Wine’s future — not just more Pinot Noir

Put away the worry beads you dragged out after last week's post.  There is plenty of good news for wine sellers and wine drinkers.

Put away the worry beads you dragged out after last week’s post. There is plenty of good news for wine sellers and wine drinkers.

I want to dial things back a little after last week’s craft beer lecture/worry session. It’s true that craft beer is expanding from a niche market to something a lot more mainstream. But the wine industry isn’t going to disappear and there’s good news for wine sellers. After years of increases in sales of bottles going for $9 or less, it turns out that those wines are losing ground. $10-$14 wine is now the growth category, and in general things are looking up for wines under $30. This is good news for wine drinkers too. While more expensive wine isn’t necessarily better wine, there are a lot more high-quality wines above $10 a bottle than below.

It doesn’t mean the wine industry can just sit back and count the money, though. While predicting future trends tends to be a crapshoot, I was pleased to see that a few of the speakers at last month’s Unified Wine and Grape Symposium independently converged on some ideas that they think will be part of the future of the wine industry. The fact that they have different day jobs (economist, market researcher, graphic designer) made me think that these might actually be big-picture ideas — as opposed to simply saying things like People Will Drink More Pinot Noir.

First up, Mike Veseth. If you’ve spent any time in the wine industry you’ve almost certainly read something of his. He’s an economist specializing in wine and, since he recently retired from teaching, has more time to travel the world speaking and observing. But he’s not just a good read for the winerati: I recommend his books and blog for anyone who wants to learn something about how the business of making wine works. As he said in his talk, wine is not just like everything else people buy. He spoke about what he has seen in the past few years and listed three trends based on those observations, both in the U.S. and abroad.

1) Authenticity. The wine industry will embrace more of the farm-to-fork concept we’re seeing in the food industry. While this is already happening in some parts of the country, wine hasn’t caught up with the know-your-farmer interest that people are showing in buying food. But Veseth thinks this will change, and quickly.

2) Environment. Veseth calls this “grape to glass green,” and it goes along with authenticity. Since environmental protection often seems to be in the eye of the beholder when it comes to wine I hope this means we’ll have some standardization of certain terms like sustainability.

Some low alcohol wines come under FDA regulation and have to have nutrition labels.  Mike Veseth thinks that more wines will have the labels in the near future.

Some low alcohol wines come under FDA regulation and have to have nutrition labels. Mike Veseth thinks that more wines will have the labels in the near future.  (Photo from winelifeinthescv.blogspot.com)

3) Nutrition labeling. Interestingly, the introduction of low-alcohol wines may pave the way for more wineries adding nutritional information. Labeling for wine that’s below 7% alcohol by volume isn’t regulated by TTB, the agency that wine importers and producers typically have to deal with. TTB allows nutrition information on the label but doesn’t require it. Low-alcohol non-beer products are regulated by FDA, and that agency requires all food products to conform to nutrition labeling laws. So if it starts getting more visible as low-alcohol wines hit the market, it’s likely that other wines will follow along — particularly if they’re made by producers who also make low-alcohol wines.

The second set of future trends came from Lulie Halstead, founder and CEO of Wine Intelligence, and a specialist in wine consumer behavior. She gave us four broad ideas that came from her research in how customers see wine in the broader context of their lives. The question is how the wine industry can adapt these ideas to continue to attract people to wine.

1) Well-being. It’s not just a question of physical health, but also mental and emotional health. Food safety belongs in here too. Beyond deciding that you can drink a glass of wine instead of working out today, it’s actively planning if and how wine fits into your own health and wellness. It also wraps all three ideas that Veseth spoke about in his talk. Nutrition labels are an obvious one, but the other two come into play as well: authenticity, because you’ll know how and where the wine was made; environment, because it decreases unnecessary risk to our health and the planet.

2) Customization. Customers want unique, tailored products. This accounts for some of the attraction of craft beers, which can be small-batch and (seemingly infinitely) customizable. Can wine start down a similar path? If not with the actual products, then perhaps with how those products get presented?

To illustrate customization, Lulie Halstead showed us a gizmo to make your cappuccino foam look like Hello Kitty.  Sign me up!

To illustrate customization, Lulie Halstead showed us a gizmo to make your cappuccino foam look like Hello Kitty. Sign me up!

3) Fusion. Just like mixing different cuisines, it’s blending and cross-categorization. Maybe it’s something as simple as non-traditional wine and food pairings, or maybe it extends to products containing wine and other things. This might strike serious wine drinkers as gimmicky. But as consumers find fusions in their lives easier to come by this will have to be a consideration. (Fusion can also lead to customization — Halstead gave the example of Über teaming up with Spotify to make a customer’s car ride more customized and pleasant.) I can easily see the concept extending to how people buy their wine as well. A session I attended on messaging gave this statistic: the days of weekly food shopping or even shopping a few days ahead are over. People shop for recipes and 60% of eating choices are made within an hour of consumption, including those cooked at home. How does the wine industry make wine an active part of those choices?

4) Activation. People want to feel like they’re participating in a political or social movement, preferably one with a global benefit. At a minimum this means environmental awareness, which Veseth also mentioned. But it also could extend to wineries embracing political/social causes transparently and allowing their customers to support those causes by purchasing the wine.

Finally, my third pick for future trends presenter was Kevin Shaw, owner of Stranger & Stranger, a beverage packaging design firm. While he didn’t give us bullet points, he set out to answer the question of why wine packaging is so slow to change. His question to us: Are wine consumers really afraid of the new, or have they just not been given things they like?

He cited consumers’ move to embrace higher-end wines that don’t have the typical higher-end labels. Wineries have dropped vineyard engravings, mercifully. But for years now they’ve been producing something equally boring: “serious,” virtually graphics-free labels with lots of white space, or deep matte-finish colors to indicate the richness of their wines. While these give the wines a kind of timeless quality (and using the same label also means less annual federal approval work for the wineries), they don’t emphasize the uniqueness of each product or vintage within a brand.

Virginia Marie Lambrix, owner and winemaker at VML Wines, wanted a label that showed that the wine was biodynamic without resorting to words.  Stranger & Stranger, a beverage package design firm, made this illustration for her.

Virginia Marie Lambrix, owner and winemaker at VML Wines, wanted a label that showed that the wine was biodynamic without resorting to words. Stranger & Stranger, a beverage package design firm, made this illustration for her.

How is this changing? Illustrations and photographs. Of course, these had already been used on more everyday products or to convey whimsy (think of all those critter wines from 10 years ago. Cute, but it gave you no idea about the winery or what was in the bottle). Now wineries are using illustrations or photographs that attempt to give consumers a message about what the winemakers and winegrowers think is important about their brand and each particular wine.   While there would likely be some unifying concept for a winery, the individual labels for wines within that winery’s brand should evoke some indication of the actual differences in the products to the consumer. And these won’t necessarily be the same year to year.

So if you’ve read this far, you might be thinking this is all just a scheme to figure out new ways to market wine to customers, both existing and future. Guilty as charged. But I’ve been in the wine business for nearly nine years now, and I can honestly say that this is the best attempt I’ve seen in that time to go beyond inside baseball and snob appeal on one end and lowest common denominator on the other in understanding what makes people buy wine. In the end, I think that’s good for everyone.

————————————

We got some snow this week and it was really cold, which meant no one wanted to go outside. I imagine there was a lot of cupboard scouring to find things to eat. My kitchen probably isn’t like everyone’s, I realize, but I always have canned beans around. I’ve posted a lot of recipes using beans, so I was trying to think of something different to do with them. Last fall, Cy and I went to a vegetarian dinner and we made vegetarian Italian sausage for it. I’ve had Italian sausage on the brain after last week’s recipe post, and since the vegetarian sausage contains beans I thought about making it again. But the sausage has a lot of other ingredients that most people wouldn’t have (and frankly, I wouldn’t go out and buy). Some of them are for flavor, but most are for texture. So instead I thought that some of the same spice mixture could be used to make bean burgers flavored like Italian sausage.

I took a standard recipe to make two large bean burgers — 1 can drained beans, 1 egg, 1/2 cup dried bread crumbs — and added a spice mixture based on the Italian sausage. I used cannellini beans because they’re always in my cupboard, and they turned out well. But if you’re going to double the recipe and make four burgers, try using one can of black beans or pinto beans. You have to mash up half the beans to make the burger stick together, and the darker color makes it look more like ground meat. I made a couple of tweaks to the spice mixture too. The burgers have a very mild Italian sausage flavor. Add some melted cheese, sauteed onion, and a little marinara sauce, and they’re a tasty, lighter substitute for sausage on a bun.

A couple of other things occurred to me after making them — I always have garlic powder around for spice rubs, but if you only have fresh garlic go ahead and use it: grate it on a fine grater right into the beans when you mash them. And the burgers get more flavorful if you can let them sit before you cook them. With the egg inside you won’t want to leave them out on the counter, though, and if you’ve chilled them the inside might not get warmed through when you brown them. Covering the pan partway through browning the second side will warm them up without softening the crust.

A light-bodied red wine is just the thing for these, so try Domaine des Mathurins’ Tango pour Hélène ($13). It’s made from Grenache and Syrah and is great with burgers and pizza, so why not these as well? Together, they’re better than takeout food and just right if you’re snowed in.

Cheers!

Tom

Bean Burgers Italian Sausage Style

Serves 4

2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, or 1 can cannellini and 1 can black beans or pinto beans

2 eggs

1 cup fine dried bread crumbs

1-1/2 teaspoons garlic powder (or 2 garlic cloves, peeled and grated on a fine grater)

1-1/2 teaspoons crushed fennel seeds

1-1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1-1/2 teaspoons smoked mild paprika

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon dried oregano

3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1-1/4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce (regular or vegetarian)

Olive oil (for sauteeing)

4 hamburger buns

Optional toppings — sliced provelone or mozzarella cheese, sauteed onion, marinara sauce

Drain the beans but reserve 1/4 cup of the bean liquid — you might need it if the burger mixture is too dry. In a large bowl, thoroughly mash half the beans along with the grated garlic (if you’re using it). Combine the bread crumbs with all the spices in a small bowl, and beat the eggs with the Worcestershire sauce in another small bowl. Add the whole beans and the crumb/spice mixture to the mashed beans and combine well. Add the egg mixture and mix until just all mixed together. Shape the mixture into four flat patties about 3/4-inch thick and 4-1/2 inches in diameter. Put the patties on a plate, cover with plastic, and refrigerate for a half hour.

Heat enough olive oil to thoroughly cover the bottom of a large nonstick skillet, about 4 tablespoons. Brown the patties for 4 minutes on one side. Then flip them over and brown for 1 minute. Cover the pan and lower the heat and cook 3 more minutes. Turn off the heat and put sliced cheese on the burgers, if desired. Serve on the buns with any toppings you like.

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