The Case for Vino Nobile

Posted on | February 25, 2016   Bookmark and Share
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New reasons to rediscover Montepulciano’s noble wine.

In the Tuscan trifecta of great wines, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano suffers from middle child syndrome—it’s largely ignored and often passed over. It’s a dramatic role reversal for a region that once dwarfed its neighbors—Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino—in both pedigree and esteem.

Vino Nobile (Vee-no NO-bee-lay), Montepulciano’s most important wine, got its name in the 1800s from the Medici family (it translates as “wine for nobles”); and the small region in Southeast Tuscany was the first in Italy to attain the prestigious DOCG status, in 1980.

During the second half of the 20th century, however, Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino ascended in fame and fortune, a result of outside investment and marketing savvy. Montepulciano slid backward. Quality slumped and the spotlight faded.

Yet a closer look at Montepulciano today reveals a more dynamic landscape. Younger winemakers, new ownership and a more international outlook are helping Montepulciano reclaim its reputation as one of Italy’s best sources for Sangiovese. The challenge remains getting people to recognize it.

“I’ve always felt a little sorry for Montepulciano,” says Ed McCarthy, author of Italian Wine for Dummies. “There are tons of great producers there and quality is better than ever, but they suffer from lack of recognition.” There are only about a dozen producers of Vino Nobile with good distribution in the U.S. And it doesn’t help, he adds, that the region gets confused with the grape Montepulciano grown in southern Italy’s Abruzzo region. The bulk of Montepulciano d’Abruzzos are of the cheap and quaffable variety, and Vino Nobile does not benefit from the association.

Fresh Twists, Old Roots

Sometimes a sleepy wine region needs a shot in the arm, and for Montepulciano, that would be Virginie Saverys. From a Belgian shipping family, Saverys bought the declining Avignonesi estate in 2009 and has become one of the most important ambassadors for Vino Nobile. She turned around the winery, purchased scores of new vineyards and converted the entire estate to organic farming. Avignonesi is the largest producer in Italy practicing biodynamic viticulture today (though not certified due to the use of  machine harvesters).

With her goal of “marrying the best of  the technology and biodynamic techniques,” she hired Australian winemaker, Ashleigh Seymour. Ironically, the foreign approach has restored an authentic Italian taste profile, and Avignonesi’s wines are some of the area’s most soulful and terroir-driven. Thanks to organic farming and a clean winery, the wines are more alive, says Seymour: “Hygiene has been a big problem in Montepulciano historically. When wineries are dirty, it mutes the fruit character that Sangiovese expresses.”

The Montepulciano Signature

Some describe Vino Nobile as less tannic and structured than Brunello and less acidic than Chianti Classico, and while this may have something to do with the region’s particular clone of Sangiovese (called Prugnolo Gentile) it’s likely more a factor of terroir and climate. With high average elevation, Montepulciano is more Mediterranean than Chianti, which gives softer acidity and riper fruit flavors, says Seymour, yet it’s not as warm as Montalcino, so the wines are lighter-bodied. “The signature profile here is spice, herbs, bright fruit and earth,” she describes.

Balance sets the region’s wines apart, says Giulio Caporali, who purchased the Valdipiatta estate in the 1980s and runs it with his daughter, Miriam. “Brunello has more muscle and Chianti can be tart; here we have balanced wines that are elegant and feminine,” he says. Vino Nobile’s aging requirements—just two years in cask compared to Brunello’s four—adds to their approachability, Caporali adds. While in general Brunello may achieve more complexity and have greater aging potential, Vino Nobile is fresher and more consumer-friendly out of the gate.

Montepulciano’s heavy clay soils also play a role. “The red soils in Montepulciano allow the roots to go very deep, which brings more minerality and fruit flavors than other parts of Tuscany,” says Luca De Ferrari who heads his family’s legendary Boscarelli estate with his brother, Nicolò, and mother, Paola. Boscarelli’s traditionally-styled wines are made in the family’s tiny, ultra-old-school, low-ceilinged winery which hasn’t changed much since the 1960s. (Boscarelli’s smoky, perfumed Il Nocio 2011 is particularly exquisite). “Yet we still have much to learn about these soils,” De Ferrari explains. “What is Vino Nobile? We are still defining.”

Nowhere is the balance between tradition and modernity more visible than at the ultra-sleek, brand new winery at Dei, run by Caterina Dei, a professional opera singer and granddaughter of the founder. The facility is gravity-fed, geothermal-heated and built out of travertine stone (the other Dei family business) and resembles a Roman amphitheater. Dei’s organically grown wines are lush, aromatic and fruit-driven; they are more modern for sure, yet still supremely elegant.

Sangiovese Reclaims Center Stage

The experimentation with international varieties, which held sway throughout Italy in recent decades, has been at work in Montepulciano as well. In fact, denomination rules recently increased the amount of non-Sangiovese grapes permitted in Vino Nobile to 30%. Yet quality producers today lean much more towards 100% Sangiovese for their Vino Nobile—a critical step for the region’s resurgence, believes Jeff Porter, the Beverage Director for Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group: “People today don’t want a homogeneous flavor profile, they want distinct expressions and the return to classic production styles. Focus on Sangiovese is key to expressing Montepulciano’s terroir. The region has stopped trying to be something they thought people wanted in the past.”

Young winemakers are passionately driving this trend. Alberto Brini, whose family acquired Il Conventino in 2003, was among the first in Montepulciano to farm organically. “Now that we better understand how to work with Sangiovese in the vineyard to tame its acidity and tannins, we don’t need grapes like Merlot,” Brini says. 

Michele Manelli, who founded Salcheto winery in 1997, takes a high-tech approach to the challenges of Sangiovese. “The soul of Vino Nobile is freshness—the biggest problem is greenness and rough tannins,” he says. Manelli worked with a scuba diving company to help design a system that traps CO2 given off during fermentation and pumps it back through the tank where it bubbles gently through the grapes—extracting more fruit flavors and less tannins. (Partially underground, Salcheto is 100% energy self-sufficient and is lit entirely by natural light brought through a system of pipes with mirrors.)

Along with the renewed focus on Sangiovese, another important shift is restraint in oak. “In the past five years, I have seen producers here really come to understand how to use oak barrels to highlight, not dominate the wines,” Porter observes. A legitimate criticism of Vino Nobile for years was that the fruit was drowned out by extended oak aging—or too much new French oak—but the pendulum has swung back.

Owner Frederico Carletti, whose family purchased Poliziano—the closest thing Montepulciano has to a household name in the U.S. market—made the decision to dial back on the oak in 2008 in favor of larger, more neutral casks for his Vino Nobile, and single vineyard trophy bottling Asinone. The wines are still bolder, darker and more powerful than many in the region, but fresher and more terroir-driven. “Like everyone, my palate evolves and we wanted a less oak influenced taste profile. People really want taste terroir today,” he says. Poliziano also made the move toward organic viticulture, and is experimenting with native yeasts. “The best expression of terroir isn’t always by sticking with tradition—we want more technology and less chemistry,” he observes.

Finding the Spotlight

Still, the region’s reputation has yet to catch up to the wine quality. There is a lot of discussion in Montepulciano over how to best achieve this. McCarthy recommends a name abbreviation: “For Americans, ‘Vino Nobile di Montepulciano’ is a mouthful—they should be marketing these wines simply as ‘Nobile.’”

One helpful selling point is their value. Most Vino Nobiles retail for less than $30, about half of what you would pay for Brunello in any vintage (and the region’s lesser wine, Rossi di Montepulciano, is more affordable still). “They offer terrific value for retailers and restaurants,” says Porter. “If someone wants a Brunello but has sticker shock, they can still have the identity of great Sangiovese with Vino Nobile,” says Porter.

Plus, they tend to be more reliable than Chianti, says McCarthy: “Because there is far less Vino Nobile produced, and even fewer that are exported here, they represent very solid quality. Compared with other parts of Tuscany, you’re not going to find too many dogs in Vino Nobile. ” 

Bar Talk: Ryan Valentine, Cameron Mitchell Restaurant

Posted on | February 25, 2016   Bookmark and Share
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Based in Columbus, Ohio, Cameron Mitchell Restaurant Group flaunts a portfolio spanning a dozen distinct concepts—from local hits like Marcella’s and the Guild House to the national upscale steak and seafood chain Ocean Prime. Ryan Valentine serves as Beverage Director of the entire group.

 

Beverage Media Group: Overseeing the drink lists of so many diverse restaurants must certainly be challenging.

Ryan Valentine: There is a lot of work and it makes things hectic, but also fun. I think I’d be bored otherwise. Each concept is unique, so at Marcella’s we might play with more Italian elements, like Prosecco or grappa. We make a vodka martini with fresh strawberries and balsamic. The Guild House is posh, so the cocktails take on a spa feel, with fresh juices and crushed ice. There, we’ll pair tequila with cinnamon, apricot liqueur, Ancho Reyes and peach bitters. To complement the food at Ocean Prime, there’s a focus on using fine spirits and making balanced cocktails like a punch with 8-year-old rum. Our drinks are meant to capture the vibe of each place.

BMG: Ocean Prime is a multi-restaurant operation. Is there one trend you’re noticing that is consistent across all locales?

RV: The Berries & Bubbles (Belvedere Citrus, marinated berries, housemade sour, Domaine Chandon brut) has been an unbelievable success. So has the Gimlet with Bombay Sapphire and muddled fresh cucumber. Ever since we opened, it’s never dipped below the second best-selling cocktail. For a gin drink, that’s amazing. It shows that our customers are savvy and love experimenting. We’ve been working hard on our menus for 10 years, using fresh ingredients when a lot of people weren’t, especially in the Midwest where we started. Now we have the curiosity to match.

BMG: With the beverage program such an integral part of the Cameron Mitchell restaurant culture, staff training must be a priority. What is your approach?

RV: Our mission is unintimidating education. We practice in role-play situations to make sure our staff members know how to introduce cocktails and talk about them and the ingredients they contain intelligently. They must be able to make it sound like it’s going to taste. For example, by using a local bourbon and Nocino, we found a different way to bring a classic like the Manhattan to life. It’s another reason why our staff need to know the products they use. They have to tell guests what Nocino [Italian liqueur made from unripe walnuts] is and how it makes the drink distinctive.

BMG: Education is clearly one of your cornerstones for good hospitality. What else is a priority?

RV: Often, you will go somewhere and notice an arrogant bartender acting as though you should be so lucky he or she made this drink for you. That style doesn’t work for us. We are hospitality-driven and want to make sure that we are creating an experience for our guests. Having an impressive cocktail menu doesn’t matter if we can’t make it an evening they enjoy and want to have again.

BMG: What’s around the bend that you are looking forward to?

RV: We just opened the Avenue Steak Tavern in Columbus. It’s a throwback, something you would have walked into in New York in the 1920s or ’30s with classic cocktails like the Sazerac and Margarita served in beautiful glassware. Five of the drinks are named for the New York boroughs. The Manhattan and Brooklyn are familiar, but it will be nice to see how the public reacts to those they might not know of like the Queens and Staten Island Ferry.  

Trendspotting: The Power of Paint

Posted on | February 25, 2016   Bookmark and Share
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Like Book Clubs in the 1990s, ‘Paint & Sip’ nights have become bonding experiences.

Stacy Miller knows exactly why people come to her Paint & Sip Studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side: “It works because it’s an alternative to a night out that’s not passive, that’s in a social environment, and that’s kind of like a party,” says the Chief Operating Officer, adding that a night spent painting and sipping is rewardingly interactive and eminently  affordable compared to an evening at a club or a movie.

In this, occasions where customers spend an evening drinking wine and painting pictures has become a surprisingly successful small business trend. There are at least four national paint and sip chains, and the two largest have almost 200 franchise units each. And that doesn’t include independent operations like Miller’s—all of which should give any wine retailer who has spare space, an inclination for art, and the proper liquor licenses canvas for thought.

The appeal? The paint and sip demographic, which roughly parallels that of Pinot Grigio fans. They’re women of a certain age who want to get out of the house but don’t necessarily want to be hassled in a bar or deal with the aggravation at the local cineplex. Paint and sip lets them drink wine, hang out with friends, and do something creative. A souvenir you can actually hang on your wall is icing on the cake. 

So what do you need to know if you want to let your customers paint and sip?

BYOB or retail? This depends not only on whether you have the inventory, and necessary employees but local liquor laws. Does your license allow you to do one or the other, if not both?

Paint supplies? Do you want to provide them, or let your customers bring their own? Or team up with a third party that takes care of the paint part while you take care of the other liquids.

Lessons or doodling? Most of the chains have instructors who guide customers through the process of creating a picture, but that’s not required. Sometimes, it’s as much about the social aspect—like-minded people getting together to visit, paint, and enjoy wine.

When can you do it? Most paint and sip events are held at night, which isn’t going to help someone who doesn’t stay open in the evening. On the other hand, for a store with limited open space, opening after hours may be the ideal approach.

• What to charge? The fee for an evening’s painting class, depending on the operator and location, is about $30 a person. Is it worth the time and trouble for the $400 in revenue to get a dozen people in at night? It certainly is if the event brings the participants back for the wine, sans paint.  

Why Négociants Still Matter

Posted on | February 25, 2016   Bookmark and Share
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Applying savoir-faire to regional French wines enables ‘middlemen’ to bring value to the U.S.market.

 

There was a time in the 1960s and ’70s when French wine merchants— négociants—had great influence as to which wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley were being consumed in America. 

Not only were they middlemen for expensive wines produced by châteaux and estates, the bigger négociants also produced under their own labels most of the affordable French wines purchased in restaurants, country clubs and retail shops. These négociant, or shippers’, wines were blends of grapes sourced from many farmers within a region—Bordeaux, Côtes-de-Rhône, Bourgogne—or sub-region—Pauillac, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Mâcon—which was prominently displayed on their labels.

Although these wines continued to have a presence, several developments reduced their ubiquity as the U.S. wine market grew steadily in the 1980s and ’90s—notably scandals about mislabeling of wines, the growing American preference for estate-grown wines and wines labeled by variety. 

In the early era of negociants, names such as Faiveley, Bouchard, Louis Jadot and others established themselves as reliable shippers of solid French wines at relatively modest prices and in good supply. This century, as the wine industry has grown large and complex, there is even more juice floating around, and the practice of sourcing, blending and bottling wine has spread well beyond France (Cameron Hughes and 90+ Cellars, for instance). It is quite common nowadays to find négociant, or multi-source, wines alongside estate wines under the same label.

Blended regional wines are well-suited to American tastes.

“Regional blends have the great advantage for the consumer of consistency in quality and taste year after year,” says Roland Quancard of Cheval Quancard, a Bordeaux-based négociant. “For the American wine merchant, there is the attraction of guaranteed volume. If the demand is there, we can always source more wine, which we can’t do with our château wines.”

Dennis Kreps of the family-owned Quintessential importers—which recently took over the gigantic Georges Duboeuf portfolio—says, “The attraction is two-fold. Stateside consumers are increasingly interested in where a wine is from. Also, blended wines remain the best bargain—great style and great prices.” Kreps believes that the well-reported shift of consumer interest to blended wines, whether from different varieties or from different growers within a region, has
fueled sales.

Romain Teyteau, North American Exports Director of Georges Duboeuf, which is strong in Burgundy and Beaujolais, agrees. “Look at Macon-Villages, for example—great Chardonnays for $10 to $15 retail, with overall exports up double-digits in 2015. And Beaujolais also has an incredible potential because of its ever-improving quality.”

Burgundy, Rhône and Languedoc getting hotter.

David Hinkle, Chief French Officer for Skurnik Wines, which imports Paul Jaboulet Aine, says, “There’s been a resurgence of interest in regional wines from northern Rhône, especially in Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph. And the industry is more interested in Provence these days.”

Rhône négociants such as M. Chapoutier have expanded south and west into Languedocin search of regional blends. The large French wine firm, Castel Frères now owns the historic Barton & Guestier line and is emphasizing wines from the Rhône and the South of France for American markets.

While pointing out négociants own 10% of Grand and Premier Cru vineyards, Denis Duveau, Vice Director of the Syndicat des Négociants, says, “There is not enough wine to supply the demand and sell Burgundyaround the word. That’s why négociants buy most of the Burgundy regional [unblended] wines. Making more simple ‘Bourgogne’  is a way to satisfy more customers.”

On the downside, Bordeaux is seeking better traction.

Although the Mouton-Cadet and Domaines Barons de Rothchild (Lafite) franchises continue to be well-represented, regional Bordeaux blends have struggled.

Other négociant brands that have held ground include Sirius and Dourthe. This may be the one area of France where Americans tend to feel more comfortable with single-estate wine.

“I’ve never seen the ‘point’ of generic regional Bordeaux, other than perhaps for restaurants or big chain grocery stores,” says Mark Wessels, manager of MacArthur Beverages in Washington, D.C. Wessels points out that, unlike Burgundy and Rhône. “There are hundreds of petits châteaux in Bordeaux available in the five euro range.” 

Modern Model

Boston-based Latitude Beverage Co. is a self-labeled “modern day négociant,” best known by their 90+ Cellars label which comprises more than 30 distinct wines, ranging from $9-$25 SRP, from all over the world. The firm went from zero to 300,000 cases in annual sales in six years. Brett Vankoski, Vice President and Co-Founder, sees a set of factors making négociant wine a good fit for today’s wine market:

■ Better quality winemaking around the world offers négociants “access to greater quantities of better wine than ever before.”

■ Thanks to flexibility in sourcing, “we are not limited to one geographic region—if quality or quantity isn’t where it needs to be for that region, we are able to focus on another.”

■ Free from large upfront investment in land, vines, etc., “we can adapt quickly to the changing preferences of wine drinkers.”

Last Call: Bitter Equilibrium

Posted on | February 25, 2016   Bookmark and Share
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Sother Teague is the brains behind Amor y Amargo (“Love and Bitters” in Spanish), a tiny East Village bar (formerly the dry storage room for the kitchen it’s attached to) that functions as a bit of a shrine to bitter cocktails.

“It’s important not to get stuck on the word ‘bitter,’” says Teague. The word can mean different things to different people. Behind the bar, bitterness is really a tool, incorporated into cocktails two basic ways—as tincture or potable bitters.

Tincture bitters, such as Angostura and Peychaud’s brand bitters, are known for their potency (in alcohol, flavor intensity and aromatics) and have little or no sweetness. “In the world of cocktails, tincture bitters are meant to bring balance” he notes. A few drops go a long way.

“When making cocktails, people mix with some kind of sweetener,” he continues. “Here we use amaros [the second type of bitters] as our sweetener because they are bittersweet. They bring balance and that final note of layered seasoning.” Potable bitters (as their name suggests) are less intense, and include such brands as Aperol, Campari and Cynar; these vary in strength and flavor.

Teague suggests describing bitter cocktails by their components. “We try to encourage people not to look at the menu and say ‘I like gin, so I’ll like this gin cocktail,’” he says. “We focus on what flavors are in the actual drink, and sell them with that.”

Amor y Amargo arranges the drinks on their menu from least to most potent. At the top of the “House Favorites” section, Di Pompelmo delivers the intersection of bitter, tart and sweet.

 

Di Pompelmo

By Sother Teague, Amor y Amargo

Ingredients:

1½ oz Altos Tequila

¾ oz Cocchi Americano

¼ oz Bittermens Citron Sauvage

¾ oz Aperol

2 dashes Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit bitters

Garnish: Grapefruit Twist

Method:

Add all ingredients into a mixing glass with plenty of ice. Stir to chill and dilute. Strain into a glass over fresh ice. Express the oil from the grapefruit twist over the drink and place in the glass.

Wine Buzz – March 2016

Posted on | February 24, 2016   Bookmark and Share
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New AVA-Driven Line Reaffirms Kenwood’s Strength in Sonoma 

Kenwood Vineyards has held a strong but relatively quiet presence in Sonoma County since 1970 (considering they produce about half a million cases annually). Part of Pernod Ricard’s wine portfolio since 2014, the brand is getting a fresh makeover. SKUs have been trimmed back, and not only do the bottles sport a new look, but longtime winemaker Pat Henderson has been charged with a new mission to refocus Kenwood by introducing a new terroir-driven, AVA-designated range.

The idea is simple—and made doable by Kenwood’s broad palette of vineyards. “Six Ridges is a tribute to the mountains and ridges that border this very special place,” explains Henderson. “With this new range, we wanted to bottle the very best of the County. We’ve chosen only the best varietals from each appellation and provided extra special treatment from grape to bottle.”

 The new Six Ridge label both represents an aerial view of vineyard blocks and echoes the iconic wolf-head labels of Kenwood’s Jack London series. The Six Ridges range is rolling out nationwide now, with the following:

2012 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (SRP $24.99)

2014 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($24.99)

2014 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($21.99)

2013 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($24.99)

2013 Dry Creek Valley Merlot ($24.99)

The sixth, a 2015 Sonoma Coast Sauvignon Blanc, will be available May 2016. Effectively a reserve tier priced under $25, the Six Ridges line should help draw renewed attention to Kenwood as a consistent and deep source for value.  kenwoodvineyards.com

 

 John Legend Adds Wine to his Repertoire

Napa Valley’s Raymond Vineyards and acclaimed singer/songwriter John Legend have launched the LVE Collection, which will be poured exclusively at 66 locations of Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar through March. LVE stands for Legend Vineyard Exclusive. There are two wines: a complex 2013 LVE Cabernet Sauvignon ($24/glass; $96/bottle) and a balanced, fruit-forward 2014 LVE Chardonnay ($17; $66). In April, the LVE Collection will be available through current distributors of Boisset Collection wines. boissetcollection.com. flemingssteakhouse.com. lvewines.com

 

Sauvignon Blanc Flexing Muscles in 2016 

Look what’s having a moment: Sauvignon Blanc, the aromatic and naturally acid-fueled grape that has been a perennial distant #2 to Chardonnay. SB was lauded by Nielsen as one of the hottest varietal wines of 2015, growing 10.7% in volume and 13.3% in value. Over in Marlborough, NZ, Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer told a crowd at the first-ever Sauvignon Blanc Celebration that NZ’s own distinctive style of SB is entering a “mid-life” crisis, and in the next stage, “talent beats luck.” Meanwhile, Rombauer Vineyards, known for Cab and Chard like so many Napa Valley wineries, has released their first Sauvignon Blanc—it’s fresh, crisp and vibrant (SRP $24).

The Find – March 2016

Posted on | February 24, 2016   Bookmark and Share
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Booker’s 2016 Batch Collection Kicks Off with ‘Bluegrass’ 

You almost need a scorecard to keep up with bourbon extensions lately. Booker’s has just launched their 2016 Batch Collection with “Bluegrass” (SRP $59.99). Each batch in the six-series release—to be released over the course of the year—will feature a unique label and a connection to Booker Noe’s life. The inaugural release in the collection highlights his love of bluegrass music.

Made with barrels culled from seven different rack houses, like all batches of Booker’s Bourbon, Bluegrass is bottled uncut at its natural proof and was hand-selected by Fred Noe, Beam’s 7th Generation Master Distiller. Bluegrass displays notes of vanilla and toasted nuts with a smooth and balanced finish. At 127.9 proof, it is best enjoyed with ice or cut with water. bookersbourbon.com

 

 Vodka That’s Out of this World…

The spirits industry is no stranger to products that, well, use their head in packaging. Witness Crystal Head Vodka and Kah Tequila. And welcome to earth Outerspace Vodka, bottled in an alien-head bottle and whose liquid that is “filtered through outerspace meteorites.” With pop culture of late having a string of high-profile extra-terrestrial encounters of the very popular kind (The Martian; Star Wars: The Force Awakens; The X Files reboot), now seems like a fine time to tap into the alien concept with an appropriately self-aware product. The 80 proof Outerspace Vodka has launched in 28 states and counting, and has sold over 10,000 cases. SRP $29.99/750ml; $5.99/50ml. marsalle.com

 

The Perfect Liqueur for Love? 

Aiming for Valentine’s Day and beyond, Lucas Bols has launched Bols Parfait Amour Liqueur ($17.99, 48 proof). Translating to “perfect love,” Parfait Amour has been produced by Lucas Bols since the early 19th century to celebrate an engagement or a marriage in the Netherlands. The dark purple liqueur has an aromatic floral character that comes from rose and violet petals, enhanced by vanilla, orange peel and almonds. Its floral flavor profile is tailored for classic cocktails or adding to sparkling wine. It joins the 30+ Bols flavors currently available in the U.S. lucasbols.com

 

 

 

 

 From House of Suntory: Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016

Jim Murray shocked the world when he named Suntory Whisky Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2013 as his “World Whisky of the Year” in his 2015 Whisky Bible. Sherry cask aging has been critical to the flavor profile of many Suntory whiskies, including Yamazaki, since 1924. While the distillery’s first pure Sherry cask single malt was not in the U.S. market, the newest release—the 2016—is available here. For the 2016 edition, Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo taps into the same lot of whiskies that were used for the 2013, now two years more mature—in some cases more than 25 years old—creating a whisky that has remarkable richness and complexity. Only 5,000 bottles of Yamazaki Sherry Cask 2016 are available for the world, bottled at 96 proof, with SRP of $300. whisky.suntory.com

New Products and Promotions – March 2016

Posted on | February 24, 2016   Bookmark and Share
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Buchanan’s Blended Scotch Whisky

Buchanan’s has new packaging for three of its four blends: Buchanan’s DeLuxe (SRP $31), Buchanan’s Master ($45) and Buchanan’s Special Reserve ($75); Buchanan’s Red Seal will follow later in 2016. The new bottles leverage the brands recognizable imagery, including the canteen shape, the signature red seal and the coat of arms meaning “Hence The Brighter Spirit.”

SRP: $31-$75

buchananswhisky.com

 

Domaine des Hospices de Belleville

The burgeoningBeaujolaiscategory has a new trio of AOC wines. Maison Joseph Drouhin has introduced three Beaujolais Crus—a Brouilly (SRP $23), Fleurie ($25) and Morgon ($21), all 2014—called Domaine des Hospices de Belleville. Frederic Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin formed a partnership with the Hospices de Belleville in October 2014, enabling Drouhin to oversee the vineyards, winemaking and marketing.

SRP: $21-$25

drouhin.com

 

Svedka Cucumber Lime

Svedka’s newest flavor, Cucumber Lime, builds on culinary momentum within the food and beverage spaces for refreshing, bright flavors as well as trends within Asian and Mexican cuisine. Cucumber Lime joins other exotic Svedka flavor combos such as Grapefruit Jalapeño, Strawberry Lemonade and Orange Cream Pop, in addition to core flavors: Cherry, Citron, Clementine, Raspberry, Vanilla and Peach. Available in 50ml, 375ml, 750ml, 1L and 1.75L. 70 proof.

 

SRP: $12.99/750ml

svedka.com

 

 

 

 

 

The Macallan Edition No. 1

The newest malt whisky from The Macallan, Edition No.1, is drawn from eight European and American oak cask styles that were crafted and Sherry-seasoned inSpain. Each year a special selection of oak casks will be handpicked to create Edition; a dedicated “Master of Wood” oversees the intricate sourcing and production, showcasing the pivotal role wood plays in Scotch malt whisky. 96 proof.

SRP: $90

themacallan.com

 

Niner Wine Estates 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon

Big yet beautiful, Niner Estates 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon represents the best of Paso Robles. Ripe plum and black cherry aromas lead into a rich palate and a full finish that melds tannin with fruit. The Cabernet is blended with 4% Malbec and 4% Petite Verdot and aged in barrel (30% new French oak) for 18 months. Production at the “green” winery (LEED Silver Certified and SIP Certified) is overseen by Patrick Muran. Marketed by Bronco Wine Co.

SRP: $39.99

broncowine.com

 

 

 

 

 

Korbel Brut Rosé

In the increasingly competitive $10-$15 bubbly category, Korbel has released a limited-edition bottle wrap for their California Brut Rosé. A pink lace pattern adorns the bottle, and a bold “K” draws attention to the brand name; available nationally while supplies last. Offering generous strawberry, cherry and melon fruit, as well as a hint of sweetness in the finish, the Brut Rosé was the brand’s most awarded offering in 2015.

SRP: $13.99

korbel.com

 

 

 

 

Callia Alta

Palm Bay International is introducing new packaging for the Callia Alta range fromArgentina. The new label captures the spirit of Bodegas Callia’s origin. It was inspired by the legend of a young immigrant woman who arrived inArgentina’sTulumValley, describing it as a paradise with abundant fruits. The Callia Alta range includes a Malbec,Shiraz, Pinot Grigio and Torrontes.

 

SRP: $8.99

palmbay.com

 

 

 

 

 

Hochstadter’s Vatted Straight Rye Whiskey

The Cooper Spirits Co. has launched Hochstadter’s Vatted Straight Rye Whiskey, the first to officially designate its blend of straight rye whiskies as vatted. The five straight rye whiskies (from U.S. and Canada), from four to 15 years old, were combined in vats, allowing the flavors to harmonize before being non-chill filtered and bottled. Best in classic rye cocktails, or for sipping straight or on ice. 100 proof.

SRP: $34.99

cooperspirits.com

 

 

 

 

Christian Brothers Apple

Heaven Hill has announced the launch of Christian Brothers Apple, the third flavor extension of the well-known brandy, joining Honey and Peach. The combination of natural apple with oak-aged brandy gives Christian Brothers a solid position in the expanding apple-flavored spirits arena. Available nationally in 50ml, 375ml and 750ml. 70 proof.

 

SRP: $10.99/750ml

christianbrothers.com

 

 

 

 

Haraszthy Family Cellars 2015 ‘Bearitage’ Sauvignon Blanc

Bearitage 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, grown in the Lodi AVA, was cold-fermented and finished in stainless steel tanks. This completely oak-free approach lets winemaker Val Haraszthy keep the wine crisp, with the clean, almost tangy minerality the grape is known for.  Best served chilled, this 100% SB is very approachable, with aromas and flavors of lemon, tropical lime and green apples. Marketed by Bronco Wine Co.

 

SRP: $14.99

broncowine.com

 

 

 

Chateau St. Jean ‘Bijou’ Rosé

ChateauSt. Jeanhas expanded their Bijou line to include a dry rosé. Bijou Rosé joins the lightly oaked Chardonnay launched in 2014 with bright new packaging to capitalize on a consumer need for crisp and clean fruit-forward wines. Elegant, fresh and dry, the 2015 California wine has pleasing aromas and flavors of watermelon, citrus, raspberry, cherry and rose petal.

 

SRP: $11.99

chateaustjean.com

 

 

 

 

Deep Eddy Peach

Deep Eddy’s newest flavor is gluten-free and made with all-natural flavors, including real peaches andTexasaquifer water. Peach joins Straight Vodka, Lemon, Ruby Red Grapefruit, Cranberry and Sweet Tea in the Deep Eddy lineup. It works well with simple mixers like ginger ale, iced tea and lemonade, as well as in variations on the Peach Bellini. Available in 1L and 1.75ml. 70 proof.

 

SRP: $19.99/1L; $26.99/1.75ml

deepeddyvodka.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Green Shoots on the Emerald Isle

Posted on | February 22, 2016   Bookmark and Share
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Irish whiskey is undergoing an unprecedented wave of new distilleries.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery, the saying goes. But investment is pretty high up there, too. For years now, Irish whiskey has been posting noteworthy gains on a small base. Now the supply side of this phenomenon has jumped in with real capital, and big plans.

Here is most of what you need to know about the growth trajectory of Irish whiskey: In 2011, there were four distilleries operating in Ireland, and now, at least 14 are up and running with nearly 20 more in various stages of planning. And make no doubt about where distillers expect most of their new whiskey to be flowing: to the United States, their number one market.

Irish has for decades been driven by the success of Jameson, representing about 75% of U.S. volume. But as other brands—Tullamore D.E.W. and Kilbeggan, specifically—were purchased by companies with a strong presence in the U.S., more weight has been put behind them. In some cases, new iterations and brand extensions have arrived, with companies—not always the big ones—committing greater resources. Even young, lesser-know labels are showing growth—Castle Brands’ Knappogue Castle age-statement single malts and value-priced Clontarf, for example.

Malini Patel, VP of World Whiskies and Americas Innovation for Beam Suntory, owner of Kilbeggan, Two Gingers and three other Irish brands, summarizes: “A global boom over the last several years has driven the interest of Irish whiskey amongst consumers looking for quality spirits with distinct flavor profiles and unique stories. We are also seeing a larger variety of Irish whiskey available today than five years ago with new brands coming to market at a very fast pace and established brands releasing new expressions.”

“Irish continues to gain momentum in numbers and with bartenders with its very approachable style and taste,” says Sona Bajaria, Brand Director for Jameson. “Jameson has opened the door for Irish whiskey for American consumers generally—they drink it and enjoy it, even if they move along in their whiskey journey to try other Irish products, which is happening increasingly, as they move to super and ultra-premium, and that has benefited our higher-end brands Powers, Midleton, Green Spot, Yellow Spot and Redbreast.”

One of the few mysteries in Irish is the next steps for Bushmills, Ireland’s oldest registered distillery. In 2014 Bushmills became part of the Proximo portfolio, which has always been defined by the Jose Cuervo brand. Bushmills is routinely respected as an important Irish whiskey, especially for its malt expressions, and for having introduced the first flavored Irish in the U.S. several years ago: Bushmills Irish Honey. The trade is eagerly anticipating what Proximo will do with the brand.

Edge of the Irish

Irish whiskey is in general considered lighter and smoother than bourbon and Scotch, a more approachable and a great entry point for newcomers to whiskey. While most Irish whiskey sold here is blended, many brands now feature extensions in the individual styles—single grain, single malt and single pot still—with more aged expressions and, lately, cask-finished types available.

Other innovations are taking hold. Jameson last fall launched Jameson Caskmates, finished in stout casks.Teeling sells a small batch finished in rum casks and a single grain matured in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. And Tullamore just released Trilogy, a blend of triple-distilled grain, malt and pot whiskies matured in three cask types—bourbon barrels, Oloroso Sherry butts and rum casks.

Tullamore’s oldest release to date, Trilogy is part of the range expansion that will roll out over the next few years, a result of being owned by William Grant, a company with access to a broad variety of high quality casks with which to experiment, says U.S. Brand Ambassador Tim Herlihy. “The real significant change in Irish whiskey, beyond the growth of so many new producers, is it’s no longer just entry level,” he says. “We’re seeing more single malts and single pot still whiskies and will see more of that coming on, with a real breadth of style and price points.”

Future Bright

“Irish whisky has definitely arrived and the big brands continue to grow substantially, making this a very interesting and exciting time,” says Jack Teeling, Managing Director of the Teeling Whiskey Company. “Things are very much dominated by the big guys and the new whiskies are coming from a narrow production base, but there’s a whole host of smaller guys trying to get into the business, and I believe over the next five to seven years, as production comes on stream, the supply will expand quite dramatically in terms of flavor profile and expressions.” Teeling released a single malt last May and now has a core range of three whiskies, as well as some limited offerings, like a malt finished in white port casks and 12 single casks to be released in February and March.

The expanding supply hasn’t been lost on on-and off-premise retailers. “We came to realize that Irish has so much versatility and diversity within it that the many types can really be applied to many different platforms in the cocktail world,” says Jack McGarry, one of the men behind The Dead Rabbit, currently considered one of the best cocktail and all-around drinking destinations in the country. Their current menu, in fact, is based half on Irish whiskey-based drinks, and with more than 180 different labels of Irish behind the bar, McGarry reckons they stock the most of any operation in the U.S. But it’s not just for show; the Dead Rabbit pours more than 100 liters of Irish each week, making it the biggest category at their bar.

McGarry says showcasing the properties of Irish is something they’ve taken on at Dead Rabbit, but admits that many operators and bartenders only know about Jameson. “People don’t order if they don’t know what it is,” he explains. “Many people don’t understand what single pot still whiskey is, for example, so we train our staff on whiskey flights and how to recommend the right style for each guest, making it easy and accessible to our guests.”

Donal O’Gallachoir, Brand Manager for the 2011-launched Glendalough Distillery, says as the range of possibilities—grain or malt, continuous or pot still, peated or unpeated, as well as various finishes—expand throughout the market, consumers will welcome the chance to go beyond the blended style. Glendalough, for instance, currently bottles three poitins (see sidebar), a 7-year-old and 13-year-old single malt, as well as “Double Barrel,” aged in bourbon and Sherry casks.

Most of the whiskey currently being sold by these brand new distilleries are sourced from one of the major Irish companies, as they wait for their young whiskies to mature. As William Grant & Sons’ Herlihy notes, there will be a flood of new expressions once that happens, and the real proof of what’s next in Irish will emerge only then. “There’s a long long way to go and it will be interesting to see what this boom will have us talking about in five years time,” says Herlihy, “after the wave of new Irish whiskies come over our way.” 

The Poitin Factor

If mezcal and moonshine can find a bigger market, why can’t poitin? That’s the question some Irish distillers are starting to ask of spirit retailers.

Donal O’Gallachoir, U.S. Brand Manager of Glendalough Distillery, now promotes three poitins, and compares its prospect to that of mezcal in relation to tequila: “Like mezcal, like pisco, poitin has an appeal to modern drinkers looking to try something different. This is a time in which people are looking to grow their knowledge of the Irish category and anything that starts that conversation is a positive thing.”

Traditionally, poitin (pronounced “po-CHEEN”) was the precursor to whiskey, made from malted barley, sugar beets and potatoes. Glendalough produces a premium expression at 40% alcohol by volume; one aged in Sherry casks; and one bottled at 60% or “Mountain Strength.”

Other brands, including Bunratty, have entered the U.S. market in the past few years. Newer importers feel the time is right now that any and all spirits seem to have a waiting customer base.

Mad March Hare, distilled in pot stills from malted barley, is pitching their poitin with a “craft” angle. “Poitin plays a large role in the history of Ireland and especially Irish whiskey, with local distilling tradition being similar to that of American craft spirits,” notes John Ralph, co-founder, Mad March Imports. “With the U.S. market accounting for approximately 36% of Irish whiskey sales, and craft spirits continuously growing in popularity, we feel it is the perfect opportunity to introduce the U.S. consumer to the ancient craft of Irish poitin.” Mad March Hare launches in CA, MA, IL, NY and CT this quarter, at SRP $24.99.

Getting Greener All the Time…

Arguably a sign of the Irish category’s continuing strength, the U.S. market has seen a fair number of new entries in recent years. It’s no shock to see them put their nationalism front and center, playing off Irish history, geography and tradition. To wit: West Cork and Donegal Estates both evoke beloved counties on the Emerald Isle. Claddagh Irish Whiskey honors the traditional Irish ring design, whose significance dates back centuries. The Pogues is made in partnership with the ever-popular Irish band.

The Irishman, produced at the Walsh family distillery, leaves no doubt as to its heritage; plus the recent extension, Writers Tears, honors 19th century Irish writers and playwrights. Kinahan’s Irish Whiskey, with Dublin roots dating back to 1779, was actually the first ever whiskey to be trademarked. Winebow is bringing in the brand to the U.S., with a blended whiskey (92 proof) and a 10-year-old single malt.

With straightforward, authentic appeal, the expansion of labels in the Irish category has the feel of a family getting bigger.

Selling Points

**Irish whiskey is generally lighter and smoother than bourbon and Scotch, more approachable and a great entry point for whiskey newcomers.

**New expressions of Irish whiskey have great appeal for whiskey enthusiasts as suppliers are putting the best material and effort into specialized bottlings.

**Irish whiskey is underrated as a mixer; did you know that half the cocktails on the menu at The Dead Rabbit (recently named Best Bar in America) are made with Irish whiskey?

Brand Profile: French Revolution

Posted on | February 22, 2016   Bookmark and Share
Written by |

How Baron Francois helped usher in New York’s fine wine era.

There were pros and cons to launching a fine French wine import-distribution company in 1979, recalls Adrien Baron. Hardly anyone else was approaching growers in France directly to represent their wines in the U.S., so there was little competition. On the other hand, he says, “No one was really drinking wine—the volume just wasn’t there.”

But that was about to change and Baron was among the first to see it coming. He quit his job at Star Industries, a major Long Island-based spirits distributor, and launched Baron Francois with a small portfolio of French estates from Burgundy, Bordeaux and lesser-known regions like Madiran and Cahors (Baron is a native of Southwest France).

Few salesmen today would recognize the landscape that Baron encountered in the early ’80s.  “Retailers and distributors didn’t know anything about wine and they weren’t interested in selling it—all the money was in liquor,” Baron remembers. “Stores in New York would occasionally have a small space in the back for wine, filled mostly with big jugs from California. The French and Italian corners carried a lot of dust.”

Undeterred, Baron plugged away, building important relationships with top French restaurants like Lutèce, Caravelle, La Côte Basque (“most of which no longer exist today,” laments Baron). He officially got his distribution license in 1982—one of the best-ever vintages in Bordeaux, which he considered a good omen—and before long a fine wine revolution was afoot.

One important change agent was the involvement of women, Baron believes: “Women—who had before only been taking orders in the office—began to sell wine in the field. They were always more curious and willing to learn than some of the men who had been selling liquor for 30 years.”

Staying Ahead of the Pack

Fast-forward more than three decades to a transformed wine market—and one teeming with competition. Baron Francois has changed, too. In 2000 the company was purchased by the Lesgourgues family, owner of the famous Armagnac estate, Château de Laubade, as well as Château Haut Selve in Bordeaux. There have been storms to weather—most notably the devastating French wine boycott in 2003, a reaction to French President Chirac’s opposition to the Iraq war.

As proof that Baron Francois has grown stronger and savvier with time, look no further than the company’s gleaming new office in downtown Manhattan designed by C.I.D. Citlalic Peralta (citlalic.com). It’s a space they are just settling into as they prepare to celebrate an important milestone—crossing the $10 million revenue threshold.

“We continue to grow—by 40% in value over the last four years. Our staff has nearly doubled in the same time period,” asserts Frederic Goossens, who joined Baron Francois as General Manager in 2012. “The reason we are thriving is because we won’t compromise on quality and we offer a model that is very distinct in this marketplace for both our customers and our suppliers.”

What is that model exactly? First, it’s the importer-distributor combination. Goossens explains: “The advantage to being both is that we can buy directly from the vineyard, so our prices stay very competitive for our customers. Suppliers, too, are increasingly seeking out this regional model, rather than a big national importer, which isn’t always the best for building a brand.”

Their size makes them unique in a crowded wholesaler landscape as well. With the back office support and financial security of a large wholesaler, Baron Francois retains the boutique approach of a much smaller operation, says Goossens: “With 500 SKUs, we are big enough to have a good selection of wine and spirits for our customers, but at the same time we are small enough to deliver hands-on service and give the right attention to details.”

Baron Francois offers something unusual to its suppliers, a term they call “mutual exclusivity,” which guarantees that as long as a winery can supply their demand, they will take on no other supplier from that appellation. “We want to set ourselves and our producers up for success,” Goossens says. “Only when a winery can’t keep up will we add another from the region. For example, we have three producers in Sancerre and three in Côtes de Provence. In some cases, we are buying 70% of a winery’s production.”

Loyalty pays off, too, Goossens reminds: “Our strength is our history. We have developed slowly but our relationships give us incredible power in the marketplace.” For example, he points to the thriving Sancerre category, where it can be difficult for importers to secure wine. “We are never out of stock—we can guarantee our allocations and we offer the best pricing,” he says. “A five-year-old business can’t do that. When you work with a supplier for 30 years, it’s like a marriage.”

It’s thrilling for Baron to see how much wine Americans drink today—and the way palates have evolved. He’s witnessed the majority of volume in his retail accounts go from “the under $10 set to the $10 to $17 range.” The explosion of rosé, which the company has helped fuel with Château de Pourcieux, has been extraordinary. (“I used to criticize White Zinfandel, but I think it was helpful in building the rosé category by creating an easy entry point—those drinkers have switched to dry rosé, I believe.”)

There’s also the evolution of the French wine producer, a more sophisticated, open-minded individual today—in some cases Baron is working with his suppliers’ third generation. “A few decades ago, you would never see a label from Cahors list ‘Malbec’ on its label—we have to give Argentina credit for that! Today’s generation has gone to school to learn to make wine, they speak English, they visit the U.S. and want to know where their wines are sold. For the first 20 years I was in business, I probably had two suppliers visit me. The Atlantic was a lot bigger in those days.”

A French Specialist Evolves

Baron Francois will always have a French soul (which extends to craft spirits—see sidebar) but in recent years the firm has branched out to represent top producers in other countries. “We realized that to just be French, we were losing opportunities,” explains Goossens. “We are using the same strategy as we do with our French wines on our wines from Italy and Spain, and appointed a non-French wines Portfolio Manager last year to help us develop the book.”

The company just signed up Bodegas Terras Gauda, in Spain’s Rias Baixas region, the leading premium Albariño in the U.S. market, as well as seven new Italian wineries from a boutique Italian importer focused on small family-owned organic or sustainable vineyards. One can now find wines from California, New Zealand and Germany in their book as well. “I have a thousand requests per year—we could be ten times our size overnight, but we don’t want to compromise our quality,” says Goossens. Baron Francois blind-tastes constantly to find the best, and help their producers fine tune pricing and packaging: “Often, a product is successful elsewhere, but it needs to adapt to be successful in the U.S. market.”

Staying in Motion

For everything that has changed, there is as much that has not. The Baron Francois portfolio remains composed almost entirely of family-owned, estate vineyards. Interestingly, 60% of their business today is from brands that the company has represented for over 30 years—producers like Château Haute-Serre (Cahors), and Domaine Sautereau (Sancerre).

Though older than a good many wholesalers in the market, Baron Francois is far from a mature company. Goossens plans to keep hiring and hopes to double the company’s revenue in the next seven to ten years. “You have to stay true to your philosophy, but you must change with the times,” says Baron. “In this market particularly, you must always continue to fight for your share.”

Denis Lesgourgues, Baron Francois’ President, is eager to see the revolution continue: “My favorite thing is to be on the street seeing what is happening,” says Lesgourgues. “It’s not the same just hearing about it from your wine and spirits consultants.”

 
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