On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe chats with Jessica Tomei, the winemaker at Cupcake Vineyards. Tomei details exciting new developments at the vineyard, including the introduction of Cupcake LightHearted Wines. In addition, Tomei showcases Cupcake Vineyards’ lineup, which includes its Butterkissed Chardonnay, Red Velvet and Black Forest red blends, even a Prosecco Rosé.
Tomei also explains why low-alcohol wines may be healthier options. Tomei explains that, at Cupcake, she aims to create a lighter, more refreshing wine that can be easily taken on the go. Thus, Cupcake Vineyards is now producing canned wine.
Tune in to learn more about the exciting new developments happening at Cupcake Vineyards.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe. And this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these episodes in between our regular podcast so we can explore a range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I’m speaking with Jessica Tomei, the winemaker for Cupcake Vineyards. Jessica, thanks so much for your time.
Jessica Tomei: Thanks for having me.
Z: Yeah, our pleasure. Let’s start with your background. How did you get involved in wine and winemaking?
J: Well, I was a premed student at UC Davis, and as I was taking all the classes for the program and doing a lot of internships in the medical field, I realized that it wasn’t the right path for me. I started to take some other classes, and one of the classes that was offered was about the world of wine. I grew up in a close-knit Italian-Greek family where we always had wine on the table. My best friend growing up, her dad was a home winemaker. I had always had an interest in wine and the opportunity of attending UC Davis and its viticulture and enology program. Once I took that class, I said, “OK, this is really cool. I would like to learn more about this.” It was a perfect match for science but I was also interested in art, culture, and cooking. It seemed to encompass all of those subjects. I actually studied abroad in Spain for a year. Upon my return, I changed my major and started the viticulture and enology program, as well as my double bachelor’s in Spanish as well. That’s how I got into it.
Z: Then how did you end up at Cupcake?
J: Throughout my career, I worked in Sonoma, and then I worked in Italy and Chile, so I had this global experience. A recruiter alerted me to the Cupcake position, and I was really excited. I was hired in 2013 to work on a brand that was globally grown. One of the first wines I tasted during the interview process was the Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc. The idea of being able to make a wine that was really expressed in the region in which it was grown and then being able to sell it at this affordable price point where everyone could enjoy the wine was really impressive. It was something that I was really excited to join. I started with Cupcake in 2013, so it’s been almost eight years.
Z: Obviously, I imagine a lot of our listeners are pretty familiar. But would you mind giving an overview of Cupcake and some of the different wines that you make?
J: Sure. Cupcake Vineyards is based in California, but we are one of the first brands that were globally grown. In California, we make our Monterey County Chardonnay, our Butterkissed Chardonnay, our Cab, our Pinot Noir, Merlot, and also our Red Velvet and Black Forest red blends. We also are growing and making wine in New Zealand. We have our New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. We work with partners in Italy to grow and make our Prosecco Rosé and our Pinot Grigio, our Moscato d’Asti, and our Moscato. Then, we also have Malbec from Argentina, Shiraz from Australia. We think it’s a great brand to explore not only California wines, but also the globe.
Z: It sounds like you probably have some pretty serious airline status.
J: I did, that’s true. Also, we now have our Cupcake Lighthearted Wines, which are all grown in California.
Z: Yeah, I want to talk about those, and in particular the Rosé Prosecco in a minute. I do want to ask about some of the more core wines or at least the ones who have been around a little longer. One of the things that I think defines some of what Cupcake does is you have both a mix of varietal-driven wines and then blends. Especially with the blends, there must be a lot of consideration given to keeping the profile of the wine really consistent because that’s what consumers want, right? They know they like Red Velvet or the Black Forest. How do you do that as a winemaker? What are some of the considerations when you’re putting those wines together?
J: It all starts in the vineyard. We are making sure that we are working with the growers. We grow our own fruit as well to have the best quality fruit to start with, and then work with those vineyards year over year. That provides consistency in terms of the quality of fruit. Of course, the wine industry is in the agricultural business, so it depends on the growing year, weather, and climate as well. For the Red Velvet and the Black Forest, we use a consistent regime on those wines, which provides some of that mocha that the consumers really enjoy.
Z: Then, when it comes to adding new wines, and I’m going to talk about this through the lens of both Rosé Prosecco and the LightHearted wines, where does that process begin and how do you see it through? You can pick one or both, if you want to answer that. I’m just curious about how that comes about?
J: Do you want me to start with Cupcake then?
Z: Sure, that’s great.
J: OK, for example, our Chardonnay, the way that we make our Monterey County Chardonnay is that we are growing it. I’m based in Monterey County and we’re growing it anywhere from five miles from the winery to 20 miles from the winery. We bring it into our facility here. We press it and barrel-ferment it. The majority of the Chardonnay for Cupcake is American oak. We stir it on the lees until we get the mouthfeel that we want. Then it goes through a bottling. If you talk to a lot of winemakers, it starts in the vineyard. Yes, sometimes with larger brands, people think we’re just receiving wine from all over the place and putting the blend together, but really with Cupcake, we’re starting in the vineyard, growing it, working with the same growers, and growing our own fruit so that we can really control the quality in the vineyard. I spend a lot of my time actually with our growing team and out in the vineyard.
Z: Gotcha. I should have been clearer in my question, I apologize. What I was trying to ask is, when there’s a decision made to say, “Hey, we want to make Rosè Prosecco. That’s a category that we see real potential in,” for one, can you talk a little bit about that wine and also how the decision is made to add another wine to the lineup? As you said, there are growing partners and things around the world that require a lot of consideration. There is also market positioning as well. From your perspective, what goes into that whole process?
J: Oh, I’m sorry. Prosecco Rosé is a great example because the rosé category has exploded in popularity, and it continues to grow. Not only that, but it’s now a rosé wine you can find year-round, which is really exciting. As soon as the DOC in Italy approved that we were allowed to make Prosecco rosé, of course, we wanted to make one. It not only follows the market trends, but it’s also something we think we can do a really good job of making a Prosecco rosé and providing it to our customers. The DOC allowed 10 to 15 percent Pinot Nero [Pinot Noir] in the Prosecco Rosé. We’re doing around 10 percent. It’s really fun because it’s the first time the Prosecco Rosé is being made, and we’re one of the first ones in the marketplace. It’s fun for both winemakers and wine lovers that we now have the Prosecco Rosé. Then, the Cupcake LightHearted is something that created a new market segment for wine in terms of the trend of hard seltzers and beverages. There were some wines that were out there that were very interesting. They’re interesting, but they’re not, to me, it’s not something I would go back and buy again. I really wanted to make a wine that fit into being lower-alcohol, lower-calorie, but also delicious because I think as wine consumers, we drink wine because we find it delicious.
Z: Yeah, absolutely. Can you talk a bit about how those wines are made? I know we’ve had a couple of conversations on the podcast before looking at these lower-alcohol or -calorie wines, but I don’t want to assume that yours are made the same way. How do you get to that finished product?
J: Yes, we’ve been working really hard with the varietals that we’re making for Cupcake LightHearted. We’re making a Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir, and a rosé. We’re starting in the vineyards so we’re picking at a lower level. That lower brix level is translating to a lower alcohol level. If we’re going to make a Cabernet and pick it at the lower brix level, it’s going to be super green. We’re working with varieties that tend to still have really nice aromas and flavors at those lower brix levels. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are historically picked earlier for sparkling wine. We’re just making these now for lower-alcohol wines. Again, starting in the vineyard and then it follows the same protocol that we make for our wines in terms of they’re stainless-steel fermented and selecting yeast that will produce specific esters. It’s just wine picked earlier in the vineyard. The Cupcake LightHearted is 8 percent alcohol, 80 calories, and less than one gram of sugar per serving.
Z: Gotcha. Obviously, as the winemaker, I’m sure you talk with the marketing and sales teams. Is the audience for those wines the same as the audience for the Cupcake wines not in the LightHearted line? Are you finding that you’re getting a different segment of the audience?
J: Yes, I think there’s definitely some overlap in the audience. Both Cupcake and Cupcake LightHearted wines are, I think, the customers looking for something enjoyable. A wine that they can enjoy and celebrate with friends or even for Taco Tuesday. I’m not a marketing expert, but I think that we’re also bringing in some new consumers to wine from those consumers that are drinking the hard seltzers, for example. It’s a better-for-you option, but it’s still early. We launched this in 2020. The idea is we’re bringing in consumers that are more mindful about their choices of what they’re putting into their body. One of the reasons I am really excited about Cupcake LightHearted is that, obviously, I am a winemaker and wine connoisseur, but I also have three kids. I am super active. I like to hike, run, go surfing, and golf. I want to make sure I can still drink wine and not throw off my fitness routine, my work routine, and my family routine. These lower-alcohol wines still taste delicious. They offer up an option that still tastes delicious but won’t throw off tomorrow’s schedule.
Z: Shifting gears just a little bit. One thing that is done with the wines is a lot of the wines obviously are bottled, but you guys have a growing presence in cans. I’m wondering, as a winemaker, are there any different considerations when you know that a wine is going to end up in a can versus a bottle. Consumers, people in the media, and the trade sometimes view those differently. Is there any difference in the wine? If not, is there any consideration given to the final destination, or once you drink it, it all tastes the same?
J: At Cupcake, we have our Sauvignon Blanc, our rosé, and sparkling rosé in the cans. They are the same wine that you’ll find in the bottle. However, the one thing that we do have to take into consideration is the SO2 levels. In wine, we add S02 as antimicrobial as well as antioxidants, and you want to have it at a lower level than what you would in a bottle because of the chemistry that happens in the can. That’s really the only difference. But yes, they’re the same wine.
Z: How is the decision made then? What wines get put in canned versus not? Obviously, you’re not putting the entire lineup in cans. How has that been determined?
J: I think that’s a great question. I was thinking about that where you don’t find our Cabernet in the can or the Red Velvet in the can. It’s the idea of the occasion. Putting them in a can makes them portable when you’re going to have them at the pool, at the beach, or in your backpack for a hike. That drove the decision for those varietals. They can be their best chilled. For those activities, the lighter, refreshing, delicious wines are portable and packable. I think the occasion is driving the decision for putting those in the can. Also, Sauvignon Blanc is one of our best sellers and rosé as well. There are two and a half glasses of wine in the can, so you can share. You definitely can share it with a friend.
Z: Is there a thought to put the LightHearted lines in cans? It seems to be a natural fit.
J: I know. There are talks about it, but not yet.
Z: I’m not trying to get you in trouble here. You talked about this at the beginning, and I want to come back to it. But pre-pandemic, as I joked about before, I’m sure your job involves a fair bit of travel, but what was it like trying to coordinate the production of wine on multiple continents when you had to do it all virtually? Was it a lot more difficult than presumably in years past when you have been able to go visit, whether it was New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, or Italy? All these places I would actually love to go to. Now I’m really jealous, but what was it like or what has it been like?
J: I’m not there all the time. We already have a great team on the ground in those countries. A lot of communication and tasting of wines and blends was already being done remotely by sending samples. Then emailing or calling on the phone. I believe we were already set up pretty well for Covid. What has been interesting is domestic traveling. We are an essential business as a winery, we are in the food and agriculture sector. We have never stopped working. The safety of our employees in both the cellar and the vineyard was of top concern and always has been. We made sure everyone keeps distance, which is easier to do in the cellar and the vineyard than in some other industries, but that was the one thing with our marketing team and our winemaking team that really had to change. We launched Cupcake LightHearted virtually with our customers and our distribution teams because we couldn’t travel throughout the U.S. That was actually really fun because we would send samples out to everybody and then hop on a call, and everybody would be tasting at the same time from wherever they were. It was fun to see the innovation that stemmed from the challenges of Covid. In terms of production for international, it didn’t really change anything except for the actual in-person visit that would happen.
Z: Another question that occurs to me. During the pandemic, one thing that’s certainly true is that more consumers saw their wine purchasing shift to grocery stores. Cupcake obviously has a very strong off-premise presence. Was it hard keeping up with that increased demand? Wine isn’t the type of product where you can just turn a dial and make more. We’re not out of the pandemic yet, so how are you dealing with what I presume is increased demand?
J: We definitely have seen an uptick in sales, which is great, but we haven’t had to scramble in terms of making sure that we’re being seen on the shelf. We’re in a good position in our vintage ‘18 and vintage ‘19 because those are bigger harvests. What we have seen is that we’re transitioning to the newer vintages sooner than planned. We have plenty of wine, so that’s good, and we’re able to keep Cupcake on the shelf for our consumers.
Z: That’s obviously very important.
Z: Well, Jessica, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it. It’s always interesting to learn more about a brand that’s so visible. I think sometimes in the wine world, it doesn’t really get talked about much. I really appreciate you taking some time to talk with us, and I look forward to seeing what you have in the works for the years to come.
J: All right. Thank you for having me.
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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 tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is 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.