This month, we’re heading outdoors with the best drinks for the backyard, beach, and beyond. In Take It Outside, we’re exploring our favorite local spots and far-flung destinations that make summer the ultimate season for elevated drinking.
Piquette has garnered no shortage of favorable coverage in drinks and lifestyle media over the past few years. Booze writers keen to spread the gospel on the fizzy, wine-adjacent beverage invariably celebrate its humble roots, low-ABV sessionability, and sustainable credentials. If headlines alone are anything to go by, readers might describe it as “White Claw for Wine Lovers,” or act astounded when friends haven’t heard of it because “Everyone Is Talking About Piquette.”
And so here we gather, like a Bernie Sanders meme, to once again talk about piquette. Only this time around, forgive me for veering from the beaten path to suggest that piquette is not, indeed, the “next big thing in wine” nor “your new drink for summer.”
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Instead, I see piquette as an obscure style of wine that offers major appeal to a very specific group of drinkers, but one that will struggle to catch on among the majority. There’s nothing wrong with such a product existing, of course, but in the midst of such hyperbole, it’s important to also dig into the details that so often go overlooked within the current narrative.
What Is Piquette?
Before this sounds like a hatchet job, I should note that I quite like piquette. I enjoy its spritzy, funky profile, which lands on the palate like sour, cold-pressed apple juice livened with a splash of soda water. And for many drinkers, this acquired taste will present an enjoyable means of killing the summer heat while achieving a pleasant buzz.
As most explanations of the style begin, piquette is not actually wine. Instead, producers take the leftover skins, seeds, and stems (collectively known as pomace) from “traditional” winemaking, add water, and allow a second fermentation to take place over the course of a week or more. Many introduce some “real” wine into the equation to give the beverage more character. And after the liquid drains from the solid matter, some add a sugar-rich solution to begin a bubble-producing second fermentation when the liquid is packaged. All things told, the beverage arrives with a relatively gentle alcohol content that hovers somewhere between 4 and 9 percent ABV.
With roots dating back to the Roman Empire, piquette’s historical ties come from vineyard workers. While its thinner body and weaker concentration of flavor were not deemed worthy enough for paying customers, the drink’s quaffable ABV content provided something harvesters could enjoy over lunch before returning to the job with some semblance of efficiency.
Modern-day consumption certainly differs from its historical usage (we don’t expect many folks today are returning to field work after a few glasses of piquette), but the notion that piquette is a good low-ABV option does provoke some confusion. We cannot argue against 9 percent ABV being significantly lighter than a burly 15 percent-plus Napa Cab, but neither would we describe beer with such alcohol content as “sessionable.”
That said, piquette does provide an alternative to hard seltzer — an area where wine continues to fall short. If the growing ranks of canned wines match the White Claws of the world in terms of portability, drinking 375 milliliters of canned Sauvignon Blanc also equates to knocking back half a bottle on your own. And herein enters piquette: a lower- if not low-ABV option that allows imbibers to drink more reasonably, and perhaps more abundantly, while also maintaining an allegiance to the wine world.
But can piquette ever match the sheer popularity of White Claw — a beverage that racked up billions of dollars in sales last year alone? I don’t think so. Mainly because, although it’s produced from natural, arguably more righteous ingredients, piquette delivers a very specific flavor profile that will likely never appeal to mainstream palates.
Unpacking Piquette’s Popularity
Kristin Olszewski, co-founder of the canned wine company Nomadica, released her brand’s first piquette earlier this year. Though she’s “obsessed” with piquette, she concedes that the style might not be to everyone’s taste. “My fiancé said it’s his favorite thing that I’ve ever made, but he drinks a lot of skin-contact and natural wine,” she says. “When people write in and ask me what it tastes like, I try to emphasize: ‘think orange wine, think kombucha.'”
This flavor profile is intrinsic to piquette, borne out of its specific production process, as Todd Cavallo of New York’s Wild Arc Farms explained to me. (Cavallo and Wild Arc are often cited as the pioneers who reintroduced drinkers to piquette with the winery’s inaugural release in 2016.)
When water is added to pomace, the solution’s pH rises and allows certain microbes and bacteria to thrive, Cavallo says. This results in esoteric flavors that go beyond those described by educational wine bodies as “primary” fruit notes.
“We’ve got stuff in there that a conventional winemaker would scoff at and say, ‘That’s a ruined product, throw it down the drain,’” Cavallo says. “In our case, we think this is what makes piquette interesting — it gives it character and moves it away from just being watery wine.”
Cavallo and Olszewski agree that this blend of factors — piquette’s minimal-intervention production, and the drink’s funky flavor profile — have led to it becoming mainly embraced by natural wine drinkers. The three major markets for Nomadica’s piquette, for example, have so far been New York, California, and the Pacific Northwest.
As the founder and president of CoolVines, a retailer with four locations across New Jersey that cater to a “hipster-y” crowd, Mark Censits has noticed a similar phenomenon. “Pet-nat drinkers were the first crowd to take this up,” Censits says. “But it also appeals to cider and saison beer drinkers, because of the taste profile.”
Where Censits typically stocks around 12 to 15 pet-nats (out of 450 or so total wines), his stores usually only offer two or three piquettes. He feels this is enough to satisfy demand, and enough to represent the range of styles on offer in the category. “It’s a micro trend, for sure,” Censits adds. “It’s not sweeping the nation in some all-powerful kind of way.”
Granted, for piquette to sweep the nation, there would need to be a significant supply available for purchase. This doesn’t seem to be the case, as things stand.
“To my knowledge and from my research, there are less than 20 piquette SKUs available from distributors (as opposed to directly from wineries) in New York City,” Scott Rosenbaum, a former wine and spirits distribution professional and founder of Ah So Insights, writes via email. “Compare this to more than 80 meads, more than 350 orange wines, and more than 350 pet-nats, we are in the earliest part of the ‘innovator’ stage — not even the ‘early adopter’ stage.”
From a sales and search-data perspective, the results don’t scream ubiquity, either. When I reached out to the data firm Nielsen to learn about off-premise piquette sales, I was told the firm “doesn’t track” this type of product — a response I’ve never received when reporting on sales of rosé, hard seltzer, or RTD cocktails. Google search data for the term “piquette” also fails to show any significant spike over the last five years. White Claw this is not.
The Sustainability of Piquette
Even if its appeal does appear limited to the natural wine crowd, none can argue with piquette’s sustainable credentials. Or can they?
The thinking, and popular narrative, is simple enough: Piquette is made from materials that would normally be thrown out — therefore, it’s less wasteful. Yet, what happens to the pomace and leftover organic materials after piquette becomes ready for bottling? The very same thing that would have happened if the producer opted not to make piquette.
For most small and independent producers, that means tipping the pomace onto the compost heap or spreading it in the vineyard, David E. Block, a professor at U.C. Davis’s Department of Viticulture and Enology, explains. Larger-scale wineries with more pomace to offload may instead turn to companies that can isolate specific compounds and transform them into valuable bi-products, such as cooking oils.
Initially, I reached out to Block and U.C. Davis to learn whether producing a new beverage from so-called waste was indeed a sustainable practice, given that it also requires new packaging and distribution via vehicles running on fossil fuels. Ultimately, Block says that “it’s certainly not clear” whether making piquette is more sustainable than composting or selling pomace.
Yet he does stress that in certain regions, the need for water — both for piquette’s base and also for cleaning winemaking equipment — could lead its production to becoming unsustainable. (And to backtrack briefly to the style’s popularity, Block also admitted that when he received my interview request, he had to Google what piquette was, having not previously heard of it.)
The complex nature of sustainability is not a realm populated solely by piquette. Indeed, the very definition of the word is relative and reliant on a number of producer-specific variables. Yet, Wild Arc’s Cavallo does a great job of approaching the topic in his case with admirable nuance.
Cavallo describes how making piquette brings a higher yield of product per acre of vineyard farmed. If each acre of vineyard yields two tons of grapes, Cavallo can produce 50 cases of wine. But by also making piquette, he can sell up to 25 cases of extra “wine.” From a farming standpoint, the inputs — fuel, labor, spray material, etc. — remain the same, but with more product on offer, the average environmental impact of each bottle decreases.
“Part of our overarching goal is to change the narrative around wine-growing in New York State and to move people away from herbicide and towards non-synthetic interventions in the vineyard,” Cavallo says.
The media attention he’s garnered for pioneering piquette certainly brings the opportunity to have these conversations on a larger stage. Whether or not drinks writers choose to dig into this angle of Wild Arc’s production is another story. (My words, not Cavallo’s, for the record.)
Finally, there are financial advantages of piquette that deserve exploration, despite this being a field that doesn’t always gain much attention. Maybe that’s because dollars and cents often seem at odds with our romantic vision of wine, but to my mind, this is one area where we can all unequivocally endorse this product.
By producing and selling piquette, Cavallo ensures that all of his products remain affordable. His wines retail for $25 max, while he tries to sell his piquettes for as little as is financially feasible — around $15 per bottle.
On this front, Nomadica’s Olszewski also agrees: “Nobody works in wine to get rich,” she says, hinting at an age-old adage. “You work in it because it’s your passion and it’s what you dream about. But it’s incredibly difficult to make a living in the wine industry.”
Bubbles Beyond Effervescence
With hot vax summer in full swing, it seems safe to conclude that 2021 will not be the year piquette dethrones White Claw or even becomes the next pet-nat. It’s OK to admit that, and doing so shouldn’t take away from the beverage’s benefits: Though probably not for everyone’s palate, the style does promise to please natural wine drinkers. And while environmental sustainability isn’t guaranteed, piquette certainly satisfies an economic definition of the concept.
Sadly, these messages get lost in the media hoopla — a cloud of smoke that consistently fails to recognize piquette’s obscurity. The fact remains that most drinkers have never heard of it; only a fraction of the wineries in the U.S. have experimented with the style; and even if more enter the fray, it’s highly unlikely that most consumers are ready for its challenging flavor profile — no matter how many write-ups place it as quaffable and refreshing.
Beyond that, I think there’s another layer to unpack here: Are we really to believe that piquette’s proponents will remain on the bandwagon if it does gain the popularity of rosé or hard seltzer? And do those same individuals even believe it can?
At best, this is likely another example of drinks industry professionals failing to look outside their bubble. Viewed through a more cynical lens, I’d say the celebration of piquette speaks to the exclusivity and elitism that plagues certain circles of the wine world — an intentional desire to make drinkers feel bad if they haven’t heard of something or, heaven forbid, don’t enjoy its complex profile.
Ultimately, “everyone” isn’t talking about piquette. This is simply another case of a few individuals speaking very loudly.