In New World winemaking, California is not so new. As the first major player in the U.S. wine industry, the state has long commanded the respect of the wine world, cementing a reputation as an elite player thanks to its many cult labels. But old dogs can certainly learn new tricks, and the California wine industry is no exception. Even as varietal stalwarts like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir still dominate throughout the state, vintners are finding new ways to express their terroir, as well as honing their focus on what makes various parcels and plots unique. And a widening selection of varietals is being planted throughout the state, acting as yet another tool to showcase the diversity on offer.
Such moves come in tandem with the rise of more distinctive central and southern California AVAs that have emerged over the past decade—among them Paso Robles and Santa Barbara-based areas. As the state’s wine growing boundaries expand, so too does the accessibility of wine from regions once held in highest esteem, formerly limited to those with deeper pockets. Napa, for example, has benefited from an influx of more affordably priced labels, opening up the region to a broader swath of consumers, often skewing younger.
And then there’s innovation throughout the state that’s extending the very definition of what wine can be—namely spirits barrel-aged wines and wine spritzers, which are now garnering major success and seeing a high number of new brand introductions. Through all of these movements, California has imbued its wine industry with a freshness that keeps consumers flocking to its labels, despite the growing presence of other wines from all over the world.
AVAs All Over
When California’s wine industry took off, Napa Valley was the primary destination for wine novices and aficionados alike. Even as Napa and its northern neighbor, Sonoma, remain major wine hot spots today, a growing number of winemakers are now more fully exploring regions to the south, often doing so with similar varietals, and achieving mounting success.
Just over 200 miles south of Napa is Paso Robles, a region encompassing 11 different sub-AVAs spread across 614,000 acres. Paso, which regularly sees temperatures rise well into 100-degree territory at the height of summer, has become well known for its prowess in producing Bordeaux and Rhône varietals. Cabernet Sauvignon in particular has proliferated across the region, and the iterations coming from Paso mark a stylistic departure from their Napa Valley counterparts—a result of the higher average temperatures and major diurnal swings.
At Daou Vineyards in Paso’s Adelaida sub-AVA, high-end Cabernet Sauvignon has set the winery apart from its neighbors. “When we came to Paso, we had this strong belief that the region could rival any wine area in the world for Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varietals,” says Daou co-owner and winemaker Daniel Daou. “Traditionally, Paso vintners were afraid to compete with other areas like Bordeaux or Napa, so they focused on $10-$15 a bottle Cabernet Sauvignon. But we broke the mold there with Soul of a Lion.” The winery first introduced Soul of a Lion ($125 a 750-ml.), a luxury Cabernet, in 2012; the wine sold out in its initial run, and continues to play an important role in Daou’s portfolio today.
Also from the Central Coast is Trinchero Family Estate’s Iron + Sand brand, as well as a number of offerings from the company’s Seaglass label. “We’ve had our eye on California’s Central Coast for one time, which drove our 2016 investment in 46 acres and a 90,000-square-foot production facility now known as Trinchero Central Coast,” says Trinchero vice president of marketing Dave Derby. He notes that the new Iron + Sand Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($25 a 750-ml.), which debuted last year, quickly sold out upon release. Based on the success of such wines, the Central Coast will remain a significant area of focus for the company moving forward.
South of Paso Robles, winemaker Dave Phinney has been active in Santa Barbara County-based AVA Sta. Rita Hills with his new Pinot Noir label, L’usine. With the brand, Phinney is aiming to illustrate a real sense of place, namely through vineyard-designated wines that skew somewhere between lean, Burgundian iterations and their meatier Meiomi-style counterparts. For Phinney, launching L’usine came on the heels of over a decade of innovation in the red blend space via Orin Swift. “As winemakers, we’re forced to challenge ourselves to work differently, because what do you do once you’ve summited Everest?” he asks. “Well, you’ve got to summit something else. For me, that was getting into another varietal that I wasn’t super comfortable with—Pinot Noir.” The L’usine lineup comprises three wines, ranging from a broad Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($65 a 750-ml.) to two vineyard-designated labels: Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Pinot Noir ($99) and Annapolis Vineyard Pinot Noir ($125).
Nearby in San Bernabe, Delicato Family Vineyards has put an increased emphasis on its Diora brand, which is the primary label in the little-known San Bernabe AVA. “This was an AVA that was pioneered by the Delicato family—they were the ones who submitted the petition to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to have the AVA created,” says Delicato vice president of marketing Kathy Pyrce. “Since its creation, and for the span of time the family has owned these vineyards, those grapes have gone into various brands in the Delicato portfolio. But what’s different now is that the company sees the potential for the San Bernabe vineyards to make luxury wines.” To that end, the Diora label now includes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and rosé in national distribution, with more single-vineyard, San Bernabe AVA-appellated wines available at the winery.
Even as it moves more fully into the upper echelons of the wine industry with Diora, Delicato remains focused on building its wildly popular Bota Box brand, which has ceaselessly innovated over the years with both new expressions and new formats. New to the Bota Box portfolio last year was the Nighthawk extension, featuring 3-liter boxed wines that are bolder and richer in flavor than their flagship counterparts. Nighthawk launched with Cabernet Sauvignon and red blend wines, which were followed up by Chardonnay and Bourbon barrel-aged Cabernet offerings. The latter, in particular, has performed superbly since launching nationally in January. “The Bourbon barrel Cabernet has already shipped over 100,000 cases,” says Pyrce. “It’s a testament to how consumers are embracing these premium 3-liter wines, as it’s only been available for nationwide distribution since the start of the year.” According to Pyrce, Bota Box Nighthawk is now the third-largest premium 3-liter on the market, with Bota Box holding the No.-1 position in that field.
Pryce notes that Delicato has explored more spirit barrel-aged wines as a result of the success of the Nighthawk Bourbon barrel-aged Cabernet, launching a rum barrel-aged red blend through its Three-Finger Jack label in May, as well as a Scotch barrel-aged Chardonnay under its 1924 brand in the same month. “We’re taking advantage of the real consumer trend in that hot category of barrel-aged wines,” she says. “The Chardonnay is the first of its kind to market, and with Three-Finger Jack, we’re taking that strong red blend segment growth and adding that consumer demand for spirit-aged wine on top of it. We truly believe that’s where the most opportunity lies.”
While Delicato is bullish on barrel-aged wines, it’s not the first to compete in the category. Concha y Toro-owned Fetzer Vineyards released a Bourbon-finished Zinfandel under the 1000 Stories moniker in 2014, igniting the spirits barrel-aged trend that has yet to slow among consumers. 1000 Stories has since expanded its lineup to include a Bourbon barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon and a red blend, as well as a Chardonnay (all $19 a 750-ml.) that’s aged in French and American oak prior to being finished in charred Bourbon barrels, which launched this past March. Today, 1000 Stories stands at some 112,000 cases.
Josh Cellars has also innovated in the barrel-aged space, releasing a Bourbon barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon under its Reserve line in June. The wine is aged in Bourbon barrels taken from Redemption Bourbon, which, like Josh, is part of the Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits portfolio. “This new wine features a similar base to our standard Cabernet, but since it’s aged in Bourbon barrels it actually pulls some alcohol out of those, making the alcohol content a bit higher, and it brings some of that Bourbon character into the wine, giving it a bit of roundness,” says Deutsch president Tom Steffanci. “But it’s still very much a wine; as a wine lover, someone would enjoy this, even with the hints of Bourbon present.” The new Josh Reserve Bourbon barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon retails at $22 a 750-ml.
Also playing in the barrel-aged space is Treasury Wine Estates’ Beringer Bros., which launched in 2018 with a Bourbon barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon, and has since extended the lineup to include a Bourbon barrel-aged Chardonnay and a red blend, as well as a Tequila barrel-aged Sauvignon Blanc (all priced at $17 a 750-ml.). The label has blown through 108,000 cases since its debut, skyrocketing 80.1% last year from its base of 60,000 cases.
Just as barrel aging has broadened the definition of how wines can be made, so too have such innovations as wine spritzers and seltzers. To compete with the ongoing popularity of malt-based hard seltzers, many wineries have dived headfirst into parallel ventures with wine-based seltzers of their own. Among those doing so is Trinchero, which launched Del Mar Wine Seltzer in April, as well as Fre, a canned, alcohol-removed wine, this past January. “Both of these brands were designed to target today’s wellness-minded consumer,” says Derby. “Rather than fight the trend, we chose to embrace it with a grape-based hard seltzer offering, Del Mar. Our goal is to bring new wellness-oriented consumers who care about ingredient transparency into the category, and we intend to achieve that objective with wine-based as opposed to malt-based seltzers.” The Del Mar lineup includes Black Cherry, Grapefruit, Watermelon, and White Peach flavors, all coming in at 95 calories and 4% abv.
Also playing in the wine seltzer space is Barefoot, which launched Barefoot Hard Seltzer in cans in January. The seltzers—Pineapple & Passion Fruit, Cherry & Cranberry, Peach & Nectarine, and Strawberry & Guava—feature a white wine base that’s then blended with sparkling water and fruit flavors. Similarly, Molson Coors launched Movo Wine Spritzers in April; both new releases are aimed at health-minded consumers, touting low calorie counts and low alcohol levels.
In another departure, this summer The Wine Group entered the low-calorie, low-alcohol drinks market with the 8% abv Cupcake Lighthearted ($10 a 750-ml.), which contains less than one gram of sugar and has about 80 calories a 5-ounce serving—20% fewer calories than hard seltzer’s average of around 100 calories. The Cupcake Lighthearted line includes a Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and rosé, all sourced from California.
Novelty In Napa
Even as innovative new wines hit the market and other AVAs come more fully on stream, vintners active in California’s hallmark region, Napa, are finding ways to stay top of mind among a broader set of consumers. At Copper Cane Wine & Provisions, Joe Wagner has found snowballing success for his Quilt brand thanks to its more accessible pricing. “For a retail of $50 a bottle it’s not the cheapest wine in the world, but we feel it’s hitting in a competitive range, from a quality standpoint, in the $100-plus category,” says Wagner. “People see the value this wine provides, and if they love Napa Valley Cabernet, they’re often willing to go for this affordable luxury. There was a definitely a void out there at that price point, but we’re starting to see growth in the $50-and-under category, so we anticipate more competition moving forward.”
Last August, a red blend ($45 a 750-ml.) joined the Quilt lineup; thus far, Wagner says the wine has performed quite well. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Quilt managed to eke out early gains of 4% in Nielsen channels, supplementing growth of 25% year-to-date. Outside of Quilt, Wagner is exploring higher-end sparkling wines, as well as experimenting with a number of varietals, including Riesling, Chardonnay, and Albariño, for direct-to-consumer projects.
As Wagner noted, more wineries are jumping on the sub-$50 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon category. Longtime California player Duckhorn Wine Co. released Postmark—a standalone $35 Cabernet—earlier this year. “Postmark is geared toward making Napa Valley more accessible than ever to millennial consumers, and it’s been introduced with great enthusiasm from the trade side,” says Duckhorn senior vice president and chief marketing and business development officer Carol Reber. The grapes for Postmark are sourced from both hillside and valley floor vineyards, from such Napa sub-AVAs as St. Helena, Atlas Peak, Rutherford, Mt. Veeder, Diamond Mountain, and Stag’s Leap.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has stunted tourism to California wine country, many vintners are anticipating the day that they can once again offer unique experiences to entice consumers. In a nod to the spirits industry’s penchant for pop-ups, Daou launched a pop-up of its own—pre-coronavirus—at Mammoth Mountain. “We have a fair number of millennials that are interested in us, and not all of them can come to Daou Mountain,” says co-proprietor Georges Daou. “So we decided to take the mountain to them, and one of the first places we did that was Mammoth. We took a bit of a gamble there, because wineries typically don’t do pop-ups like this; spirits companies might, but wineries don’t. The Mammoth experience was wildly successful—I’d say it’s one of the most successful efforts we’ve carried out in promoting our brand.” Based on the triumphant returns of the Mammoth pop-up, the Daou brothers note that they’ll be doing similar experiences in the future, post-vaccine, to attract even more consumers.
Duckhorn, too, has innovated extensively on consumer experiences, offering a wide range of tourist activities at its many California wineries. While such classic ventures as tours and tastings are available, Duckhorn also offers helicopter and ATV tours of its vineyards, in addition to other more unique ventures.
Wagner has also expanded the ways in which consumers can enjoy his wines, opening Avow in Napa in July 2019. A full-service restaurant, Avow was in the midst of rolling out release parties for small, independent vintners when Covid struck; prior to that, Wagner had largely focused on highlighting his own wines, taking up around 10% of the wine list, which is comprised of around 200 offerings. “While there’s not a huge volume of our own wines at Avow, we’re definitely putting them front and center, and positioning them for food and wine pairing recommendations,” says Wagner. “It’s definitely brought in consumers who might not have otherwise been introduced to some of the Copper Cane brands.” Though the restaurant shuttered for in-person dining back in March, Wagner and his team have been running takeout seven days a week. Ultimately, Wagner is keen on staying fresh in the eyes of consumers. “We’re always looking to see what’s out there, what people are doing that’s new,” he says. “You never know what the next trend is going to be, but we always want to make sure that we’re toying just as much as anybody else.”