Posted on | May 28, 2012
Written by | W.R. Tish
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 wswaconventionblog.com. 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.”