Uncorked: Educated consumer ‘next big thing’ in wine

Another revolution in the wine industry has taken place.

But this time, it’s not a new varietal, growing region or style that has changed the winemaking game. Instead, it’s an educated consumer informed by winemakers in interactive tastings on Zoom or Instagram Live. This byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought winemakers virtually into consumers’ living rooms to share a bottle.

As wineries begin to reopen their tasting rooms, the experience has been reimagined, as well. With reservation systems in place, there’s a more intimate experience between tasting room staff. Wineries have started to train their employees as wine educators who are well versed in all facets of the operation, and taste a variety of wines regularly.

All have led to a well-educated consumer with an informed opinion on what type of wine they like. With them armed with that information, ROAR vineyard manager Adam Franscioni said he’s found that consumers relish the chance to venture into new varietals and regions.

“I think wine consumers, especially the younger consumer, are more adventurous than ever,” Franscioni said. “I would often hear sommeliers and sales staff mention the days past about when a consumer liked a bottle of wine, they would reorder it multiple times at the dinner table. Or have a ‘go-to’ wine at home.

“But I find that consumers today are more apt to order a completely different varietal to try and learn about something new,” he said. “Their thirst to try different varietals and regions is leading to a more educated wine drinker. Furthermore, I agree this will curtail any ‘new’ hot varietals or regions.”

For years, Tablas Creek general manager and partner Jason Haas has authored the Tablas Creek blog, where everything from historical seasonal weather patterns, to the activity of the flock of sheep that fertilizes the rolling hills, to everything in between that happens in the Paso Robles estate and the wine world is discussed.

When Haas led a grafting demonstration attended during a visit to Tablas Creek, his knowledge and acumen were on display, but so was his desire to pass on what he knew. Like a master educator, he pulled back the curtain to show the inner workings of the vineyard with the right mix of relatable technical data. It’s an unforgettable experience, and one that exemplifies how to educate and hook a consumer.

Tablas Creek also has set up three, virtual tasting kits that can be customized by reaching out to the winery. The Zoom tasting is free; consumers just have to purchase the wines.

“My own sense has been all along that most wineries weren’t doing enough to connect to the most interested, highest-knowledge consumers,” Haas said. “We’ve always based our marketing around getting people inside our processes and inside the things that get us excited. That shows up probably most clearly in the blog, but also our approach to social media, the sorts of events we choose to do, where we prioritize seminars over pouring from behind tables, and even our website.”

At the Patz & Hall tasting experience at Sonoma House, founder and winemaker James Hall said it’s possible to get deep into the excellent lineup at the winery that is a single-vineyard Burgundian specialist.

“We have over 20 wines, and that can be confusing in the market,” Hall said. “If you really want to know Patz & Hall, come to Sonoma House, where we can open other single-vineyard wines and show more diversity, and go down those rabbit holes a little further. It’s really fun to see the map, the picture of the grower, and taste the wine.”

While they may be more daring as their education builds, Haas has noticed there is a seat at the table for every approach to winemaking and wine marketing. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

“The thing is that the American wine consumer is tremendously heterogeneous,” Haas said. “We don’t all need to be marketing to the same ones. There’s plenty of room for nuance and complexity, for those who want to talk about farming or winemaking or geology just as much as someone who just talks about their 96 point scores or their colorful or clever wine labels.”

Whether it’s ROAR, Tablas Creek or Patz & Hall, all three have amazing wines up and down their lineup. Their wines are available at wine stores throughout the market, and could be enjoyed with dinner this weekend.

“This is only getting easier,” said Haas about furthering the knowledge of consumers. “The American consumer is both more knowledgeable and more open to trying new things than they’ve ever been in my experience. Both of those are really positive trends in my opinion.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.