On this episode of “Next Round,” host Adam Teeter chats with Justin Pass, founder of Sera Luce Venetian Spritz. Pass discusses his journey in creating one of the early players in the RTD space, and explains his reasoning behind challenging the well-known Aperol Spritz. He describes what makes his product different from the classic Aperol Spritz, why it pairs so well with food, and why we can expect to see more RTDs on cocktail menus across the U.S.
Justin Pass gives listeners a history lesson on spritz — a cocktail that dates back a century — and describes Sera Luce’s production process. Tune in to learn more.
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Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a VinePair “Next Round” conversation. Today, we’re talking with Justin Pass, the founder Sera Luce Venetian Spritz. Justin, what’s going on, man?
Justin Pass: How’s it going, Adam? It’s great to be here. Thank you so much for having me. How are you?
A: Good, man. You and I started talking about a year ago, I think, when you were first launching the Spritz. Well ahead of the game at that point, I might say. Now it feels like this canned cocktail craze is everywhere.
J: It sure is.
A: I want to talk to you a little bit about your background and how you decided to create this in the first place.
J: Yeah, so I’ll give you the quick and dirty of it. I graduated college longer ago than I’d like to remember, in 2003. And the year before that, actually, I was really fortunate to be able to do a semester in Florence, Italy, which is funny because I actually wanted to go to South America. I was an anthropology minor, and I wanted to go see if I could live with an indigenous tribe in South America. Then 9/11 happened, and my options for going abroad were quickly cut down. I had an older sister, and she’d gone to London. A lot of her friends have gone to Italy, and she absolutely loves Florence. She would say, “You have to go, you’re going to love Florence. You love food.” I’ve been into food my whole life but Italy is where I really started to connect it all. Whereas in the past I just enjoyed cooking and going to good restaurants and trying new foods, with a lot of the cultural aspects in the history of food, how much more is there than just the things that we eat? That’s where it really all started to come together for me. Flash forward a few years, and I end up going to culinary school. I graduated from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in 2008. Then I cooked for a little bit, but when I was at school, that’s when I really started to get serious about wine. I became very, very interested in all the wines of the world. Shortly after entering the restaurant business, I made a quick pivot into the wine business, where I was for about 10 years as a rep with some of the real big distributors. I also spent most of my career with a company called the Country Vintner, which is now part of Winebow. I was a fine-wine rep both here in D.C. and in L.A. for a little bit as well.
A: Very cool.
J: My career background and in terms of Sera Luce, my wife, who’s also my part-time business partner in this — she has a full-time gig. She works in documentary television, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve moved out to L.A. And when we decided to move back to the East Coast, we knew that on some level, we wanted to start a business. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, and it was something that had always been of interest to me, but having spent many years in wine distribution, I didn’t think the import game was for me. It just seemed like a really crowded space that takes a ton of money to get into. I wanted to try something different. I would love to say that there was this moment of, “Oh, my God, I’ve loved spritzes forever and I just couldn’t wait to make my own spritz.” That’s not entirely true. I came across the Aperol Spritz certainly by name, where I could understand what it was. I think I had it when I was abroad and probably as a 21-year-old, and if I had it, I probably didn’t like it, but I had seen it grow in popularity. At the time, this RTD space was really new. The canned wine space was really new, and I was surprised that there wasn’t something that existed within this cocktail space. We looked into it and looked at what the competition was out there and assessed it all. Then, we decided we could do better than what was out there, so we set about creating this company. I don’t want to bore you with the details, but it was basically a year and a half of research and reaching out to people and finding the right partners, and we’ve been really lucky in that regard to find some great manufacturing partners. Just our team across the board, I’m really happy with.
A: You didn’t know how to do any of this before you had the idea?
J: No. My knowledge of wine production was from spending 10 years in the wine industry. You visit a lot of wineries, you learn a little bit about the regulations. Usually, when you’re selling wine, you learn about regulation only when something happens that holds up a product or something comes up where regulation tends to be a huge obstacle. But regulation compliance is obviously a big part of that, so we spent a lot of time researching that. One of the reasons why I bring that up — because it sounds boring, on some level it is — but to an extent, it does play into our strategy in that we’re a wine-based cocktail. To answer your question, I knew nothing about this, this was purely like “let’s see where we can go, let’s bootstrap this and learn everything we can in the shortest amount of time possible.” That’s what we did, without sacrificing quality. I want to point that out, because at the end of the day, if you wanted to get a beverage into a can in three months and get it on the market, you could do it. I don’t think you could do it well. I think a lot of people try and do it, and I don’t think they do it well.
A: What do you mean by that? Is it because you think the taste isn’t there yet?
J: Yeah, there’s a lot of trial and error with this, right? As much as I love wine, I also love making cocktails. And I know you’ve spoken with a number of producers who make RTDs. It’s not as simple as just mixing these things together, putting in a can and slapping a label on it. There’s a lot of things that happen once you start mixing things together. You have to make it shelf-stable, so it’s a little more complicated than all that. Your alcohol levels, your sugar levels, all that scientific stuff that’s involved. You have to factor for that. Again, this is all stuff we had to learn as we went. Figuring out what’s going to work, what’s going to hold up in a can is, in some ways, about constantly testing things. I think having the right experience and palate certainly comes into it, but that’s just the beginning of it because you do have certain constraints that you’re not necessarily going to have as a bartender or a mixologist.
A: Yep. You have this background in wine, but why a spritz? Why not say, “Hey, I’m going to do canned rosé or I’m going to do sparkling wine in a can,” or things like that? What research did you do? And you can tell me you didn’t do any, but I’m assuming you did. How did you recognize that this was an opportunity? Because around the time that you were doing this or starting this, the only spritz I knew that was popular even two years ago was Aperol. What made you so confident that people would drink spritzes that weren’t made with Aperol? Were you already seeing that happening elsewhere? And yeah, why the spritz in the first place?
J: Certainly, let’s first address what I call the 800-pound orangutan in the room, because of the color. There’s no doubt that Aperol is the dominant player in this space in the aperitivo liqueur space. I know they’re planning on launching their own RTD in the U.S. this year. They’ve actually had it in Europe for a number of years. I’m the person who looks at something like that where someone is the absolute dominant player. And I hate the word disruptor because I think Silicon Valley has unfortunately bastardized it a little bit. While there’s always going to be a market leader, certainly as Americans and as people who like competition and don’t like to see dominance by one party, there’s always going to be an in, even if there is a No. 1 player. My feeling there was to get into this space, but let’s also do it in a space we felt that perhaps we could do it better. I don’t want to disparage any other product because I think Aperol makes a fantastic product. I drink Aperol. I have a bottle in my bar all the time, but we wanted to address this space. If you go to the gin space, there are many different styles of gin. If you’re looking at us from a flavor profile standpoint, there are certainly some similarities, but we’re more citrus and orange dominant. They lean a little bit heavier into their herbal notes and rhubarb. We have all those things, but it’s different proportions. At the end of the day, I think we differentiate ourselves enough in a flavor profile that, while you may have this one dominant player, at the end of the day, it’s not realistic that everyone is going to like this one thing and one thing only. We saw it as an opportunity as, “Hey, there’s this big player coming into this relatively new space in the U.S., let’s help expand that category.” There are plenty of really great artisanal aperitivo producers out there, boutique distillers who are focusing on the liqueurs and doing some apertivi or some digestivi. We came at it from this angle of it being a little more challenging to get into a bar program if they’re already going to be able to get Aperol and the customers know Aperol. Our strategy was a little bit more of, “Let’s come at this in a place where they’re not already the dominant player,” which is this RTD space, which I think is not a fad that’s going to go away quickly. I think this thing is very much here to stay.
A: I 100 percent agree.
J: And being a wine base allows us to be in certain places that some of the liquor producers can’t be or won’t be. It’s just not necessarily worth their time. That being said, we’re in lots of places that have full-on liquor programs, and they just like our product because it’s a really good product. We spent a lot of time making it taste good, for lack of a better word. And it’s very different. It’s weird because you come from the wine world, and so much of it is about respecting the grapes and working with what you have in terms of land. And I’m very straight about this, this is about developing a product that we think people are going to like the taste of.
A: Let’s talk about product development a little bit. You said it’s wine-based, so to dispel what people might think, does that mean it’s just Aperol-flavored wine? Is it going to taste like wine when you taste it? What do you mean when you say it’s wine-based? And how did you go about developing the product?
J: Yeah, absolutely. When I say it’s wine-based, that means two things. One, wine is the predominant ingredient in it, as it is in most spritzes. Most spritzes are going to be at least 50 percent Prosecco or whatever sparkling wine they’re using. We use a white wine from Italy and the grape is called Garganega. Most people, if they know a wine called Soave, which is one of the DOCG wines, it actually turns out to make a really great sparkling wine. It has this nice, crisp base, has a little bit of weight to it, which is important obviously when crafting a cocktail. You’ve got to take into consideration all these things, not just flavor profile, but the actual sensations that it’s going to have on the palate.
A: So, wait, are you actually buying wine in Italy?
J: Yeah, that’s right. We are, and this is something we probably could do more to promote. I was listening to one of your podcasts recently, and I think you were talking about gin and tonic. You were talking about how the tonic is as important as the gin.
J: And the wine that we use is very crucial to getting this product right. The wines of the Old World of Europe tend to be a little bit drier, a little bit less fruit-forward, and they tend to have lower alcohol. It’s a very different taste experience in blending this cocktail. That’s a key component of getting it right. We bring in our wine in bulk, and we bring it into a winery in the Finger Lakes, and then we do our final blending with our botanicals and other ingredients there.
A: So you add botanicals to the wine?
J: Yeah, we do.
A: So it’s almost like a vermouth?
J: The process is very much like a vermouth.
J: I like to bring that up for two reasons. One, obviously, I think the provenance of the Italian wine is important. Can I go a little bit into the history of the spritz?
J: The history actually goes beyond Aperol. Actually, the first mainstream main market aperitivo that people know in the industry today was Select. I think they were a year before Aperol, but that might be flipped around, so don’t take my word on that. But that was in 1919-1920. The spritz goes back almost 100 years before that, before the unification of Italy. Italy, as we know it today, is the country shaped like a boot. That country literally didn’t exist until 1865. It’s been a while since I checked the history of that, but I’m sure it was sometime in the ‘60s. About 30 years before that, this northeast region of Italy which is now Lombardy-Piedmont was a kingdom that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the time you had a bunch of government officials, administrators, military merchants, etc. who had come over from Austria, from Germany into this area of what is now northeast Italy. Anyone who is an oenophile or just a wine geek knows the wines of Germany and Austria tend to be a bit lower in alcohol than those you get in Italy. So you had all these foreign people stationed over in this part of Italy, and they weren’t quite used to these lines, which they perceived to be very high in alcohol. They would often order them with spritzen which is the German word for splash. A spritzen of water, if you will.
J: That is how the spritz got started. Then, it was over time that people started adding carbonation, adding different bitters, and basically starting to create what was this Italian incarnation of the cocktail. Then, of course, you get these aperitivi liqueurs and add a lot more layers and get more bang for your buck. That’s how this modern incarnation of the spritz came about. Again, this is stuff that came up in our research over the year-and-a-half-plus process of creating this beverage. We thought that was a cool story. Again, this goes back to me having this realization that food is so much more than food. Food is history, right? There are so many things that go into it, so we just thought it was an interesting story to tell on top of making what happens to be a pretty delicious drink.
A: OK, so you bring the wine into Finger Lakes, you’re bittering it, and you’re adding botanicals, so you’re basically making vermouth. You sent me the product. I’ve tried it, and it tastes like a spritz. It doesn’t taste like I’m drinking vermouth or even carbonated vermouth. What is your process? Are you allowed to add any actual spirit to it?
J: That’s a tricky question. I think we talked about this a little bit, but yes and no. I have to be careful here, because the TTB is very, very strict about how they allow you to advertise your product. What I can say is that in the United States, in the winemaking process, you are allowed to use a portion of neutral — and I’m totally going to screw this up. It’s not fortification because fortification you would use in port or Madeira, which is generally done to arrest the fermentation process and also add preservation. Basically, what you’re allowed to do in winemaking is you can use a small amount of spirit, if the spirit comes from the same fruit. If you’re making cider, you can actually use a portion of neutral apple brandy to adjust the alcohol level of your final product. It’s really just to attain consistency. In the same realm, you can do this for grape wine as well. Use a neutral grape distillate. That’s not the majority of what’s in there in any wine that does this, but long story short, I can say that the TTB allows you to do this to a certain level. We’re doing that very much within the legal limits of that, which is important. It’s one of the things that we’re not necessarily legally supposed to “advertise it,” so I will say this is not an advertisement that we have spirits in our product, but it is an educational component. Just as it’s key for some producers to be able to have a very consistent alcohol level, this is key to being able to have the level of the flavor profile that we want while still keeping it as a wine. Again, wine is by far the largest ingredient that proportionally goes into this product, and it’s good wine. I had a rule from day one. I said, “I’m not putting any wine in this product where we’re just trying to mask some bad wine.” This had to be wine that I would drink as a table wine at a meal and enjoy. And that was harder to find than I thought. When I first was reaching out to different producers and explaining what I do, some of the samples that I got where it was astonishing that people would take this and say, “Oh, yeah, I’ll put that in a can.” That was rule No. 1. I have a culinary degree. I’m a chef in spirit and by training. I’m a big believer that you have to start with good ingredients. There’s no way of taking a bad ingredient and masking it with stuff to make it better. That’s going to stand out, so that wine is so important in what we do, again, having the right acidity, having the right mouthfeel, and then we like to think that we’re building upon that. To answer your original question, does this taste like wine? Well, I think it depends who you ask. As you said, does it taste like a Sauvignon Blanc that’s super fresh and citrusy? No. Would I say it tastes more like a vermouth? Absolutely. Another side note, too: In terms of aperitivo, we all think of the Aperol, the Camparis of the world, as these liqueurs. But traditionally, there are plenty of apertivi that are 100 percent wine-based. It really depends on the tradition of the area that they’re coming from. Again, depending on how you look at it, this is very much a wine product.
A: Interesting. But you are adding the flavor profiles that do make it similar to a Campari, correct? Or giving the aspect that it is similar to what someone is used to if they have had Campari Spritzes, Aperol Spritzes, etc.
J: Yeah, definitely. As far as a general category, having that bittering agent as well as a number of different herbal components and sugar. I want to be very clear that there is sugar in our product, just as there is sugar added to liqueur. That’s a portion of what we do. Again, this dominant citrus. And one of the things where I think we differentiate ourselves is that we’re a little bit more in the citrus camp than some of the other products out there. Also, I want to be clear that we use extracts, and we’re not masquerading an orange peel into what we do for several reasons. One, that tends to be a pretty inconsistent process and harder to control. It’s also a lot harder to extract the flavor profile that you want into an alcohol product without applying some form of heat to it. As you well know, heat is a huge enemy of wine. Again, that was a technical engineering challenge of, “How are we going to make this?” It’s how we make this product without applying heat. Using some of these very high-quality extracts that come from orange peels, the government makes us call it natural flavor, and that’s fine. But at the end of the day, this citrus that you’re tasting in there comes from these Valencia orange peels that are essentially steam-distilled to a very, very high concentration. Finding that flavor, I must have bought nearly 100 different orange flavor products on the market, just so I could say, “OK, here’s the one that we want to hone in on. How do we then go about and find it?”
A: Interesting. When you pour the liquid, and you sent it to me last summer, so I forget: Does it pour it with a color, or is it clear?
J: It is a color.
A: Is it pinkish-red?
J: Yeah. Again, this is a very traditional thing in Italy. These apertivi, bitter liqueurs across the board tend to have, by tradition, a red color. There’s a history there. I don’t know if I actually know specifically, but I do know that, psychologically, red can stimulate the appetite. I think that’s how it got in there as to why they use that color. We could have made it clear. I think we really wanted to respect the tradition of what this product has been and also to obviously, to an extent what the consumer already associates with these products.
A: OK, so we’ve talked a bunch about how you made it, but now it’s out in the market. How have you gotten it out in the market, and what are your plans for it?
J: Sure. We are in distribution in the Mid-Atlantic right now. Again, that’s a lot of research and meetings and finding the right distributors. I’m old school and believe that if you want a brand to last, you have to be on-premise in bars and restaurants as much as you are in retail. First of all, restaurants are going to make sure that you’re getting it at the right temperature and that you’re having an enjoyable experience with it. And we want to embrace that as much as we can. Covid has been a b*tch. I don’t like to complain about it because, at the end of the day, I have a ton of friends and business associates. Most of them are in the restaurant industry, and it’s been a far worse year for a lot of them than me. That being said, that has certainly affected our ability to get in front of consumers in the ways that we like to both off- and on-premise and certainly to be in bar programs to be featured. There hasn’t been a lot of marketing going on in restaurants for wine and spirits brands in the last year. And off-premise, too. At the end of the day, products need to be tasted. Beverages need to be tasted. That being said, we’ve had some really great success with certain restaurants that have really embraced the to-go cocktails and are looking for something that is easy and that’s up to their standards. This was a big thing for us. Coming from restaurants, I wanted something that a restaurant would serve with no problem. Luckily, that strategy has come to fruition. We’ve had some really great restaurant partners, particularly in the D.C. area. Fiola uses this as the main spritz that they’re serving on their cocktail menu.
A: That’s awesome.
J: That’s a huge honor for us. Fabio Trabocchi is an Italian chef, a James Beard Award-winning chef. To be able to be featured in their program is an incredible honor.
A: That’s cool that you’re their spritz. That’s really cool. They must see some benefits there, too, right? Obviously, it’s a quality that they don’t have to worry about who’s behind the bar in terms of ensuring that it’s always going to be a quality spritz, which is something we’ve talked about a bunch on the podcast in terms of this explosion of our RTDs. Will you see more of them go into bar programs because of that consistency? I think you’re helping to reinforce that, thinking that is probably going to happen.
J: Yeah, it’s definitely the consistency factor. It’s definitely a balance of having a bar program that they’re not necessarily super overwhelmed all the time. But really, I think it’s just a testament to our product because they’re the type of place that has that luxury that if they need to spend a minute and a half on every cocktail, they can and they will. But they like our product and sell it. This is another thing — and again, I don’t want to say anything about any other product. One of the things that I was very intentional about in crafting the flavor profile is that I wanted something that also goes with food. In Italy, food and wine go together. Yes, we think of the aperitivo as something you have before a meal, but that’s not even generally something that you’re going to have alone. Most times, if you have an aperitivo cocktail, you’re having some food with it, too. A lot of these cocktails, while they’re great, I think sometimes they can be almost too cloying and too overwhelming. We were all about balancing this so that it’s a super- tasty product that people are familiar with when they taste it to an extent. Also, you’re going to be able to sit there and have a meal with this and not feel like it’s overpowering your food — or even worse, maybe you don’t even think about it, but it is overpowering your food and making it not taste as good. We really wanted to be cognizant of that and make sure that whatever the applications are that a consumer or restaurateur wants with our product, they’re going to be comfortable using it.
A: Very cool. Well, this has been a really, really interesting conversation, Justin. I think that what you’re up to is really cool. The liquid is delicious. People often ask the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?’ I think with Covid, we’ve realized that no one knows what is going to happen in five years. What about in the next two years or so? Where would you like to see the brand? What are your plans?
J: Certainly expand distribution. We’ve consciously held back on that during Covid. I won’t say it’s easy to get into other markets, but if you push enough, you can find a distributor anywhere. That’s really not the name of the game, though. Just because you can be sold anywhere, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be. Certainly that’s something that we want to start to ramp up again. I would definitely like to see us, again, be this alternative on-premise and be something that is sold in a wine store or within a restaurant or a store that has a beer-and-wine-only license. Are we going to be a household name in two years? Wow, that would be great. I like to be realistic in my expectations. But yeah, there’s that. And people often ask me if we are going to expand the line. That’s definitely in the plans for the future, but not immediately. Again, we have this niche category here that I really want to continue to be a strong player in. As you said, with Covid, you never know. We’re all having to pivot constantly these days, and you have no idea. So we keep an open mind, that’s for sure.
A: Very cool. Well, Justin, thanks again so much for joining me. I really appreciate it. It’s been super cool to chat with you and learn more about Sera Luce, and I wish you all the best of luck.
J: Adam, thanks so much 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 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.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.