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This week on the “VinePair Podcast,” Adam Teeter, Zach Geballe, and Joanna Sciarrino discuss the misconceptions surrounding bulk wine. Prompted by a recent article on VinePair, our hosts explain what bulk wine is and how it got its bad reputation.
Bulk wine, according to our hosts, is mass-produced wine that is generally shipped before being bottled. In fact, Geballe explains that bulk wine has important utilities. One is an insurance policy for winemakers amid a difficult growing season, and the other is that these wines are environmentally friendly.
While bulk wine carries a reputation of being inferior in quality to estate-produced wine, our hosts explain this is simply not the case.
If you have any thoughts on bulk wine, please send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” And now… I was right, I was right, I was right.
Z: Is this a recurring segment we are going to keep doing?
A: I just want everyone to know that I was right. Now, I’m sure that there are predictions that I make on this show that I just don’t ever talk about again because I was wrong.
Z: That’s the key to making predictions.
A: But, I do want to be clear that yet again, I was right. What am I talking about? For those who listened, we talked a lot about how we had predictions for what was going to happen in the world of on-premise after things started to reopen. One of the predictions that was made, by yours truly, was that we felt that if people were going back to drink at cocktail bars and restaurants, it was going to be much more likely that they were going to order drinks more complex than the cocktails they learned to make at home and signature cocktails than be willing to go out and just drink a Negroni, a Martini, or something that they had already perfected at home. With the initial data that’s coming out, we are seeing that that is, in fact, correct. The first data that we have is actually coming from Breakthru Beverage and their CGA survey. That survey found that basically, they’ve seen a large number of requests from bars and restaurant owners who are looking to reopen with refreshed menus featuring new, creative cocktails that are using high-quality craft spirits. For the past year, many consumers have been stuck in their homes mixing classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Margarita, like we said they were doing. Restaurateurs are realizing that they need to look for other ways to attract customers back to the bar by adding innovative new cocktail recipes using brands typically not found on the consumer’s home bar. The same CGA report found that three in five cocktail drinkers look at the cocktail menu every single time they go out and that two in five of those drinkers likely choose a signature cocktail. Yep, it’s all coming. It’s all coming as we said it would.
Z: I thought this was going to be another Cosmo brag.
A: No, that’ll come later when that’s also proven correct. It really reinforces to those of you out there listening. There’s a reason you listen to myself, Joanna, and Zach, and we appreciate it. Also, I just really like when I make a random prediction and it actually comes to be true.
Z: I would say that one was an informed prediction. Not random.
A: Yes, it was very informed. It’s interesting to see that actually what we thought would happen has happened. I definitely see it a lot when I’ve been out there. There are a lot more signature cocktails, and what I see people ordering definitely are cocktails that are unique to a place as opposed to going out and seeing a lot of people with Negronis on their table, etc. Even when I see a lot of Margaritas, I still don’t feel that I see as much of it unless you’re at a restaurant known for them.
J: I definitely think this is true for me. Is it true for both of you?
A: Oh, for sure.
Z: Yeah, I think so. No matter what level of competence and confidence you had as a home bartender, I think it was put to the test during Covid, during quarantine. As we talked about over the year-plus on the podcast, some people got really ambitious and decided to start doing some really elaborate things. Yet, most people probably went up one level from their previous home bartending familiarity and added a couple of recipes. That includes me, frankly. I made some drinks that I didn’t make very often or had made at home. There is still something about the realities that a bar or restaurant has in its favor of being able to carry ingredients that the average person is just not going to want to have on their bars because they’re just going to use them once a year. Or create custom elements, whether it’s syrup infusions or even garnishes. This is a thing that’s fascinating to me, too, and maybe we’ll talk about another episode. There was this whole pushback, pre-Covid, on garnishes because they were seen as wasteful. This whole idea that, should we really be putting all this produce often into a drink purely for the visual appeal? There’s a line of argumentation there that I don’t totally disagree with, but I do think there’s also this thing of whatever form of the presentation it is, in addition to just the complexity of the drink, that is what people are looking for right now. They want to be 1,000 percent sure they are not in their home, and that includes me.
A: Now that we have gotten out of the way, what have you both been drinking recently? Joanna?
J: Well, it’s been pretty low key for me, actually, since we’ve gotten back from our trip. However, on Friday night, we made some Martinis with Wheatley Vodka, which I was very curious to try after we published Aaron Goldfarb’s piece on Wheatley Vodka recently. It was surprisingly flavorful, as promised — for vodka, I guess.
A: What was your recipe?
J: Oh, just a very dry vodka Martini. Maybe a rinse of vermouth.
A: Interesting, and then olive?
J: Yes, olive.
A: Nice. Zach, what about you?
Z: Well, I was inspired by a previous podcast a couple of weeks ago about the modern classics. I have been making myself a Paper Plane from time to time. I prefer mine with rye, some aperol, Amaro Nonino, and some lemon juice. It’s a tasty cocktail. I think the other thing that I’ve had recently that I’ve been really enjoying for whatever set of reasons, and I’m not totally sure what they are, is there have been a lot of local breweries here in the Seattle area that have really decided to create their own versions of what they’re calling a Mexican lager. I think there’s something there about what exactly defines that category. This spring and summer so far, I’ve seen a real proliferation of them. There are a couple of breweries here that have made ones that I’ve given a try to. It’s getting to be relatively nice here and there is something about that style of beer in the sunshine that is just very enjoyable. I mean, with all lagers, lighter-style pilsners, that there’s something about that general category that obviously fits really well with the summertime. However, it’s interesting to see a craft mentality applied to a category that we usually associate with very large-scale production. What have you been having, Adam?
A: I had my first Tommy’s Margarita of the summer. That was the best thing that I’ve had this last week. I made a batch, went to the beach for the weekend, and they were just absolutely delicious. I had it with a really interesting new tequila called DE-NADA. It’s another tequila that I think is really interesting, positioning itself in terms of what is not in it as opposed to what is. The idea of nothing added besides pure agave, no-additives-type positioning is really where I think a lot of premium tequila is trying to stake their claim. Obviously, we’ve been doing much with Patrón here at VinePair, and they obviously don’t add any additives to their tequilas. And there are a bunch of others. It’s interesting to see that it is becoming this pivot point between tequilas. There are the people that just use pure agave and harvest it when it’s correct. Then, there are the other people who are trying to keep up with demand and they may not be harvesting agave when it’s the right time. Also, they could be adding a lot of other things to mask the fact that’s what happened, but it was tasty. Again, I think when the tequila is really good and it has a lot of flavor on its own, that’s all you really need besides the lime juice and the agave. You taste all of those amazing, herbaceous notes from the tequila. I definitely find myself preferring that style of Margarita to the Margaritas that we classically think of that have the triple sec or things like that in them. But I’ve waxed on and off about the Tommy’s Margarita before, so we don’t need to hear that anymore. Let’s just get into today’s subject. Today, we want to talk a little bit about bulk wine. Joanna, you could kick this conversation off because we published a piece about bulk wine on the site recently, which created a lot of debate, which is why we wanted to have this conversation in the first place. So, do you want to kick us off?
J: Yeah, sure. I think the impetus for the piece originally came from the idea that Spain is actually the world’s largest producer of bulk wine. We were talking about this on the editorial team, and it got us thinking, how many people actually know about bulk wine? I certainly didn’t, so this was a piece that was written for us, exploring just that. Why isn’t anybody talking about bulk wine? Actually in working with this writer, she mentioned along in reporting the piece, that there was a lot of reluctance on behalf of winemakers to talk about bulk wine or go on the record about bulk wine, which I think is really interesting because I think it offers a lot. It’s a huge part of the wine industry. Basically, this piece is exploring how it is such a huge part of the wine industry that nobody really talks about.
Z: And I think it’s important for the sake of listeners who aren’t familiar or weren’t familiar with the term, what we are generally talking about here — and technical definitions can vary a little bit from country to country — but essentially, the idea of bulk wine is wine that is produced and then generally shipped before being bottled. It might be shipped in very large bladders. It might be shipped in other kinds of containers. It’s a commodity, which is another way to think about it. Bulk wine can be very, very generic. It can be just wine, literally as generic as that, all the way down to relatively specific. You can buy “bulk wine” that’s from a sub-AVA of Napa Valley. Obviously, the two are going to come at very different prices, but the idea is that essentially it doesn’t have a recognizable winery attached to it. It’s not estate-bottled, and what that means is a lot of different things. I think we’ll get into that over the course of the conversation. However, I think it’s important to note that one of the reasons why people don’t like to talk about bulk wine is we think of it as being inferior. Some of it is very, very cheap, mass-produced, innocuous wine, whether it’s made in the Central Valley of California, whether it’s made in the south of France, in parts of Spain, Italy, etc. All over the world where wine is made, there’s bulk wine. Again, it can vary wildly in terms of quality and in terms of complexity. Oftentimes, there are very positive things about the bulk wine market, too. Adam, from your perspective and yours, too, Joanna, do you have a sense for that when you see wines on store shelves? Can you identify when a wine is made from bulk juice?
A: The thing about bulk wine that is really interesting is that, first of all, you actually know it when you see it in a lot of cases. A lot of ways you can identify bulk wine is when it’s in brands that may have a bunch of different offerings from different places. You see this a lot recently in these wine startups. Brands are being created and they’re either in cans, boxed, or some in bottles, but you can grab a Malbec from Argentina, and then you can also get a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Very often, all of that was bulk wine that was bought on a market. You can actually search on an online site. It’s pretty easy to find actually for bulk wines and check their prices. Let’s say someone who worked at McKinsey or BCG had an idea for a wine startup. How did they figure out how to source wine in the first place? Because they probably went to this site, in all honesty. Then, they flew down and met the winemaker potentially. As you said, Zach, it comes over in a massive shipping container inside a massive plastic bag. It’s like a box of boxed wine, even bigger, and goes into one of these facilities, goes into a tank, and then gets bottled in their cans or their bottles. Again, a lot of these ones are good, right? I’m not saying that because it’s run by someone who didn’t have wine experience, that makes it bad. I think that’s what makes it so much more interesting. This is how people who didn’t go to viticulture school or weren’t in the industry to begin with but are huge wine lovers and have really great entrepreneurial instincts are able to start wine brands, because this market does exist. The other way that bulk wine has been really interesting is to make wines better. A lot of times you also have bulk wine that gets shipped in and then is mixed in where it’s allowed in other parts of the country. It may mean that now those wines can’t carry certain designations, but oftentimes, we drink wines here in the U.S. that we assume are made 100 percent in California, but maybe it doesn’t say California on the label. It’s very possible that it’s been mixed in with wines from other countries where the cost of growing those grapes and making the wine is cheaper. You can still get a higher quality wine that way, so it allows for wineries to deliver a more consistent and delicious product — we’re talking about the supermarket shelf, etc. — than they would be able to if they were only relying on grapes grown in certain areas of the U.S., because it’s gotten really expensive to grow wine in certain areas of the U.S. As that has gotten more expensive, that means that that raises the cost of the wine on the shelf, and no one wants that. Those are the two ways that you can think about bulk wine or how you really know when you see it. The main way, though, really, is in a lot of these négociant-style brands, unless you’re a négociant as we’ve talked about in the past, someone like Mary Taylor who is literally going over and she’s buying wine from winemakers and putting their names on the bottle and things like that. She’s not going over and saying, “This is my Bordeaux.” And then that’s it. She’s letting you know where it was made, etc.
Z: You see it not just in some of these newfangled startups, but Kirkland Signature, Costco’s brands.
J: Trader Joe’s.
Z: Actually, I’ll say this and then Joanna, I have a question for you. It’s also important to recognize that, despite the attempts to sometimes demonize bulk wine, it actually has a couple of other really important utilities. One of them is as an insurance policy for growers and winemakers because, as we’ve seen here on the West Coast over the last few years, you can have really difficult growing conditions. You can have drought years, you have fire years, you can have both. You can have all kinds of instability, and the existence of a robust bulk wine market, both here and overseas as well, for a lot of growers, it’s not their intention when they set out with a vintage to make bulk wine. It may be that for a set of circumstances, some even in unfortunate cases, all of their wine doesn’t fit or it’s not the style that they’re looking for that their customer base expects. It’s not quite the quality that they want, and in the bulk market, that might matter less because either people are looking to do different things with it or it could be used, as we point out, for vermouth. It’s important for growers and winemakers to know that it’s not the most profitable way to turn your wine in, but it’s better to get something for that than to literally dump it all down the drain, which would be the other option without a robust bulk wine market. The other piece of this is in the same way that the bag-in-box is a lot more environmentally friendly than glass bottles, so is shipping wine across the world in enormous bags-in-boxes or bags and containers, as opposed to shipping a bunch of glass bottles. While all of us to some extent have a romanticism — myself very much included — of the estate-bottled wine that then rests in some mushroomy cellar in Europe for five years, then is shipped over in a refrigerated container and all that. That’s all great, but that’s pretty bougie. It’s also not realistic for most wines. It’s unnecessary for most wines. Frankly, I think a big part of the problem here potentially is, to use your Mary Taylor example, I think Mary would be thrilled if she could bottle in the U.S. It would save a lot of money and be a lot more environmentally friendly, but the E.U. does not allow you to use AOC or other controlled denominations if the wine is not bottled within that appellation, let alone outside of the EU. Look, they have reasons for that, and I understand they’re protecting their longstanding traditions and their financial interest in keeping those industries in those places, not just the winemaking, but, of course, the attendant commerce that goes with it. But it does mean that if you want to have wine from a lot of other places, you have to bring in intact bottles or other vessels. Again, that’s much less environmentally friendly than shipping just the wine. Bulk wine, as we said at the beginning, gets a bad rap. There is certainly bad wine made from both wines out there. Frankly, there’s bad estate wine out there, too. I’ve had it. So I don’t know. Joanna, I have a question I want to ask you about. With these wines that Adam was describing that are from these négociants, startups, or things like that, what do you think about those wines? Do you reject them out of hand? Are you interested in what they are? How do they connect to you?
J: I don’t think that I’m not interested in any of these. Wow, that was all jumbled. Maybe I can just say that yes, I’m interested. I don’t think one way or the other about them, and maybe that’s just where I’m at in my wine journey. I don’t necessarily have a preference when I see something like that. I’m willing to try it.
A: Yeah, bulk wine is just so interesting because it is this thing that everyone knows exists but doesn’t want to talk about. As you said, it is this thing that not only is this great insurance policy, but it actually can make wine better in a lot of ways. If we were able to do away with some of these requirements of AOC, etc., we could maybe utilize what we learned in that to bottle wines in another country in order to bring down carbon emissions, etc., which would be awesome. It is this thing that really is what a majority of consumers come in contact with when they first come in contact with wine in a lot of ways. If your first experience in wine is buying wine at Costco under the Kirkland brand or Trader Joe’s or a bunch of different grocery stores across the country — especially if you’re looking at under the $10 price point, etc. — you’re probably experiencing bulk wine. Those wines are still really great, and they get more people into wine. That’s why I thought it was so interesting when Joanna said that it was hard to get people to talk about the piece, because it’s so integral to wine as a whole. It is part of the world of wine, so I don’t see why we’re so reluctant to chat about it.
Z: Well, I think here’s a big piece of it. Again, there is a certain romanticism that’s connected to wine. I’m guilty of this from time to time, and certainly, lots of other people are, too. Thinking only about wine in this one way, which is the way to reflect the terroir — that’s fine, and that’s maybe my own personal and professional biases showing. I have a certain affinity for that type of wine, but I think it’s also disingenuous to think about wine only in that way. For so many people, that is not how they experience any wine or most wine in their life. The wine in their life is, as we talked about — whether it’s from these private labels, relatively big producers, big retailers, or in the U.S. or abroad — it’s bulk wine in one form or another. To say to all those people, “What you’re drinking is not really wine” is a very, very bad habit of the wine industry, and it’s not exclusive to the wine industry. You see this in other beverage alcohol categories, but far more severely in wine than in any other. Most beer professionals look down a tiny bit at Bud Light? Maybe. But I think they also probably drink Bud Light from time to time. It’s not seen as, you can’t possibly enjoy craft beer if you have ever once enjoyed essentially the equivalent of bulk wine in the beer space, or in vodka, gin, or whatever. Yet, I do think it is important with all that being said to make one point here on the flip side. One of the few downsides, in my opinion, to the bulk wine market is that it does, unfortunately, allow for hiding of either inferior product or sometimes product that seems to be made unethically. Whether that’s incredible amounts of fertilizer and pesticides in certain places, whether that’s exploiting labor in certain places. Not that those things don’t exist in estate wines; they do for sure. But I think that there is sometimes a disconnect — and it happens more with bulk wine than estate wine, although not exclusively in either category — where, because wine comes often in a fancy finished package, we don’t think a lot about what it takes to get it from the Earth to there. I think with bulk wine and wines made from it, those unsavory practices are just easier to hide because there’s so little transparency about where the starting point of the wine was.
A: Yeah, I agree. I think that is the one issue you can get into with anything that’s bulk, right? There’s always a tendency in that regard to try to produce as much as possible. When you try to do that, you definitely run into the problem of potentially using things that allow for much larger production more easily. We deal with that with the production of fruits, with anything, really.
Z: Of course.
A: And that does suck about it. You would hope that there could be a push to say, “Look, bulk wine’s fine. We’re all OK with it, but it’d be ideal that bulk wine was organic and good for the environment.” I think that is a lot of the reason that I’m really OK with people having an issue with bulk wine. I just wish that’s what people would say. That is totally valid, right? That argument of not being a huge fan of bulk wine because you think that too much of it is produced in ways that are not great for the environment is totally valid.
J: Versus that it’s not quality wine.
A: Right. That it’s not quality, it’s not cool. The people making bulk wine are still very talented winemakers. When the snobbery comes out, that’s when I get annoyed. If you can articulate why you don’t like something besides what you just said, Joanna, then I totally hear you, and I actually agree with you. If you can’t articulate that and instead it’s about that it is not real wine? Uh, It is, actually.
Z: Yeah, it’s all fermented grape juice in one sense.
A: Totally, so this has been a really interesting discussion, guys. Thank you so much for indulging in it. It was a great piece if you haven’t read it already. You can find it on vinepair.com and check it out. Joanna and Zach, I was right. And I will see you guys next week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.