Budbreak is the first sign that a new vintage is emerging, and we are seeing budbreak throughout Santa Barbara County this week. There’s no denying it. Here we go again on the crazy journey of a year’s farming and winemaking!
Wine is one of the few ways a Californian (3rd+ generation here!) can really understand the passing seasons. The vines go to sleep in the winter in a dormancy period that requires 150+ hours under 45 degrees to ‘reset’ bud fruitfulness. In other words, the vine has to be chilled in order to ‘sleep well’, and wake up with new proto-clusters of fruit tucked gently in the folds of the dormant bud. Spring is a flurry of vineyard activity–keeping fungus under control, canopy management, shoot removal, ‘sucker’ shoot removal, frost patrol all keep us on our toes in the field. Late Spring and Summer is when the canopy needs to be tucked into neat panels, flowers bloom, leaves are pulled to open the grape canopy and improve flavor. And Fall, of course, is the busiest season of all: harvest!
Since 2015 I have been freed from the burden and the honor of managing a vineyard. My life used to revolve around 50% vineyard management, 30% winemaking and 20% hospitality and sales, all centered locally around my family’s small vineyard. Since I left that business, my time is spent in much different pursuits and it’s these new professional obligations that I am going to blog about today.
Compared to travel and selling wine, my responsibilities as a winemaker still run deep, but the time I used to spend in the vineyard is now spent on the road–promoting and selling J. Wilkes from the halls of the State Department in Washington DC to the Mexican Restaurants on San Diego, CA.
In 2017 I visited over 150 markets (such as Los Angeles, Tulsa or Austin) in 21 of the United States. I worked with importers from the UK, Sweden, Norway, Korea, Japan and 3 Providences in Canada. And while the ‘A-Markets’ such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Miami, New York, Chicago and Boston (to name a few) are full of thirsty folks clamoring for delicious J. Wilkes Wine, my greatest discovery over the past few years is the importance and success we have had in lesser markets in what some folks call ‘fly-over country’. It may be fly-over country for some wineries, but it’s fly-TO country for J. Wilkes and I will tell you why.
What the middle of the United States has taught me about the wine business and an emerging US Wine Culture:
- While winemakers are a dime-a-dozen in LA, San Fran, Boston, Chicago and New York (constantly flying to these large markets for promotion and sales), smaller markets are much more excited to see and meet winemakers, and are often surprisingly supportive of the brands that do so.
- The best sales day I ever had was between Kansas City and Saint Louis, Missouri just last month, when we dropped an insane amount of cases in a single day in Columbia (thanks, Mizzou!) and Jefferson City. These smaller markets and their excitement in being included on a winemaker’s itinerary was surprising and profound.
- There’s not many cities left in the US that aren’t seeing some gentrification and up-scale eateries and wine bars popping up in their downtown areas and suburbs. After having great success in places like Lafayette Louisiana, Biloxi Mississippi and Omaha Nebraska, I am much more likely to accept invitations to smaller markets because of our success in these spots.
- Wine geeks (of the newly minted non-stuffy and low-maintenance type) are well established in small pockets throughout the US, and they thoroughly appreciate when you find them for events. Country Clubs, private wine storage facilities, resorts, destination restaurants exist in places you might never have imagined. I may be at an amazing restaurant near the Lake of the Ozarks one week, and at a Belmond property in Virginia or Santa Barbara the next.
- The richest people and wine collectors are some of the worst buyers for me recently. First, I sell value-oriented wines from $18-$30 retail, which don’t often get collectors worked up, except for use as daily drinkers, which I encourage. Folks with big cellars have recognized that the time has come to drink all the wines they bought in the financial boom of the 90’s. Many high-end collectors are on a hiatus from buying as they’ve realized that they have more wine in their cellar than days on this earth, and maybe they don’t want to pass the cellar down to spoiled children that might not appreciate their careful selections and curation.
- Folks are loving my new protocol for winemaker dinners and events. Instead of droning on and on about barrels and malolactic fermentation, I tell stories. Wine stories, historical tales, wine history anecdotes, and encourage them to buy into my big sell: “A bottle of wine is an investment to keep the people we love at table for an extra hour every day.” The response I get from encouraging folks to put their phones away for a few hours every day to have time at table with food, wine and love has been overwhelming. Sales experts say you need to produce a need for your product. The need I help create is to encourage human beings to get out of the digital universe for just an hour or two a day–to sit and chat and eat and smile and drink wine.
State of the Union: Americans and Wine
- Great eateries, bistros, and wine-friendly restaurants are in almost every city in the United States.
- Americans are slowly becoming more comfortable eating great food and drinking good wine without feeling the necessity to talk, define, or ‘geek out’ over the wine.
- Cocktails and craft beer are having their moments and getting a lot of attention, but wine sales and passion for wine seem to be on a more ‘steady keel’ and less prone to momentary fashion.
- The health benefits of red wine are still very much a part of the decision-making process for many who drink wine daily with dinner, and discussions of a healthy diet with wine are always among the favorites of those who attend my dinners, seminars and training sessions.
- Keg wine and canned wine are really taking off–with canned wine making its biggest move ever in 2017 and kegs benefiting from new equipment lease programs that allow kegged wines with minimal capital outlay.
- Young drinkers, Millennials and younger, are very interested in where their food and wine comes from and are picky about brands and how those brands are grown and packaged. Being able to tell about the Sustainable Certificates in all of our vineyards and the strong commitment J Wilkes has for sustainability, is a message that resonates in all markets.
Moving forward towards a US Wine Culture (if Wes was King of Wine).
- “Wine should lead to a conversation about everything except itself.” Folks like this idea, that wine is a vehicle of conversation, but does not have to be discussed or defined to offer pleasure and complexity. Describing a wine never makes it taste better, and often stifles other, more interesting subjects of conversation and amusement.
- Ask your favorite restaurant: “With such an endless array of quality wines available to you from $3-$15 a bottle, why doesn’t your wine list have a solid white and red by-the-glass option for $5?” There’s no excuse–wine should be readily available for under $10/glass.
- “Wine at lunch is dead.” Lies! Go to Italy and watch any restaurant at lunch and only the youngest children are not drinking wine. This strange Protestant hangover from Prohibition (not drinking when work still needs to be done) runs counter to a lifestyle where moderation is achievable by the vast majority of Americans, and a glass of wine at a working lunch can be a fine refreshment and should have no negative impact on finishing the day in a productive and meaningful way.
- Drink wine from all over the US and the world. Haven’t tried Finger Lakes Riesling or Missouri Norton? What’s wrong with you? Fantastic wine is being made in all 50 States and being grown in almost all of them (try a Marquette from North Dakota!). Being California, or West Coast-centric in your wine selections is still very common, but I believe quite UN-patriotic.
- Just get to table with someone you love, some food and a bottle of wine. Could be on a blanket in the park, could be at your favorite French bouchon, or just at your kitchen counter.
The final summation is this: the US Wine Culture that I imagine has nothing to do with tasting notes, 100-point scales, magazines, fancy glasses that hold more than a bottle, or even being able to describe aromas and flavors. Real wine culture uses wine like any other part of a meal. You should talk about wine as often as you talk about the green beans on your plate. maybe they are so fresh and delicious, they can be discussed, but that’s not going to be the focus of the social interactions around the table.
Table is where humans celebrate successfully getting through a day without dying, and we’ve been doing it every night for at least 100,000 years. In the foggy days of prehistory, early hominids gathered around a fire with gathered fruits, nuts, meat (and maybe even some fermented fruit) to enjoy the fact that a sabertooth tiger or scorpion didn’t kill them that day, and with life expectancy in the 20-30 year range, every day we stayed upright was a pretty serious win. I like to think a candle on a table, well-stocked with wine and delicious things, is a direct conduit to our campfire/celebratory prehistory. What a miracle that our forefathers and mothers survived a myriad of dangers so our genetics could be ours. We are the winners of the human game of survival, and I think we owe it to our intrepid and successful ancestors to enjoy table and the company of those we love every night.