SPLASH DECANT 04/15/21

Orange Crush – The Arc of the Orange Wine Craze

5 minute read

File under: History

Genesis

It started like a whisper. Orange Wines began getting real play in the small, energetic restaurants in the city. The first wave #sommelebrity set saw an opportunity in the wines of De Conciliis, Gravner, Radikon and Vodopivec for the young elites coming in for that new new.

Sommeliers began headlining prominent digital publication upstarts with the Orange Wine story and including it as the trendy, pro recommendation – saying ‘white wine made like a red’ in a thousand different ways. ‘Macerated on the skins’ was thrown about table side like tik tok dance routines.

Nouveau-Niche

Orange Wine became the nouveau-niche category of the wine world; gaining immense traction and providing a new conversation. “Do you have orange wine?” became a question that importer/distributors would expect to get.

Just when it seemed like Orange Wine would become the yin to the mic-drop sales of Rosé’s yang, like it would be the other color-curious question that would be asked by the customers at wine stores, these articles went viral and gave Orange Wine a gut punch: Why Tecate is Greater than Orange Wine, quickly followed by Orange Wine Already Over, Say Two Wine Writers.

Take a moment and read these articles beyond the titles. That was 2013.

The Dark Times

Immediately following these articles, Orange Wine went through a brutal period where it fell starkly out of favor. It was put on the end of the wine bench – unlikely to be called and asked to play. On the street we talked about how fast it had died. How many of the wines weren’t even orange and how wacky the prices were.

Were they actually too expensive? Was Rosé just that dominant? Was the explanation of the wine process of orange wine just too difficult to take in for the general public? Did they obscure terroir via process?

I doubt there is an answer, but it was around this time that I had a realization.

In the above articles, Jon Bonné and Richard Betts (both of whom I admire) clarified one of the most vital elements of the new wine business for me: trends often don’t care about the industry, they feed on something outside us insiders. 

In 2017, I started to notice a sliver of daylight and emerging possibilities for Orange Wine via a raucously fun Ribolla Gialla Tasting in California and more tangibly, some street-level sales action I wrote about here.

Guess who’s back?

The slow time for Orange Wine came to an end with bright flashes of resurgence in the press. Orange Wine started showing up again in headlines in numerous wine publications, paired with clickbait headlines like ‘What is Natural Wine?’ and ‘Is Rosé Over?’

Do you have Orange Wine? is again an opener question in retail stores and restaurants accompanied by a new crop of factory-fabricated orange wine entering the sub-$15 retail space. And producers are regularly convinced by their importers to make an orange to acquire some perceived relevance.

Today  you can join an Orange Wine Club or grab Simon Woolf’s book available on Amazon, Amber Revolution.

The Future

We aren’t approaching the peak of Orange Wine, yet. The answer to this trend’s possible velocity lies in a few simplistic concepts:

It’s easy to remember and ask for, fast to say, loosely defined, and widely available.  

Now go try a few and see if you like them. And buckle up, because more is on the way.

THE REORDER 03/15/21

To sell, or not to sell

To sell, or not to sell, that is not the question.

If the idea of “selling” motivates you, then live in that frame. Invest in the sales mentality as a competitive fire to continue to drive you. This pursuit is in itself not a bad thing. But be careful to avoid idolizing the number or that big case drop of wine or case stack of spirits that goes out. It’s a trap. 

Selling is a result of philosophy and connection artistry – real craft. 

The most important question in the beverage game today is how well you can connect. 

Connection artists make waves. Salespeople make sales.

THE REORDER 03/01/21

Ground Game Defined

Ground Game Defined

If you connect people to wine/spirits and you don’t just send email offers all day hoping someone will respond, your ground game will define your career. It is the difference between the professional and the passable/mediocre in the artisan practice of sales.

Unfortunately, typical management practices in the beverage business have created a debauched sense of what is best practice by asking for recaps, appointment counts and god knows what else with the mere goal of making sure people are doing their jobs and not emboldening a team to make waves.

The Strong Ground Gamer

Strong Ground Gamers observe and act by simply noticing.

They don’t “desktop surf” the marketplace, they walk the marketplace.

They don’t covet appointments, they promote dialogue.

They don’t show an ocean of wine to see what sticks, they get specific by putting themselves in their customers’ shoes.

They are led by truth and not by number. They are never dishonest in the pursuit of shipping an allocation.

They ask better questions, listen more intently and dance with the marketplace devil that will never be tamed or fixed, it will always be moving.

How do buyers know the difference? They know the difference as much as you know the difference between an artful buyer that creates a narrative in what they buy and offer and the hackneyed or self-interested.

Mostly it is in between the rests. The unsaid. But over time, you will always know who has Ground Game and who doesn’t.

The kicker is that the folks with real Ground Game don’t get caught up in the comparison – they just hone their craft on the daily.

THE REORDER 02/15/21

One Routine that Always Wins

I only know of one routine that always wins in this business – I used to call it my pre-meet routine.

Before every meeting there were three things I would do –

  1. Imagine what it is is like to do the job of who I am meeting with.
  2. Review my notes on the last few meetings – not just what we tasted – but what we talked about.
  3. Think about what I can offer that is beyond what we are tasting together.

Without fail, I practiced this routine for more than a decade before every meeting and it has never failed me. It is a grounding exercise.

Do the above, while breathing and listening and you will make waves.

THE REORDER 01/15/21

Of Price and Then…

Selling wine and spirits using the price to drive sales is almost always a bad idea.

When this tactic works, the result can be exhilarating – everyone likes to make a big sale. That number that gives a super dopamine hit. Here’s the rub: someone out there has a comparable product with a lower price.

If you do choose this path, make sure you have other arrows in the quiver besides price. Anchor on story. Lean into on dependability. Or – just be thankful and use it to move forward into other things you can connect to the buyer that aren’t reliant on price.

One thing to note: In the extremes of the commodity side of this business (collectible or giant production products), selling on price can be especially effective, but remember – commodities are a volatile sector – and for good reason. Approach with caution.

SPLASH DECANT 01/01/21

Predictions for 2021

If 2020 was an earthquake, 2021 is about rebuilding. Below are my predictions for 2021 – hang tight, it’s going to be a wild one that will ultimately reshape the whole beverage business in surprising ways.


Silicon Valley and Wine?

Can the wine world handle the new tech bro entrance? Will we accept hoodies and all birds? I am currently wearing both…DOH.
Tech is going to more strongly enter the wine world. Whether it’s a platform or marketplace like Sevenfifty, AI to learn consumer’s taste, another new product or app trying to “democratize” the wine world, or a platform to make ordering easy. Wine Tech is coming, and I don’t mean the “we want to be the Amazon of wine” people, that’s hogwash. I mean a tech perspective on wine problems.

What’s certain is that a tech hat put on a scalable product works, but it doesn’t match up with the artisan/farmer wine model. In other words, it’s hard to go tech with artisan products coming from the old world where faxes and 80’s pop music are still a thing.

Someone is going to solve the right wine world problem with tech and it will be the beginning of a massive shift in the beverage ecosystem.

Subscriptions Galore

As consumption at home and delivery to those at home solidifies as a bigger part of the game, we are going to see a sizeable amount of subscription wine clubs formed – both through existing brick and mortar retail and independent operations. Anyone who wants to scale their subscription into something real is going to realize that it’s hard to move wine around the country. Those who have it grooved and/or figure it out will win big.

The New Retail

If the experience of buying wine and spirits is like going to the gas station, then prepare to watch the retailers offering this experience squirm and struggle. The new retail is going to focus on the digital shopping experience, in-store operations, service, and delivery. From the first interaction to checking out, the experience will be the focus for those that want to win. Quibble with Total Wine or the like all you want, but try shopping online, in-store, and/or taking delivery from them. It’s brilliant. That’s where it is all going in retail.

A Great Reorganization

We are going to see rebirth and reorganization across the board in the beverage distribution and import ecosystem. If the import/distribution game was a chessboard, imagine an empty board that will be reset in a new combination we have never seen before.

There will be new players, consolidation, and a staggering amount of producers up for grabs. Along with this shift, importers with means will go more direct to have more control over their own destiny. It’s not the sort of switch you can just turn on or off and is harder than it looks – but direct is the new direction.

The gangster move is a consolidation of a few mid-size players – who will that be?

Private Labelism Hits New Heights

There is going to be a TON of juice available at a discount. The exhale of inventory of all of this available juice will be through current private labels and a startling number of new private label projects.

New Size Formats

Holy shit, this is huge, especially in the spirits space. New size formats of 700ml, 720ml, 900ml, and 1.8L for spirits will extend the lines of many known spirits brands and even more newcomers. It’s a huge advantage for those working with distilleries in the EU and Japan. This will be a gamechanger in Q3/Q4 and lead to record spirits sales.

Tariff Madness

On his way out, the Orange Monster is attempting to burn everything down and hand the next guy and his administration, not just a shit sandwich, but a full tasting menu of shit. For the cheese course, we in the wine and spirits business get this: there are more tariffs in play. This new round represents a financial and emotional migraine for the business that is going to take quite a bit to get rid of and is going to cause some casualties. We have to hope for get a new deal with the new administration.

Low and Soft – the Low Alcohol Trend Accelerates

Low alcohol is going to get a lot more attention this year. Brands like Ghia and Seedlip are going to see more competition and more play. Look for well-known distillers to jump into this space with line extensions of low to no alcohol that mimics beer brands that produce low alcohol products.

Big Box Natural

This year we are going to see the solidification of the Big Box Natural phenomenon. Wines that would have never fit into the burgeoning category five years ago because of the size of the producer or their mission will be publicly accepted and will hit more shelves than ever. This is directly related to the ascending demand and price of the en vogue wines and the business sense of the Natural Wine Tribe.

SPLASH DECANT 12/01/20

The Birth of Big Box Natural

A few months ago the Valentina Passalacqua drama* was the go-to conversation in the wine streets of NYC, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Bressan issue of a few years ago.

As shocking as this is, there is no doubt Valentina Passalacqua will have US representation again. And like Bressan, the drama will be placed into a dark and unsuspecting corner of the mind of the market and the wines will find their way onto lists and shelves.

But below the surface of the Passalacqua drama was a significant development – a new iteration of the natural wine movement I am calling Big Box Natural.

Filling a Need

In February, my wife and I went to a wonderful restaurant with a voluminous natural wine list in Montréal and I asked the talented and well-traveled sommelier about the current craze for the V. Passalacqua and his response was startling:

“She is rich and has 80ha of vines. Her wines fill a need.”

Which need is that? Between the lines of this statement is a powerful cultural shift in the shape of the natural wine tribe movement.

Valentina Passalacqua didn’t just expose worker rights and issues, Passalacqua cemented the new business model – Big Box Natural.

And with it, comes a whole new iteration of the natural wine movement that has a far-reaching impact. What was unthinkable a few years ago has happened. Natural now has a proven, scalable, and repeatable business model and will get the full profit-driven treatment.

The Fundamentals of Big Box Natural

A decade ago, the early-adopting ambassadors of Natural laughed when you called a family estate of 15ha “a small estate.” Now, that definition no longer applies.

We are a long way from the barely-attended Dive Bouteille held outside in the rain.

The market driving forces of the Natural Wine Movement have been scarcity, fear of missing out on the new producer, approachable prices, and most importantly, being a part of a fun, kinetic tribe that is going against the grain. This is a movement that thrives on being David versus the commercial wine Goliath.

But, because demand firmly outstrips supply and pricing is now elevated, the producers of the Natural Wine Tribe have encountered a conundrum that will drive this new business narrative: not enough wine and less affordability.

The fundamental change in the Natural Wine Movement is that large production is no longer off the table. Big estates that would be laughed at as a member of the tribe will now be considered natural. It’s done, and Valentina Passalacqua proved it.

According to the facings in stores today, even a large farm where a portion of the vineyards are farmed sustainably, another portion organic, and the third portion biodynamic, can produce natural wine. These wines are bought by the truckload and portrayed as natural on shelves and lists.

Going forward, having a larger quantity available at a moveable price tier is where the action will be. Wines that hit that magic fire price point below $19.99 will become much more prevalent.

For the above reasons, you will see many more private labels masquerading as Natural. Veiled collaborations that make it sound like a well-known producer made the wines or they were made to certain specifications. Even wines where the source is more than dubious will be passed off as natural.

In concert with this phenomenon, many natural wine producers will start sourcing from outside their appellation, expanding their holdings, and borrowing/trading fruit to supplement production and profit.

Large retailers will buy these labels from private-labelist importer/distributors until they decide to jump past the importer/distributor and source their own next best thing at the lowest possible price, expanding this space even further.

Big Box Natural is the new fire category where the growth is going to be dramatic, mind-bending, and turn this David into more of a Goliath player.

Will this snake eat its own tail? Will this ruin the artisan, wabi-sabi model, or will all boats rise?  We are going to find out in 2021.


*For a quick take on the V. Passalacqua drama, Eric Asimov of the New York Times wrote an eloquent piece you can read here.