In my reporting on wine, I attend a lot of seminars and conferences. Here are some interesting and offbeat observations from some meetings I’ve attended recently.
What millennial drinkers like:
Diam, which manufactures “technical” bottle closures molded from bits of cork held a seminar recently moderated by Evan Goldstein.
It was unique in its subtle promotion: Just a blind tasting of top wines from around the world, all closed with its enclosures.
The most interesting part of the meeting was a talk by Sandy Block , the head of beverages for Legal Sea Foods, which has 31 locations on the East Coast.
He explained how younger consumers’ tastes are changing the restaurant business, turning it into entertainment instead of just dining. That includes fascination with the spectacle of making cocktails and appreciation of craft beers instead of wine.
He suggested wineries could help counter this trend, notably by better connecting with the young servers and barkeeps.
Sara Schneider of Sunset, one of the few full-time wine writers left in general media, gave a view from the perspective of her 5 million readers, who drink 9 million glasses of wine a week. She reinforced Block’s view:
“Wine tasting rooms are becoming educational centers, dining places, even amusement parks ... Wine bars are becoming like Starbucks,” even as Starbucks stores start becoming wine bars.
She also noted the huge boom in wine on tap in western restaurants. “They’re de rigueur in almost every new restaurant.”
A winery run by an artist
Another interesting meeting was the first Packaging Conference at UC Davis, organized by its Graduate School of Management.
One of the most thought-provoking sessions in a full day was by Corey Beck, the general manager and director of winemaking for Francis Ford Coppola Winery.
Beck described the experience of working at a winery run by an artist, not a salesman or finance expert (or vanity owner, I might add). Instead of optimizing profits, Francis Coppola follows his vision.
Coppola came to Beck and said he remembered a Rioja covered with a wire net, and asked Beck to do that for the winery’s Claret (the name was grandfathered in — or should I say godfathered).
Beck determined all the reasons it was impractical, including the cost, but Coppola replied, “Don’t be a roadblock on the path to creativity.”
Beck ended up buying two $250,000 netting machines and the netting started in 2009. It added $1 in costs per case.
One result: Beck says that the Claret is now the No. 1 cabernet sauvignon sold in the U.S. at more than $15 per bottle with 325,000 cases per year produced and 23 percent growth.
Likewise, Coppola had a vision to make wine more accessible, and launched the Sofia Mini, a sparkling semi-sweet wine in small cans, in 2002.
The challenges were many, including finding a bonded winery that would put wine in a can. They found Varni Brothers in Modesto, a 7-Up producer that infuses the bubbles at the filling station (Yet, it’s carbonated).
The total cost to package the minis is $15.26, a gross margin of 26 percent, better than the wine in bottles at 18 percent, statistics show.
Finally, Beck recounted how Coppola wanted his Director’s Cut Series to have a label like an old Zoetrope film strip that wrapped around the bottle twice, at an angle.
They found a $100,000 labeler from Australia that could do it, but with a cost four to five times that of the standard front and back labels, and much slower: 85 bottles per minute compared to 200 per minute.
They also had to bottle the chardonnay and pinot noir in Bordeaux bottles so the original film strip would fit on the bottle.
It cost more, but differentiated the bottle on a crowded shelf. This wine has also been very successful.
It shows that sometimes following a vision instead of a balance sheet is more successful — if you have the right vision.