There’s been a whole lot of thinking and re-thinking brought about by being sheltered in place, working out of your home, or simply being in your own little bubble. Winery owners are no exception. In a recent blog post, Jason Hass of Tablas Creek Vineyards talks about the many things he learned during the pandemic and how he and the folks at Tablas Creek made improvements to reach out to visitors and members.
In his “lessons from a Plague Year” blog, one main point is fostering customer loyalty. What happened, thanks to the changes made, was that his wine club experienced the lowest rate of cancellation in its 20-year history.
Happy customers who remain loyal to the winery should be the goal of most wineries. And to have happy customers in 2021, as Jason summarizes the situation, “It is all about connecting.”
One point that I would add to that is before the pandemic the wine world was generally taking itself far too seriously, becoming too elitist, and had lost touch with the fact that wine is at best “an elegant extra” in life, far less essential than, let’s remind everyone, TP.
I also found it kind of creepy when visiting a tasting room (salon or lounge) that the server or sommelier wants to tell guests what the wine tastes like before they taste it. And with details and layers...that really seem to take away from the fun of discovering and discussing something you like or dislike. They will add the point scores from experts, always in the 90s, whenever possible. When winery tasting room experiences are like this, they do more harm than good. Talking down to people is never a good idea.
A few new wineries with active and successful wine clubs have come to my attention recently as they build strong brand loyalty by connecting with people and bringing wine back down to earth. The winemakers are not rockstars, there are no big-name consultants, and the wines are not cult-candidates being tracked down by collectors or sleuthing sommeliers.
These wineries are not courting the wine press, not sculpting wines to bring big scores. They are bringing something new to the table, often literally.
“Outlier” is one of those newly coined words that I’m not totally comfortable with. But I’ll try it on to see how it fits here. Whether it applies to wines, winemakers, wineries or all of the above, it seems to apply to four wineries that are focusing on unpretentious wines for wine novices and young drinkers.
The messaging for these wines is also new. A key component of the philosophy at Misty Coves is to ”Stay Rogue” and “Make wines that everybody wants to talk about.” At Tank Garage Winery: “Our goal is to make wines that add to the collective conversation. Wines with soul and purpose.” And then echoing the same we hear: “Chronic Cellars is all about sparking good, hearty conversation that brings people together in new and unexpected ways.” The motto at the Tooth & Nail wine company is simple: “Pour now, live for today.”
For these wineries, It all revolves around a new refreshing attitude. Tank Garage Winery, located in Calistoga in a slightly revamped 1930s era garage, opened in 2014. It still looks like a gas station with pumps out front and the word “Lubrication” displayed above the main entrance. The owner, James Harder, explains: “This project didn’t start in some focus group or corporate boardroom, it started as a dream. We built Tank as a bastion for dreamers and those looking to defy conventions.”
The attitude goes beyond being unconventional by simply sporting tattoos and dropping the occasional F-bomb on their websites. All four also share a focus on making wines to be enjoyed when released, not cellared. Tooth & Nail’s Destinata Syrah is “lively and born ready to drink.” All the wines made by Tank Garage are one-offs, never to be duplicated which is most unusual. Yes, no attempt to build a track record. “Intriguing blends" are the focus of Chronic Cellars.
Misty Cove Wines from New Zealand may seem totally out of place in this conversation. But in fact, tasting their wines and hearing their story got me started on this topic. The group behind this winery, all looking so damn young, is devoted to winemaking that is “free from the tyranny of snobbery.” My kind of wine people. With their Sauvignon Blanc, the young generation declares: “We've taken the BS outta SB. Our founder Andrew Bailey is not interested in bourgeois posturing when it comes to winemaking. “Good wine for good times” as he puts it.”
Tank Garage wines sport artistic labels with themes and messages. A lovely 2020 White wine from El Dorado is labeled, “Boys Cry,” and tackles the subject of masculinity today. As a way to summarizing their feelings about the totally crappy year, 2020, Tank Garage made “Middle Finger,” a red wine from Amador County. Misty Cove stresses “Hug the haters (they need a cuddle)” in its philosophy. And adds, “Read everything, make up your own mind.”
Unconventional and atypical best describe the wines made by these four mavericks. Misty Cove Wines become known to me through its Sauvignon Gris. Around Halloween, we tasted through a few wines from Chronic Cellars, based in Paso Robles. It began in 2004 and makes a wide variety of small batch wines. The labels are detailed, strange, and often spooky and the wines are given subtitles. A sparkling wine is subtitled “Spritz and Giggles.” The red wines were all part of a goal to make “intriguing blends” by whatever combination works. Owner Josh Beckett adds, “Chronic Cellars is fully committed to making seriously good wine for people looking for a little dose of adventure. Our disruptive style is matched only by the killer quality of our wines, made with character to match our clever and playful labels.”
“Disruptive” is an apt descriptor. Chronic’s 2019 “Suite” Petite Sirah is as dark and spicy as one would expect, but then it is lively on the palate with berries and a touch of chocolate, but not an in-your-face ultra-ripe Paso Petite. Of the three red blends, the 2016 “La Muneca” is 68% Zinfandel, but the other components provide some lift to make it a relatively soft, generous and pleasant red. Not what you’d expect from a Paso Zin.
Similarly, despite being made from 58% Syrah and 27% Petite Sirah, Chronic’s 2018 “Sofa King Bueno” offers plenty of Syrah fragrances, but it again tends to be smooth on the palate with drink now appeal. Only the 2019 “Purple Paradise” Red Blend made from 70% Zin shows definite ripe black cherry varietal character, particularly in the aroma. It too is expansive on the palate and invites early drinking.
Within this group of outliers, the disruptive thinking also surfaces with winemakers. Jeremy Leffert, Tooth & Nail’s winemaker says in no uncertain terms that the company’s goal is to avoid “the dominance of the winemaker’s hand.” See our earlier reviews of his Destinata, Stasis, and Amor Fati wines.
As much as I like his wines, a few weeks passed before I manned up and cracked open Leffert’s 2020 Stasis “Carbonic Zinfandel” from Willow Creek in Paso Robles. Bad memories of “nouveau Zin", candied, cherry pop Beaujolais nouveau, and fizzy carbonic whatever had to be set aside. I bought a few more days by emailing him about the wine and saying, what were you thinking? My question was more polite than that, and his detailed response made it clear that the vineyard parcel was what ultimately determined the wine style, not the winemaker.
In his words, “The Carbonic Zinfandel actually started as an experiment in 2018 with fruit we grow at the property in Willow Creek. Historically, we would make a “traditional” high octane Zinfandel under our Amor Fati line, as I got more familiar with the property I realized that a section of the block did not get “as ripe” as the other 80% of the block, so, we decided as a team to use some of the less ripe fruit for a full-carbonic experiment which actually never made into the market (i.e., we drank it ourselves.) “
Then, he adds, “In 2019, we expanded and actually farmed the section differently, with just a little more leaf canopy shade than usual, and we harvested earlier. We were pleased with the results and let the project continue in 2020 and 2021. We never made enough to even pour in the tasting room, and it quickly sold out through our mailing list and as a team, we decided, in 2021, to farm the entire block for carbonic and we harvested everything on 10/15 or thereabouts and just recently put the project to barrel. Excited to have enough to share with our customers who visit.”
The Carbonic Zin obviously was a hit in the tasting room. To me, it was immensely pleasant, a generous red with bright berry flavors and easy to drink. It struck me as neither distinctly Zin nor obviously made by carbonic maceration. If I were to score it, it would fall in the 88-90 range.
Looking back, three out of the four Chronic reds tasted blind were scored in the same 88-90 range. Today everyone pays attention only to wines that score 90+ points or sport big price tags.
BUT, as a wine drinker, I liked them. They were unusual and fun to taste. As more and more wineries with wine clubs continue to open, many will focus efforts on member loyalty by offering more unusual, untraditional wines.
Back at Tablas Creek, the report is that Clairette Blanche is being well-received at the winery as a varietal wine. Jason Hass went on to mention that, among others, “Terret Noir and Muscardin are both kind of funky...high-acid, pale in color, floral and tannic. We have people who love the Terret, but it seems pretty far outside the mainstream taste of American wine.”
Did you say “funky?” Now I’m curious. Maybe drifting outside the mainstream taste of American wine is a good place to explore. You’re likely to find a few outliers there redefining mainstream.
Whatever may have inspired it, change is good.