche succession for Tequila Avión, the brand that has turned many heads since it launched in July 2010.

It started in Tucson, AZ, last October, where Tequila Avión starred in the Avión Tamarindo Margarita, which was crowned World’s Greatest Margarita at the Sixth Annual World Margarita Championship. A panel of renowned judges including mixologist Dale DeGroff and spirits expert Robert Plotkin evaluated countless margaritas before declaring the one with Avión, the best.

Then, in early April at the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Avión picked up five awards: A Double Gold, two Silvers, the World’s Best Tequila and the most coveted of all—Best White Spirit. “We beat out all vodkas and gins, which was huge for us,” says Jenna Fagnan, President, Tequila Avión. “It’s about as high an honor as you can get, particularly at this competition, with so many brands entered.” Fagnan reports that almost instantly the market responded to the announcement, and excitement from the trade and consumers led to a surge in sales figures almost overnight.

Avión Takes Off

Since forming a joint venture with Pernod Ricard last year, Avión has been widening its distribution at a dizzying pace—the brand is now available in all 50 states. “Our partnership with Pernod Ricard has been incredibly beneficial, giving us unbeatable speed to market and also allowing us to expand internationally more quickly that we could have otherwise. U.S. consumers will soon be seeing Avión when they travel outside the country,” says Fagnan. They might also see it in the air. In early May, Delta rolled out a program to include Avión and Avión Margaritas on all of their flights for all cabins. “Delta previously did not have a tequila, and they added one because they were so impressed with Avión,” explains Fagnan.

Eager to spread the word to an ever wider audience, the Avión team launched its first television advertising campaign in May. No stranger to TV (the brand’s launch was followed by its 2010 debut on the HBO show “Entourage”), Avión is going after its target 25-to 40-year-old consumer market with the “Choose Pleasure” tagline in television spots on national networks like ESPN and E!, among others.

The “Choose Pleasure” campaign—which Fagnan explains as the idea that tequila should not be painful—is part of Avión’s goal of becoming the numbertwo ultra-premium tequila in the U.S., behind Patrón. “That was my mission when we started the company,” says founder Ken Austin. “There’s a huge gap between number-one and number-two, which is where I saw a massive consumer opportunity.”

But no matter how big Avión grows, one thing will never change—the quality of what is in the bottle. “We are growing very fast, but we are adamant that we don’t change one thing about the way we make Avión, or its raw material—agave grown 7,000 feet above sea level,” says Fagnan. “We would not be in the place we are today if it weren’t for the quality of our tequila, so we can’t compromise.”

✵ Avión Silver: This vibrantly fresh tequila offers an alluring mix of mint, rosemary, crisp grapefruit and black pepper; the flavors linger on the exceedingly long finish. SRP: $40-43

✵ Avión Reposado: Floral and delicate, with aromas of peach, cherry and subtle, this tequila still shows its agave character upfront, bolstered by notes of oak and vanilla. SRP: $45-47

✵ Avión Añejo: After two years in American oak casks, the richly styled añejo is marked by vanilla, caramel, coconut and maple flavors, underscored by intense tones of roasted agave, fruit and herbs. SRP: $50-55

Wine and Beer: Nielsen Data Analysis: Easter Sales Shift Drives Mixed Dollar Sales Trends; Wine -0.1% YoY, Beer +0.3% YoY

Posted on | May 30, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Mixed Sales Trends for Beer and Wine Due to Easter Sales Shift – In the four-week period ended May 12, 2012, dollar sales in the wine category were down 0.1% YoY and volume sales were down 2.6% YoY, the result of an unfavorable comp as year-ago period included Easter sales, while the current period did not. We note that in the period, promotional spending was down 3.1 pts YoY, while pricing was up a solid 2.6% for the category as a whole. In beer, dollar sales grew 0.3% YoY for the category (vs. +4.0% over the last 12 weeks, and +2.3% over the last 52 weeks). The deceleration in sales growth was primarily due to the aforementioned sales shift, as promotional spending was down 2.9 pts YoY in the period. Notably, pricing was again up in the period (+3.4% YoY).

STZ’s Pricing and Promotion Continues to Drive Share Gains – Despite a relatively challenging comp, STZ posted its 10th consecutive month of YoY dollar sales growth (+0.9%) and its ninth consecutive month of YoY volume growth (+1.4%). In the period, STZ was also able to gain 0.1 pt of dollar share due to pricing reductions (-0.5% across its portfolio, vs. +2.6% for the category) and a smaller YoY decrease in promotional spending (-1.8 pts YoY) vs. the total category (-3.1 pts YoY). While STZ should continue to face relatively easy comps from both a sales growth and a market share perspective, we remain skeptical that recent share gains can be retained without the benefit of lower pricing and higher promotion.

Source: CITI

May 29th

Brand Profile: Folie Takes Sonoma

Posted on | May 30, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Napa Valley’s Uber-Successful Folie à Deux Brand Moves to the Appellation Next Door

If you’ve been wondering why California’s Folie à Deux wines taste different these days, it’s because they’re now crafted with grapes grown in a handful of diverse Sonoma County AVAs.

“Our portfolio was missing wines from Sonoma and we really felt Folie à Deux was the perfect brand for us to develop in this key California region,” explains Bob Torkelson, President & CEO, Trinchero Family Estates, which owns Folie à Deux and sibling Ménage à Trois brand. “Folie’s transition to Sonoma also allows Ménage and Folie à Deux’s distinct identities to continue to evolve.”

Taking Off with Trinchero

Folie à Deux’s extraordinary life story is one that few brands can boast. Founded in Napa Valley in 1981 by two psychiatrists (the French name translates as “a passion shared by two”), Folie was selling a respectable 20,000 cases per year when Trinchero acquired it in 2004. Today the Folie/Ménage brands sell over 2.5 million cases annually (with Ménage responsible for the lion’s share of that volume).

“We purchased the brand and facility partly to serve as a good home base for the Trinchero wines,” recalls Torkelson. “We had no idea these brands would resonate with the consumer in this way—we would have considered 100,000 cases a success.” He chalks up the near-instant sales explosion to a number of factors: Ménage helped pioneer the now-burgeoning red blend category, and benefitted from first-mover status; it was a more elegant package than people were used to seeing at the $10 price point; and, Torkelson adds, “it was a flavor profile that consumers couldn’t get elsewhere—we had the ability to ramp up production while keeping quality consistent.”

Standing Out

At a higher price point than Ménage, Folie à Deux operates in a much more competitive space—all the more reason to find a way to be distinctive and over-deliver, insists Torkelson. The move to Sonoma County enables this: Sonoma’s incredible diversity gives Folie winemakers the opportunity to work with grapes from an array of vineyards, from coastal sites to warmer inland mountain sites.

With a Russian River Valley Chardonnay, a Sonoma County Merlot, a Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, an Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and a soon-to-be-added Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (all between $18 and $24), the new Folie portfolio offers a comprehensive cross-section of what Sonoma is capable of—and a leap in quality for the brand across the board.

Trinchero sources fruit from established Sonoma growers currently, but Torkelson is confident that Sonoma real estate is in the company’s near future: “It makes sense for us to develop vineyards there—we’re very excited to expand our presence in the region.”Ménage à Trois is now focusing on its varietal range—the new Moscato and Chardonnay are on fire, which “shows us that our red blend-loving Ménage customer wants to expand and is eager for more varietal-based wines from us,” says Torkelson, adding that a Pinot Grigio is on the way. Meanwhile, the focus for Folie à Deux is on-premise accounts, particularly by-the-glass offerings. “We are continuing to make the best wine for our consumers and our distributor partners,” he asserts. “It feels good to be in Sonoma.”

New Products & Promotions: June 2012 Edition

Posted on | May 30, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Wild Turkey, famous for bourbon, has launched Wild Turkey 81 Rye to meet America’s burgeoning thirst for rye whiskey. Crafted by Wild Turkey Associate Master Distiller Eddie Russell with enthusiasts and mixologists in mind, 81 Rye is aged in deep-char American oak. It offers spicy vanilla notes and a light smoky taste, with hints of rye toast.

SRP: $22.99


Consumers seeking summertime refreshment can cruise into sweet flavors with the new 2010 White Truck Moscato from California. The Muscat grapes used were picked from select vineyards throughout the state. “This Moscato has lively fruit aromas of orange blossoms and passion fruit accompanied by a bouquet of wild flowers. Perfect to pair with desserts,” said winemaker John Allbaugh.



Fresh off huge success in Italy, Mionetto has launched Il Spr!z in the U.S. Il Spr!z is a ready-to-drink wine-based cocktail made with frizzante sparkling wine, enhanced with natural color and featuring aromas and flavors of fresh orange and herbs. This apéritif is 8% ABV and under 100 calories per 4 oz. serving. It is recommended over ice with a simple garnish of an orange slice or green olive.

SRP: 375ml $8; 750ml $14


Margaritas are ever-popular, and consumers continue to want new and vibrant flavors like citrus. Authentic Jose Cuervo Margarita in Grapefruit Tangerine is ready to delight all summer long. A great choice for those wanting convenience and new flavor combinations from the best-selling line of Ready-To-Serve Margaritas.

SRP: 750ml $9.99; 1.75L $14.99


La Petite Fontaine Côtes du Rhône is like drinking the terroir of the Southern Rhône, with ample fruit but also earthy characteristics and spicy undertones. La Petite Fontaine is crafted by esteemed winemaker Christian Voeux of Château La Nerthe using a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Carignan grapes. Meant for everyday drinking, it has the body to accompany anything from burgers to roast chicken.

SRP: $12.99


Palm Bay International has introduced a new sparkling rosé, Lunetta Rosé, produced by Cavit. The wine is crisp and fruity; the cuvée is Chardonnay blended with Trentino red grape varieties including Lagrein, Teroldego and Pinot Noir. Lunetta Rosé hopes to capture the success of Lunetta Prosecco, launched in 2011.

SRP: 750ml $19.99; 1L $23.99




Chocolat Royal Liqueur is a super-premium dark chocolate liqueur from Marie Brizard, offering aromatic notes of vanilla and caramel with intense dark chocolate courtesy of fine cocoa beans. This product is the latest example of centuries of Marie Brizard quality cordial creation, combining traditional methods with innovation. Versatile behind the bar and bottled at 34 proof.

SRP: $27.99




Hacienda Methode Champenoise California Brut is a versatile “New World” sparkling wine made with decidedly “Old World” techniques. The award-winning wine is also a good value. Winemaker Bo



Smirnoff Ice has launched its newest flavored malt beverage, Smirnoff Ice Black. This is Smirnoff’s third line of flavored malt beverages (joining Smirnoff Ice and Smirnoff Premium Malt Mixed Drinks), available in Lemon Lime, Fruit Punch and Watermelon flavors. Smirnoff Ice Black is the next generation of Smirnoff Ice, at 8% ABV.

SRP 23.5 oz.: $2.69



This Jamaican Rum was a favorite of Newfoundland for centuries before it officially got its name. Famous Newfoundland Screech, as legend tells it, was the fitting name for the original over-proof formulation (since toned down), which could cause such a sound from an unsuspecting drinker. This dark amber rum is aged in oak for two years, and has a bouquet of molasses and sweet oak.

SRP: $15.99


House Jam’s latest sweet effervescent Italian wines are Lambrusco and Moscato. The new wines—100% Lambrusco and 100% Moscato—are crafted using stainless steel fermentation and Charmat Method for second fermentation in tanks. Joining House Jam Sweet Smooth Red and Sweet Chillin’ White, these wines sing for summer imbibing.

SRP: $7.99


As the weather gets warmer, Shock Top Belgian Wheat introduces its latest seasonal offering, Shock Top Lemon Shandy, available through the end of July. Shock Top Lemon Shandy is a unique interpretation of a classic style—smooth wheat beer complemented by spices and natural lemonade flavor. Available in six- and 12-packs of bottles and 12-packs of cans, as well as on draught.

SRP: $14.99


Liquor Giants Plug Into Social Media

Posted on | May 29, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Europe’s liquor giants are increasingly plowing cash into social media to promote their brands and gather valuable data on drinkers.

Thirst for whisky, rum and vodka in Latin America, Africa and Asia has accelerated as adult populations have expanded and incomes have risen, and companies see the improved online access in developing markets through laptops, tablet computers and smartphones as an opportunity to drive sales.

U.K.-based Diageo PLC (DGE.LN) and France’s Pernod Ricard SA (RI.FR), the world’s No. 1 and 2 spirits companies by revenue, respectively, are diverting more advertising spend away from traditional formats like television and cinema to interactive digital platforms.

As well as pursuing multi-million-dollar partnerships with U.S.-based search technology giant Google Inc. (GOOG), consumer giants are turning to advertising on sites like Facebook Inc. (FB), Twitter Inc. and Google’s YouTube to better understand habits, preferences and lifestyles, strengthen brand loyalty and gear their future businesses.

In an interview, Diageo Chief Marketing Officer Andy Fennell emphasized the increasing importance of social media in the marketer’s armory. He said the company is using sites like Facebook to get a detailed picture of the demographics of users who register themselves as fans of its products.

For Fennell, it is an exercise that benefits both parties. “Facebook [is] keen to constantly improve the way that client companies judge return on investment on their platform.” Diageo now has over 1.2 million Facebook fans on its global pages for Johnnie Walker, the globe’s best-selling Scotch whisky brand, with 17.8 million nine-liter cases sold in fiscal 2011.

Diageo raised its marketing spend 10% in the first half of 2012 compared with a year earlier to GBP896 million. While television and film still take the lion’s share of the company’s media spend, digital marketing now accounts for 20%, and the figure is rising.

Gabriel Goldberg, co-founder of search marketing company Semetis, said while both are effective, Google and Facebook offer different benefits to businesses.

“Many studies show that Google is the No. 1 traffic source for the discovery of new websites–at 50% to 60%,” Goldberg said, adding that businesses prioritize premium positions on the search engine to maximize its “conversion rate” to sales, as well as paid-for search campaigns.

“Facebook is very different. Users don’t actively look for products and services. Facebook has more resemblance to traditional advertising, allowing companies to target socio-demographics and interests.”

Pernod Ricard, whose first-half marketing spend rose 7% to EUR817 million, is also powering up social media platforms.

Two short films to promote its Scotch whisky brand Chivas Regal, ‘Here’s to Real Friends,’ directed by Danish Oscar-winning director Joachim Bach, were shown exclusively on YouTube last October. They were watched by a combined online audience of 2 million in less than three months.

“This is a campaign which has a very heavy digital dimension. It [was] in the 0.5% of most-watched videos on YouTube [at the time],” Christian Porta, chairman and chief executive of the company’s Scotch business, Chivas Brothers, told reporters recently.

However, freedom afforded online can also leave companies exposed to negative opinion. Earlier this month, Diageo apologized following reports it tried to deprive small craft brewer BrewDog of an industry award at a event that Diageo sponsors. Accused of bullying tactics through its commercial might, Diageo found its name dragged through the mud on social media as the story took flight.

“Engaging consumers via social media presents a promising, if also challenging, opportunity for companies both large and small to improve their publicity and reach wider audiences,” said analysts at market-research company Euromonitor International.

Analysts say companies know an increasing number of consumers, particularly the young, now rely on social media as their primary source of news and information about brands.

It is now not simply enough to advertise products in the traditional way. The goal is to produce interactive content that can be discussed, shared and recommended.


By Simon Zekaria

May 29th

Good Pour Choices: On-Premise Has a Host of Solutions for Serving Popular Wines by the Glass

Posted on | May 29, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Enjoying wine by the glass, rather than the bottle, in restaurant settings is more popular than ever, and for very good reason. It improves the guest experience with a lower price of entry and more wine options throughout the meal, while also delivering nice margins to the operator. If there is a downside to wine served by the glass, it’s the potential for profit-devouring waste. Whether from heavy-handed bartenders or simple spoilage, by-the-glass wine programs can be plagued with loss.

There are many ways to contend with these issues, from simple diligence or discretely marked fill levels on custom glasses to high-tech systems that promise to preserve your opened wines for weeks. Here we look at the costs and benefits associated with some solutions to offering wine by the glass, from the people who serve it successfully.

Ari Ellis
Owner/ Ara Wine Bar
New York City

System: Vacu Vin Winesaver.

Overview: “We do not have any fancy storage systems, but we do vacuum overnight,” says Ellis. In addition, vacuumed wines are stored in the refrigerator, which slows oxidation. While simple and low-cost, this approach demands diligence. Anytime a previously opened wine is served, the bottle gets tasted first, which helps to improve the server’s appreciation. “We used to mark the bottles with stickers with the date they were opened, but found taste is a more accurate indicator. In the end, that is what matters,” Ellis notes.

Types of wine: Red / White / Sparkling

Automatic portion control: No

Self-serve: No

Why did you select this system?  “Low cost, ease of use and it keeps us connected with the wines in a personal way.”

Start-up cost: $100 for four hand vacuum pumps and 25 stoppers.

Time using this system: 8 years

Number of wines on offer: “We are now down to 15, but we have offered as many as 50. Paring down the list reduces waste, and we found that more choices didn’t improve business. The vast majority of people either want a varietal they know or simply ask for guidance. It’s much easier for staff to suggest wines they know well, which is easier with a smaller but carefully chosen list.”

What I like most: “It’s easy, affordable and effective.”

What I would improve: “The system is only as good as the taster, as it relies totally on the tasting abilities and diligence of staff.”

Loss/waste: “We really only lose bad or corked wine in my opinion. We only hold wine that has been opened for 24 hours.  After that, if is still good, and most is, we treat regulars to a free glass or use it in wine-based drinks like sangria, mulled wine or special cocktails.”

What would you say to others considering this approach?  “You must have a well-trained staff that can tell the difference between a wine that has seen too much air and one that has not.”

Joe Barbera
co-owner / AIDA Bistro & Wine Bar
Columbia, MD
System: Wine on tap.

Overview: AIDA serves a selection of wines dispensed from kegs using traditional beer equipment systems like Micromatic and Perlik along with a McDantim Nitrogenator. “We offer 30 different wines on tap, with the ability to add seasonal wines such as rosé, Vinho Verde and small-production wines,” says Barbera. Because wine is not customarily kegged, it often requires cooperation directly with the producer. AIDA, for instance, sources wines from local and national partners like including Melville Winery, Dancing Coyote, Zenaida, Flying Goat Cellars, Calera, Frog’s Leap and others.

Types of wine: Red / White

Automatic portion control: No, but servers use a small decanter to measure 3 oz. and 5 oz. pours and special re-useable wine bottles to measure 10 oz. and 20 oz. carafes.

Self-serve: No

Why did you select this system?   Recommended by AC Beverage from Annapolis, MD.

Start-up cost: “It’s proprietary but let’s say no more than the Enomatic preservation solutions that offer 30 wines.”

Time using this system: Since December 2010

Number of wines on offer: 30

What I like most: “Flexibility to offer as many different wines as possible. It’s also easy to clean, operate and maintain, with very low maintenance costs.”

Loss/waste: Less than 5% and most of that is attributed to over-pours or samples.

What would you say to others considering this approach? “What’s taking you so long? This is the best system for delivering a fresh, consistent wine-by-the-glass program in the industry. It offers the winery the ability to deliver to the consumer the freshest product on the market. Each keg reduces the cost of delivering the product to the consumer by saving 25 bottles, corks and various packaging materials. This is a hard savings of about $50 per keg, every time it is refilled. It is greener, dramatically reduces the cost to the consumer and allows us to deliver a superior product at a lower cost.”

John Haggai
co-ceo / Cafe Caturra
Arlington, VA (7 locations)
System: By the Glass Wine Dispensing Systems from Holland, BTG12ST (2X) 12 bottle “Standard Series” dual temperature zones with see-through Glass Back Wall and 3 position Portion Control.   

Overview: Like high-end kitchen cabinets, By The Glass systems are completely custom-built, with finishes available in stainless steel or wood. They can accommodate all still wines bottled in 750ml or 1.5L bottles. In fact, they can store a second bottle behind the active one for quick switching on a busy night. Flexible climate zones allow the user to change the ratio of red to white wines in each unit, while inert Argon gas promises to preserve open wines up to three weeks.

Types of wine: Red / White

Automatic portion control: Available, with a setting for three volumes per tap.

Self-serve: Not in use, but it is available for areas where permitted by law.

Why did you select this system?  “Compared to the other systems on the market, it’s by far the easiest to operate and maintain, plus it has a beautiful aesthetic.”

Start-up cost: About $28,000 all-inclusive.

Time using this system: Installed for grand opening in September 2011, with the latest system installed at Cafe Caturra, Trenholm Plaza, in Columbia, SC.

Number of wines on offer: 24

What I like most: “I love that we can pour a perfect glass (3, 6, or 9 oz.) at the perfect temperature with no waste.
I also love the look of the system: it is sleek and complements our space nicely while still offering customers a view of the selections and their labels.”    

What I would improve: I would like to have the ability to pour from both sides of the unit.

Loss/waste using this system: Minimal.

What would you say to others considering this approach? “The sales and support from Wine By The Glass Solutions has been exceptional. If you are looking for a quality highly-customizable system, with hands-on support, this is an excellent choice.”

Dee Lincoln
owner / Dee Lincoln’s Tasting Room & Bubble Bar
Dallas, TX
System: Enomatic: ELITE Enoround,16-bottle Dual Temperature; ELITE Enoline 16-bottle Dual Temperature; FLUTE 4-bottle Champagne system.,

Overview: Founded in 2002, Italy’s Enomatic is a pioneer in high-tech by-the-glass systems, using Nitrogen gas (or Argon as an option) to serve and preserve wine. Standard systems include self-cleaning spouts for quick bottle changes and programmable volume settings, while wine card readers are a popular option for self-serve environments. The Classic series serves wine at room temperature while Elite adds cooling capacity. Still wines are preserved for three weeks; the new Flute can maintain fragile sparkling wines for 10 days.

Types of wine accommodated: Red / White / Sparkling (Flute)

Automatic portion control: Computer programming allows the precise poured volume to be set.

Self-serve: Optional Smart Card activated models can add, delete, store and process information using a smart card, including the amount of wine left in a bottle and the activities of individual customers.

Why did you select this system?  “I chose Enomatic because my career has been spent in luxury brands. Perfect temperature, presentation and care of wine is important to me and my guests expect a high level of quality, so this was a great fit.”

Start-up cost: About $150,000.

Time using this system: Since 2009, with upgrades over time.

Number of wines on offer: 32 in the Elite and Enoround machines and 4 sparkling wines in the Flute machine.

What I like most: “My guests can experience wine by the ounce—as little as 2 ounces, 4 ounces or the pleasure of a full glass, which is 6 ounces. It gives the option to create your own flights. Also, software and changing of the bottles has been greatly improved. We now change out the empty bottle and can be ready to go with the push of a button.”

Loss/waste: Very little, limited to only the small amount that could stay in the bottle when changing out.

What would you say to others considering this approach?  “I highly recommend this for a by-the-glass program if committed to selling a variety of wine at several price points. This is an expensive system that requires training on the machines and software, and staff on-hand during service. Self-serve does not mean it requires no attention. In fact, to maximize opportunities, knowledgeable staff must be available.”

Aldo Montufar
owner / Megabyte Pizza
San Jose, CA
System: Better Barrel Wine

Overview: Unlike tap wine that uses conventional or modified beer equipment, Better Barrel, based in Santa Rosa, California, is a self contained wine-on-tap system that is “plug and play.” The selection of wines is limited to Better Barrel partners, but compared to traditional tap systems, requires no line cleaning, gases or maintenance. In reality, Better Barrel uses the technology of 3-liter vacuum bag wines, like those found in bag-in-box, but improves on them with an attractive barrel look that requires only 11 inches of shelf depth, and has the addition of an adjustable temperature control through a standard electrical outlet.

Types of wine accommodated: Red / White

Automatic portion control: No

Self-serve: No

Why did you select this system?  “It is inexpensive and it is completely self-contained. You just plug it in. Better Barrel does not require any cleaning or special installation costs, making it very cost-effective.”

Start-up cost: $199 per system.

Time using this system: One month

Number of wines on offer: 5

What I like most: “Better Barrel has allowed me to introduce carafe service, and it frees up space in my refrigerator for other products.”

What I would improve: “I’d like to see more selections of wine to choose from.”

Loss/waste: None.

What would you say to others considering this approach? “This is the most cost-effective and easiest way to introduce wine on tap, and the wines on offer are very good. Plus, the barrel just looks great.”


Trend-Tracking By The Glass

Flexibility is at the core of by-the-glass programs, and so they often become harbingers of developing trends. We checked in with a few key distributors to get a read on some recent BTG trends on both coasts and in the Midwest.

East Coast

Joseph Eger, director of sales for wine on-premise at Southern Wine & Spirits in Metro New York, reports: “In general I have seen a trend toward higher-priced by-the-glass. More venues are utilizing wine preservation systems and featuring wines in the $18-$50 range. I have also seen growth in large formats being used by the glass. Magnums on up to 6L are growing in the still rosé, red Tuscan and red California wines. These are primarily being utilized at fine dining Italian and steakhouses.
“As far as varietals are concerned, blends have picked up some but there is no one hot new varietal. Malbec was on the up and seems to have reached a plateau. Rosé all year is now in effect at most places, not just the spring.”


“Wisconsin’s BTG trends can sometimes be a bit behind the coasts and big cities, being that our demographic is largely rural and industrial,” says  Dave Stefanski, on-premise sales manager at  Wirtz Beverage in Wisconsin. “The Moscato explosion is huge here, being a sweet profile state anyway. Two years ago we had maybe a half dozen Moscato-based wines in our book; today over 20 and still growing. And every type of on-premise customer from local taverns to fine dining is getting calls for Moscato. The other “hot” M wine, Malbec, is growing fast also. In Wisconsin, Riesling is here to stay. Our German heritage and sweet tooth make us a solid market for it.

“The newer wine drinkers are really exploring the world of wine, literally—Spain, France, Italy, New Zealand, S. America and even premium saké can be thrown in the mix. The brand loyalty factor isn’t as strong as it was in the ’80s and ’90s. There are so many choices form all over the world now, why get in a rut? Restaurants are balancing their selections with brands that customers are comfortable with (J. Lohr, Rodney Strong, Kenwood) and wines that customers can do some exploring. Small-production, family-owned, environmentally conscious wineries are more a part of our daily conversation today.”

West Coast

Young’s Market in northern California recently partnered with a supplier to provide wine on tap; currently demand for these systems is outpacing supply of wine in kegs, which as of now are mostly small-production, “garage” wines, says Senior VP Jason Wooler. “There are a lot of reasons for their appeal: the green factor, convenience, less spoilage, and just being different. But there are still a lot of questions as to activating this category profitably,” he notes. In terms of what people are drinking: “Core varietal wines are still strong, including Chardonnay. The California consumer is willing to pay a modest premium for varietal-specific, appellation-specific wines by the glass. Pricewise, glass pours are topping out at about $15/glass, with $8-$12 being the sweet spot.” 

What Happened in Vegas… New Products Headline the 69th WSWA Annual Convention

Posted on | May 28, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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The 2012 WSWA Convention set a record for attendance

Las Vegas is the perfect setting for the annual Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association convention. There, in the clockless, sin-friendly confines of America’s gaming capital, beverage alcohol is warmly embraced for what it is: real-world entertainment. In Vegas, fantasy is the order of the day (and night). But for our industry, the 24/7 din of revelry becomes a mere backdrop for the more serious machinations of moving goods. Whereas for tourists, what happens in Las Vegas stays there, what happens at the WSWA convention is designed to propel business everywhere else.

New Wines Under the Sun?

From a supply standpoint, we are clearly in the Golden Age of wine. There is plenty of good juice out there—and more than ever, every supplier wants their wine in the U.S. Points of distinction become critical in this context.
Pricing will always be a natural means of differentiating. Ditto packaging. Two wines in the exhibition halls that earned my thumbs up with respect to visual appeal, quality and value: Wine Men of Gotham, a brand from Australia, and Brown Box Wine from Washington.

Innovation was rampant: Mionetto came up big in this regard, on two counts. The new “Spr!z” sparkler is fascinating; an extension of the Il line, it has beautiful orange color, low (8%) alcohol and is simply delicious when served on the rocks with a twist or orange and/or green olive. Plus, the $12.99 Volere 1.5L varietal wines represent a bag-in-box breakthrough; the handbag look is about as close as a wine package has ever come to being a girl’s best friend.

Blends continue to proliferate, which is why it is especially exciting to find a new brand that achieves synergy between its name, label and the wine. Carriage House’s Scoops does just that, using ice-cream-cone imagery for the flavorful, fruity red and white blends, attractively priced with SRP at $8.99. Shaw-Ross is rightly excited about its new Chilean brand Epica, made by Viña San Pedro, which features a seriously tasty red blend as well as a Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. They are stressing social media in marketing the brand; it will be interesting to watch.

I was also reminded, while strolling the exhibition halls, how many wines are still looking to gain a foothold here. Portugal seems to be making a very concerted effort to promote its diverse regional wines, as evident in a sommelier-written guide. Generically marketing these wines still represents a tough climb, though, given so many unfamiliar grape varieties and labels that radiate Old World feel. Wines of Brazil are also initiating a U.S. market push. Makes sense: the country’s developing wine industry was propagated by European emigrants, not unlike Chile and Argentina, and recently has seen some valuable input from consulting winemakers like Michel Rolland. The prevalance of familiar wine-grapes and the growing number of churrascarias (Brazilian steakhouses) in the U.S. can only help as well.

Spirits: Bold Rules

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of flavor in the spirits arena. How else to explain the mere existence of the Skittles-inspired vodka called “Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy”? Of special note: Alizé Coco impressed with its balance of tangy passion fruit and mellow tropical coconut. And I’d be darned if I didn’t confess to sensing hints of graham cracker crust in Pinnacle’s Key Lime Whipped Vodka.

I can still practically taste the RumChata cream liqueur I sampled in the Agave Loco suite. Mild rum, rich cream, distinct baking spices… if you are over 40, it tastes exactly like rice pudding; under 40, exactly like Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. And at 27.5 proof, it has less alcohol than some wines.

Flavor in spirits is of course not always straight from the bottle. I enjoyed a Cantaloupe Martini concocted from Marie Brizard Watermelon Liqueur, Sobieski vodka, orange juice and a squeeze of lime. The miracle of modern spirits alchemy. On the other hand, given Americans’ penchant for convenience, I will not be surprised to see ready-to-drink cocktails take off in coming years. Deliciously balanced and sporting just 13.9% alcohol, VnC Cocktails represent a benchmark for the RTD genre.

While packaging in wine continues to diversify, spirits brands still lead in terms of extreme packaging. Sometimes aptly evocative (e.g., Iceberg Vodka), it can also be downright disturbing, as in tequila bottled to look like machine guns or grenades. Packaging does not have to be wacked-out to be sleek and effective; the Jura Single Malt Scotch range is classy inside and out. And Liquore Pisa—the intensely delicious Italian liqueur based on hazelnut, almond and pistachio—seems perfect in its aptly leaning bottle.
Tequila and mezcal continue to multiply—in multiple ways. First, there are enough new labels to make even the most devout agave-phile quickly lose track. Then you have your variations of age, price point, packaging and marketing angles. (Zignum Mezcal is “unsophisticatedly refined”—replete with Facebook promotion that asks fans to decipher whatever that means.)
And just when I wondered if the old dogs are limited in their ability to appear fresh and new, along comes a product like Kansas—a clear wheat whiskey and is as clean as it looks, with no burn and smoky, heavy flavor.

Business Meets Politics

The politics of the WSWA convention  transpire mostly in general sessions and seminars, allowing attendees to focus on business (mixed with pleasure) the rest of the time. The outlook for the industry as whole appeared robust—the 2,200 attendees at Caesars Palace set a new record for the convention—but with a healthy dash of realism.

At the opening general session, Charlie Merinoff, president and CEO of The Charmer Sunbelt Group and the WSWA chairman, explained the value that wholesalers bring to the distribution system, including their local marketing expertise. He stressed the importance of collaboration among all the tiers of the industry, saying: “We don’t have a choice but to come together.”
Mark Brown, President and CEO of Sazerac Company, received the Sidney Frank Award, which commemorates the spirit and marketing genius of the late Sidney Frank, his philanthropic efforts and his contributions to the beverage industry. Brown reminded everyone that “what we sell is not milk and chips” so state-based regulation is important to maintain a competitive, socially responsible industry.

The keynote address was given by Nando Parrado, one of the 16 Uruguayan survivors of a flight that crashed in the Andes Mountains in 1972. he recounted told his story about spending two months trapped in the mountains and his amazing trek to find help. Parrado concluded by saying, “Life is not measured by number of breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away.”

At the second day’s general session, WSWA President Craig Wolf discussed upcoming challenges facing the industry, such as privatization being used as a stalking horse for deregulation and potential federal tax reform legislation. And  WSWA honored Vern Underwood, chairman of the board, Young’s Market Company, as the recipient of the Lifetime Leadership Award. [See below for more thoughts from Wolf and Underwood.]

Several competitions during the 69th annual convention highlighted cocktails, mixologists and wine/spirits brands; for complete results, visit And the convention’s final day was highlighted by the U.S. Beverage Alcohol Forum, a new partnership between WSWA and the U.S. Drinks Conference; five compelling educational panels focused on social media, brand activation, industry trends, the three-tier system and building a world-class team. A theme that emerged through each panel was the importance of people—people that are passionate about the brands they represent.

The Inside Track

Beverage Network Chairman William Slone had a chance to sit down
with two industry leaders at the convention. Some of their insight:

Vern Underwood, Young’s Market Company

On wholesalers: “The wholesaler continues to provide value to the people that it represents, and that value is working and developing brands in the on-sale accounts…through wine lists, staff studies, samplings, tastings, developing a rapport. It still is about people. At the end of the day, the wholesaler is the one that develops new brands and new categories. That’s the mother’s milk of this industry, and it has been for years—new brands, new categories.

On the health of the industry: “Now every state makes wine, and they’re doing well. And there are craft distillers in every market. This is not a threat. What it is, is new money, and new people coming into the business. All this is exciting because it’s added a whole new dimension of interest—for the consumer and us, and it means that the business is healthy. I’m very bullish.”

Craig Wolf, WSWA

On privatization: “What happened in Washington State was you have a very powerful member of the retail tier creating a 60-page law, funneling $22 million into it, and it predominantly benefits them and is detrimental to everybody else in the industry—and the consuming public for that matter. That, to me, is wrong. The legislatures will do things that are upsetting to the various tiers. But at least in the legislature you have the opportunity to have your say. What you had here was a 60-page alcohol regulatory bill that, let’s face it, no citizen was going to read. We know now—and we knew then—that a bottle of spirits is going to go up anywhere from $4 to $20 a bottle, due to all the new taxes and fees. But the citizens didn’t know that; the media didn’t alert them to that fact. It throws things out of balance. And that’s the problem in Washington State, because it’s not about privatization—it’s about deregulation and unbalancing.”

On the state of the wholesale tier: “This is by far the biggest convention we’ve had in my 12 years here. We had to add a second exhibition hall; there is tremendous interest. People are entering the market. We are also seeing growth on the wholesaler side. What you see is sort of your basic economic cycle. Big guys get bigger—there is consolidation. But like anything else, there is a limited number of SKUs that any one wholesaler can handle. So there is all this potential out there for people to come in at the small to midsize level and service the market with the additional products. It definitely creates opportunities. You know how it works. You could be the guy who gets the next Grey Goose, the next Patron. What WSWA does is it allows people to grow. To fulfill their dreams and find those opportunities.”

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