Know The Law: Adding Clarity

Posted on | September 30, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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New SLA declaratory ruling sheds more light on the legality of internet sales

Declaratory Ruling 2014-02148E, issued August 26th in response to a request from an off-premise retail licensee (Retailer), adds to a growing body of advisories explaining the position the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA or the Authority) takes on internet sales. The Declaratory Ruling make clear that in evaluating relationships between licensed and unlicensed entities, the SLA will not only consider the set of facts presented in a request but will also assess the actual “day-to-day” functioning of the arrangements involved.

Does ABC law prohibit the licensed Retailer from paying for fulfillment services performed by subcontractor of a licensed Wholesaler at the wholesaler’s out of state premises, the cost of which is passed along to Retailer?

In connection with sales made outside New York, an out of state wholesaler may act in accordance with the law of the state in which it is licensed. With regard to goods sold into New York, the Authority held that wholesalers must comply with New York law. Consequently, for goods sold to New York retail licensees, an out of state wholesaler is not permitted to conduct fulfillment services for New York retailers at its licensed premises.

The Authority also determined that in this case some services performed by the Wholesaler exclusively for the Retailer violated ABC law Section 101(C), which prohibits manufacturers and wholesalers from rendering gifts or services that influence the Retailer to purchase product from the Wholesaler. In this case, such services included: sharing national inventory; disclosing prices obtained from suppliers, reserving wines months in advance of the purchase; price posting wines at times requested by the Retailer; packaging wines to Retailer’s specifications; and placing an office next to Retailer. The Authority concluded that these services “strongly influence” Retailer to purchase from Wholesaler and that its contract to fulfill for the Retailer is integral to the Retailer’s operation.

Does the Retailer’s business relationship with its third-party service provider (TTP) violate any other provision of ABC law?

The SLA found that Retailer’s relationship with its TPP is a violation of ABC Law Section 111 which forbids a licensee from allowing an unlicensed person to use or profit from its license, commonly known as “Availing.”

In Declaratory Ruling 2013-01006A, the Authority laid out guidelines to be used to determine if a TPP was performing services so integral to the core obligations of the licensee that those performing the services should be listed on the retailer’s license. In this case, the Authority found that, taken together, the following services represented availing: (1) TPP providing Trademark rights to the Retailer; (2) TPP operating and maintaining websites for the wine club website; (3) TPP providing all marketing services for the wine clubs; (4) TPP providing all customer service for the wine clubs; (5) TPP providing logistical services for the wine clubs; (6) TPP recommending wines to be sold and the selling price and (7) TPP only recommending wines from one New York wholesaler.

Additionally, the Authority closely scrutinized the arrangement between Retailer and the TPP for the use of Trademark rights to the wine clubs websites. TPP obtained its legal rights to the Trademarks from a sister company of the Wholesaler. The Authority found that Retailer was receiving an illegal gift or service from the Wholesaler in violation of ABC Law 101(c).

Does the ABC law prohibit a retailer from conducting limited activities outside New York?

ABC law does not require licensees to make all business decisions at its licensed premises. Nonetheless, all sales must be made from the licensed premises pursuant to ABC law Section 111; all books and records must be maintained on the licensed premises pursuant to ABC law Section 105.15; and all deliveries must be made to the licensed premises or permitted warehouse pursuant to SLA Rule Section 67.1.

Does the ABC law prevent licensed Retailer from operating and maintaining some of its inventory on a “just-in-time” basis, by ordering and receiving products from Wholesaler, as needed based on customer demand?

There is no rule prohibiting retailers from ordering and receiving products as needed and based on customer demand. However, the retail off-premise licensee must operate a bona fide store under ABC Rule 53.1. The size of the inventory available at the store is a factor used to determine if the store is bona fide.

The deadline for submission of All Night Permit applications for January 1, 2015 is November 16, 2014.

Opici Family Distributing Proudly Launches The Boisset Collection

Posted on | September 30, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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Opici Family Distributing launched The Boisset Collection on Friday August 29th at Macaluso’s in Hawthorne.

Wine Buzz: October 2014

Posted on | September 30, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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This Halloween, try something with a bite!

RED BLENDS SLIDE TOWARD THE ‘DARK’ SIDE…FOR HALLOWEEN & BEYOND?
Holiday-happy Americans have grown accustomed to treating October as Halloween Month. This may be at least partly responsible for the recent crop of red blends that lean—conceptually if not also tastewise— to the dark side. No doubt the 2013 limited-release success of Apothic Dark (from E. & J. Gallo) and Ravenswood’s “Besieged” (Constellation) also served as harbingers. Either way, it is clear that suppliers are testing the limits of the splendid-blended phenomenon. Here is a snapshot of wines that will fit right into Halloween displays this year. Some are seasonal; some will stick around.

THE DEVIL MADE THEM DO IT.

Casillero del Diablo 2012 “Devil’s Collection” is a blend of Carmenère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah from Chile’s Rapel Valley, featuring dark ripe fruit (plum, black cherry) and a sinful hint of dark chocolate. (The red devil also has a white sidekick, melding Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer.)
SRP $15

EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD SECRET….

Santa Rita has launched Santa Rita 2013 “Secret Reserve,” from Chile’s Maipo Valley. The grapes are not exactly secret (53% Cabernet, 20% Merlot, 15% Syrah, plus Petit Verdot and Carmenere), but importer Palm Bay surely hopes word of the wine travels at the speed of gossip.
SRP $11.99

 

 

NEXT “CULT WINE”?

If you every doubted that red blends can do anything, look no further than TGIC Global’s latest—Black Ink, a California blend (mostly Merlot and Syrah) that aims to be “a cult wine for the masses.” Described in press materials as “juicy blackberry cobbler meets smoky licorice with a hint of spice,” the wine sports a squid graphic on top of the capsule.
SRP $9.99

 

 

DFV GETS EVEN GNARLIER.

DFV’s Gnarly Head label has launched a seasonal, limited release: “Authentic Black.” It’s a dark, inky Petite Sirah-based blend sourced from Lodi, CA, aged in oak for 12 months and designed to stand up to fall’s heartiest dishes. Authentic Red and Authentic White continue year-round.
SRP $11.99

BEWARE THE RAVEN OF AUTUMN.

With its namesake bird, Ravenswood fits right in come Halloween. The 2013 “Besieged” (Sonoma County AVA) is the second release, blending robust Petite Sirah, Carignane, Zinfandel, Syrah, Barbera, Alicante Bouschet and Mourvedre. Limited time only; but Besieged is the first of an ongoing Storyteller Series, via which Founding Winemaker Joel Peterson interprets aspects of the winery and its vineyards in completely new blends.
SRP $15.99

IN THE BLACK OF THE NIGHT….

Few brands have excelled in the blended arena like Menage à Trois. The front label wastes no time appealing to shoppers’ sensual side: “Let the deep, dark magic of Midnight embrace you.” Though not a limited-edition, Ménage à Trois “Midnight” is produced in small batches of numbered lots, composed of Merlot, Cabernet, Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot. The 2012 vintage already sold out; 2013 is entering the pipeline.
SRP $13.99

RETURNING TO A DARK PLACE.

Named for the mysterious place, Apotheca, where vintners stored their most coveted concoctions in 13th century Europe, Apothic Red has been one of the most remarkable Cali red-blend debuts of recent memory. Apothic Dark is back this Q4, again for a limited time only, with the brand’s signature smooth style deepened via Petite Sirah, Teroldego and Merlot.
SRP $14

Building Brands One Drink At A Time

Posted on | September 28, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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Marty Crane, Jeff Agdern and Bryan Fry of Pernod Ricard USA, in the NYC corporate office-photographed by Andrew Kist

The last time this publication featured Pernod Ricard on its cover—in September 2003—the company had, in a very short time, transformed itself from a small player in the U.S. market with a few brown spirits brands, to the third largest wine and spirits company in the world through a steady stream of acquisitions and organic growth.

Eleven years later, Pernod Ricard is a different company yet again. The acquisition of mega-brands including Malibu, Kahlúa, Perrier-Jouët, Absolut, Avión and Kenwood, along with massive growth of Jameson (up over 400% to 4 million cases globally) have bumped Pernod Ricard up to the world’s second largest wine and spirits giant. With $12 billion of annual revenue and 19,000 employees, Pernod Ricard understands what it takes to achieve phenomenal growth on premium brands in spite of a global recession and ever-fiercer competition.

“Premiumization is about layering more and more authenticity in the brands,” declares Bryan Fry, President & CEO, Pernod Ricard USA. “The U.S. market is the largest, most profitable and exciting place in the world for our industry because you have the most advanced cocktail culture anywhere, and a consumer who is intensely curious. No matter what you hear about growth in Asia, this is not going to change for a very long time.”

Why The U.S. Consumer Rules

Inquisitive consumers are critical for a portfolio like Pernod Ricard’s, says Fry. Americans are hungry for innovation, brand extensions, craft production and above all, stories: “They want to know why Glenlivet is a great single malt, what the Jameson distillery is doing differently, and how Martell has been making Cognac for 300 years. The art of storytelling has come back and it has changed the way we engage consumers today; it informs our store approach and all our digital campaigns.”

Storytelling is not new for Pernod Ricard. When Paul Ricard launched his company in Marseille, France, in the 1930s, his business strategy was to engage bartenders and shopkeepers one by one. Ricard had the charisma—and the product quality—to create fast converts who would in turn sell and promote his brand, the anise-flavored Ricard liqueur, to others. “It’s almost like Facebook or social networking today,” says Marty Crane, SVP, Spirits Sales, Pernod Ricard USA. “This is how he built the company, one drink at a time.”

No brand is more evidence of this than Jameson. “The key ingredient in Jameson’s success is advocacy—consumers selling other consumers,” explains Crane, who has worked with Jameson since 2001, when the brand’s annual sales were 100,000 cases in the U.S. It is set to break 2 million here this year. “I’m not sure that many Jameson fans even realize it is Irish whiskey—it’s transcended the category,” he adds.

The Jameson phenomenon is part of a larger whisky explosion in general, a trend that Fry admits “not a lot of us saw coming.” New consumers are flocking to the bourbon, rye, Scotch and Irish whiskey categories in droves and Fry notes that, encouragingly, it is happening across every price point: “We see growth in the $20-$30 segment, and right up to the $300-plus range, which is really impressive.” To capture the whiskey trade-up, Jameson created Black Barrel, a super-premium whiskey that is aged longer and packs more flavor than the original, which was released in select markets last year, and is set to roll out nationally this fall.  

Millennials in the tech industry have emerged as an interesting—and influential—consumer group, notes Fry: “They spend all day focusing on things that change every five seconds, so at the end of the day they want to experience something that has been in the barrel for 10 or 20 years.” They have formed tasting groups and have become passionate advocates for brands like Aberlour, Midleton and Redbreast. “The challenge with this consumer is never to get too pretentious with our message,” says Fry.

Avión’s Super-Premium Success Story

A young brand with Jameson-like momentum, believes Crane, is Avión. The ultra-premium tequila is only five years old, yet grew 93% last year to hit 52,000 cases. In July, Pernod Ricard upped their investment from 20% to take a majority stake in the brand. “I get the same feeling about this brand that I did about Jameson—it has the same energy and excitement,” Crane says.

Over the last few years, Pernod Ricard saw serious engagement with bartenders and consumers. “One of the greatest things about the U.S. consumer is that they like to try new things,” says Fry. “Patrón has really owned this space, but Avión is a great-tasting liquid with an unbelievably dynamic founder, Ken Austin, and we are seeing growth rates at a level we’ve never experienced before in regard to a super-premium brand.”

Avión Silver leads, followed by the Reposado and Añejo, and two innovative line extensions—Avión Espresso; and Reserva 44, a $150 extra-Anejo aged 44 months. A surprise top seller in the line-up is the 375ml size: “The smaller size has been great for recruitment—consumers don’t have to lay out $40, they can try the 375ml for $20, and it has really worked,” says Crane. With significant traction in the on-premise across the line-up, Crane sees Avión well on its way to becoming a very big brand.

Staying On Top of The Most Competitive Category

Since Pernod Ricard purchased Absolut in 2008 for $8.3 billion, the vodka segment has become increasingly “tough,” to use Crane’s word, even for one of the industry’s most iconic brands. And yet Absolut—the number one imported vodka brand and Pernod Ricard’s number one global priority—made an interesting move in recent years: It took a price increase.

“Absolut is arguably the most distributed item in the business, and it’s constantly under attack, just as all the top brands in our industry are,” explains Crane. “The price increase was unusual in the vodka category, but it is truly reflective of the brand image and the incredible amount of money we spend promoting it to the consumer.”

In addition to a step up in price designed to reinforce the brand’s premium image, the company unveiled the ultra-premium line extension, Absolut Elyx (see sidebar). “We want to take the same dynamics that are driving the whiskey category and bring them into other categories, like vodka,” says Fry.

Founder Michel Roux forged close ties between Absolut and the creative arts community in the 1980s, and the brand continues to get lots of attention for coveted limited edition releases such as the City Series, and a new Warhol bottle hitting the market now. Yet the heart of the brand remains Absolut Blue Label, the original, which represents over 75% of the franchise business. Of the 14 flavors, Citron and Mandarin are top sellers; Citron is practically a brand in itself.

Managing a mature brand of Absolut’s size is all about sales execution, which Pernod Ricard refers to as “the last three feet.” “My sales team controls pricing, promotion, distribution, shelving, back bar and menu placement,” explains Crane. “The majority of consumers have still not made their decision when they walk up to the shelf or the bar, so it is critical that we do all these things perfectly.”

Like most major spirits brands, Absolut aims to attract the sought-after Millennial consumer, yet with a sales volume of 5 million cases in the U.S., its demographic is in fact much wider. “It’s really a brand that spans from the LDA drinker until as long as you live,” Crane says.  

A Growing Wine Empire
 
Known primarily as a spirits giant, Pernod Ricard has been steadily increasing its share in the wine and Champagne categories, with publically stated plans to keep growing. “Pernod Ricard is very bullish on the wine category in the U.S.; we are putting a real stake in the ground,” says Jeff Agdern, SVP, Wines & Champagnes. “We have aspirations to become a very major player in the wine category.”

With the Allied Domecq acquisition in 2005, Pernod Ricard morphed into somewhat of a Champagne behemoth overnight, adding G.H. Mumm and Mumm Napa, as well as the iconic Perrier-Jouët brand to its portfolio. Famous for its close ties to the visual arts community and its roots in art nouveau, Perrier-Jouët has continued to innovate under Pernod Ricard’s leadership. Most recently, the brand partnered with Brazilian artist, Vic Muniz, who created a stunning new rosé package with a hummingbird.

For Mumm, the company has formed quite a different alliance—as the official sponsor of Formula 1 racing. Also, via limited edition bottles, VAP and themed outer cartons, Mumm will be offering fans the opportunity to download a new David Guetta song this fall, and the brand will be part of his new music video. (The musician has over 52 million Facebook fans.)

While bubbly sales are concentrated around the holiday season (less so for Mumm Napa), it is not a one-time purchase for many people. “That is where the difference between on- and off-premise comes in,” Agdern explains. “Champagne buyers are drinking all year round, particularly on-premise.” There is also the still-booming nightclub occasion where accounts are opening a high volume of bottles every night. “We still have a bit of a job to get people into the mindset of regular Champagne consumption,” Agdern shares.

The Allied portfolio also brought Pernod Ricard the largest brand in New Zealand, Brancott. Today it’s at 200,000 cases in the U.S., and while Sauvignon Blanc dominates by far, Agdern is noticing an appetite for other varieties, particularly Pinot Grigio from the brand’s recently introduced sub-range, Flight Song.

Graffigna has also grown—from zero to 100,000 cases in the U.S. over the last decade, and is one of the most awarded Malbec producers from Argentina. Roughly 45% of the brand’s volume is on-premise, in by-the-glass placements, which is a testament to its quality and value. A recent tie-in promotion with Riedel glassware aims to build this business.

Jacob’s Creek, part of Pernod Ricard since 1989, has held its ground—no small achievement in the struggling Australian category. “Jacob’s Creek has weathered the storm better than most is because it is a real, credentialed wine brand, unlike many of the fabricated critter brands that have come and gone,” explains Agdern. Pernod Ricard plans to reassert its premium-ness via a package makeover for the entire line. “Australia is one of the great wine producing regions in the world and it’s our responsibility to revitalize this category, and not just for our brand,” he adds.

The biggest recent news is Pernod Ricard’s acquisition of the iconic Sonoma brand, Kenwood, in May. There is tremendous opportunity, Agdern believes, for a brand that while holding steady at an impressive half million case annual volume, had “become a little sleepy.” A packaging overhaul is in the works, but in the short term, Agdern plans to simply reacquaint consumers with the legendary brand, founded in 1970. “Kenwood is not in great distribution throughout the country—40% of its sales are in California,” he notes. “Right now we are working to get the wines on display, and get people tasting a brand they may have overlooked in favor of sexier labels.” In some cases, pricing might increase: “We want to make sure we position Kenwood as the premium Sonoma wine it is.”

In addition to acquiring, Pernod Ricard has also been innovating, most notably with Deadbolt. In year one it went from 18,000 to 60,000 cases, becoming the best-selling new red blend by value over the last 12 months (ending in July). The brand targets a Millennial male audience, and Agdern’s team will release a limited edition by tattoo artist David Hale this month.

Millennials seem eager to experiment with lesser-known varieties, Agdern observes. This is good news for Campo Viejo, which has quietly emerged as the number one Spanish brand by value in the food and drug sector. “We believe Tempranillo could be the next grape that gains widespread recognition; it’s similar to Malbec in taste profile, just not as well known,” says Agdern.

Habla Demographics?

Suppliers once viewed the U.S. market state by state. Today, it’s all about demographics when it comes to understanding consumer behavior, and the growing Hispanic population affords huge growth opportunity, for companies who get it right. “The Hispanic market is really exciting,” says Fry. “Look at the blended Scotch category across the country—it’s not doing much. But if you carve out the Hispanic market, it’s very healthy.” Pernod Ricard has long activated within the Hispanic market for Chivas, which just had its best year ever (interestingly, while Chivas skews off-premise in the general market, it is an on-premise brand within the Hispanic demographic).

Last year Martell unveiled Caractére, an extension designed for the Hispanic market. “We know that Cognac is seen as very premium with Hispanic consumers and Martell has a lot of brand recognition in countries where many U.S. Hispanics have emigrated from, yet they hadn’t previously engaged with the brand,” says Fry. Caractére features a more accessible price point, and a taste profile that works well for sipping solo yet is also highly mixable with soda or juice.

Bright Spots On The Economic Horizon

Softness in the on-premise sector has been a particular challenge for Pernod Ricard USA. “Brands—particularly premium ones—are built in the on-premise; it’s the best place to succeed with new innovation,” says Crane. “Particularly when looking at products like high-end single malt Scotch over $100; without trial on-premise, it is very hard to recruit consumers.”

While the fine dining segment, particularly in large cities, recovered nicely, and counter service establishments have seen huge growth, the casual dining segment—Olive Garden, TGIF, Outback Steakhouse—still struggle. “We have partnered with many establishments to find ways to increase drinks per check and better use their menus to drive sales,” says Fry. One very successful promotion—an Avión Watermelon Margarita at Outback Steakhouse—sold 50,000 drinks in less than two months.

Both executives are optimistic signs of recovery. Indeed, recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows eating and drinking place sales totaled $47.3 billion in July, the strongest monthly volume on record, making for a 6.2% increase over a 12 month period, thanks to steady job growth and improved consumer confidence.

Leveraging The Middle Tier

As the market continues to rebound, Pernod Ricard is in a stronger position than ever to reach consumers. The company recently solidified its distributor partnerships, signing agreements with Southern Wine & Spirits, RNDC, Martignetti and Major Brands; as of this fall, Pernod Ricard’s portfolio will have dedicated sales people and in some cases entire divisions, focusing exclusively selling its brands. “Our distributors are in the brand-building business as much as we are,” says Fry. “We have 250,000 customers in the U.S. and to touch all of them we need that middle tier. If we sit around with our wholesalers and battle over a $1 margin, we won’t get anywhere. We need to be highly connected and intertwine our interests. After all, no one makes money in this industry until the consumer picks up a bottle and takes a drink.”

Gearing Up For Holiday Reward

There is no point in denying it, says Fry, “the OND [October November December] period is absolutely critical, particularly for our business which is skewed premium to super-premium.” The good news for portfolios like Pernod Ricard’s is that the research shows that the consumer trades up in a significant way during the holiday period. “First there is celebrating, where we see a lot of trade up, then there is gifting,” Fry says. “Even the standard consumer will purchase luxury brands, and that is the opportunity we want to take full advantage of.”

The execution of value-added packaging (VAP) is inherently complex, says Crane, and the best strategy is to keep it simple and not overcomplicate the offering: “We want to seize the opportunity for gift-giving and want to tie every VAP back to the brand identity.”

About 40% of Pernod Ricard’s Champagne sales happen in November and December, primarily at retail. “Champagne has become even more of a spontaneous purchase, which is why in-store VAP is so crucial,” Agdern notes. Look for a limited-edition VAP for Brut and Grand Rose called Enchanted Nature, designed by Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones.

It’s not surprising to learn that brands that perform best during the holidays are those that are heavily promoted all year long. “The true value for a brand is what you do outside of the holiday window, and we are spending at some of the highest levels in the industry,” says Crane.

Social Responsibility 2.0

Longtime champions of responsible drinking, Pernod Ricard USA is a core member of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (FAAR), formerly The Century Council has been targeting their responsibility blitz at the retail tier. “The education at that level can always improve, so we offer simple tools like hand-outs, flyers, stickers and staff education,” says Fry. Recently, the company partnered with Alcohoot, creator of breathalyzers that plug into smartphones which enable users to measure their BAC by downloading a single app (they are as accurate as police devices). The app also offers an Activity Tracker so users can learn about their behavior and how their bodies process alcohol. “Everyone has to take responsibility for their own actions, but we want to do our best to provide helpful tools and educate.”

The Magic of Elyx

When Jonas Tahlin, CEO of Absolut Elyx—now based in the U.S.—gives his tasting note, “hints of fruit, macadamia nuts and a hint of vanilla,” he’s not describing a Single Malt Scotch, but rather the ultra-premium addition to the Absolut family. “That is the most important thing about the way Absolut Elyx tastes—that it actually has character,” he explains. “And also unlike most vodkas, you can roll it around in your mouth like you would a Scotch.”

The reason for this is the way Elyx is produced. While Absolut sources wheat from southern Sweden, the wheat for Elyx is hand-harvested from a single farm, the Rabelof estate. Its pristine water (like Absolut’s) is thousands of years old from a proprietary deep well. Distilled in a 1921 copper still, with the addition of “sacrificial copper” to achieve the ultimate purity and texture, Absolut Elyx weighs in at 42.3% abv. “The higher alcohol content gives it a superior mouthfeel,” says Tahlin. “One might think that higher strength would be less smooth, but in this case it creates a silkier texture.” Packaged in a “work of art”-styled bottle which helps to tell the story of its unique production process, Elyx is the jewel of the Absolut portfolio.

“Strategically, Absolut Elyx—at twice the price of Absolut—is consistent with Pernod Ricard’s philosophy of premiumization,” notes Tahlin, who (with a “special task force” of eight dedicated people) has been charged with growing Elyx in the U.S. market—a global top priority for the brand. “We are trying to add profit to the value chain for distributors and retailers. We believe Elyx could be incredibly successful in the U.S. in the not-so-distant future.”

For the last year, Absolut Elyx has been available in limited quantities to roughly 1,000 mostly on-premise accounts in nine cities. Interestingly, consumers have no problem understanding that a truly hand-crafted, small-batch, super-premium vodka could come from a huge supplier like Absolut. “Once we explain how it is made, which is also communicated through the package, the consumer appreciates how different this is,” says Tahlin. “A decade ago, there were stereotypical images of luxury—caviar, yachts—but today people aren’t wearing brands as badges. They want something authentic that someone has truly worked hard on to make fantastically good.”

Sicily Erupts

Posted on | September 27, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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A sunset vista seen at Spadafora in the hilly area of the Virzì, district, between Palermo and Alcamo.

Diverse terroirs, unusual grapes and modern techniques put this prolific Italian island on the rise

Sicily lies in the Mediterranean at the toe of Italy’s boot, an ancient crossbreed, geographically and culturally, of Europe, Africa and the Middle East.  Vineyards and the business of exporting wine have flourished here for millennia. Arabs, Greeks, Romans and others arrived with grapevines that, variously, loved the hot climate, persistent winds, sandy seaside soils and volcanic ash of Mt. Etna, the island’s still-active volcano and its most prominent physical feature. They still do.

Yet in the nascent 21st century the Sicilian wine industry is still emerging—rediscovering ancient native grapes by the handful, matching those as well as international varietals with terroirs, experimenting with blends and introducing new technology to the vineyard and winery. And finding an identity in the marketplace.

Multiple Wine Personalities

Make that identities, for there are about two dozen DOCs and a remarkable range of growing conditions: From arid terraces of bush vines on Pantelleria, where wind-dried Zibibbo grape berries are fermented with fresh must to create Donnafugata’s distinctive Ben Ryé passito. To the salt-splashed sea-front of Favignana, in the Egadi Islands west of Trapani, where the Di Gaetano family recently re-planted (after a century’s absence) five hectares of Perricone, Nero d’Avola, Grillo, Zibibbo and Catarratto to make under their Firriato label. To intense 950F early-August days that make night harvest in 600F imperative to preserve aromas. To Etna’s wild weather swings and 3,500-plus-foot elevations which contribute to making some of the most flavorful complex and exquisite wines in today’s competive world.     

For decades Sicily hid its bounty as a ghost producer, a prolific growing region nonetheless shipping much of its harvest to the north of Italy and shores beyond—to be bottled, labeled and sold ambiguously. It was a land of co-ops, with a few families—notably the Tasca d’Almerita clan at Regaleali for over 200 years—as standard-bearing producers for what the wines could be, particularly with their flagship Nero d’Avola, Rosso del Conte. Now with five estates, they continue to produce over 3 million bottles annually.

Etna Leads The Way

Giuseppe LoCascio, brand management director at the importer and distributor Winebow, has seen the Tasca influence, followed by that of Planeta, Cusumano, Spadafora and other new-generation families, in shedding the anonymous co-op image and expanding quality production. “And thank God for Etna,” he says, “because it was an important force behind [quality] growth.” Mt. Etna has become both a sexy symbol of Sicilian wine with the press and a tourist draw—helping drive all Sicilian sales.   

“Sommeliers have really gotten into it, even in smaller markets,” LoCascio says, “but retail is more fuzzy. The wines are not so much misunderstood…but hard for the consumer to grasp, when there are at least four distinct styles from Etna alone.”

Steven McDonald, wine director at Pappas Steakhouse Houston (previously with Altamarea Group and Mercer Kitchen in New York City), says Sicilian products are frequently misunderstood by wine drinkers, “except maybe in Italian restaurants in New York. Sicily, still, in some ways, is struggling to figure themselves out. Etna is the most exciting. As long as the focus stays on what they have—quality, nuanced wines.” He sells those on his list (10 out 3,500 selections) by relating them to Piedmont or Tuscany.

Selling Sicily

That kind of comparison works elsewhere, too. Hristo Zisovski, beverage director for the Altamarea Group, says, “All of our lists [at 11 restaurants worldwide, including Marea in New York] have Sicilian wine, which is an important dimension to lists for value and individual styles. It’s one of our crossover regions for people who like Burgundy or Côtes du Rhone but don’t want to spend big bucks. It has quality, but I am happy I can offer it for $50 or $60; but some of the best from Etna go for $150.  We introduce it as higher acid, more aromatic. There is finesse and freshness in these wines. Well, it’s one island with so many options.”

“It’s interesting to see this concentration from one island,”  says Sebastian Zutant, co-owner/sommelier, The Red Hen, Washington, DC, who puts Sicily “at the forefront” of his eclectic list.  “They are producing stuff the world hasn’t seen.”  And he doesn’t mean just unknown grapes but the flavor profiles—from the workhorse signature Nero d’Avola and chameleon-like Grillo to Carricante, Catarratto, Grecanico,  Nerello Mascalese, Nerollo Capuccio, Perricone, Frappato…. “The wines are not as lean as Burgundy. They are flavor-packed. Earthy, bright fruit, intense minerality. Many are organic or biodynamic,” says Zutant. And, above all, “balanced.”    
 
Bill Terlato, CEO of Terlato Wines International, who added Cusumano to his portfolio only a year ago, appreciates that some have tired of Nero d’Avola.  “Nerello Mascalese is the darling of sommeliers now,” he says of Etna’s signature red. “Consumers, though, are in the early stages of discovery. There is approachable pricing and good value. But there is still education needed.”   

In the 1970s, when the retail shop Pike and Western opened in Seattle, owner Michael Teer says France and Italy were backbone of his inventory and Sicilian wines were “cheap easy-to-drink stuff.” Now he sells to a generation whose palates were trained on Washington wines. “In our corner of the wine world Sicily is not so much misunderstood as not well-known,” says Teer. “But Sicily has been easier to introduce than other [unfamiliar] categories because of the flavors. People may think they are big, heavy clumsy reds—when the opposite is true. Uniqueness of terroir is what we emphasize.”

And, in some ways, the new Sicily pioneers have only started to dig into the terroir of their fertile wine island.

The Range of Sicilian Wines: 9 to Know

Tenuta della Terre Nere Etna Rosso Prephylloxera La Vigna di Don Peppino. When Marc de Grazia, an importer of small fine Italian producers, choose to make his own wine, he went to Etna. At Terre Nere hundreds of thousands of years of volcanic eruptions created a mosaic of nurturing soil variations and old vines maintain phylloxera-resistance.

Bianco di Morgante. This swoon-worthy white wine made from Nero d’Avola has the best characteristics of both red and white—freshness, boldness, mouthfuls of robust tree  fruit with the softest hints of vanilla.  And balance, of course. Its versatility makes it a go-to for a menu of diverse foods or the indecisive.

Stemmari Baci Vivaci. A new low-alcohol, entry-level (below $10) sparkler with citrusy (grapefruit and lime) flavors and refreshing soft effervescense. Made with 100% Grillo, traditionally the grape for making Marsala, organically grown.

Ribeca (Firriato). Consistently highly rated by many, the 2007 and 2009 vintages were named best red wine of Italy by Annuario dei Migliori Vini Italiani (Luca Maroni). It is 100% Perricone, historically a blending grape (especially for wines released from northern Italy); but with technical advances to control temperatures, etc., stands on its own here.

Tancredi (Donnafugata). The Rallo family has experimental plantings of non-autochthonous varietals at Contessa Entellina. Blending Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat from those plantings with Nero d’Avola, they have created a red that gains nuance complexity with cellar aging.

Spadafora Syrah. Francesco Spadafora says, “To sell Spadafora you have to explain why wines are different from a hot land like Sicily, not that it resembles an Australian Syrah.” He—and the relentless hot sunshine—achieve a distinctive nimble elegance from all-organic plantings. “Organic is the way I live, the way I see life. And the thing that annoys me most is that now it’s become more marketing that reality.”

Quater (Firriato). Exemplary red blend (Nero d’Avola, Perricone, Frappato, Nerello Cappuccio) and white blends (Grillo, Catarratto, Carricante, Zibibbo) that exploit the best  from Trapani vineyards.

Cusumano Nero d’Avola and Insolio. Exemplary single-varietal (Sicily’s signature grapes) red and white wines, all estate-grown and -bottled, from high-elevation (snow-covered in winter), low-yield vineyards. 

“ Planeta.  Less than 20 years ago terroir drove the choice to establish separate wineries, now six, in distinct growing areas. The Planeta family planted indigenous as well as international varietals, matching Chardonnay, Merlot, et al each to a terroir that would put a Sicilian stamp on the wine. They have joined with the Rallo family to research and revive clones of ancient grapes.

Bar Talk: Informal Elegance

Posted on | September 27, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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Adam Bernbach, Bar Director of ‘2 Birds, 1 Stone’ Underground Bar

A vet of Washington, DC’s cocktail circuit—he first made waves at the cherished Bar Pilar—Adam Bernbach has his hands full as bar director of restaurateur Mark Kuller’s motley establishments, including doi moi, Estadio and Proof. Here, he delves into the inner workings of doi moi’s bona fide subterranean cocktail joint, 2 birds, 1 stone.

THE BEVERAGE NETWORK: The DC cocktail scene has drastically changed—for the better—in recent years. What did you want to bring to the capital’s evolving drinking culture with 2 birds, 1 stone?

ADAM BERNBACH: A nice bar with an informal elegance. I wanted a place where guests could be comfortable without the weight of any expectation other than that of being guaranteed an excellent cocktail and having a fun time with friends.

TBN: What is one of the biggest differences you’ve noticed about customer drinking habits since your Bar Pilar days?

AB: Guests are significantly more educated now, and they have a more detailed idea of what they want. Palates have become more expansive. Customers ordering Manhattans, martinis and whiskey sours are doing so differently than before. The anticipation for quality vermouth and fresh juice is present and expressed, whereas that wasn’t always the case in years past.

TBN: Why the decision for your oft-changing, handwritten, illustrated menu?

AB: I like the freedom of it, and I like the idea of not being wedded to one solid structure for a long period of time. In terms of the drawings, the menus are kind of fun and silly. They lend a certain frivolity, which ties right back into the comfortable, easy atmosphere we hope to offer. They also provoke conversation and engagement both among guests and between staff and customers.

TBN: Because DC’s drinking scene has gotten savvier, are you noticing that most guests express a sense of openness to trying these new creations?

AB: Yes, and I think that sometimes that drives us almost to a fault. When we first opened, we expected to make more drinks along the lines of the classics that we’ve now detailed on the back of the menu. But the guests’ responses, what they were communicating to us, was that they wanted more of the out-there, creative drinks. Not only was there more openness and intrigue to try them, but an insistence upon it.

TBN: What do you have planned for the fall?

AB: We’ll be bringing back the Fall Pimm’s Cup [cinnamon-infused Pimm’s, gin, spicy ginger beer]. The Brit Meaw [bourbon and carrot soda] will run through October as will the Grand Army of the Republic [rye whiskey, cranberry syrup, lime juice, Fernet Branca].

TBN: Was the decision to include classics on the menu a reminder that guests aren’t relegated to just ordering the modern concoctions?

AB: In addition to regular bar costs, the originals also come with additional labor costs because we need to employ prep staff to make large quantities of the more labor-intensive ingredients. This meant the overall menu became all $14 cocktails, and that’s not what we wanted to be about. We wanted to find a way to communicate to guests who might not otherwise have known that we also do a lot of great cocktails that are $9 and $10. We’re happy to make classic cocktails requested by our guests, and the few that we call out are ones we personally enjoy drinking.

TBN: Despite 2 birds, 1 stone’s informal atmosphere, how do you ensure that hospitality is still a priority?

AB: The simple answer is when I sit down to hire somebody from a list of applicants I hire the nicest person that I talk to. Obviously there is ongoing education and training involved for everyone on the team, but at the heart of it, I seek out warm and friendly people who genuinely want their guests to have a good time.

The Find: October 2014

Posted on | September 26, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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SAVING RARE ASIAN LEOPARDS WITH NEW POLISH VODKA
Though Snow Leopard Vodka is distilled in Poland from the rare spelt grain, its spirit is in Asia where the endangered big cat roams. There are fewer than 3,500 Snow Leopards left, and founder Stephen Sparrow created this vodka to benefit the Snow Leopard Trust; 15% of all profits are donated. “Our goal is to sell 150,000 cases of Snow Leopard vodka annually, generating enough revenue and awareness to safeguard the Snow Leopard’s future,” Sparrow says. Distilled six times, with a smooth texture and a deliciously fresh, sweet nutty taste, Snow Leopard Vodka is distributed internationally by Edrington Group. SRP $34.99/750ml. edrington.com

 

 

GREY GOOSE BREAKS NEW GROUND WITH ‘VX’
Finished with a dash of Cognac, Grey Goose VX (for “Vodka Exceptionnelle”) has pushed vodka in a bold new direction and given the brand a new luxury spirit. VX was crafted by Maitre d Chai François Thibault, who began his career in Cognac. “I am inspired by both the authentic and the innovative—drawing from the best of the past to create something new and meaningful. This is how Grey Goose VX came to be,” said Thibault. “This is a very special liquid, which can only be produced in limited quantities to uphold its superior character. It is truly a celebration of French craftsmanship.” Best enjoyed on the rocks in a snifter, or simply chilled and neat, its rich and aromatic character features blossoms, plum, apricot, light citrus and wild honey. 80 proof. SRP $74.99/750ml, $97.99/1L. | greygoose.com

IS PEACH THE NEXT BIG THING IN SPIRITS?
According to Beverage Information Group, peach is the #1 flavor introduced in consumer products since 2013. Two new spirits products are ready to take the peach bandwagon for a ride.

Heaven Hill is releasing Christian Brothers Peach—VS Brandy infused with peach flavors—aiming to replicate the success of Christian Brothers Honey, which has grown more than 26% since 2013. Bottled at 70 proof, the new expression is available in 50ml, 375ml and 750ml (SRP $10.99). Marketing materials, will utilize the Christian Brothers’ “CB & …” tagline by adding “CB &…a taste of peach.” heavenhill.com

Meanwhile, don’t try telling Svedka that flavored vodka is fading. Hot on the heels of Strawberry Lemonade and Mango Pineapple, the brand is introducing Svedka Peach, a blend of imported Swedish vodka with aromatic notes of ripe peaches, producing a warm, sweet entry followed by a gentle pear finish. Available in 50ml, 375ml, 750ml (SRP $12.99), 1L and 1.75L (SRP $21.99). 70 proof. svedka.com

SUNTORY FUELS JAPANESE WHISKY INTEREST
Quietly, Japan has become a connoisseur’s go-to source for high-end whisky. Suntory’s Hibiki brand symbolizes nature and the subtleties found in the 24 seasons of the traditional Japanese calendar. Hibiki 17 Years (SRP $150) features aromatics including peach, apricot, melon and rose, followed by a complex palate of coffee, black cherry, vanilla and Mizunara (Japanese oak) and sweet fruity and lychee aftertaste. Hibiki 21 Years (SRP $250) is bronze-amber, with cooked fruit, blackberry and banana on the nose and sandalwood, honey, dried fruit and Mizunara on the palate, leading into a rich, intense finish.
suntory.com/whisky

Brand Profile: Meet the Famigila Punzoné

Posted on | September 25, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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Certified organic & authentically Italian, this trio is winning over Americans.

Frank Guerrera, CEO & Founder

Frank Guerrera was working as a finance executive when his passion for flavor, entertaining and healthy living inspired him to create a refreshing blood orange cocktail he dubbed Punzoné. That’s Italian for “punch.”

“I just love to entertain and I made this special cocktail that guests went crazy for,” recalls Guerrera. “They were asking me to bring it to their parties and encouraging me to make it available for sale.” That’s where most stories of home recipes end, but not for Guerrera, who spent six years navigating the laws of the U.S. and the geography of Italy to fulfill his vision for Punzoné Originale, launching it in 2012. Now, the same charisma and quality drinks that enamored his guests are attracting imbibers on a national scale.

The certified organic blood orange-flavored Punzoné Originale connects with consumers on multiple levels. Crafted by combining vodka with Sangiovese-based sangria from Abruzzi and blood oranges from Calabria, Punzoné reflects the creator’s passion for the best of Italy while tapping into the American appreciation for food and wine of real provenance.

Organic Challenge

Punzoné Originale is joined by Punzoné Lemoncino, a blend based on Chardonnay-based sangria and Sicilian lemons, marketed with the emphatic tagline “Not Lemoncello!” to avoid confusion with the much sweeter liqueur. The effort to source complex blends like these from organic ingredients presented huge challenges. “Every grape, every farm, every ingredient, has to be certified organic,” Guerrera says.

At 34 proof and SRP of $34.99/1L, the two Punzoné flavors fit comfortably with both the heath-conscious organic consumer and luxury spirits buyer. “This product is organic, but people feel good having it in their ice bucket for bottle service because it embraces the best of Italy, just like their art, architecture and cars,” he says. “These products are especially appealing to fashionable and sophisticated women, but I also know plenty of men who will enjoy a bottle.”

While Punzoné Originale and Punzoné Lemoncino are generally enjoyed on the rocks, or shaken with ice and strained, both products are equally at home as the foundation for a simple spritzer, or even sipped from a snifter and paired with a cigar, says Guerrera, who discovered the latter at the suggestion of actor Armand Assante “I can’t pigeonhole them! Over 70% of sales are off-premise, but there are also mixologists doing incredible things with these blended vodkas,” he adds.

The family is rounded out by Punzoné Vodka, an unflavored 80-proof spirit distilled from organic Italian-grown wheat and using Italian Alps water, retailing at $39.99/1L. “This product is all about quality—five times distilled and simple and clean, just like Italian food,” says Guerrera. Retailers have the most success when all three products reside with the vodkas,  a practice encouraged by a three-product shelf talker. “The three products really complement each other, and the Italian vodka is a fairly unique proposition,” he says.

For the holidays, all three Punzoné  expressions are available in a co-pack, forming the foundation for 30 drink recipes available at punzone.com. Or, you can simply combine the three in equal parts and shake with ice for an organic luxury cocktail that brings together some of the finest flavors from across Italy. What to call such a cocktail? The Punzoné Famiglia, of course.  

Fedway Associates Visits Jackson Family Wines

Posted on | September 25, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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Members of the Fedway Associates team recently traveled to California to visit the wineries within the Jackson Family Wines portfolio. Jackson Family Wines CEO Don Hartford and Kendall-Jackson winemaster Randy Ullom were among the individuals that shared their stories. When Jess Jackson entered the wine business three decades ago, his goal was to create a family enterprise specializing in handmade wines of unmatched character.

Brand Profile: Twice As Nice

Posted on | September 24, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) unveils two new reds.

Some brands roll out line extensions faster than you can say “Moscato.” Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) takes a more measured approach. After all, the icon red of their Chilean estate Los Vascos is called “Le Dix” because it was first released a full 10 years after the original Cabernet. This fall, Pasternak Wine Imports is proudly hitting the streets with not one but two new wines. The focus of each is a timely, well-made, reserve-level red wine; and both are designed to enjoy now.

Making a Splash  in St. Emilion

In Bordeaux the focus is a logical leap, across the river to the Right Bank. The DBR (Lafite) St. Emilion Réserve Spéciale is not so much an innovation as an affirmation of excellence and diversity by a family firm that has been making wine in Bordeaux for five generations and currently across four properties. Diane Flamand and her winemaking team already have proven their Left Bank mettle, with a powerful, well-structured Pauillac Réserve Spéciale (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot).

With the fresh and fruity 2012 St. Emilion (82% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon), Flamand has crafted a wine whose aromatic invitation (berries, licorice) is followed with a food-friendly roundness. “You have a very soft and round attack and then well-integrated tannins,” Flamand describes, “and at the end a very nice freshness and good length.”

In short, this is classic Bordeaux in an approachable, Merlot-driven style, a wine of Lafite pedigree at an affordable price point (SRP $41.99).

Carrying the Carmenere Torch in Chile

DBR’s stake in Chile was planted in 1988 with the acquisition of Viña Los Vascos in the Colchagua Valley, where vines have thrived since 1750. Under the supervision of Eric Kohler, Technical Director for DBR (Lafite)’s International Estates, Los Vascos, with its 1,600 contiguous acres under vine, is treated with the same hands-on attention and held to the same standards as the producer’s French properties.

Here, DBR’s new project is the winery’s first take on Carmenere, Chile’s signature grape. With Carmenere’s rediscovery in Chile now well-told in America, the wine is entering its post-honeymoon phase; novelty alone won’t cut it. Which is why the introduction of the Carmenere Grande Réserve comes after three years of development by the Los Vascos technical team. Working on canopy management, irrigation, control of yields and the exact right time for picking, the goal was to isolate fruit that could provide optimum typicity, picked with just the right ripeness.

The Carmenere is estate-grown like Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon Grande Réserve, but unlike the Cabernet it is unblended. “We are looking for perhaps a more pure expression of the variety,” Kohler explains. “We are not obliged, but for us, because the Carmenere  grape is particularly interesting, with a strong character, we will try each year to do 100%.” Stylistically, the wine is generous with ripe fruit and spicy aromas; it displays “a freshness, close to greenness; not vegetal, but varietal” against a frame of soft tannins.

Like its sibling from across the Atlantic, the Carmenere Grande Réserve (SRP $19.99) represents a convergence of winemaking skill and terroir, yielding wine for immediate enjoyment. What else do these two wines—born in two different hemispheres—have in common? Above all, the Lafite house style of harmony, elegance and finesse. The Carmenere partly uses barrels made by DBR (Lafites)’s own cooperage in France. “We don’t like too much oak,” notes Charles Chevallier, Technical Director of the Bordeaux Chateaux. “By experience, the flavor of the wine has to be the most expressive component.”

One more parallel: both new red wines will enjoy a social media boost as well as energized street sales as the Pasternak sales force bolsters established placements and opens new ones across the country starting October 1st.

 
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