On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the allure of small brands in the beverage alcohol industry. Whether it’s wine, beer, or spirits, these brands often attract consumers, tradespeople, and the press for one big reason: an eye catching story. But what happens when the beverages themselves aren’t as enticing as the stories behind them? Tune in to learn more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: For VinePair’s New York City headquarters I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” We are exhausted. Literally, we are recording this after being massively delayed for a long time in Atlanta through a connection from Mexico. But we’re still here for you, people.
J: We made it.
A: Even though we had a delay that was overnight, we’re here.
Z: Yeah. You understand the degree of devotion that Adam and Joanna are showing to you now. I just got mediocre sleep last night because I always get mediocre sleep with children. They didn’t sleep and were in an airport, and that’s pretty much being in hell as far as I’m concerned.
A: The flight was supposed to take off at 9 p.m. We flew from Guadalajara yesterday, and then we landed in Atlanta at a pretty normal hour. It was Like 6:30 p.m., right, Joanna? And we were told to take off at like 9 p.m. There was a point when we got delayed until 11:30 p.m. I was like, OK, I can still do this. When they delayed it until 8 a.m. today, I’m like “f*ck it, no one gets a podcast on Monday, it’s fine.” But here we are.
J: Apologies in advance if we’re a little unintelligible.
Z: I know you guys had a miserable time getting back, but I’m still super jealous of your trip. Obviously, you had lots of great things to drink, but what were some of the highlights?
J: Wow. First of all, we were in Jalisco at the Hacienda Pátron, shooting a wonderful video series just for our listeners. Wow, we got to see the entire tequila-making process, and that was really extraordinary. We were in the agave fields, the whole cooking process, fermentation process, and distilling. And of course, we got to meet a bunch of really amazing people who are a part of that process. I think these agave fields are probably my favorite.
A: Mine, too. I liked seeing the tahona, too. Because so few producers use it, especially big brands. Pátron is kind of the only one. It was really cool to see the traditional way of crushing agave. It was really awesome.
Z: Can I ask an extremely dumb question to both of you since I saw video of you doing this. How heavy are the pinas?
A: So f*cking heavy.
Z: It looked difficult, but I don’t know if this is just for show or not.
J: They’re very heavy. They’re like 50 pounds, and that was a small one I picked up.
A: What’s so weird about it is, because of the color, you see the people who work with them all the time operate so smoothly around them. You wonder if it’s probably light. And then you’re like, “Oh, this is not light at all.”
Z: You’d think it’s like a pineapple, and it is not.
A: Yeah, exactly. This is a very dense, dense thing.
J: They range from around 20 kilos to around 100 kilos.
A: It was pretty cool.
Z: I want a world’s strongest man competition, but instead of carrying those giant-ass rocks, they just carry piñas around. That would be cool.
A: What’s really amazing is, usually, the person who is harvesting them is responsible for one row. So what they’ll do is they will go and they will harvest the entire row. They will pull the piña out of the ground, and they will completely trim it, etc. And they will go down that entire row and do that. They will put down their tools and they will come back and literally put each piña into a wagon or something. The amount of physical labor is just really, really intense
J: Also, a freshly cut piña has certain chemicals in it or whatever that reacts with your skin. You can’t touch your face or eyes or anything after you touch one.
Z: It does illustrate a thing that we sometimes forget in talking about beverage alcohol. When all these customs and traditions and things were invented, just how desperate people were to have alcohol. You talk about all this labor, the fact that people dig this heart of a plant out of the ground after 10 years, hack off the other plant material, crush it, roast it, distill it. It’s easy for you and me. We just f*cking open a bottle and pour in the glass. We order it on an app and it’s at our house an hour later. It’s easy to forget, for all of us, just how much labor goes into this thing now. But also how that was the only option if you wanted alcohol in the past.
A: That’s so funny. We drank a lot of really good stuff. Joanna, what were your favorites?
A: It was really good. It was made by this guy, Pepe. He’s a bartender, but he’s the Latin American brand ambassador for Pátron. He was in the sixth chapter of the docuseries with us, making cocktails and stuff. Yeah, that was a pretty amazing cocktail.
J: Yeah. Talk about premium spirits in your cocktails, right?
A: And equal parts, which is really cool.
J: Yes, equal parts.
A: And then for me, I had my first ever Martini made with tequila. That was really good. They use blanco. And it was a really, really cool take on the Martini. My favorite overall expression was the blancos, or the silvers, as they call them. They were just really beautifully expressive of the terroir where the agave was grown. It was really interesting to learn a lot about that and the similarities between tequila and wine, in terms of where it is produced. Especially if it’s then distilled in the manner of the ancient process of the tahona and stuff, how much it really does express where it comes from. I learned a lot about the differences between highland agave tequilas like Pátron, and a lowland tequila like Fortaleza. What sort of makes them different is that in the highlands, you start thinking about mountain fruit. It’s a mountain plant and so there’s more stress. So the piña’s actually have a higher sugar content, which creates a much richer, fruitier tequila. And then in the lowlands, in the valley, as they call it, you have tequila that’s much more vegetal. It was really interesting to learn those differences, which I had no clue about. So it was fun. But we drank a lot of tequila. What about you, Zach?
Z: Well, I don’t think I drank any tequila last week.
J: We drank it for you.
Z: It was not quite going to Mexico, but I did get to go to my first in-person wine tasting in more than two years. Wines of Washington had a big trade and media tasting this last week, which was really cool. It was like a reunion for a lot of people that I have known for a long time but have not seen in person in at least two years. So it’s really cool, there was a lot to try. I went to a very fun seminar looking at wines from 12 historically and currently important vineyards in the state. That was very cool. As far as things that particularly stood out to me, it’s always really hard to pick, especially in those things. I will say I had a really beautiful Chardonnay from Tranche, which was from a vineyard in the Columbia Gorge. It was really beautiful. Then I just had a lot of wine. I don’t totally remember the last part of the tasting. It definitely got a little wild. Not really, but just out of practice for those kinds of things.
A: Zach had too much fun.
Z: As I expected. And I will tell you this. My last little piece on this is that the game has changed for me, now having two kids at home. Because I got home at like 5:30 p.m or something like that. The kids are both up. My son’s like, “Hey, Dad, let’s do stuff.” And I’m just like, “Oh man, why can’t I just go to bed now?” That was rough, but I made it through, toughed it out, and had a fun time.
A: Amazing. The topic for today is something that we chatted about among the three of us. We also talked about it as an editorial team. There’s a lot to say about it so I don’t think we’re going to get through everything there is to say about this topic in one conversation. But the idea is the allure of small brands. What is it about them, in the world beer, wine, and spirits, that is so captivating, especially when it comes to members of the trade? What is it about something being small that immediately seems to unlock this openness that the trade has towards it? I think it’s particularly interesting in the wine and spirits space, especially because with spirits — I’m speaking most specifically about whiskeys and bourbons — it takes a really long time and a lot of money, it seems, to make really, really outstanding bourbon. Yet a lot of that usually means that big brands make that bourbon. But it seems like a lot of people have really embraced these really small brands, despite the fact that their liquids aren’t that great, to be honest. And then in wine, I think it’s a little bit different. You have small wine brands that, again, aren’t that great, but maybe it’s the story. But then you have some that are outstanding. Zach, I thought we could start with you just because you’ve been on the purchasing side of this with the trade. How would you describe this allure that we’re discussing? What do you think is so captivating? Why do you think it does seem to unlock that openness to try when someone realizes that the brand is a boutique or small?
Z: It’s a good question. I’m going to give a couple of possibilities because I don’t think there’s one specific answer here. One of them is, let’s say it’s the noblest of the reasons that certain people, whether buying for a retail shop or restaurant, do recognize that one of the benefits of having someone like that in your company is that I as a buyer got to try a lot of things. More wine or spirits or whatever than the average consumer would get to try. But even then, other people like my servers would get to try it, because that was part of my job. In sifting through all of that, all of the possibilities especially in wine, but even in spirits these days are really vast. You do sometimes come across things that are just relatively unknown products that you think are of high quality. Being someone open to those things and kind of looking for those things may afford you several possible benefits. One is that those things may be less expensive because they’re not well known, and therefore you can perhaps offer your guests a better experience at a lower price or alternatively offer your guests a comparable experience at the same price. But you profit more as a restaurant or bar or retail shop or whatever, both of which have their motivations. More than that, you can offer an experience that is definitely resonant to some set of consumers, which is, “Here’s something you don’t know about, let me show it to you.” Now, of course, that unfortunately can often shade into a kind of snobbery that we have discussed in some fashion on the podcast before because I’m pretty sure I remember making a reference to “high fidelity,” that there is a part of the trade that is obsessed to an unhealthy degree with knowing about things that no one else knows about. And being like, “Oh, you’ve never tried this before?” Whether that is a wine, spirit, an individual product or a whole category, there is a part of the trade that undeniably gets off on that kind of insider information. They are more concerned with being ahead of, not only consumers, but maybe their peers and contemporaries. That is, I think, where you get the really negative side of this. Because it’s small production and therefore hard to get or are relatively unknown, those things get promoted ahead of an inarguably better product that is dismissed only because it’s made in larger quantities. Again, there is a huge gradient in both wine and spirits between truly mass-produced things, tiny boutique things, and everything in between. Where you draw a line is relatively arbitrary for most people. Does that make sense? Does that square with what you guys have seen?
J: That’s exactly what I was going to say as well. The insider thing, definitely. But I also think that’s just a human response. Not just trade people want to do that, but everybody wants to do that. You want to feel like you know things before others do. There’s obviously a certain value attributed to small production. It’s not a veneer, but maybe a veneer of artisanship and craftsmanship by actual people. To like those types of brands makes you seem better and like you have better taste.
A: Better or more “in the know,” as you’re saying. I think that the best example of this to use is Champagne. You know Dom and Cristal and whatever? Well I know Selosse. Someone is going to come out right here and be like, “Dude, everyone knows Selosse.” I think a lot of wine people who do consider themselves real Champagne lovers have never heard of it. But they know the growers, these grower Champagnes that you know are boutique. There is this cool kid thing that happens there. Even if some of the growers don’t make Champagne, if we were to be lined up against Krug or a Dom, is as good.
Z: That’s a rough blind tasting.
A: Let’s go grower. But I know some places here in New York will only have grower Champagnes on their list. They want to show that they know a lot about Champagne. But then again, you think about it from the perspective of consumers, they don’t recognize any of these producers. Even if they’re a Champagne lover and think, “Oh, well, now I don’t know what to do.”
J: This whole idea, like you mentioned it earlier, that these smaller producers maybe are not always the best. Is it because there’s more forgiveness for flaws in those instances, because they are small and because they’re boutique?
A: If I take it back to my first career in the music business, with the bands I worked with who were indie, we had more critics that gave them more benefit of the doubt. If they were known to have talent and they had a few great songs, they didn’t trash the album. Whereas once you are a really big band and you’re super successful, as Kendall Roy would say, they all have two bangers. I think that’s very true. It better be amazing. And in indie rock, it was OK to have a few songs on the album that were skippers. These are the low points of the album, but gosh, these other three songs are the most brilliant things I’ve ever heard. So I do think that there is more forgiveness there, because it feels more like someone is doing something that is truly artistic and trying to push against something. Therefore, we look at it differently. Then it’s like, “Well, I know how much money you have.” If you have this much money and you’re still taking shortcuts and you’re really thinking about all the ways that you can make the largest margin, but not the best product, then I think that we’re harder on things. Would you agree with that, Zach?
Z: Well, I was going to say there are two things that struck me and that both of you said are important to note here. One is that I think that there is an implicit instinct in all of us to assume a degree of honesty and purity with something that is small production that we just don’t assume about something that’s large production. To bring it back to where we started this whole podcast, in doing the podcast series with Pátron, one of the really interesting things to me is how cognizant they are of the fact that they are really trying to remain true to a traditional method of production at scale. That’s not to say that every large-production product in these categories doesn’t — spirits, wine, etc. — but a lot of them do take shortcuts or have to do things differently as they get bigger. It’s just the reality of scale in certain ways. But I also think that it’s a little bit reductive of all of us to be like, “small, good, big, bad.”
J: But I think that happens.
Z: Oh, it absolutely does. But I think that is what explains this. Everyone throughout this whole process, whether it’s journalists, tradespeople, or consumers hear, “Oh this is a 500-case winery. Well, they must be doing something really, really spectacular.” Maybe they’re making 500 cases of crap wine. There’s no law that says just because you only make 500 cases, it’s good. That’s all you made for whatever reason; you have another career, it’s all the fruit you can get, whatever, you don’t have any more money. Some of those wines can be great. I’ve had great wines from small-production wineries and have, at times, tried to champion them. As a buyer, it’s sometimes easier to do that because you’re not trying to reach the audience that we reach as media people. We’re talking about how really small-production products can be kind of annoying to audiences because they just can’t get them. They’re not available in their state at all or there’s four bottles, and good luck. So that’s part of it. I want to come back to the Champagne analogy in particular, which I think is a very apt one. The other challenge, in addition to just saying, “Are these actually as good as some of the larger-production Champagnes?” is that explaining and understanding the differences in all these different grower Champagnes in the specific villages that they operate in or the vineyards that they work with is a kind of obsession over small detail. That is fine for an individual person to pursue, whether that person is a sommelier, a wine director, a writer or even just a really dedicated consumer. But it does get to a point that I think is important to note in here, which is that most people don’t give a sh*t, and they can not give a sh*t while also being really serious wine drinkers. To me, in whatever hat I wear these days, it is tiring sometimes to feel like I have to care. I’m looking at, on my bookshelf here where we record Peter Liem’s “Champagne” book. Which is a great book, but I can read two pages at a time before my eyes glaze over. He does incredible work of going through and being like, “We’re going to detail all the villages, all the producers, everything.” It’s a great resource to me on the rare occasions that I really want to dive into it. But for me, going to a restaurant, going to a wine shop and having to parse through all of these different choices is more than I often want to do. And again, I mean, we’re talking about someone like me, and I’m into this as pretty much anyone is. There aren’t a lot of people who go way beyond me. I think that sometimes the challenge of this small-producer obsession is that you actually alienate a lot of consumers by being too hyper specific. I don’t mean the producers themselves do, but the way that they get talked about to consumers.
J: I think that’s very romanticized.
Z: Yeah. But also, is that romance carried past that tradesperson? I don’t know what it really is. I saw times when I would serve people and we’d be talking about two different Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs from the same producer from different vineyards. I’d be trying to explain what differentiates them and I could see them being like, “You know what, just pick one. I don’t really care.” That’s a totally, totally, totally reasonable and understandable response.
A: Right, like if you say it’s good, cool, man. I just want to drink something delicious and they also told me that it’s so small that I’m probably not going to be able to easily find it again. So, cool, dude. I do think there is a difference in some of these. I do think championing regions that are up-and-coming with up-and-coming producers is also different than just small for small sake, if that makes sense. Every single producer that I love to talk about in Virginia would be considered small. I think it’s just a fun region. There are really no big producers there. Same with certain tequila producers. They are in places like Jalisco where they’re giving back to the full community and helping to employ people in their communities as small producers, which I think is great. That’s not to say that some of the big people don’t do it. We saw that this week, right? That’s what Pátron does. Yeah, there’s definitely a romanticism. The thing with alcohol that we get in our heads, is that we really love this idea that it’s one person through the whole process. When it really boils down to it. The person who grew the grapes owned that vineyard. I think that’s also really important. With wine, how many of these small producers we’re talking about don’t actually even own the vineyards? They’re buying from another vineyard owner. OK, fine, they can have the vineyard grower grow to their specifications somewhat. But they’re not out there in the vineyard every day, pruning and everything. Someone else is doing that, the person who owns that land farmed that land. But we love this idea that one person or family grows, harvest, crushes, barrel ages. That’s just not the case in most places. Or that the brewer does it all and then also works behind the bar in the taproom. But that is what’s so romantic. But when you think about food, and Joanna is — as I like to say — a former food journalist, I’m sure that’s the same thing. There’s not one chef. There’s a lot of people making that dish. For the most part, if you go to eat it Per Se, Thomas Keller didn’t do sh*t with that food. He never touched it. He was out in the dining room having drinks with somebody, if he was even in New York at the time. We want to think that that’s what happened.
J: Well, I think that’s also why farm-to-table had its moment. People loved that idea that you were harvesting the vegetables and they were being cooked and then coming right in your meal. And I think that was very romantic for a long time. Everybody used the term, and it became kind of meaningless.
A: Is Pat LaFrieda really butchering my steak? Come on.
Z: You hit on something very important there too, Adam. Not only is there a romanticism about how it’s one person or a family or a very small group of people making these things. But again, it comes back to the thing I said before about this perceived honesty in these products. This is not to say that anyone on this is really doing anything wrong. But there’s a clearer and more romantic story to tell about someone, whether it’s a fifth-generation person doing it and carrying on a small family tradition, or it’s someone who fell in love with X and decided, “I’m going to quit my job in finance.” Well, maybe that’s not so romantic, but whatever. They’re going to do something, and that something is make wine or make whiskey or whatever. Those stories exist for sure. We tell them sometimes, and I certainly would tell those stories to guests when and where they were true about products that I carried in my restaurants and stuff like that. But I think that the story sometimes overwhelms the product or the story is more compelling than the product. I’m of two minds on this, because I would always tell my staff that my job as a wine buyer is to ensure that all the wines on the list are good. Your job is to connect the person to the wine when I’m not able to do that right. Part of the way you connect people to these products, that are all hopefully good, is with the story. You recognize that, “Hey, this story of the wine or winery is going to resonate with this table for whatever reason.” But it is undeniably true that everyone has to be a little careful that we not fall in love with the story and neglect the fact that the product should also be good. This is my opinion. Again, there are different people who might have different takes on this in the industry, and I’d be interested to hear how you feel about this. Coming back to what you were talking about the bars that only serve grower Champagne, Adam, I personally would rather ensure that the product quality is great and then think about the story. More than say, shopping for stories first and then hope that I can find a product that also is good. I can see people having a different approach to that without doing something wrong.
J: I also think that some brands are built on a story.
J: The story first and not necessarily the liquid.
A: Oh, I definitely think so. We won’t name any names on this podcast. But I think there are, in all three categories that we cover, brands that have become very celebrated in certain cities that I think are built almost singularly on the story, exclusively on the story. Which again, is good for you if you figured out how to do that in a way that’s captivated everyone. But I think that is also because, as Zach says, the story sells. I feel like with these stories, the ones that sell the most aren’t just, “Joanna is a small time winemaker, and she has this piece of property that she fell in love with and makes wine.” They always feel like they can captivate trade the most when it’s, “So-and-so is the great-great-grandson of this now really huge brand that is owned by this huge company. But they found their great-great-grandfather’s old notes and are making a recipe that’s more in line with what he made.” Or, “So-and-so makes wine for X big producer, but on the weekends, she makes this wine.” I think those are the stories I don’t like, because it’s also sticking it to the big companies’ type of thing that seems to really get people very, very excited when it comes to spirits. We think about that with food again in that connection. It’s that, “So-and-so was the sous chef or was the main chef at a large restaurant group, and now they’re out on their own.” And then we give them all press.
J: Yes. I was going to mention the press thing because I think that’s an important part of this as well.
A: We’re guilty.
J: I was just going to say, we’re very guilty in this. When we’re being pitched about producers — and new ones especially — I’m always asking, “What’s the story here?” That’s kind of tricky, right? Because you want a story and you want press. Obviously, you want people to cover you. But if you don’t have a story, then you’re kind of screwed. To your other point about the food stuff, I think to a greater extent with food, the proof is in the pudding over experience. Literally in the pudding. Sure, the place can get press. But then if it’s not actually good, I don’t think people hang on to it in a way that maybe with spirits or with drinks they do.
A: Yeah, I think that’s right.
J: If the food is ultimately not good, people won’t like it.
A: Right, that’s true. Yeah, I guess.
J: Or if it gets a bad review.
A: Yeah, if it gets a bad review. But then has Per Se really been that impacted? Didn’t it get one of the worst reviews pre-pandemic? Wells took away a star, right?
Z: But the story of a restaurant like Per Se is very different from the story of a small restaurant that someone opens. That’s like saying, I don’t know, Casamigos got a bad review or something.
A: Right, right, right. No, that’s true.
Z: I want to add one one piece here really quick to what Joanna was saying about press. I want to be clear, I don’t think there’s inherently anything wrong with anyone — the media, trade, or consumers — resonating with a story. Human beings are so motivated by stories. We look for them in the world around us. Saying that a new product launch, wine, or whatever does to some extent, need a story of one kind or another. One way to tell a story is, this is just really good. We get samples all the time, and sometimes they don’t have a super-cool backstory to them, but we try them. We’re like, “This sh*t’s really good,” and we’ll talk about it because it’s really good. Conversely, sometimes the people, the story behind it, the mission of it, what the product is set out to do, is novel or remarkable. And sometimes, those things get attention even if the quality is not superlative. That’s OK, too. But it is important, I think, that we all be a little bit clear-eyed about why we are telling the stories we’re telling and whether the story is more about the story or if it’s really about the quality of the product. I think there is space for both.
A: Yeah, I agree. You don’t want to get wrapped up in, either. It’s being open to the product, and it’s being open to the story. Or if you’re the big company, being open to telling some sort of story and figure out what that story is, even if it’s the story of the founding and then what you’ve done with the brand since. I think that those are important. Sometimes, with some of the bigger brands — especially when the brand was once small and then got large and was purchased — there can sometimes be a resistance to telling the origin story or talking about its small-time beginnings, but that’s what we want to know. We want to also know that you’ve made it better, and that capital infusions made the product better. That you’ve kept all the good things about it when it was small, but made it better. Not that you took the brand and then figured out how to cut all the costs.
Z: You didn’t private equity the sh*t out of it.
A: I think that is, when it comes down to it, often the resistance that trade and press have. If you can show us that you have kept the quality or made it better, we’re all in. I don’t know anyone who then rejects those products; everyone’s open to them. But if it’s nothing like it used to be, or worse, people will have biases. I mean, that was the whole fear of the Goose Island purchase.
Z: If you tank the story and the quality of the product, what does anyone want out of it?
A: But every beer expert will ultimately admit to you that the barrel series, the Goose Island series that comes out every year, is still as good and if not better.
Z: And that those added resources have made it perhaps even more interesting.
A: They’ve gotten access to even better barrels for the aging process. They’ve been able to make even cooler stouts and stuff like that. That, I think, is what’s important. That’s why that brand still has a place among beer geeks. I’m not going to call them craft beer drinkers anymore, but beer geeks. It’s really interesting. We love to hear your thoughts. A lot of people have been emailing in recently or hitting us up in our DMs and things like that. We’ve really appreciated it. It’s really amazing to hear from all of you and how much you enjoy the podcast. It was really cool to especially hear feedback on my natural wine theory.
J: Your hot take.
A: I think I’m @jcsciarrino.
A: You need to know your handle, Joanna!
A: It’s @JoannaSciarrino on Twitter, I think.
Z: Adam doesn’t like to talk about Twitter. But you can find it on both @zgeballe.
A: Yeah, but you should probably just follow him on Instagram, because he tweets a lot.
Z: It’s not always about this stuff, either. There are sports tweets.
J: Also if you have any topics you’d like us to discuss, please write in.
A: Yeah, especially if you want to hear Zach’s opinion. I’m going to go to bed. I will talk to you guys on Friday.
J: Talk to you then.
Z: Sounds great.
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.