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Erin Kirschenmann
 
February 24, 2021 | Erin Kirschenmann

Hot Brands 2020: The Wines That Defined the Year

It would be easy to say that there has never been a year quite like 2020. It was a year that tried us, that pushed so many of us to the edge, that separated us from our friends and family. It disrupted businesses and sales and the status quo. Every day delivered a new challenge or a new heartache, and we could only lean on each other through our devices to make it through.

Amidst all this, people prevailed. Brands were started. Companies innovated.

When we set out to produce this year’s Hot Brands list, we knew it would be a challenge, but one we readily accepted. So much happened in the world of wine with this year. How could we fit that into one story? How could we possibly encompass all the grief, the fear, the worry?

We chose to focus on the positive. We focused on the brands that inspired us. Hot Brands itself has evolved over the years. First, it was a list of the brands that sold the most volume, making it very common to see supermarket wines and the big national brands. Then, it developed into a feature on the smallest “cool” brands—the up-andcomers, the new kids on the block.

For the last few years, we instead chose to focus on those brands that made a statement. The wines that weren’t just the “best” or most interesting wines. We highlighted those that tried a new variety in an established region, used new winemaking techniques, bucked the deceleration trend, or voiced an unpopular opinion for the sake of moving the industry forward.

To some extent, 2020 was no different. But this time, when choosing who to feature on this list we knew that what it meant to be a wine brand in the United States had changed. It was important to us that we reflect the diversity of the American wine market: established brands and new, winemakers young and old, familiar regions and surprises,  celebrities and families. Each story, however, told the tale of what it was like to be in the wine industry last year.

Big brands had to evolve to meet changing consumer demands. We’re featuring a “better for you,” low calorie, low sugar and low alcohol wine that packs a lot of flavor. The list also includes a super-premium on-premise bottled wine that was instead packaged in a box to great success.

New, boutique brands still launched in 2020. The owners were fortunate to find overwhelmingly positive reactions to their new endeavors and sold out of their inaugural releases online. Both owners leveraged the power of their networks and the connections that they have made over their years in the business to help them see success.

Vineyard-driven wines continued to grow in popularity. Two of the winemakers in this article do their best to let the land speak for itself and prefer to view their jobs as simply minimalist. One of them lets the vineyard drive his business decisions.

Celebrity wines were a very hot topic as well. But don’t think that our featured celebrity just stuck his name on a label. He’s committed to making wine that is more accessible and will bring new drinkers into the wine lifestyle.

And lastly, this list wouldn’t be complete without celebrating owners and winemakers outside the “traditional” wine regions, who are determined to prove that growers and winemakers anywhere can make world-class wines as long as they put their minds to it.

So, you see, even though 2020 seems like one of the worst years in recent memory, there is still plenty to look back and smile about. Cheers to our Hot Brands of 2020!

Eden Rift Vineyards 2018 Terraces Chardonnay: Honoring a Special Location with a Racy Chardonnay

Tucked away in the foothills of the Gavilan Mountain range in San Benito County lies Eden Rift Vineyards, a 120-acre vineyard property that dates to the Gold Rush. Over the years, the land has changed hands seven times, and each owner left his own mark. Still, some Pinot Noir vines planted in the 1860s remained. Its current stewards, proprietor Christian Pillsbury, winemaker Cory Waller and vineyard manager Sandy Matthews, are intent on honoring that history while restoring the property to its full glory. 

In many ways, they are still learning what the land can offer. Pillsbury purchased Eden Rift in 2016 and it’s been a non-stop crusade to ensure that the vineyard is performing at its best—the team has already replanted 42 acres and planted at least a couple dozen more. Pillsbury wanted to do more than just replant to more Pinot Noir, though, and worked to bring in California heritage clones—a nod to the vineyard’s century-spanning legacy. 

Pinot Noir is, of course, an important grape on the property, but there are significant plantings of Chardonnay and Old-vine Zinfandel as well. 

Terraced vineyards, created and bequeathed by a former owner, hold some of the vineyards most expressive wines, and it is from these 14.3 acres that the Terraces line originate. 

With so much land and so many features inherited from owners past, it’s been a steep learning curve for the duo. But that passion and drive to restore the property continues into the cellar as well. 

“I love this property and it’s beautiful,” said Waller. “My job is just to not screw it up. That’s it.” 

Though Eden Rift lies just a few miles from Calera Wine Company, the wines are worlds apart. For Waller, that meant he couldn’t draw on other’s winemaking experiences as easily. He’s had to pick up and adjust techniques for Chardonnay production with each successive vintage. 

“What I figured out from previous vintages is the ML is really fickle, and I feel like we were stirring a little bit aggressively in ‘16,” he said. “So, I went from every two weeks and then in ‘17, I went to once a month and then in ‘18, I think I stirred maybe twice total for the wines.”

Waller prefers a hands-off approach to his winemaking, instead letting the grapes move at their own pace. It’s been a game of patience, and one that sometimes lasts into the spring. The Terraces Chardonnay, he says, is known to be fickle when it comes time for malolactic fermentation. In this instance, malolactic finished before primary fermentation.

What resulted is the 2018 Terraces Chardonnay, a wine with ripping acidity and tropical fruit, with just the tiniest bit of oak. His barrel regimen, again, was honed through trial and error.

“Even 20 percent oak is pushing it sometimes in these blocks, which was a big shock to me the first year. I did 20 percent new oak and I thought that was conservative,” he said, adding “I’m like, ‘Oh, I taste oak.’ It’s integrated now, but that first impression was, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a wine take on the oak like these ones do.’”

Waller likes to push the acidity on Eden Rift’s wines, knowing that the grapes can handle it. He’s never once worried about the style of the Eden Rift Chardonnays; Working with Josh Jensen at Calera taught him that trends may come and go, but it’s the winemaker’s job to make the wines the vineyard wants to make. It’s earned Eden Rift a dependable and steady wine club following.

“We have a lot of people, when they were allowed to, just coming out and having a bottle of wine and sitting on our patio,” he said. “I’d see a lot of people come in week after week and it’s the same people and we have really loyal fan base and it’s really cool.”

The 2018 Terraces Chardonnay is only the third vintage from the current Eden Rift team, and it appears there is no stopping them. Currently, they make about 6,000 cases in total at the 55,000-case production facility. There’s plenty of room to grow, and both Pillsbury and Waller are determined to be purposeful about how they do that.

While about half of their production is sold direct-to-consumer, Eden Rift has made its way across the globe too, and is available in parts of Europe and Asia. 

 

Bodega Pierce 2018 Chardonnay: Family Winery Finds Success and Happiness in Arizona Wine

Ask the Pierce family of Willcox, AZ what wine means to them, and you’ll hear that wine shouldn’t be too serious. Even on the days you have to harvest and truck the grapes across the state at midnight just to skip the Phoenix traffic, wine is something to be enjoyed. 

The adage, “Find something you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” rings true for the founders of Bodega Pierce, a family who pursued a hobby and turned it into a thriving business. Founded in 2010, Bodega Pierce now boasts two brands (Bodega Pierce and Saeculum), a winery and tasting room space and an enthusiastic wine club. 

It all started when Michael Pierce and his father, Dan, pursued a hobby, and studied winemaking together at UC Davis and then Washington State. Michael was eager to leave his graphic design job and, as soon as he learned that he could harvest surf, traveled to New Zealand, Oregon and Tasmania to learn more. 

He soon wanted to find a full-time winemaking job and ended up at Arizona Strongholds, bringing him back the state he grew up in. Over four years, he worked his way up to head winemaker before leaving to become the viticulture and enology director of the Southwest Wine Center at Yavapai College. 

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Dan found a vineyard for sale in Willcox, and the family decided to go for it and founded Bodega Pierce. 

“This is something I’ve talked to my dad about before. I think he always wanted to have the vineyard and winery and the whole thing. To me, I was just following a passion and one thing led to another and it snowballed into that,” he added. Over the last 10 years, the production duties naturally split to highlight their talents and interests: his father and mother work in the vineyards, and Michael in the cellar. 

Michael still holds his position at the Southwest Wine Center and is responsible for guiding and teaching its students the intricacies of winemaking and running a business in the state. While it wasn’t an easy decision to leave Arizona Strongholds he was thankful for the opportunity.

“Looking back at it now, it’s the best decision I’ve ever made professionally because I’ve learned so much through the teaching aspect of it,” he said. “It’s not until you can verbalize things or write things down that you really learn what you think you know.” 

Michael is a staunch advocate of providing opportunities to troubleshoot and problem-solve independently—skills his students will need when starting their own Arizona wine businesses. Most of his students are pursuing second or third careers, and they haven’t had the chance to see different equipment, styles and approaches in the way Michael had while harvest surfing. He hopes that they’ll use the opportunity to gain the knowledge and confidence in their abilities from lessons and use of the 2,000 case production facility. 

It’s especially important because even though Willcox does have a great climate for grape-growing, it’s not without its challenges, including spring frosts and monsoon rains during the peak of summer ripening. But the perception that the state is too hot and too dry to produce high-quality wines is unfounded, Michael said. 

“It is in an essence too cold and too wet, which always surprises people. But then in the middle, during that growing season, we’ve got nice, dry, bright sunshine, which grapes thrive in,” he said. “There’s just absolutely no reason why Arizona can’t and will be world-class wine. I think it probably scares spots of California.” 

That truth is evidenced in Bodega Pierce’s Chardonnay, one that he says is entirely respective of the area and not to be compared.

“One of the better analogies I’ve heard is that when you’re trying to go after some winemaking style— let’s say it’s a White Burgundy—don’t try and be them, try and be the cover song,” he said. “If you’re playing a cover song of the hit, you don’t want to just try and emulate the hit. You want to create your own version of it. In some cases, those cover songs are even better.”

While it is often likened to an Old World-style Chardonnay, or even compared directly with the California Chardonnays of the last few decades, that’s not what it is. This Chardonnay is acid-driven and highlights the natural fruit aromas that Arizona grapes can produce.

It’s easy to tell just how much the family loves what they do. Whether talking about which grapes grow best in the area (Michael said the Malvasia Blanca and Graciano are particularly well-suited) or about how wineries are working together to build the reputation of the region, this is something that Michael and his family are proud to be part of.

“I do think we’ve come a long way and it wasn’t overnight. It was 10 years now since we went to school, since we first started making wine,” he said. “You have to enjoy the journey because it’s been a journey of ups and downs. We’ve had the frost. We’ve had the bugs. We’ve had the boom years.”

But most importantly, it’s all about finding and sharing happiness— with students, with their wine club members and visitors, and within the family.

“I want to have a sustainable life, sustainable in terms of lifestyle, in terms of happiness, in terms of getting to do what we want to do, in terms of my parents getting what they want out of their retirement,” he said. “Those are the important things.” 

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Dan found a vineyard for sale in Willcox, and the family decided to go for it and founded Bodega Pierce. 

“This is something I’ve talked to my dad about before. I think he always wanted to have the vineyard and winery and the whole thing. To me, I was just following a passion and one thing led to another and it snowballed into that,” he added. Over the last 10 years, the production duties naturally split to highlight their talents and interests: his father and mother work in the vineyards, and Michael in the cellar. 

Michael still holds his position at the Southwest Wine Center and is responsible for guiding and teaching its students the intricacies of winemaking and running a business in the state. While it wasn’t an easy decision to leave Arizona Strongholds he was thankful for the opportunity.

Cheramie Wine 2019 Riesling: Diving in Headfirst, Ex-Military Couple Shines in Inaugural Release

It all started when Cheramie Law was in the Marine Corps., stationed in San Onofre, Calif. She would drive up to San Clemente on the weekends to attend church, whose members became close family and friends. This was her break from the day-to-day of serving in the military, a place that she could enjoy a sense of normalcy—and where was first exposed to wine. 

“They loved their wine, and they loved good wine,” Law said. “And at the time I didn’t understand wine. I just knew they were drinking it and I wanted to drink it with them.” 

After her service with the Corps was complete, she attended college in Denton, Texas. There, the owner of a wine bar, Wine Squared, loved to help the older college students understand the different varieties, regions, and styles. It was the first time, Cheramie said, that she realized that anyone could find a wine they enjoyed, and it opened a new world to her. So, when her now-fiancé, Todd Aho, suggested a trip to Fredericksburg and the local wine country for their third date, she readily accepted. 

“It’s breathtaking,” she said, remembering that first trip into town. “Going into Fredericksburg and walking around the town and drinking wine… it sucks you in. I really, I just fell in love.” She and Todd would spend a lot of their getaways in Texas Hill Country, visiting wineries, meeting growers. 

But perhaps one of the most important people they met ended up being Todd’s brother’s girlfriend, who sold wine in New York. Cheramie asked her if she’d heard of Texas wines. 

“And she looked at us like we were just two dummies, and we were, but she didn’t respond. She didn’t say yes, she didn’t say no. She looked at us and turned her head,” Cheramie said. “Todd and I are military, so we took that as a challenge.” 

Not realizing why they had received such a reaction, the two returned to Texas Hill Country and spoke with more winemakers, growers and industry leaders. They came to understand that only a few companies were really selling Texas wine outside the state, and even more smaller wineries weren’t selling to the on- and off-premise in cities within Texas. So, naturally, they became brokers and founded Salt & Pepper Wine Co. 

They threw herself into the job with gusto, all while working full-time jobs. Cheramie started connecting wine brands with sommeliers and buyers, doing her part to build the reputation of Texas wines in Dallas, where the couple now lived, and across the country. 

Even so, the fact remained there were only a handful of Texas wines that people outside the state could name. She wanted to change that. She wanted to do it herself, in her own way and with her own brand. And thus, Cheramie Wine, a brand dedicated to 100 percent Texas fruit was born. 

As she puts it, it’s been a trial by fire, but the couple simply started asking for help, and Texans showed up. “When you need something, when you want something, especially if you’re a nice person, people will literally just lay it all out for you,” she said. “They invite you into their home. They invite you into their families. They invite you into their operations and they teach you.” 

The two have learned, and will continue to learn, so much this way—including when to leave it to the experts. 

“These farmers have given so much of themselves, put so much on the line to figure out what grows best here in Texas and how best to grow it. We don’t have grapes of our own, but we get to partner with awesome vineyards that do have good grapes,” Cheramie said. “I leave it to the vineyard managers to grow the really good grapes. That’s why we work with the best, right?” 

The 2019 Riesling was the debut wine, sourced from vineyards in the Texas High Plains AVA. From the outset, Cheramie knew she wanted to source varieties that would peak people’s interest. It felt right, she said, that Riesling would be the first. Not just because it was over a glass of Riesling at Texsom that a prominent wine director gave her the encouragement to move forward with her idea, or that it’s a variety that most sommeliers wouldn’t expect from Texas.

“It’s the consumers. When they think of Riesling they mostly think of really sweet wines. That gives us an opportunity, as ours is 2.4 percent residual sugar,” she said. “It gives it just a kiss of sweetness and gives us an opportunity to be able to talk about the range of what Riesling can do.”

It’s not the only variety you’ll see. They just released the first Rosé of Montepulciano, and different combinations for the Red Blend are being trialed as this article heads to press.

All wines are sold online— from the start Cheramie knew she didn’t want to focus on the tasting room model—and that left them well-equipped to launch the brand even as the pandemic flipped the world upside down.

“I forgot how much we sold in our first month of sales. It was insane. So, it was good for us, because everybody was, at the time, stuck at home, and everybody was on social media,” she said.

The wine is now sold to supporters and fans in 27 states, but Cheramie has much loftier goals, and Todd is 100 percent on board. She hopes that one day Cheramie Wine is a global brand, bringing 100 percent Texas wine to the masses. 

Devium Wine 2020 Lewis Peak Petillant Naturel: Winemaker Lets the Vineyard Shine in His Minimalistic Project

“Why can’t we make some lower alcohol red wine in Washington?” 

That was the question that Keith Johnson, production winemaker at Sleight of Hand Cellars and founder/winemaker of his own Devium Wine project, asked himself when it came time to start his own label. 

Johnson found his start in winemaking after working in restaurants and with a distributor. He wanted to get closer to the source of the products he sold though, so he enrolled in the enology and viticulture program at Walla Walla Community College while working full-time at another winery. Upon graduating, he joined Sleight of Hand; but in the back of his mind, he always knew that he would have his own project one day. 

That idea was accelerated by the two partners at Sleight of Hand, Jerry Solomon and Trey Busch, who approached Johnson with a proposal to ensure he never left the winery: they’d give him some ownership in the company, as well as back him in starting a side project. 

“I just started thinking about what I really would want from my project and Devium is what came out of it,” said Johnson. 

So why couldn’t he be the one to produce low alcohol wines in Walla Walla? His rebellious side said that, despite the region’s climate, it could be done. As he grew older, however, the Devium brand developed too, and it became more of a philosophical project than anything else. 

At first, it was all about making wines he would want to drink, that others would love as well. But as time moved on he found the romantic, and more transparent, side of winemaking suited him. 

“For so much of the world, wine is just part of life and we’ve taken it in some ways to this level that has lost that sense of fun, has lost that everyday appeal—not to say I’m making wine that you should drink every day or that you should even drink every day,” he said. “But we can peel back some of those layers and find the core of what it is that makes wine.” 

So, what was the core? Johnson found that by removing all the processes, the equipment, and the hands-on, day-to-day stuff he could, he would find a wine that expressed itself on its own and would still put smiles on the faces of those who enjoyed wine. He terms it minimalistic winemaking. 

“This is not for everybody. This is the pure form for me. And this is what I want to do and what I want to express,” he said. “I’m finding that the wines that I’m making by paring back my winemaking…I love the energy of them, and they all seem to have something to say.” 

All his wines are made without much equipment. Grapes are hand-picked and whole-clusters are foot-stomped. No yeast, SO2, nutrients or enzymes are added. And the more he spent time doing this, the more he found that he cared far more about the vineyard than anything. Johnson wanted to know how it was farmed and who was farming it. It would be the vineyard, not the varieties or the style of wine that could be produced, that drove his sourcing decisions. 

“If you come to me with a vineyard that’s just spectacular, I really don’t care what it’s planted to. As long as I feel like the vineyard has something to say, and has a point of view, and is doing something that other vineyards aren’t necessarily doing, I’m interested, and I’m curious, and I’m excited about it,” he said.

 That’s how he ended up making his 2019 Lewis Peak Vineyard Pétillant Naturel. Johnson immediately fell in love with the site, situated above the Walla Walla Valley in the Blue Mountains, at about 3,000 feet. It’s a fairly new vineyard, and he was able to work with the growers early on, ensuring it was farmed with organic practices. The site is planted to Malbec and Riesling and he had the idea to make a high-elevation, dense, dark Malbec. The grapes just didn’t ripen enough.

They had to be picked though, and he thought that a sparkling wine might be a good fit. He brought the grapes in, crushed them, let them sit for a few days and pressed off into old barrels for fermentation. He wasn’t sure how it would turn out. “Lo and behold, it was actually delicious, so we bottled it. We had had this lovely kind of light red sparkling wine,” Johnson said.

Production of Pétillant Naturel was not what he had in mind when he started the project. But he wanted to put wine he could be proud of into the bottle and make it one people could enjoy. Well, “The Pét-Nat just seemed to fit that realm. And this is from me,” he said. “I had always sworn I would never make a Pét-Nat. They’re too trendy. I’m not going to do it. It’s just not me.”

His wife, Sally, even told him not to bring any of the wine home. “Then once she tried it she changed her mind and said, ‘Well, now you have to make it every year.’ And I know better than to argue,” he said.

Thankfully, the site lends itself to making sparkling wines, and he knows better than to try to make it do anything else.

This is how Johnson plans to continue making wine for the Devium brand, bringing in special sites and being mindful of what they produce. This philosophy extends outside the winery as well, as he works to bring more minimalism, compassion and transparency to his everyday life as well. 

Parra Wine Co. 2017 Tempranillo: Sacrifice Through the Generations Shown in Willamette Valley Tempranillo

Sam Parra’s wine journey spans generations. His grandparents and their family moved to St. Helena, Calif. as part of the Bracero Program, a series of laws enacted to bring farmworkers to the United States after the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement was signed. His uncles then spent time in the vineyards as well and, while none of his cousins were interested in working with the land, Sam was. 

Wine was a common addition to the family dinner table, his uncles his first educators. They encouraged him to enjoy wine responsibly, by giving him sips of Sauvignon Blanc as a pairing for a ceviche, for example. Sam officially joined the wine industry when he was just shy of 21, helping Gary and Nancy Andrus of Pine Ridge Vineyards set up tables and glasses for a wine auction. 

It was with the Andrus that Sam had his first taste of high-end wine—from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti to Château Pétrus and Bordeaux First Growths—and the chance to travel to Archery Summit up in McMinnville, Ore. to help host big events for the winery. 

“I first got to visit out here in 2000. That’s how long I’ve been in tune with the Willamette Valley,” he said. “My wife had previous travels with me when we were dating. Then my in-laws made the first move out of the family. My in-laws came to retire out here.” 

After some time spent working with a distributor, Sam and his wife ended up making the move to the Beaver State as well. “Sometimes in life you have to make big sacrifices in order to accomplish what you really want in life,” he said. “When I’m talking about sacrifices, it’s being away from loved ones. Being away from the area where people know you.” 

For him, it was worth it in the end, because he knew from his distribution days that it was possible to run a wine brand and be successful doing so. Moving to Oregon freed up some capital and gave him the opportunity to make the numbers pencil out. 

Drawing on his experiences at wineries, his connections in Oregon and the advice of a consulting winemaker, he produced his very first wine, a Tempranillo from the Van Duzer Corridor, in 2019, under the Parra Wine Co. label. With this label, he’s hoping to highlight some of the incredible single vineyard sites around the area. 

If you were expecting a big, bold Tempranillo, you’d be wrong—it’s much more elegant, light, layered and complex. So much so that Parra had to warn potential clients that it would be more like a Gamay or even a light Pinot Noir. 

“It was more of a matter of knowing your clients and being honest,” he said. “Where I had to tell them, ‘If you love these varietals, yes. Buy my Tempranillo. If you don’t, wait for my big red.’”

None of that stopped the praise for his wine and he earned a feature in Forbes, garnering him and Parra Wine Co. some acclaim. Despite the challenges of selling wine in 2020, Parra did well for himself, using his natural sales instincts honed over years working in the industry. He has several events planned for 2021, and he’s using his inaugural success to build an even stronger foundation, one bolstered by a dedicated small business community in Oregon. 

The boutique label is sold by allocation only, much like some of the high-end brands in California he worked for over the years. Those looking to purchase need only pick up the phone.

Parra loves this personal touch, and so do his loyal fans. “I think that shows more of the human in somebody, where you truly want to just sit there, and listen to what they have to say,” he said. “Then of course, you go back to your business, and conduct your business afterwards.”

He does all this while maintaining a day job for another winery as well as working for non-profits, like AHIVOY, a non-profit whose mission is to empower vineyard stewards through education. When he first moved to the Willamette Valley in 2016, he volunteered with ¡Salud! the Oregon Pinot Noir Auction, an organization that raises money for healthcare services and outreach to Oregon vineyard workers. It was his job to line up donations from California, and it was easy for him to help give back.

“What ¡Salud! does is really personal to me and reminds me of the really hard work and the sacrifices that my grandmother and my grand- father had. We have a better living thanks to them, plain and simple,” he said. “Then in 2017, and 2018, I volunteered for the Northwest Community Service in McMinnville. They do fundraising to sponsor, not just vineyard workers, but individuals that are going through U.S. citizenship.”

So, what’s next for the entrepreneur? Well, after only three years in business, he has already started a second label that focuses on AVA wines rather than single site and features the Parra family crest. He has an Albariño coming out under the Parra Wine Co. brand—though he jokes that he won’t have much left if he keeps tasting it—and it will join his Tempranillo and Viognier in the portfolio. And, of course, Sam will continue working to build his community, helping his neighbors, and crafting delicious wine. 

Sharrott Winery 2018 Merlot: Fine New Jersey Wine That Competes with the World's Best

Using tactics like this to produce fine wine has been top of mind for Sharrott Winery since its inception. Both Larry and his father hailed from the tech industry—Larry doing simulation software for the Navy and his father the former president of InfoShare and looking to retire. Both had a love for wine and food. 

“To me, it’s kind of like alchemy,” he said. “You’re taking a simple product, like grape juice, and you’re turning it into this completely different, amazing thing. So, one day, we were talking. We were like, ‘Hey, this could be a real business.’” 

Like true scientists, they did their research. They attended East-Coast wine-focused seminars. They sat down to write a business plan. When all was said and done, they knew that it was the right course. “It’s one of those things that we finally fell into and I felt like I found what I was supposed to be doing in my life,” Larry said. 

But even at that inspiring and life-changing moment, they knew that their mission to produce world-class wines might not align with the local customers—yet. 

“We wanted to make Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlots. That was really our target. But of course, by the second year, and with customers coming in the door and not really being terribly interested in a lot of our dry stuff, we started making a little bit more of some fruit wines and some sweeter wines,” he said. “Of course, they were very popular because that’s what the customer base in our area was looking for.” 

Like others, the Sharrotts produced the ever-popular blueberry wine. Eventually, though, customers caught on to the dry wines as well. Sales shifted from some of those “traditional” New Jersey wines to dry, varietal-specific SKUs. Medals, including a Best in Class from the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition for his second vintage of un-oaked Chardonnay, came rolling in. 

Today, business is booming. Over the last decade, the duo has spent time building demand for their products. As that desire grew, the Sharrotts stumbled into hospitality, as they wanted to provide a place for their guests to sit, relax and enjoy the wine. “Of course, we found if we had a small reason for people to come out, like live music or anything along those lines, that our business that day would triple, or more, what we would have done if people just came down and did a tasting,” he said. 

Realizing the sales boost, they tried more avenues to entice both locals and tourists. Now, they not only have a wine bar, but a restaurant and a live music and event space, featuring local bands, trivia nights and more. The space is a destination, almost equidistant between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, attracting Pennsylvanians on their way to the Jersey Shore. 

Even when COVID-19 forced shutdowns for businesses like the Sharrotts’, the winery was able to adapt. “We focused on our online presence. We focused on our wine club, which has always been a huge part of our business. We focused on those things,” Sharrott said. “We managed to increase those areas of our business by pretty good margins, which was great, but obviously it didn’t replace people coming and actually visiting us onsite and doing a tasting.”

None of that has stopped their growth or their dedication to high-quality wines. In fact, they’re doubling down on plantings of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, blending varieties and Chardonnay, the latter meant for some sparkling wines to be released in a few years. Of their 34 acre property, about 25 will be planted to vines, and Larry is considering purchasing additional land as well. They’re also looking to establish new tasting rooms in population centers within the state. 

Scheid Family Wines 2019 Sunny with a Chance of Flowers Chardonnay: Doubling Down on Positivity and Balance with "Better for You" Offering

It was important to find ways to look on the bright side last year, and that’s just what Scheid Family Wines did.

Back in January 2019, Heidi Scheid, executive vice president for Scheid Family Wines was introduced to Theresa Scripps, a former creative agency head who approached the company with a concept for a brand called “Sunny with a Chance of Flowers.”

“I loved the Sunny concept the instant that I saw it. The unconventionality of the name and the positive attitude that it exuded, it all just made me smile.” Heidi said. She showed it to her colleagues, and even to her 27-year-old daughter. They all loved it.

At the same time Sunny was being discussed around the office, White Claw was taking beverage alcohol sales by storm and the wine world was left reeling. Scheid, like so many others, watched the hard seltzer category grow and wondered whether wine could compete with its own low calorie, low sugar, low alcohol brand. The team dove in, looking at research and found that there could be a place for such a wine.

“Our market research was supporting what our gut was telling us,” she said.

Scheid started having early conversations with her retail and distribution partners. While none of them were ready to dive in and launch a new brand at that point, none of them said “no” either. In fact, they were intrigued.

So, Heidi approached the winemaking team to see if a low-alcohol, low-calorie and zero-sugar wine that still tasted great was even feasible.

Enter winemaker, Millennial, former Division I pole vaulter and celebrity personal trainer, Casey Di Cesare. He was ready to take on the challenge.

“Casey thinks outside of the box. He has a very optimistic, can-do attitude and was really excited to see where we could get to with this wine,” Heidi said. Di Cesare set about researching how to make this happen, running trial after trial to find the perfect combination of harvest timing, fermentation conditions, and alcohol removal method.

In the end, he said, the process is pretty simple. The grapes are farmed in the same way as they would for any other wine, and for the Chardonnay, that meant grapes reached full Brix (between 23° to 24°), with balanced acid. The grapes were pressed and fermented to dryness with the same select yeast the winery uses for all Chardonnays. Di Cesare did, however, ferment a little colder than usual to keep the fruity aromatics intact.

The only major winemaking variance came when it was time to reduce the level of alcohol. After testing several different methods and products, they developed a proprietary two-step process that uses reverse osmosis and osmotic transport to hit the low alcohol jackpot—without removing any of the aroma and flavor compounds. 

“The alcohol is slowly pulled out, and you can see the evolution of the wine, you can see where it’s headed,” Di Cesare said. “Eventually we found that 9% was that sweet spot where we retained all the flavors and we were able to still deliver a product that, for us, stood up to its fully alcoholic counterparts.” 

This was, of course, the key to finding a “Better for You” wine, as the company calls it, that would do well in the marketplace. 

“Finding the sweet spot was the most important thing because at the end of the day if the wine doesn’t taste great, doesn’t taste like wine, you’re not going to have successful product,” Heidi said. “When you remove alcohol you also risk losing aroma, flavor and, very importantly, mouthfeel and texture—all those things that make wine so great with food and a pleasurable experience.” 

So, Scheid Family Wines had a viable way of producing low-alcohol wine that still tasted great, and a brand idea that the team adored. It was about this time, nine months into the work, that the “Sunny with a Chance of Flowers” and “Better for You” projects converged. 

On June 16, 2020, about three months after the start of COVID-19 lockdowns, Sunny with a Chance of Flowers launched with a Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir. In addition to a 9% abv the wines featured only 85 calories, zero sugar, sustainably grown grapes—and listed carbs, protein and fat prominently on the back label. 

This “Better for You” wine category has taken off in the last two years, a continuation of the health and wellness trend that emerged over the last decade. Consumers have proven that they are open to these options, and wineries are doing their best to keep up. 

Scheid isn’t too worried about the increased competition, though. It’s a brand they all love and, as Heidi reports, it’s a wine that a lot of her team drinks at home. “Everyone in our company is invested in the success of Sunny with a Chance of Flowers, from the vineyard to the winery to bottling to warehouse,” she said. 

Sokol Blosser Winery 2019 Evolution Pinot Noir: Tradition and Innovation Come Together in Super-Premium Boxed Wine

When Americans started spending more time at home, their purchasing patterns shifted. In addition to turning to trusted national brands, they also reconsidered the formats in which wine was stored. Pantry-loading was common, and many thought that boxed wines were worth a try. (In the 52 weeks ending Nov. 28, 2020, boxed wine sales rose 18.4 percent by value and 13.6 percent by volume, according to Nielsen scan data.) But more importantly, Americans moved their consumption away from the restaurant, which was forced to shut down, and into the home. 

This presented an interesting challenge for Sokol Blosser Winery and its Evolution Pinot Noir—70 percent of production is sold on-premise. 

But innovation is nothing new for the brand, and it would need to adapt as it had in the past. The Evolution line was created in the late ‘90s by Susan Sokol as one of the first white blends out of Oregon, and a chance for the ultra-premium winery to have a wine that is all about fun, great food and amazing value. It served as a compliment to the winery’s more traditional, vineyard-based wines, and soon expanded to include other varieties and serve the company’s on-premise accounts. Now the time had come for Evolution’s next chapter, under the guidance of her daughter, co-president and CEO, Alison Sokol Blosser. 

When the pandemic hit, the team needed a new way to bring the Evolution line to customers. The wine itself would need to be packaged soon, but its final sales destination was unclear. It was Alison’s brother, co-president and winemaker Alex Sokol Blosser, who came out and suggested the wine be packaged in box. “I said, ‘Are you nuts? We can’t put a high-end Pinot Noir in a box,’” Alison recalled. “But we just kept saying to ourselves, ‘If great pizza can come in a box, why can’t great wine?’” 

Because sustainability has always been at the core of Sokol Blosser’s philosophy (it is Certified B Corp), alternative and more eco-friendly packaging had been a topic of discussion for a while. Boxed wine just wasn’t at the top of their lists. Now, it seemed like the smartest path forward. 

“We said, ‘All right, let’s do this. We’re going to put the same wine that we put in the bottle, in the box, because we want people to know that we really believe this is a very viable quality packaging and provide great value to the consumer,’” said Alison. “We know they don’t want to go to the grocery store as often, but they still want great wine. So, let’s give it to them in a 1.5 liter and just make it super easy.” 

The Sokol Blosser team delivered—quickly. The original boxed wine email suggestion came at the end of March 2020. The project was green-lighted on April 1 and the first wines were shipped out on July 1. 

“When I think back, we were all, and I think maybe the world was also, running on adrenaline to a certain extent. We were in survival mode,” Alison said. “The more we talked about it, the more excited we got t, and it just kept motivating us to keep going with this. It’s definitely the fastest we have ever come out with a new item, especially when designing it from scratch.”

 As Alison put it, she and the team poured everything into the launch of this wine. Evolution’s business with restaurants, cruise ships, airlines, and even in the export market, was at a standstill. She, like the rest of the world, didn’t know how long it would last, and finding a new outlet for the wine seemed a challenge.

But she found some support for distributors who, despite not wanting to take on new products early-on in the pandemic, were excited about the project. It launched locally first, filling the shelves of Oregonian Safeways and Whole Foods, before rolling out nationally. It’s now featured in Total Wines, Central Market in Texas and soon, Wegman’s in the Northeast. The Evolution boxed Pinot Noir has even been selling well in independent retailers in Michigan and Ohio.

“That’s been awesome because they can just go crazy and sell it, too, where there’s a lot more local decisions being made. They’ve had good success with it,” said Alison.

It’s been such a hit that Sokol Blosser will continue its plans to grow the brand in bottle and box across all channels.

At the end of the day, it’s reminded Alison of the team’s resiliency and, pun entirely intended, to think outside the box.

“We’re celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. And we’re often thought of as the pioneer for Oregon, because my parents started back before there really was an Oregon wine industry,” she said. “Oftentimes, people think of the pioneers as not changing. I’m really proud of the fact that Alex and I are second generation and we’re still trying to push the envelope. We’re still trying to be innovative. We’re still true to our roots, true to the land, but also trying to make wines that appeal to today’s consumer and delivering it in a way that they want.” 

Wade Cellars 2018 Three by Wade Cabernet Sauvignon: An Affordable Napa Cabernet Makes Wine Accessible and Enjoyable

Exposure can make all the difference in the world. For so many in the wine industry, it was not an uncommon occurrence to see wine at the dinner table. Parents would pass their children a glass, allow them to take a sip and encourage a discussion about what they smelled and tasted. Sometimes, it was a glass at a restaurant, or a friend who brought over a higher-end, rarer bottle. For those who grew up with wine, it wasn’t just some fancy drink to be had for special occasions. It was a way of life. 

Like so many Americans, Dwyane Wade was not exposed to wine at an early age. He didn’t see a lot of people drinking it, and it certainly wasn’t a topic of discussion at dinner. But now the former NBA star and three-time champion is out to change that, to make sure that wine is accessible to everyone. 

“When I first came in, I didn’t know a lot about wine because I wasn’t exposed to it,” he said. “I looked at that as an opportunity to eventually one day, put myself in a position to be able to do that for my community, for wine to feel more diverse and more inclusive than it does now.” 

Wade’s wine revelation came via support from his Miami Heat teammates Chris Bosh and Lebron James, who showed him the food and wine lifestyle in the Napa Valley. It was through those dinners that an interest and a passion for wine were ignited. 

Wade is a lifelong learner, describing himself as one always open to knowledge, growth and being educated by the best. When the Heat missed the playoffs one season, he signed up for a Harvard Business School course to pass the time. Then, when it came time for him to retire from the NBA, he didn’t just settle down quietly. He set out to build a business empire fueled by the topics and products that excited and engaged him. 

In 2014, he was invited to observe a Napa Valley harvest with Jayson Pahlmeyer and he enthusiastically accepted.

“Once you get the opportunity to walk through each step, now you appreciate not dripping any wine on the table at all, because you know the hard labor and the hard work that went into each bottle of wine,” Wade said. “It made me just appreciate wine and it made me appreciate what these guys do for a living a lot better.” 

The two vibed off each other during that trip and soon Wade and the Pahlmeyer family decided it would be fun to start a project together—and thus, Wade Cellars was born. “They were grabbing my hand and walking me through the process because I’ve never really been through it, but I felt that the wine space really represented my brand and who I am,” he said. 

With some hard work and the assembly of a great team, Wade Cellars launched with ultra-premium Napa Cabernets, much like those Wade drank with his teammates. But not everyone could afford or have access to those wines, and he wanted to be sure that no one was ever turned away from wine. 

“I just imagine a wine for everyone. No matter what background you come from, no matter how much money’s in your bank account, I just envision the Wade Cellars brand being a wine for everyone,” he said. “And that’s just how I am, period, no matter what it is.”

He developed the Three by Wade line and released a Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards across Oakville, St. Helena, and Napa, that retails for $40 per bottle. The decision to launch the line with a Cabernet was an easy one—it’s where his palate was at the time and what he enjoyed.

“I think that the Cabernet gives me the perfect in-between of what you’re looking for as a new wine drinker or as an experienced wine drinker. I think it’s the perfect kind of wine,” he said. Fans of the wine soon asked for a white wine as well, and the team listened, extending the portfolio with the Three by Wade Blanc as well as a California-appellated Rosé. 

Though he and the team are still honing their brand identity, Wade is excited to be part of the industry. At the start of 2020, they were in five markets. Today, they are in 18 and looking to reach 38 markets by August 2021 as they ramp up production. 

As Wade promotes the brand, he’s heard a lot of skepticism that he’s just another celebrity endorser. Though he doesn’t have a wine background, he wants the wine community to know that he’s in it for the long haul and wants to change the stigma of the celebrity wine. 

But most importantly, he wants those who aren’t in the industry to know that wine is for everyone. 

“What’s probably the most important thing is if we can bring others along that have never been exposed to wine. Then I feel like we’re doing our job in this space,” he said. “It’s not just selling wine and making a dollar. It’s really educating people on the beauty of this art.”