Wine

Lining Up for That Next Vintage

Can the wine industry replicate the “limited edition” excitement that’s helped propel the craft beer movement?

photo illustration of wines on a background
Illustration by Jeff Quinn.

Lining up for anything in this digital age is increasingly a rarity. Let’s face it, from movies to grocery stores, queuing up to buy something is rapidly being replaced by the convenience of the one-click button.

But don’t tell that to the 400 craft beer fans who waited in line last October outside Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing at 9 a.m. to get their hands on its latest collaborative brew, Like Whoa, with Trillium Brewing. Seven hundred cases of the highly coveted beer sold out in just two hours, and the scene was shared widely on social media.  

Such imagery, of passionate beer fans waiting in line for hours for that special limited release, is a phenomenon rarely seen with any food or beverage product today, and has helped to propel the craft beer revolution. Currently, there are more than 5,000 craft brewers in the U.S., and the number continues to grow, fueled in part by the coverage in the news media and on social media of the impressive efforts made by craft beer fans to obtain these special limited-release brews.

But what about that other industry with thousands of producers—wine? Can it borrow a page from the craft beer movement’s playbook when it comes to generating excitement around special limited releases? There are some signs it already has.

Major wine companies like E. & J. Gallo, Fetzer Vineyards, and Constellation Brands, have each come out with limited-edition wines in the past few years that are designed to appeal to millennials by using new production methods (bourbon barrels are popular), celebrating special milestones, or just building on already successful brands.

E. & J. Gallo, for example, offers Apothic Dark, a limited-release red blend, as well as Apothic Inferno and Limited Release Dark Horse Rosé. Fetzer’s brand 1000 Stories will be offering Half Batch, which is to be released in October, and Constellation produces Robert Mondavi Private Selection Bourbon Barrel–Aged Cabernet Sauvignon.

Ask these wine companies what’s behind these limited editions, and you get a similar reply: an attempt to appeal to the millennial demographic’s sense of adventure when it comes to food and drink.  

“There is tremendous diversity in the wine aisle these days, and we see consumers’ desire for exploration and differentiated products as one element driving this trend,” says Rodrigo Maturana, vice president of marketing for Fetzer Vineyards. “Millennials, in particular, have shown a preference for discovery. Seasonal releases and limited-edition wines impart a sense of novelty while allowing consumers to personalize an occasion with an as-yet-undiscovered wine.”

And who doesn’t want consumers lining up outside their breweries, or wineries, for that next special release? While the U.S. wine industry is holding its own and seeing steady, moderate growth, it still trails behind its alcohol counterparts in terms of overall market share. It currently holds 17.1 percent of the overall alcohol industry sales in the U.S., compared to 47 percent for beer, and 35.9 percent for spirits, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. So, drumming up a little more excitement around limited releases wouldn’t hurt.

Even so, the trend remains nowhere near as vibrant in wine as it is in the craft beer industry. The wine industry’s limited releases remain mostly confined to coveted luxury brands that aficionados put their names on special mailing lists to obtain, or specially packaged Champagne offerings for the holidays. For example, Dom Pérignon dresses up its Champagne in specially-designed boxes at the end of each year. “Their Limited Editions are always the same [sparkling] wines [as the year’s standard bottling], but with different labels and boxes,” comments Mike Osborn, founder and vice president of merchandising for Wine.com.Our customers love those.”

But the wine industry is showing a real interest in trying to broaden this excitement to attract a larger audience. Take the current trend of offering small, limited-release runs of wines aged in bourbon barrels. “Wine aged in bourbon barrels is a new mini-trend they’re trying,” observes George Feaver, wine director of PJ Wine, a retail shop in Manhattan. “Bourbon is hot. America’s brown spirit has made a major comeback.”

Jon Guggino, Constellation’s vice president of marketing for Robert Mondavi Private Selection, says that when they launched Robert Mondavi Private Selection Bourbon Barrel–Aged Cabernet Sauvignon in January 2016, it was one of the first wines aged in bourbon barrels on the market. “Ever since its debut,” he says, “it has been performing extremely well and is currently the leading bourbon barrelaged Cabernet Sauvignon in America by dollar and volume sales and [it’s] ranked the number seven Cabernet overall in the super-premium segment [according to recent data from IRI].” He adds that, coming off the success of Bourbon BarrelAged Cabernet Sauvignon, the company launched a bourbon barrelaged Chardonnay this past spring. Says Guggino, “The consumer reaction has been extremely positive.”

“We created Apothic Inferno based on the brown spirits trend with millennial red wine drinkers,” says Christine Jagher, director of marketing at E. & J. Gallo. “It is aged in whiskey barrels, giving it an expressive, unique character.” She explains that the social media responses leading up toand during the Apothic Inferno releases have proven a strong measure of the product’s success. “We’ve seen an overwhelming amount of positive comments from followers asking for Inferno to return and sharing how they purchased multiple bottles to stock their supply until the next release,” she says. “This kind of direct feedback is a powerful indicator that we have launched a product that is resonating with our consumers.”

Fetzer, which has a reputation in the industry for bold experimentation, also uses bourbon barrels for its 1000 Stories brand. It is made, like craft spirits and beer, in small lots, each unique and expressive of winemaker Bob Blue’s interpretation of the fruit, vineyards, and barrels. As a result, the company says, each batch offers an opportunity for unique discovery. The upcoming Half Batch from 1000 Stories will debut in 2,500 cases—half the quantity of a typical batch—when it comes out nationwide in October.

Limited releases can also be a safe way for the wine companies to expand on brands that have already found an audience. “Brands like Barefoot, Dark Horse, and Apothic have existing consumers who are more willing to take a chance on something new from a name they trust,” says Jagher. “By offering a wine for a limited time, consumers have a chance to enjoy something different from their favorite brands. We know not all brands can offer limited releases successfully—it helps to have an established and loyal following.”

Such limited editions can also be skillfully marketed to generate maximum brand awareness. “We will often tease their release to get our loyal followers excited for what’s to come,” Jagher says. “If we can catch their attention at the right time, they will already be searching for a new item by the time it hits the shelves. They will also be likely to help spread the word among their friends and family.”

Fetzer’s Maturana explains that they make a distinction between seasonal releases, of which Half Batch is one, and limited editions. “Seasonal releases often target the popular end-of-year period, when much of the wine sold in the U.S. leaves store shelves, and consumers are looking for something elevated and festive to give or share,” he says. “Limited wines are a broader category and could include any wine made in smaller quantities that’s likely to sell out, including single-vineyard and allocated wines. Often, these are celebratory or occasion-based wines that mark milestones, such as our upcoming 50th Anniversary Cabernet Sauvignon from flagship Fetzer, which will hit store shelves in limited amounts as we head into 2018, which marks our 50th anniversary. We’ll only turn 50 years young once, so this is a true limited-edition offering.”

Wine.com’s Osborn notes that such special-event wines have proven especially popular with consumers.  He points to Mouton Cadet’s partnership with the Ryder Cup in 2016, which yielded the release of a special Mouton Cadet cuvée as the official wine of the event.

“There’s an interest in creating, just like the brewers do, some ‘limited’ buzz,” Osborn says. “Like you have to buy it now to get it, and building a whole story around it.”

But, he points out, one major difference between the wine industry and craft beer is shelf life. Wines can typically have much longer shelf lives than beers, lending the limited release of a craft brew an extra tinge of excitement, as fans know they will be taking it home and quickly rewarding themselves for that long, sometimes cold, wait for hours in line.

Andrew Kaplan is a freelance writer based in New York City. He was Managing Editor of Beverage World magazine for 14 years and has worked for a variety of other food and beverage-related publications, and also newspapers. 

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