On this special episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” host Zach Geballe is joined by Proxies maker Devin Campbell and Charlie Friedmann, who is head of Proxies for Acid League. Here they discuss the parameters that define Proxies and what makes them just as special as wine. Tune in to learn more.
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Zach: In Seattle, Washington, Zach Geballe, and this is a special episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” where today I’m joined by Devin Campbell, who is the Proxies maker, and Charlie Friedmann, head of Proxies for Acid League. Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time. Great to have you both here.
Charlie: Excited to be here. Thank you.
Devin Great to be here.
Z: Wonderful. OK, so I want to get into a little background about the two of you. But first, we have to answer what is undoubtedly the most pressing question for everyone who’s listening to us, which is what exactly do you guys make? How would you describe it?
C: I’ll start by saying what they’re not and Proxies are definitely not dealcoholized the wine. So there’s that. What we do make, though, is a nonalcoholic wine alternative. We looked at the non-alch category and we saw that beer and spirits were really booming. But wine wasn’t really the same. And I think, it’s looked at with a lot of disdain and is dismissed really easily. That’s because dealcoholized wine is always taking something away and is usually not made from great wine to begin with. We thought we needed to really do something completely different to reinvent the category. And that’s what we call Proxies. So we often say you might have seen on your Instagram ads and apologies if so, we say “not wine, Proxies”. And that’s because they’re not a dealcoholized wine and they’re not wine. They’re really their own thing. What we do is build blends from the ground up with a variety of ingredients, and we try to make a complex beverage that really fits the wine occasion and that hits on those characteristics of wine that make it a really good food pairing. So, something with texture and tannin and acidity and balance. Something that you really want to have with your dinner is something that you can swirl in your glass. Something that is interesting and complex and that you want to talk about and think about and pick out flavors from. So we make a bunch of different varieties and they’re all quite different, but they all sort of start with a similar recipe that Devin can speak to a little more. But we use varietal wine and grape juices. We use teas and we use a bunch of different sorts of house-made extracts, cold and hot infusion, and we blend that all together to create something that we think is a cohesive beverage that you can taste each ingredient, but makes one cohesive whole. Because often you’ll see products on the market that lists all kinds of ingredients and then it all just tastes like nothing. And that’s the last thing we want with Proxies. We always want them to be pushing the boundaries of flavor and being something that’s really far more interesting than anything we saw in this category before.
Z: So Devin, I want to switch over to you for a second, and maybe you can talk a little bit about your background as a winemaker and how as a Proxies maker, the process is similar, and maybe what’s different about it?
D: Yeah, definitely. A long time ago, I thought I wanted to be a chef. I was into kind of culinary and food, cooking myself different things. Playing with different ingredients has always had a bit of a fascination with ingredients in general, but I then realized pretty quickly that being a chef is actually pretty hard. So I shifted pretty quickly to winemaking. But what’s great about winemaking is you get to explore lots of areas of the globe. So I eventually decided to make the leap. I went to New Zealand, to Hawke’s Bay, for about a year, to do my studies in winemaking over there. I would highly recommend Hawke’s Bay as a region — great Syrah over there. And then from Hawke’s Bay, I’ve kind of been bouncing around. I went to the Hunter Valley in Australia. I’ve done a vintage in Bordeaux as well. I’ve been out to British Columbia, Canada, in the Okanagan Valley, which is another gorgeous region, and I’ve done some work out in Niagara in Ontario. So, overall it’s a really great thing to do in your 20s, for sure. You can travel the world, and meet lots of cool and interesting people. So that’s my sort of work background, I worked my way up in the wine industry a little bit, and I know the co-founder of Acid League, Allan Mai, and we’ve been friends a long time. So he said we had this beverage that we want to work on and we need somebody to do it. We don’t know what it is yet, but we thought you might be a good person for the job. It sounded like a cool opportunity. So here I am. I’ve been doing that for the last couple of years. That’s a bit of my background. But I guess in terms of how they’re similar and how it’s different from the winemaking process, it’s actually, I would say, very, very different from the winemaking process. With winemaking, you have one ingredient and it’s the grape, and it takes a long time to mature and ferment and you monitor it. And there are a lot of different winemaking techniques that go into that. But when you dealcoholize something like wine, it loses a lot of what makes wine so special because alcohol provides so many things for the wine, right? It gives you the body. It gives you the aromatics. It gives you texture, weight, and concentration. So you lose a lot of that when you actually take the alcohol out of wine. And so we’ve decided to kind of come up with a different approach to making something that’s more of an, I guess, an imitation of the things that we like, Am I sort of making sense so far?
Z: Yeah. I mean, I think a thing that I have noticed and what Charlie said earlier about dealcoholized wine is that in removing alcohol, you are, as you said, stripping away body. And I think something that maybe listeners may not be aware of is there are a lot of the flavor compounds and aromatic compounds in wine that are alcohol soluble, that is not necessarily purely water-soluble. So you’re really losing a lot of those things and you are kind of just hoping to retain some of that sort of outline of the wine. I mean, I think I’ve described it on the podcast before the dealcoholized wine as being sort of a shadow of wine. And so it’s very interesting to me to think about the way in which this started kind of from a totally different place. Saying OK, we’re not going to make wine and then take alcohol away, but we’re going to make a bunch of things that are not alcoholic and combine them. Certainly, I think, lends to an interesting possibility space. I’m curious, though, maybe from both of you, your term Proxies is in there. And obviously that as you said, Charlie, the idea behind the product is as a sort of in these wine occasions. And you do kind of use a lot of wine, you know, verbiage and stuff like that on the labels. But also, I think it seemingly intentionally. Not necessarily saying, OK, this is our version of I don’t know, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Northern Rhône Syrah or whatever the thing you might say. Like, how do you kind of explain to people what they can expect in the bottle without saying, OK, we’re trying to make this specific kind of wine just in a nonalcoholic form.
C: If you’ve hit on our biggest challenge, I think when we started out we did sort of take more little literal inspiration from certain types of wine. We still aren’t trying to make them taste specifically like a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, for example, but we’re trying to pick out those characteristics. And what we’ve learned is, similar to dealcoholizing wine, that’s really a losing battle as well. What we’re interested in is how can we make something that’s not a less-than, not an equal then, but in some cases, better than or more interesting, right? We can explore other flavors. We can do almost anything within the Proxies construct. What ties it to wine, like we said, are those sort of key characteristics, but there’s no need necessarily for this to be, like, our Pinot Noir, or this is our Chardonnay. That’s always going to be a losing battle in some sense. So what we think is, why don’t we make something that’s medium-bodied and red and has that sort of, like, weight and fruit profile that has acidity and a little spice that you might pair the same dishes as you might pair Pinot Noir. But it’s not necessarily like setting ourselves up and setting our consumers up for failure and for misunderstandings. So we want to be clear on that. That’s again, why we say “not wine, Proxies.” It would be difficult to do that. But we’re getting better. We can create something that we think reminds us of a certain type of wine, but we don’t want to hit it right on the nose. We want to be a little more interesting. And the case where we can be, you know, even a better pairing sometimes, I think, is an interesting point. When you eat spicy food, people always say, oh, pair Thai food with Riesling or Gewürztraminer. But the truth is alcohol and spice and capsaicin are always going to react negatively. It’s going to intensify the spice. So here we have the opportunity to take something that has that lushness, that fruit character, that body, and texture. And maybe it’s actually a better pairing than wine, right? So we don’t want to limit ourselves by saying this is our Riesling, we just want to create something that’s interesting and delicious and that you can enjoy with your meal.
Z: Interesting. So I’m wondering, kind of in this vein we’ve talked a little bit about, the process of creating these. But I’m wondering maybe Devin from your end, as the person kind of making and blending these products, is there an element of wine that is hardest to capture? Is it body, is it the aromatics, is it tannins like when you look at putting one of these things together? Not to bring back bad memories, but what kind of keeps you up at night?
D: Yeah, it’s a difficult thing to recreate because I mean, philosophically, what you have to do is sort of deconstruct what makes wine a wine, and there’s a few key things that stand out right away. So acidity is one of those and tannin. Those would be, I think, the two defining features that make wine wonderful and make it pair well with food. So for the tannin piece, I’m a big tea fan personally, and tannin is in lots of things. It’s in lots of plant-based materials, so it could be teas, it could be roots. You get bitterness from hops, but you can find it just about anywhere. But for me, this was a wonderful way to feature different teas from different countries around the world. You know, China, Japan, India, but it’s more than just that right. You get regional specificity and terroir even when you’re talking about tea. So maybe you’re using tea from Darjeeling or the Assam region, or Uji in Japan. So for me, that was one of the wonderful fun parts of this process, is taking the tannin profile that you get in teas. It can be silky. It can be choppy, coarse, and then applying that in these blends to create something that’s going to actually sort of dry out your mouth and actually pair with the food that you’re eating. So that was really fun for me. And then recreating the acid profile was tricky. But again, we don’t want to just be wine so we have, tartaric acid is the main acid in wine grapes, and I don’t want to get too technical but that’s what gives wine its acid profile. But we are sometimes using things like citrus as well, which has citric acid in it. So the acid profile that we can get in our beverages can be similar to wine, but also sort of more vibrant or fresh or different. There’s a lot of things that you can play with if you understand sort of the regional specificity and the ingredient that you’re dealing with. It’s just a bit of a headache to try to figure out how to bring it all together sometime.
Z: I can imagine. I’m really curious now, kind of shifting a little bit away from the process of making and kind of creating these Proxies and shifting a little more into what you’ve kind of hinted at a couple of times, Charlie, the sort of ways to enjoy them and times in places. So I want to ask this question first, and then maybe we’ll kind of move into a little bit more of that. With the Proxies, I mean, obviously, you have a lot of different potential consumers in mind. So I don’t mean to narrow in on one, but are you finding that people, the people who are responding to this, are people for whom nonalcoholic is their kind of drink of choice? Or is this more people who are like, I’m a wine drinker, but hey, maybe there is a day of the week or a week out of the month or a month out of the year where I don’t want something alcoholic and this is a thing that I feel like is a kind of maybe not even not settling for something. I’m not, I’m not forced into kind of the relatively uninspired realms of sort of nonalcoholic beverages outside of these, sort of, outside of this category.
C: You mean like the people in the comments on our Instagram or TikTok saying, just drink water, just drink juice. Yeah. No, it wasn’t.
Z: I don’t. I don’t dwell in your guys’ comments as much. So I’m sorry.
C: That’s my life. Maybe it’s just my life. Yeah, no. It’s more the latter. Obviously, there is a healthy amount of people who are sober or people who are pregnant, who are enjoying Proxies. But our core market and the vast majority of our consumers are actually people who do drink, people who are just cutting back on alcohol who want something special to drink on a weeknight or really any day of the week. You know, we’re wine drinkers, I should say. I mean, I think that’s probably obvious from hearing Devon speak. I used to be a wine writer. I still like to drink with everyone on our team. Our creative director is a wine lover and has done all kinds of wine education has done some winemaking as have I. So, we come at it from that angle where it’s something that we want to drink. On nights when we aren’t drinking wine, that gives us that similar experience and sort of communal experience, too, of talking about it and experiencing it. So that’s really what we’re looking for. And the nice thing is we have a very strong direct-to-consumer audience. We launched these sort of last January the year prior to 2021. And I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there was a pandemic going on. So, we did want to launch these originally with the idea, like, let’s launch these in restaurants and see how it goes from there. Build up credibility by having them in restaurants, getting feedback from somms and chefs that we respect, and so on. But that wasn’t really an option at the time. So we launched as a sort of online, not wine club. And the nice thing about that is that we get all kinds of feedback immediately right from our consumers. We learn who they are through surveys and just general analytics. So we understand that they’re actually people who do drink, people who want to cut back, people who like interesting beverages, who want to try something new. So yeah, it’s really more than that portion of the audience
Z: I want to talk a little later about the kind of connection to wellness culture more broadly, but we’ll save that for a touch later in the conversation. I do want to ask, this is going to kind of, I think, wrap both of these kinds of pieces of a conversation so far together. And I’d be curious, maybe both of your answers on this. I think sometimes with any kind of part of the beverage category, whether it’s beverage, alcohol or not, you have kind of this mix of potential consumers and people who find a thing that they love and just want it over and over again. And some people who are, like, in it to try something new. And I would think that obviously anyone who’s kind of diving into Proxies more generally is at least somewhat open to something new because it’s, as you’ve described, a kind of a new concept first and foremost. But within your kind of customer base, are people kind of re-upping on the same day they have their favorite one or two? Or are they like, hey, I want something new? And for the people who do want something new, maybe there’s a better question for you, Devin: How difficult is it or how easy is it to kind of iterate and innovate within the sort of broader proxy space?
C: It’s a dangerous question. Maybe I’ll give a little preamble and then let Devin answer that piece. We have both, Zach, so we started by just doing what we now call the Proxies Club. As I was mentioning and through the club, we do three new flavors, three new varieties every month, which is kind of insane, this insane goal we’ve given ourselves and we’ve stuck with it. But nobody in the world basically has made pretty much any of these. There are a few people doing semi-similar things, but following on and we’ve made well over 40 now. So. If you want something new and interesting every month, we have the Proxies Club. It’s definitely where we really keep pushing the boundaries of what Proxies and what nonalcoholic wine alternatives can be. It’s where we do collaborations with, you know, great chefs and people from the industry. We did one with Sean Brock, who actually has been a longtime subscriber and just reached out to us and said, “Hey, I’m loving these, can we do a collab? I don’t know if you’ve heard of me, I’m a chef.” And we’re like, “We’ve heard of you Sean Brock, you’re an amazing chef.” So we did that. And Devin went down to Nashville and worked with him on that. So that’s the club, and then we’ve introduced sort of some of our past favorites that people have and kept those as permanent offerings, and those are available online in what we call the tasting set and then also in packs of single flavors. So the tasting set introduces you to those flavors, and gives you essentially a mixed pack. And if you find the flavor you love, you can keep ordering those as well. And those are the same ones that are available in restaurants across North America, in retail stores, in a lot of fine wine shops, are those offerings. And then, yeah, Devon can tell you all about how hard it is to make three new ones every month because he screams at me all the time about it.
Z: Yeah, please unburden yourself, Devon.
D: Yeah, we’ve been doing this for, I don’t know, a year and a quarter now, and it feels like it’s been three or four years. It’s been a very intense period of time with a lot of different ingredients. But to answer, I guess, your question of who is it for or how do you aim at your consumer, right? It’s very, very difficult because there’s so many different types of people that might be interested in Proxies. And everybody has a different palate. Some people like more adventurous flavors and some people like flavors that are a lot more simple or safe. Some people are here because they just don’t like the taste of alcohol. So, trying to find that bullseye has been a real challenge. I guess at the end of the day, I kind of go with the philosophy of, you should make something that you would want to drink yourself. And I’m really into flavors and ingredients. So what’s been driving this from the beginning I think for me and for the rest of our team, has been this idea of experimentation and creation. And so having this subscription service where we’re doing three new Proxies every single month has been hugely time-consuming, really draining, and really challenging. You know, you have to source all of your interesting ingredients and make sure every concept is different from the last. So it’s extremely involved. But what it does is it means that you’re creating all the time and you’re working that creative muscle in your brain. And hopefully, by doing things that are cool and out there and unique and use all sorts of ingredients from all around the world, that’s interesting to our consumers. I’m not sure. I think we need more data, but that’s kind of how I’m approaching it.
C: Yeah, I mean, different people like different ones, always. It’s really hard to predict. In the early days, I was selling them around Toronto to local wine shops and restaurants just by hand, and I’d go to somms that I knew well and say, I think you’ll like this one. And they never chose the one that I thought they would. So it’s interesting. The other thing that Devin was talking about is, in the club we do have these permanent offerings like I was talking about. But by doing the club, we keep improving our process and learning new things, and coming up with new tricks, and we filter those into the core offering as well. We keep tweaking those, and at some point, we’ll have sort of a larger change a bit taking in some of those learnings and taking in and to Devon’s point that data of what people really loved the most. Even if different people love different things. But that’s sort of the joy of it and people will say, you know, this doesn’t taste like wine, and I’ll say to them, what is wine? There are so many types of wine, right? Like, I don’t think a California Cab tastes like a Pineau d’Aunis from Loire, those are completely different things. They’re both red wine. So, it’s hard to understand what everyone wants all the time, but we never really, we’re not looking to please everyone all the time, right. To Devin’s point, we’re trying to make something interesting and different and, hopefully, a good amount of them, please a lot of people, and that’s been our experience so far.
Z: OK, so I want to talk a little bit about sort of serving, storage, etc. Because I mean maybe the simple answer is, just treat any of these like you would treat a bottle of wine. But is there anything in particular about, like I said, the serving, the storage temperature, etc., that people who are interested in enjoying Proxies should keep in mind? That might be different from how they would handle a bottle of wine.
D: I guess I would say that the packaging is similar to wine. You have the wax, you have the cork. And in most ways, you’re right, we do want the consumer to treat this like it is a bottle of wine, with the exception of you’re not going to get buzzed off of this product, but bring out your nicest wine glass. If that’s how you like to enjoy wine, have it with a meal as often as you can. In general, I prefer most of the Proxies lightly chilled. But you should kind of approach it the same way you approach wine. And then I guess after consuming, we recommend that you put the cork back in like you have with wine and keep it in the fridge. Generally pretty similar.
C: Yeah, and they’ll last a good week like that in the fridge open so you don’t have to get through the whole bottle at once. They have a really good shelf life once opened. The one difference there is with wine: Often we talk about aging wine, and that’s not really something we want to do with Proxies. We are constantly working to extend the shelf life. Our latest products are at nine months. But obviously one of the things alcohol does really well is preservation. So without alcohol and because we use all these real ingredients, it’s not going to last forever. So we do say to drink it within six to nine months. Obviously, most people drink it sooner than that, especially with the club where you’re getting new things every month. But that would be the one difference. As Devin said in terms of serving temperature, we give suggestions on the labels or in the box when you order it online. But obviously experiment if you want, you know, different people like their wines at different temperatures as well. It will sort of bring out different flavors depending on what temperature you drink and drink it at, and the interesting thing we do find actually is like if you are willing to decant your nonalcohol alternative, it is actually really beneficial to the flavors. So it’s kind of fun.
Z: I think kind of one of the last things I want to ask about, kind of mentioned this before is, we’re in this fascinating sort of time and space in alcohol where there’s a lot of conversation around ingredient lists and calorie counts and nutritional information. And I know that or I strongly suspect, I suppose, that for Proxies, you guys are trying to kind of walk a little bit of a line that might be a little tricky in that the idea behind everything it seems like visually and presentation-wise is for the bottle to look, frankly, like a proxy for a wine bottle. And Devin mentioned it’s got wax in the cork and all that. But you guys do kind of put calorie counts on their serving information, ingredients, etc. And so, how do you kind of balance what is, obviously, I think for the both of you it sounds like and maybe for the brand as a whole, deep respect for an appreciation for wine and for beverage alcohol. But also a recognition that even if it’s a subset of your audience that some of your audience is really coming at this because they really don’t drink alcohol at all.
C: Yeah, I mean, in terms of having ingredients and nutritional information on there, to be quite honest, that’s a legal requirement. So with the bottles that we’re selling in stores, we need to have that but it’s not something we highlight. I would say, look, a glass of Proxies has about a third, maybe less of the calories of a glass of wine. Do we highlight in that that in our marketing? No. To us, that’s not what we want Proxies to be about. Even if it is a question that comes up often and I think probably would pull in a lot of consumers. But we want the consumers who are more interested in flavor rather than just straight-up wellness. Where we do maybe toe the line a bit is, look, it’s a nonalcoholic product and we’re saying here’s something you can drink so you don’t have to drink every night. But no judgment on your drinking. It’s more just if you do want to cut back. If you don’t want to, if you don’t want to drink water because you’re not drinking that night, like here’s something fun you can drink, right? So we’re more about that angle than trying to talk about adaptogens or anything along those lines that you might be thinking about.
D: To add to that a little bit, just because we’re driving the flavor-forward doesn’t mean that that omits it being a healthy beverage. One of the ways that it is healthy and more natural is that we’re not seeking out natural and artificial flavors and putting them in the bottle. We’re actually using real whole ingredients and those are generally going to be more nutritious. So it’s a nice sort of side effect there.
Z: Yeah, totally. I certainly understand and I think one thing we’ve talked about on the podcast a number of times when it comes to this sort of nonalcoholic beverage spaces, the importance for people who do drink with some regularity of the ritual that goes along with having something more interesting than water. Whether it’s as you mentioned, the stemware, the decanter, potentially the thing that the sense of that, kind of more adults drink, even if that drink doesn’t have alcohol. So I can certainly, I could certainly kind of connect to that.
C: I mean, you’re seeing that a lot from industry people. We hear that all the time from somms and chefs saying, I’ve been waiting for something that looks and feels like this and that has an interesting flavor that I can drink when I’m not drinking. People in the wine business just drink a lot all the time and that they don’t and then they get at home and you can’t do that and you can’t do that as you get older. I felt that myself, too. So that’s also a lot of it. And that’s I think why we’ve seen a lot of amazing restaurants like from the French Laundry to Gramercy Tavern. Sean Brock, Atelier Crenn, etc. like pick up Proxies as an option in the restaurants, as the people working in the restaurants know themselves that this is something they want, and realize they can introduce consumers to something new, introduce their guests to do a different type of experience where the guests in a restaurant can get the whole experience now of having those rituals of the glass and the decanter in the bottle and really feel like they’re having a proper pairing with those amazing meals.
Z: All right. Last prompt for the two of you. If you want to learn more. Charlie, if they want to leave you snarky comments, what’s the best way to do that?
C: Acidleague.com or at Acid League on Instagram, on TikTok I guess I’m just starting to get going there. Yeah, you can find us that way. I don’t know what else to say about that. We’ve mentioned a few restaurants and wine shops around the country. We are available in a lot of top local wine shops in your area, wherever your area might be, and that’s continuing to expand. But in general if you want more information, you can always reach out to us on our Instagram, on our website if you want. If you’re in the industry and you want to carry Proxies at your restaurant or at your wine shop or any type of retail shop, you can email us at sales at acidleague.com and we’ll get back to you right away.
Z: Awesome. Well, Devon, Charlie, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. Fascinating conversation and very excited to see what you guys continue to do with Proxies.
D: Thanks, Zach.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave 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 Seattle, Washington, 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 of 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.