With the holiday season right around the corner, on this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe examine the sparkling wine industry. The three discuss how Prosecco has been able to create its own space alongside Champagne, and why consumers have tended to lump all sparkling wines in with those two styles and regions. Tune in for more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters. I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington. I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is the VinePair Podcast. One of the last ones before the end of the year.
J: The new year.
A: Maybe one more? Maybe one more. Maybe two more.
Z: We have a few.
A: Because guys we’re not going to get all up in your feed, though, all over the holidays. We’re going to give you some space.
Z: Oh, that’s not true.
A: I guess it’s important.
Z: We’ll find ways to be there, but it may or may not be. There might be “Best of…” Some hits.
A: We’ll play, maybe we’ll see. Maybe.
Z: We’ll actually add off-air.
A: Here’s what I would like. I want to do just a cut of all the times Zach was wrong on the podcast. Just lay it over and over and over and all the times we were right.
Z: You want a 30-second episode?
A: You’re just in the room with me. We’re on the right team.
J: New York versus Seattle.
Z: I feel like we would get kicked off of Spotify for posting a 30-second episode. I don’t really know what we would do.
A: Ooh, interesting that that’s how you feel.
Z: Adam, I got all the clips, baby. I got all the clips. Don’t you worry.
J: He does.
A: What have you been drinking, Zach?
Z: Good question. It’s been, I feel like last week we talked about this and you both were laying low, getting ready for the holidays and I was not, have not been. It’s been a bit of a quiet week, all told nothing super exciting between Caitlin’s birthday and then the holidays and my birthday coming up. That said, a couple of bottles of wine that were really enjoyable over the last week. Had a bottle of 2016 Remi Chardonnay from the Fort Ross Seaview AVA out on the Sonoma Coast. Just a beautiful bottle of wine. David Remi reminds me of my dad, so maybe that’s why I’ve always liked him. Better winemaker than my dad, though. Sorry, Dad.
A: Is your dad a winemaker?
Z: No, no. I’m just assuming, I guess to be fair. Nice bottle of wine really went nicely with the — I don’t remember what we had that night. Maybe some chicken or something like that. Sounds like a Chardonnay meal. Then the other thing I had is I did something that I had wanted to do for a while and have never made before, which is I made braised oxtail. It was in the grocery store and on sale.
Z: I was like, “I always want to do this.” I’ve done lots of other braised meats, and from what I had read it’s not that dissimilar from doing short ribs, which I feel very comfortable with. I went and got them and braised some short ribs and served them with a bottle of Syrah from a friend of mine, Andrew Lata Wines here in Washington from the Rocks District down in Milton-Freewater in the southeastern corner of the state down in Walla Walla. Really nice. The oxtail it’s interesting to cook and eat because it is even more than short ribs. It is so rich. It was really nice on its own. Then actually where it really in my opinion shined the best was the next day when I made borscht and put some little bit of oxtail in there. That was really tasty. I really like borscht. I make one batch a year because Caitlin is fine with it and the kids love it.
J: It’s so labor-intensive with the beets.
Z: Yes, there’s the labor intensiveness and just the reality of, I’m really, I think the only person in the family who really loves it. Make it for myself once a year. Caitlin shares and the kids I think Saul had two bites and he was like, “I don’t like it.” I was like “Fine, that’s cool. You can just eat whatever else I give you that night.” Such is the life of the parent. That’s been it. I’m sure over the next couple of weeks whenever we do have new episodes, there’ll be some exciting holiday bottles for all of us to talk about. How about you, Joanna? What have you been having lately?
J: Yes, I’ll keep this brief. I have had nothing in the past week.
Z: Anything. It can be non-alcoholic. I’ll allow it.
J: I’m not — Something I’ve been on lately is Fever-Tree’s sparkling grapefruit soda. It’s very delicious. It’s really good. I highly recommend that. We’ve had a lot of wonderful Champagne in the office. There will be a list soon on VinePair, but really nothing to speak of.
Z: Wait, Joanna, you were to get me a little bit of — give me detail on this Fever-Tree grapefruit soda. Are we talking — is it closer in spirit to Spindrift? Just a little bit grapefruity or is it more a classic squirt? What are we talking about here?
J: No, no, it’s closer to Spindrift but sweeter. It splits the difference, I suppose. It’s pretty dry. It’s not quite a soda, but it’s pretty good.
Z: Would you use it for a Paloma?
J: Yes. It would be delicious.
J: It would be delicious with some tequila and some lime. Very good.
Z: I dig that.
J: Fever-Tree stuff is good.
A: I like Fever-Tree. I like Fever-Tree a lot.
J: Adam, what have you been drinking?
A: Last night I went to Lur Fishbar, which-
J: You guys love that place.
A: It’s great. Very solid, classic New York restaurant.
J: Been around forever.
A: Forever. Sleeper hit is the burger.
J: You get white Burgundy there?
A: Yes, I got a Chablis, but I got a bottle from Patrick. Patrick Puse, his wine is actually on our Top 50 list, Terroir de Chablis. It’s always just an awesome bottle of wine. We had that. Then earlier this week we had the entire Patrón team in the office and we debuted a bunch of members of the trade were here, and we debuted El Alto, which is their new super-premium tequila in the line. Very tall bottle. Looks like another very tall bottle. This one’s-
A: It’s a really delicious tequila.
J: It is.
A: It was really fun to have them here and some of their bartenders behind the bar and just
launched the tequila with them. That was a lot of fun.
J: They were slinging my favorite cocktail.
A: Which one?
J: The, Añejo Old Fashioned.
A: Oh, that’s a good one. The Añejo Old Fashioned is quite good. They made some delicious drinks and then we released the bottle and surprise, they brought six of those bottles and they’re gone.
J: Oh, they walked off?
A: No, everyone finished them. I left here early.
J: Me too.
A: Then the next day when I came back to the office, I was asking Jenny how it went. She’s like, the bartenders really finished the Ls because all the trade members were bartenders. They finished it very quickly. I was like, “Yes, it’s a delicious tequila and it’s their night off. Let them have one.” That was that. Zach, this topic is yours, I think, this week.
Z: I feel like it’s really more Joanna’s.
A: Then Joanna, you set it up.
J: I don’t know. I feel like you can both do it better justice than I can, but what I wanted to talk about-
A: Oh, that’s not true.
J: I don’t know. I just wanted to talk about this thing that we’ve encountered quite a bit, I think in just our work as a publication, but then also after the Wine to Wine Conference in Verona, this idea that Americans, a lot of people just don’t understand sparkling wine. They think it’s either Champagne or as Zach brought up Prosecco at this point. I think there’s just a lack of understanding of the nuances of sparkling wine or the range of it. I thought that was maybe an interesting conversation for us to have.
A: I think one of the reasons for that I think worldwide is that if you want to look at it, so Prosecco really hasn’t been well known amongst the population until maybe the last decade, decade and a half where people actually knew to ask for it by name. It was served to a lot of people. You might go to an Italian restaurant where it was a welcome glass or whatever, but most people would be like, “Thanks for the Champagne.” That was just what it was.
J: That’s what I’m talking about here.
A: I actually just did an interview this morning for a bunch of local news stations about Champagne. I’m very well versed in the questions they were asking. I think what it comes down to is, so one of the things that the French are very good at across the board is marketing. If you look at the top advertising agencies in the world, a lot of them are owned by French companies. They’re really good at marketing, they’re really good at the top fashion labels, building that luxury lifestyle. It’s a skill that the French have always understood how to make you want luxury products and how to sell those luxury products. I would argue the Italians know how to make luxury products and they make beautiful products. They are not necessarily the best at selling those products in the same way that the French are. The French are really good at it.
J: Beyond like fashion and cars, maybe?
A: Even so, building those brands I think is harder for the Italians to do. I think that’s why a lot of them probably hire French marketing firms. Or now U.S. marketing firms owned by French, overall French marketing firms like Publicis, things like that. What the French really capitalized on from a very early on is the idea that not only is Champagne the best, but it’s the birthplace of sparkling wine. It’s the place where-
J: You mean the story of it too?
A: Everything, all others are copycats. Everything else is an invitation or a shortcut in the case of Prosecco. That idea has become so ingrained in the majority of consumers, on top of the fact that it has also been cemented as a massive luxury product. It’s the thing Napoleon gave to his troops in victory and in defeat. It is the bottles in “The Great Gatsby,” it is all of these things the-
Z: Officially, the Russians czars drank, like all over.
J: It’s cultural. Historical, cultural.
A: Yes, and the French capitalize on that messaging and they drive it home over and over and over again. What that creates is every other region, et cetera, must first explain to you why they are at least equal to, and then potentially better than Champagne because Champagne will always be in the conversation. It cannot not be because of how great of a job they’ve done at marketing. I think that this is a problem that exists worldwide. It’s not just an American problem being young in the wine industry. As Zach was mentioning before we started recording, you see it in countries that have pretty robust sparkling wines of their own, and basically almost everyone outside of that one region that makes sparkling wine probably still drinks Champagne or some version of it. There’s a stat I’ve heard before: Italy is one of the top Champagne-consuming countries in the world.
Z: Germany too.
A: They make a lot of great sparkling wine.
Z: I think Germany makes a ton of sparkling wine, even though we don’t see it as much here, but it’s still a huge market for Champagne. I want to add a piece to what you’re saying, Adam, because I think that there’s an element of the marketing that’s a part of it for sure, and the fact that Champagne has had cache and reputation for centuries goes to this long-standing French cultural marketing savvy, not even just a modern phenomenon. It’s a centuries-long thing in a lot of ways. It benefits doubly from the general perception that’s held throughout the world that France is not just — it’s actually that Champagne is the original sparkling wine in the homeland of sparkling wine, but that France is the homeland of wine.
A: That’s true.
Z: Reinforcing a factor there. Whatever the truth of the history of sparkling wine is, which is something that in various forms has cropped up wherever wine is made in a lot of different ways not necessarily in the method that we think of for Champagne and other traditional methods of sparkling wines with the secondary fermentation and bottle, et cetera. That is a more relatively modern invention, but effervescent wine has been around for millennia in one form or another. It’s important that we recognize that anyone who’s attempting to push back against that hegemony of Champagne in France is not only pushing against modern marketing challenges, but like I said, this centuries-long pinnacle status for Champagne and for France in the wine world. What I think is really interesting, though, is to take a look at how Prosecco has managed to carve out its own category, because I will say a thing that had changed in the landscape for me as a server and sommelier and wine director, by the time I stopped that part of my career a couple years ago was early on if you handed someone a glass of sparkling wine, if they said anything about it, they almost always said, “Oh, thanks for the Champagne,” or, “Oh, we want a Champagne toast.” Then you’d be like, “Do you want actual Champagne?” They go like, “Just sparkling wine, whatever.” That connotation is Champagne and sparkling wine had for many drinkers been synonymous. Suddenly, the last couple years, I started to get like, “Oh, I’ll have a glass of Prosecco.” It’d be like, “Well, we actually don’t have one.” They meant they wanted sparkling wine. Maybe they wanted something that was a little more flavor profile-wise similar to Prosecco, but a lot of people, Prosecco had become the thing that they associated with sparkling wine, maybe even more than Champagne. Certainly in an everyday sense, because in the end, Champagne’s positioning as a luxury product puts it out of mind for a lot of people, if not out of price point for a lot of people on a day-to-day basis. As people came to really enjoy drinking sparkling wine, as sparkling wine consumption for some people moved purely out of the realm of celebration or aperitif but became, we’re going to have sparkling wine with brunch. We’re going to drink sparkling wine just hanging out. Prosecco became the wine style that both fit that space and that price point and really, I think, started to eat into that. I don’t know what you would call it exactly, other than just the name on the tip of the tongue for sparkling wine in a lot of consumers.
J: I was thinking about this and thinking about this conversation just to your point, I think that happened probably not as a result of flavor profile. I think it was purely a price point thing.
Z: I’m sure you’re right.
J: I was also wondering, do we think the perception that before Prosecco became a part of the consciousness that all sparkling wine is Champagne ever worked against Champagne in any way? Or did it not matter at all?
A: I think that it did in some regards like this-
J: You don’t want some sh*tty sparkling wine, people thinking that’s Champagne.
A: This goes way back now to when people in California were making California Champagne and then they were sued and they had it taken off the label, except for some reason Korbel is still grandfathered in, that they can call it California Champagne. I think Champagne is aware of that. I think that they’re pretty litigious to try to stop it, but I also think that as long as you’re saying Champagne, that’s a pretty good thing for them. For the most part in most settings, they’re going to say to you, “I’m sorry, are you serving Champagne that’s $100?” How much are you willing to spend? I think actually the more interesting and commendable thing is that in that massive noise of Champagne, against that noise of Champagne and how powerful the brand is, et cetera, that people actually learned Prosecco is pretty phenomenal and that’s-
J: Like the Prosecco broke through?
A: Yes. If you look, it’s pretty much the responsibility of two companies. It’s La Marca and Mionetto. They spent millions and millions and millions of dollars on educating consumers about Prosecco. It’s La Marca Prosecco, Mionetto Prosecco.
J: Was it just it was the more affordable option and that was the-
A: Then they were in all the displays and the liquor stores and the wine shops. They were the pours at all the more fast casual restaurants around the country and things like that, they were on the menu and people learned that this was Prosecco. They were both very attractive. If you also look at both of those brands, both of those brands are also using colors that nod to luxury products.
J: We’ve talked about that before.
A: La Marca looks like Tiffany’s. It just does. That Tiffany Blue is very powerful. There’s lots of marketing studies that talk about the kinds of colors that we view as, ultimately, luxury. Purple’s one of them. That light blue is another. The gold that Mionetto uses is also very reminiscent of another gold on another Champagne that is very popular. Probably the most popular Champagne in America, that would be Veuve. Both of them have that also going for them. They look high-end, but then their price points are under $20. They taught Americans what the term was and people became very comfortable ordering it. Then they’re like, “I like this. This tastes good.” They made you not be ashamed to ask for Prosecco. They actually taught you that you’re a smart consumer if you’re asking for Prosecco. Now, I think a lot of consumers are comfortable doing that in certain settings.
Z: I also want to add-
A: Already the Italian restaurants did it.
Z: For sure. It was everywhere else. I want to add two other quick points to this. One of them is maybe simplistic, but I think very important, which is that it’s really easy to say Prosecco. It is astonishing to me how impactful it is when you’re talking about whether it’s Italian, French, other languages that are not English, how important it is for wines to succeed, or probably anything but wine is just what I’m thinking about. For it to be easily pronounced because people won’t order things that they’re worried that they’re going to mispronounce, they’re worried that they’re going to get looked down on. Champagne is such a ubiquitous word, and also easy on the American tongue, but in a way that Franciacorta or Alta Langa or even Crémant are not. Here are other sparkling wines and Cava is and Cava’s had some success too, but that’s a whole other story. Obviously, there are Cava brands that are incredibly successful, but as a category, it hasn’t reached the same level of penetration and ubiquity that Prosecco has. I really do think it’s the pronunciation. Then I think it is also that it is even if the average Prosecco drinker, or the average wine drinker in America couldn’t tell you how Prosecco generally tastes different from Champagne. Again, really broad-stroke generalizations. They are different enough that I think whether it’s the texture of the bubbles from the different production methods, or the fact that Prosecco is not generally aged and so you’re not getting any of those kinds of flavor notes. They taste dissimilar enough from each other in flavor that even a casual wine drinker might with a little bit of exposure be able to distinguish between the two. I also think that matters for people because some people for whatever reason might have chosen to not like Champagne or just not liked it for whatever set of reasons. Prosecco by being different enough, as opposed to some of the other sparkling wines that we’ve mentioned that are very clearly trying to be analogous to Champagne just from a different place, have not succeeded because, or to the same extent, because they’re trying to make the same wine, just not even always cheaper, just in a different place. Whereas Prosecco is very clearly its own thing that for someone who is not as enamored with Champagne, but maybe likes effervescent things, they can gravitate towards that and say “I like Prosecco. I don’t like Champagne.”
A: I think picking up a little bit, too, on what you’re saying, I think it’s not just the fact that Prosecco’s easy to say, it’s that also the brands that were the most well known were easy to say. If you think about Cava, the most heavily produced Cava is Freixenet. Do you know how to say that?
J: I didn’t realize it.
Z: It’s got an X in it that’s always going to f*ck you up.
J: It’s got an X in it.
A: We don’t know Freix and the — we don’t know so that is the largest Cava producer. They actually own Mionetto now. Mionetto is very easy to say. La Marca is very easy to say. That helps, and if you don’t have a Cava brand, another one is Segura Viudas — people don’t know how to— you get very intimidated by that. That just is the nature of it, and then the other thing that marketers say all the time is that consumers like names or products often that have a hard sound in them. It’s like La Marca, Mionetto. It’s a fun thing to say at the end. There’s been lots of studies. One of them is around the brand spanks. People like something with a hard [hissing sound] or sound, I don’t know why. That’s the same with La Marca, Mionetto, Freixenet. You don’t even know, or is it Freixenais? You don’t know. I think all of that matters because at the end of the day with any of these categories, a few brands do become the flag bearers of the category, and when they are the ones who are leading the category forward, they need to be brands that people can also feel comfortable talking about enjoying, and then be delicious. I just think that these other categories haven’t had that.
J: To be available too.
J: They’re in every liquor store and wine store pretty much.
Z: Every single holiday we get the same pitch, we had the same pitch from a freelancer. I want to write an article about how Crémant is the wine that you should actually be drinking instead of Champagne. Cool, but then when someone goes into their local store in Omaha, Neb., can they find one? Is it the one that you recommended in your article? It’s the same story over and over. The alternative is Champagne. At the end of the day, here’s the deal. We just have to accept the fact that for the majority of American consumers around the holiday season, they’re going to drink Champagne or Prosecco. They just are, and until there’s another big brand from a big region that can be the flag bearer of that region with a name that’s easy to pronounce for consumers, that will continue to be the case.
J: Part of me feels like this also dovetailed with the rise of bottomless brunch too, that rise because you have these endless Mimosa, bottomless Mimosas, and obviously it’s not Champagne in there, right? I think for a lot of people that’s very appealing.
Z: Especially you think about it how often that’s presented where the bottle of Prosecco is put right on your table, right? You have a pitcher of orange juice, your bottle of Prosecco, so it’s very in your face. It’s not just being mixed up behind a bar. You’re seeing the label, you’re seeing the bottle, you’re enjoying it, and then when you’re in the grocery store a couple of days later you might go like, “Oh yes, that bottle of La Marca. I enjoyed three of those and bottomless Mimosa at brunch with my friend. Now I’m going to buy a bottle to have at home” or whatever. I want to add two other points to this where I ask you guys, I guess two other questions that are connected. Let me start over again. So I have two silly questions for the both of you, or one’s maybe serious and one’s silly. The silly one is, we’ve talked a little bit in this episode and I think we’ve kicked around this idea of why it’s so hard for whether it’s Americans or just wine drinkers globally to distinguish between sparkling wines and lump everything together as Champagne or Prosecco. I really thought there might be a moment when all of those tweets started going, or just a meme that went viral of like — oh, I forget what the first one was. Someone can probably go look this up. I could probably go look this up afterwards, but it’s like, “It’s only mansplaining if it comes from the mansplain region of France, otherwise it’s just sparkling misogyny,” is the one that comes to mind. I was like, “Here is a format wherein the millions upon millions of people who have been subjected to this meme, maybe it registers in their brain what it’s in reference to. Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s done absolutely nothing.” I just liked to believe that might have some minor impact in making it clear to people that not all sparkling wine is Champagne. The other question is, Adam, you said-
J: I think that’s more wine snobbery?
A: Fair enough.
Z: It’s like wine snobbery and internet humor, neither of which have big audiences. The other one I was going to ask you guys about that’s a little more serious is, Adam, you mentioned a minute ago that one of the things it might take for another sparkling wine to break through is to be associated, to be heavily marketed, whatever, but also come from a really recognizable wine region. I’m wondering if here in the United States one of the challenges is that we don’t have a huge well-known sparkling wine region in the first place, and our most famous wine regions in general do not produce much sparkling wine. There are sparkling wine houses in Napa Valley, mostly in Carneros, but even then, there’s only a couple of them, and they’re generally quite expensive, unsurprisingly. There isn’t like a — that is again our most famous, most luxurious wine regions are just not connected to sparkling wine in any meaningful way.
A: I think that’s a part of it. I think that’s never going to change. I think the only way to actually make American sparkling wine into something is to create a catchall, a category that says no matter where you are in the country, if you make a wine in this style with this X whatever you’ll be called, and I think Keith has had a good idea about this. You’ll be called American Sparkler, and that’s the name of it. It’s American Sparkler, and there’s then a lot of cool marketing tie-ins around the 4th of July and summer and whatever, and try to own that occasion as when you drink American sparklers and maybe it breaks through, but otherwise, it is an alternative. It’s an afterthought, and the problem, too, is at most of the wineries that you go to that make sparkling wine, besides as you said, Zach, the few in every region have a few that specialize in it. It’s always the winemaker’s afterthought. It’s like “Well, I like sparkling wine, so I decided to make one.” Like, “We thought it’d be fun to have one for the wine club.” Or, “We thought it’d be fun to just do this.” There are very few that make that their focus. For those that do, I think being under some category that’s maybe nationwide is the way to do this, because I don’t think we are at this point going to have a region in this country that decides that sparkling wine is the thing it wants to be known for. All it wants to do is sparkling wine. Maybe that will change, but it doesn’t feel like that is going to happen because this is America, and we do whatever we want.
J: I have to say that I also think that probably most people don’t — they just think Champagne is sparkling wine from France. Prosecco is a sparkling wine from Italy. I don’t know that they associate it with a very specific region-
A: No, they don’t.
J: -and don’t necessarily know that it can’t be named those things outside of those regions.
A: I know.
J: Maybe that’s a bleak outlook.
Z: Well, it’s probably an accurate one. Fitting for the end of the year is always a good time for bleakness, I suppose.
A: With that I’ll talk to you guys on Friday.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast, the flagship podcast of the VinePair podcast network. If you love listening to this show or even if you don’t, but I really hope that you do, as much as we really do love making it, then please drop us a review or a rating wherever it is that you get your podcast. Whether that be iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere.
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He loves all the credit. Keep giving it to him. Drop his name in the reviews. He’s going to love hearing how much you love him. It is also recorded in New York City by our tastings director, Keith Beavers, who is the managing director of the entire VinePair Podcast Network. I’d also love to give a shout-out to our editor-in-chief, Joanna Sciarrino, who joins us on every single podcast as our third and most important host.
Thank you as well to the entire VinePair staff and everyone who’s been involved in making VinePair as special as it’s become. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next week.