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Quarantine Chronicles: Pandemic Perils, Pounds and the Resurgence of the Alt Beverage
By Rich Cook
Apr 6, 2021
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It seems today that we could be about to come out of the past year of quarantine isolation and all of the things that have come with it.  Endless virtual meetings, fancying up the home cooking to simulate fine dining out (and the dishload byproduct), and sitting – lots of sitting – may have finally had their day.  I suspect, though, that to some degree, we’ll be keeping some of the positives that have come along with the things that we’d rather forget.  I’m sure that for wineries that survive partly on a model that involves tourist dollars, a full, unrestricted re-opening can’t come a moment too soon.  The question for wineries is:  If you open it, will they come?  And who will “they” be?  And how long will it last?

Well, right out of the gate, I’ll be the first to say that I will come!  While I’ve been able to sneak in a few visits in the past few months, it’s certainly not anywhere near the number that I’m used to.  I know some of my compatriots in the writing game are wondering what that airline seat is going to feel like with an extra inch or two around the waistline (if, like me, they’ve done as much sitting as I have over the last year) but aren’t about to let it slow them down.  All that said, while wineries are certainly glad to see our ilk come through the doors from a marketing perspective, we aren’t necessarily all that useful when it comes to the immediate cashflow that such threshold crossings usually carry with them.  So, who else will come?

It’s been a treat for me to watch the evolution of wine tourism and tasting over the past thirty-eight years or so.  Back in the day, going wine tasting meant spending a day in a region where a handful of wineries had tasting rooms and one or two had embraced the wacky idea that they could charge a fee for such things.  Appointments often meant having a seat at the vintner’s kitchen table to taste the new vintage.  Contrast that with today, where prospective tasters can shell out as much as one hundred dollars a head for a tasting “experience” that they won’t soon forget, and entire AVA’s have embraced the tourism concept as a significant part of their income.  Don’t get me wrong – I certainly don’t begrudge a winery charging a fee to taste, particularly in light of some of the behavior I’ve seen on the weekends – but this business model can have the unintended (and, of course, sometimes overtly intended) side effect of limiting the audience.

Here’s where the large wine companies do a great service to the industry at large.  Think back a minute to your first experience with wine.  Not your first winery visit, though those two things might coincide, but the first wines that you enjoyed as a twenty-something.  I can recall mine quite specifically: it was a warm evening at the beach, sitting around a fire ring hanging out with friends, drinking Jacaré Rosé from a frosted glass 1.5 liter jug with a convenient finger hook.  I don’t know what it cost, but I’m sure my status and that of my friends at the time meant that it came from a below eye level shelf at the local supermarket.  Now – while you’re snickering to yourself, perhaps in sympathy for my plight – think for a moment about the significance of that first experience.  It opened the door to a wide world of enjoyment of what for my friends and me was a step beyond the beer and soda world that we lived in.  Now Jacaré Rosé is not the wine that sent me down this path for good (I have a half bottle of Krug Grand Cuvée to thank for that) but I’d be remiss if I said that it didn’t play an important role.  SKU’s and SKU’s of similar products sit waiting to play a similar role in the lives of future high end wine buyers, and it’s an ever expanding list that includes what I’ll call “Alt Beverages.”

Next time you pop into your local market, take a quick look at the adult beverage aisles and you’ll notice that they are crowded with products that you may not have seen before – seltzers and spritzers abound, as do other blended products like peach Moscato and the like.  If you’ve got a few minutes, watch how fast these “new” items are flying off the shelf.  Some of the seltzers are vodka based, and some are based with fermented sugar, corn or barley, and some are based with – you guessed it – wine.  Now, before you start poo-pooing these products as things you would never drink, think about what Frank and Ed might say.

Of course, I’m referring to Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes – fictional characters that bade you to join them in a sip of their wine coolers back in the mid-eighties.  (The coolers are back, by the way – in cans on that aisle you were standing in.)  The duo that launched a million wine journeys would caution you about looking askance at these products, and they might even sit you down on the porch for a lesson on the domestic wine pyramid, and what forms the base layer that allows the other layers to exist.  While there are exceptions, of course, an argument can be made that gateway beverages like spritzers and seltzers are a foot in the door to a consumer’s untapped affinity for wine – especially in the case of the younger consumer.

The major players in the wine industry – E&J Gallo, Constellation Brands, The Wine Group and the like – have long recognized this, and the diversity of their portfolio is made possible by the base of the pyramid: low priced products with mass appeal make it possible to fund the production of the more labor intensive, high priced products we love to drink.  They also smartly realize that, industry-wide, the customer segment that purchases the highest quality products is continuously timing out and needs to be replenished with new customers.  Things do look a bit different this time around though….

Today’s gateway product target has a different view on the beverage world than my generation did thirty years ago.  They want an un-fussy, low calorie, aromatic, not so sweet, low cost, ready-to-drink-on-the-go product that won’t slow them down, and the seltzer/spritzer category has stepped in to fill this requirement.  Long term, I’d bet that this strategy is poised to produce more and better wine consumers down the road as the seltzer/spritzer crowd gains disposable income and starts to eat accordingly.  If Duckhorn is trotting out a seltzer (they are, under their Decoy label) you can bet that other producers will start to pay attention.

Savvy, smaller producers know this in their own way as well…show me an American winery that doesn’t have at least one off-dry wine on their tasting menu and I’ll show you a difficult-to-sustain strategy.  Those that do make the offering wisely place their brand in a novice consumer’s mind, and if that consumer engages further, they’ll likely be back for the flagship wines.

And so, the cycle repeats, and I’m betting that this round of gateway products will lead to improvement of the quality of the middle and top of the wine market in a lasting way – more than past rounds have – and I’m excited to taste what comes of it all.




More columns:    Rich Cook
Connect with Rich on Twitter at @RichCookOnWine