Crafting a way to emphasize craft in winemaking

No problem with craft beer drinkers being calm.  But craft beer is making the wine industry nervous.

No problem with craft beer drinkers being calm. But craft beer is making the wine industry nervous.

Are you a wine drinker who is turning more and more to craft beers in restaurants instead of wine? If so, you’re worrying the wine industry.  (We’re pretty sure you didn’t mean to, but what can we say — we’re worriers.)

While the presenters at the sessions I attended at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento last month were relentlessly positive about wine consumption now and in the future, it turns out there’s more than one way to read the data.

Wine consumption in the U.S. is growing. But the rate of increase is slowing, as was reported at another wine conference held last week. (Who knew there were so many wine industry conferences?) According to the Wine Market Council report presented on February 6 in Napa, there appear to be a few factors causing the slowdown. But the one that has everyone talking is the growth in craft beer.

Here’s the reasoning: younger alcohol consumers still like wine, but the current center of gravity for wine consumers is people between ages 45 and 64. Those under 35 in particular, though, seem to be more adventurous in their drinking. And the growth in the number of breweries — up 50% since 2008 — shows that some of those breweries are taking drinkers away from wine as well as from mass-market beers.

As it happens, one of the sessions at the Sacramento conference cited all of these data AND tried to put it in the context of what wineries can learn from the craft beverage industry, specifically breweries and distilleries. The panelists were from various parts of the craft beverage world. I’m not good at age guessing, but I’d venture to say they’re definitely not in the wine center of gravity range.

When it comes to "craft" and "wine," unfortunately this is what most people think of.

When it comes to “craft” and wine, unfortunately this is what most people think of.  (Photo from

There were no clear-cut answers, but there was plenty of discussion. I agree with those who think that wine and craft beverages have more similarities than differences. Hardcore craft beer drinkers might not be convinced to add wine to their mix, but there’s enough “craft” in wine production to attract some of the craft beer audience.

There are established definitions for craft brewing and distilling, but not one for “craft” winemaking, despite a huge number of wineries that might qualify.  One thing came out right away at the craft session: the craft beer industry has a definition set by the Brewers Association. So while individual breweries have discretion in what they make and how much of it, there are certain things the consumer can expect from anything that’s truly a craft beer. In particular, no more than 25% percent of a brewery’s ownership can be controlled by an entity that isn’t a craft brewer. And the majority of a craft brewery’s output has to come from making beer, not things like flavored malt beverages. There is also a definition of total output.** The American Distilling Institute has pretty much appropriated this same definition for craft distillers but with a much smaller output cap. Along with the definitions, the Brewers Association also sets out a craft beer manifesto listing attributes of craft brewers. (You can read it here.)

Of course, there are thousands and thousands of wineries that fit a similar description in terms of product, ownership, independence, and integrity. Kellie Shevlin of the Craft Beverage Expo said that no one in the craft beverage industry would dispute it, and also that consumers would agree that an output of no more than 10,000 cases per year constitutes “craft” conditions. But the panelists made the point that by getting out ahead of things and setting vocabulary and definitions, the craft beer industry has put itself miles ahead of the wine industry. There’s no Brewers Association equivalent setting out these kinds of thing for wine. Even words that could — with agreed-upon definitions — have meant the same thing, like boutique, small production, and artisan, have been left to the beholder and consequently don’t mean anything.

Perhaps a little borrowing is in order. Every craft brewery and distillery I’ve visited owes its tasting room model to the wine industry. That is, knowledgeable staff pouring and discussing the product with customers, making suggestions based on what customers say they like, a welcoming atmosphere, etc. Why not take a definition for craft wine in return?

Craft breweries are local businesses producing a local product.  But local wine may actually be more “local” in terms of ingredients. The panelists emphasized the “local” aspect of craft beverages, for people looking to eat and drink local foods. But it seems to me that any U.S. winery that grows its own grapes on site or nearby has it all over most craft breweries. First of all, brewers and distillers are rarely farmers who grow their own crops for making beer and spirits. Local water might be the biggest ingredient by weight, so in that sense the beers are local. But one panelist mentioned that 90% of the hops grown in the U.S. come from the northwest. If it’s true, it seems that unless your local craft brewery is one of the lucky ones with a source of local hops, regional wineries are probably more locally oriented in terms of raw materials.

The first big difference between the craft beverage industry and the wine industry is that craft brewers and distillers focus on transparency in ownership and ingredients.  Craft beer drinkers are dead serious about their beers not being owned by “big business.” I didn’t realize just how serious until I learned about an app called Craft Check, which allows you scan the UPC code on the bottle and learn whether or not it meets the ownership clause. In the wine industry, you hear the words “family owned.” I guess that’s a kind of code for non-conglomerate ownership. But Gallo is family owned, too. In France wineries can use the “Vigneron Independent” or independent winery designation if they qualify, but the wine industry here doesn’t seem to have something equivalent.

Of all the wine bottle crafts I've seen, this is my favorite.

Of all the wine bottle crafts I’ve seen, this is my favorite.

Ingredients are a tougher issue. I’ve seen craft beer menus that read like farm-to-table manifestos, listing the provenance of each ingredient and fairly detailed processing methods. Wine has fewer ingredients than beer in most cases. Some wineries go into detail in their tasting room, but there’s room for improvement. Still, the fact that beer has more ingredients (and may have some non-traditional ones as flavoring) leads right into the second big difference between wine and craft beer makers.

Craft beer and spirit makers focus on creativity and experimentation. These are probably the things craft beverage drinkers wouldn’t think of when it comes to wineries.  In the wine industry, experimentation is often looked down on as cheap and gimmicky, not associated with a quality product. This doesn’t mean that winemakers don’t experiment — they do with every new vintage. But it’s generally a means to making a product strongly resembling what they’ve made before. New products don’t come along very often from established wineries.

Here are some of the reasons: (1) Wine has basically one ingredient — grapes. If the winemaker doesn’t add yeast, then that’s pretty much it, other than added sulfites. Beer has a lot more to play around with.  And beer ingredients don’t have the same kind of appellation requirements for origin as wine grapes do.  (2) The grape harvest comes once a year, and it will start fermenting into wine whether you want it to or not, so there’s no starting over in three or six months if you don’t like it. Brewing ingredients are available year-round. (3) It will likely take many months, if not years, before your product is ready to taste, let alone market. Yes, an experienced winemaker can taste a young wine and determine its future qualities, but it’s not foolproof. This is also true of some spirits that can age for years. But by and large, beer ages for far less time and is ready for release much more quickly. (4) It takes years for grape vines to make grapes of sufficient quality. Unless a winemaker wants to buy someone else’s grapes it’s not a quick process to branch out with different home-grown grape varietals. For beer makers looking to try new ingredients, though, it’s a much simpler and quicker process.

Some wineries do experiment with products, though, and are using customer input to do it. Newer wineries and those that buy their grapes from various sources are more likely to have an experimental component, but occasionally larger wineries with plenty of capacity are doing the same thing. I’ve been invited to several blending events where customers receive a case of their custom-designed wines. But panelist JE Paino, general manager of Ruhstaller Brewery in Sacramento, threw out a challenge to all the winemakers at the session: wine has a built-in uniqueness with each vintage that beer can’t match. It’s true that every batch of beer is a little different, even if the ingredients seem exactly the same. This isn’t like the yearly variation in grape vintages, though. (As Mr. Paino commented, “I wish I had something I could make only once and once it’s gone, it’s gone.”) Why not exploit it and help customers understand the uniqueness in the grapes and the changes in winemaking that go with them?

The general manager of Ruhstaller Beer, a local Sacramento brewer, was one of the panelists at the conference.  The kid with a cigar is a great logo.

The general manager of Ruhstaller Beer, a local Sacramento craft brewer, was one of the panelists at the conference I attended last month. The kid with a cigar is a great logo.

As I said earlier, there aren’t a bunch of easy answers, but there are some things that wineries can do to exploit their own craft natures. While it’s true that experimentation is more difficult for the wine industry, it’s also true that the industry has had kind of an if it’s not broken don’t fix it attitude. Perhaps the recent data are a timely warning that will get people thinking. Craft beer drinkers are curious and willing to try new things, so I think they’ll respond to the effort.

** The craft brewery cap is set at a very high 6 million barrels per year. According to Garrett Peck, author of Capital Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in Washington, DC, this is way out of the range of almost all craft breweries, which might top out with thousands of barrels annually. The 6 million cap was set so that Boston Beer Company could be considered a craft brewery, although the limit was much lower in the past.


While craft beverages are American, many of our foreign wine producers meet a craft definition in terms of ownership, product, and production levels of less than 10,000 cases per year. One of them, Domaine Sainte-Cécile du Parc, in Pézenas in the Languedoc, even meets the spirit of the word in terms of making new products. As I’ve mentioned before, the Languedoc has become the wine laboratory of France because it has great grape growing conditions. The rules of the various Languedoc appellations vary and the higher-level designations generally allow only Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Carignan in the red wines. But some of the local designations are more forgiving. These allow producers like Domaine Ste-Cécile du Parc to produce wines to their taste and still retain a local identity in terms of appellation.

Stephane Mouton and Christine Mouton-Bertoli, owners of Domaine Sainte-Cecile du Parc.  Unfortunately I had to lift this photo from their website -- even though they visited DC I forgot to take a photo!

Stephane Mouton and Christine Mouton-Bertoli, owners of Domaine Sainte-Cecile du Parc. Unfortunately I had to lift this photo from their website — even though they visited DC I forgot to take a photo!

Christine Mouton-Bertolli and her husband, Stephane Mouton, purchased the Domaine in 2005. The land had been producing wine grapes for more than a century, and the previous owner had sold his grapes to the local village cooperative instead of producing wine. Christine and Stephane replaced about half the vines with new plantings, and started construction of a new winery on the property. They began conversion to organic farming in 2011. The 2010 vintage gave them the opportunity to make wine from their new vines. One of these wines, Notes Franches ($14), was made entirely from the new-vine grapes. It’s 80% Cabernet Franc and 20% Merlot. While both of these grapes are found in the Languedoc, the blend is more like something you’d find in Bordeaux. They’ve aged the wine half in steel and half in older oak barrels — this softens the wine just a little. But the fruit from the Cab Franc and Merlot shine through, and it’s awfully good. You don’t just have to take my word for it, either. Dave McIntyre gave it three stars and labeled it a great value in the Washington Post.

This week’s recipe is kind of a guilty pleasure food for me. I have to admit that if I see a sausage and pepper hoagie/sub/grinder/sandwich on any menu, it’s hard to order anything else. I don’t know what it is about that combination. Particularly since the sausage is usually just OK. We’re spoiled here in DC with Stachowski’s, a butcher and sausage maker with a Georgetown store. Jamie Stachowski’s red wine Italian sausage is really good. When I have some, I like to make a pasta version of the sausage and peppers sandwich. It seems a little more like dinner that way.

I can’t say it’s a quick recipe, because everything has to get nice and browned, and it takes about 45 minutes. This isn’t a throw the sausage and peppers on a grill kind of recipe. Nothing’s difficult, though. First you brown the sausage links in a little olive oil. Then take the links out and cut them into slices, return them to the skillet, and brown the cut sides. Take the pieces out and brown the peppers and onions. Add the garlic, then some red wine and canned tomatoes along with the sausage and cook for 15 minutes. Toss in the cooked pasta with little pieces of mozzarella and some grated parmesan cheese, and serve. You can use the Notes Franches in the pasta and also serve it with the meal.  It’s craft cooking and drinking.



Sausage and Pepper Pasta

Serves 4

12 to 16 ounces mild Italian sausage (4 to 5 links)

1 yellow bell pepper, cored and cut into thin strips

1 red bell pepper, cored and cut into thin strips

1 large onion, peeled, cut in half pole to pole, then cut into thin half-moons

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

3 cloves garlic, minced

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 pound short pasta (I like fusilli or gemelli)

8 ounces bocconcini (small mozzarella balls), or fresh mozzarella cut into small pieces

1 cup grated parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large nonstick skillet. When hot, add the sausage links. Prick each one a few times with a fork or sharp knife. When they’re browned on the bottom, turn them over and prick them again. Try to get them as brown as possible on all sides. Remove them from the skillet and turn off the heat. Let the sausages rest for a minute to cool so you can handle them. Then slice them into 1/2-inch pieces. Reheat the skillet and put the pieces in to brown on the cut sides. Remove the browned pieces to a bowl with a slotted spoon.

Add the peppers and onions to the skillet along with the oregano and some salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables start to brown, then lower the heat and continue to cook them until they’re pretty much browned all over. This will take about 20 minutes total. Add the garlic and cook for a minute. Then add red wine and turn up the heat, scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to dislodged any browned bits. Boil the wine for a minute, then add the tomatoes and the browned sausage. Cook for about 12 minutes to get everything thickened up. Taste for salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, boil the pasta in a large amount of salted water. Cook it about a minute less than the package directs for al dente pasta. Drain, saving about a cup and a half of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the skillet and cook for 2 minutes or so, adding pasta water as you need it to make a sauce that’s thick but not too thick. Turn off the heat and stir in the mozzarella pieces and the parmesan. Add more pasta water if you need it. Serve hot.

This entry was posted in Craft beer and spirits, Languedoc wine, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s