The bourbanization of wine

Bourbon barrels by acdixon/Wiki Commons
Bourbon barrels by acdixon/Wiki Commons

How much would you pay for a 15-year-old bottle of bourbon? Forty dollars? Sixty? Eighty?

The official price – the MSRP on the distiller’s website –  for a Pappy Van Winkle of this age is one cent short of $100.00, but that’s frankly irrelevant. Because if you really wanted a bottle, you’d probably have to hand over $1,500.00 –  if you could find someone with any to sell.

Bourbon is, to use the US vernacular, ‘hot’ right now, and hotter than most  members of the wine industry might imagine. Production has risen threefold since 1999, with an emphasis on premium and super-premium brands. As an article in Marketplace revealed last year, cult bourbons like Pappy van Winkle and George T. Stagg are traded on the secondary market so eagerly, and with such high markups, that Stephen Shackleton of Shorewood Liquors near Minneapolis, makes it a condition of sale that he can break the seal before the buyer leaves his shop. That way, they can’t instantly resell the bottle for a profit.

Unsurprisingly, the big drinks conglomerates are helping to drive the US whiskey boom. Constellation has invested in High West Distillery and The Bardstown Bourbon Company; LVMH has bought into Woodinville Whiskey Company in Washington, the state where Remy-Cointreau recently bought Westland Distillery; and SPI owners of Stolichnaya vodka and the Achaval Ferrer winery in Argentina has Kentucky Owl.

So what has all of this to do with wine? Quite a lot, if you look at retail shelves: what I’m going to call bourbonization has been a palpable US phenomenon since 2014. That was when the first red wines aged in whiskey barrels hit the market, led by examples like the Pernod Ricard’s 2012 Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.

Today, some US retailers offer more bourbon-barrel-aged Californian wines than bottles from South Africa or Portugal. Big brands offering this style now include Mondavi, Beringer, Gallo’s Apothic and Fetzer which sells over 100,000 cases per year. Then there’s Cooper & Thief, Barrel Road, Exitus, Barrel House, Stave & Steel, Fool’s Gold and The Federalist ‘America’s first craft wine’, to name but a few. The Total Wine & More chain even has its own brand, called Big Six: “Not for the faint of heart - This red blend packs in a ton a flavor!”

Wine enthusiasts rarely enthuse about these wines, most of which have alcohol levels above 15%. “If they want bourbon, people should drink bourbon” they predictably say of the barrel-aged whiskey fans.

Some industry observers have, after some thought, decided that the style is aimed at men: the reverse of female-targeted brands like Cupcake, Ménage à Trois and Barefoot, but this is far too simplistic.

American women like bourbon: apparently they represent a healthy 37% of US whiskey drinkers. Why shouldn’t they, and their male counterparts, relish a less alcoholic grape-based beverage that shares some of the warm caramel sweetness of their favourite spirit?

But bourbonization is apparent in US wines that make no mention of the ‘b’ word. Orin Swift’s Papillon may be described as a ‘Bordeaux blend’ but this Napa wine with its 15.7% (at least) alcohol, bears little resemblance to anything that has ever come out of the Médoc or St Emilion. It’s intensely rich, powerful stuff with lots of dark berry fruit, vanilla and licorice. There is some tannin in the background, but the silky alcoholic sensation of swallowing it is more reminiscent of a tannin-free port than a red winebut without the obvious sweetness. And the same could be said for Orin Swift’s $65.00 Machete and $45.00 Abstracts that are as ubiquitous in US wine shops as the most popular bourbon.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that these wines, and the growing number of concentrated, high-octane, tannin-lite fruit-bombs that stand alongside them on US retailer shelves taste like bourbon. They don’t. But their style, packaging and price are all perfectly targeted at people who buy and enjoy premium bourbon.

Fortunately for these imbibers, Dave Phinney, the genius behind the eye-catching Orin Swift labels and wines - and the Prisoner, his earlier, similarly ground-breakingly packaged and styled brand for which Constellation paid $285m - also makes a nine year old American whiskey called Slaughter House. Described as “smooth, ultra-rich and layered… honey, toast and loads of caramel finish”, it is a relative bargain at $40.00. Especially when you consider that it has been matured in barrels used to make Phinney’s Papillon red which costs as much as $100.00 in New York wine shops.

I’m old enough to remember the days before salt and caramel were introduced to each other – or certainly before they were enough of a couple to live together in a tub of Häagen-Dazs ice cream. Maybe we’ll all just have to get used to some similarly conjugal relationships between grape and grain.
Robert Joseph




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