Bye-Bye Bottle? Alternative Wine Packaging on the Rise

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/13/15

I enjoyed a lovely pinot noir over the weekend.  It was easy-drinking, with bright cherry flavors, earthiness and a clean finish.  Made from Central Coast fruit, it paired nicely with my wife’s homemade turkey tacos.

I also poured myself a tasty cabernet sauvignon.  It was smoky and robust.  And it was, impressively, sourced from French Camp in Paso Robles, the celebrated organic vineyard owned by Santa Barbara’s Miller family, who own and manage famed Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria, too.

What was especially unique about these wines, though, was not how they tasted, or their pedigree.  It was their packaging.  The pinot, on the new Alloy Wine Works label from San Luis Obispo County's Field Recordings, comes in an aluminum can, just like any inexpensive beer, complete with popable pull tab.  The cabernet comes inside a small cardboard box – a Tetra Pak is what the producer, CalNaturale, calls it.  You open it by twisting a small plastic cap.

I’ve always been a traditionalist; it took me a long time to embrace the industry’s slow move toward screwcaps.  So I balked, at first, at the notion of gulping wine from a can.  But these unique packages do come with perks.

Portability, for one: in this season of beach outings, picnics and camping trips, stuffing a few cans or small boxes of wine into your bag is easier to do, and more forgiving, than glass bottles.

And then there’s value.  I bought these wines at Nielsen’s Market in Solvang, which sells 500-ml. cans of Alloy – the pinot noir I mentioned as well as a grenache rosé – for $7.49.  That’s the equivalent of just over $11 for a standard 750-ml. bottle.  The 500-ml. box of cabernet from CalNaturale, the Northern California producer that also makes a boxed chardonnay, sells for $5.99 – that’s under $9 if it were a regular bottle, probably the lowest price for anything ever made from French Camp fruit.

You’re not supposed to really sip right out of the can, of course, or the box.  Question is, once you pour, does it really matter where the wine was housed from the time it left the barrel to the time it hit your glass?  For young wines meant to be drunk young, an aluminum or paper vessel is just as effective as glass.  Image issues aside, the only drawback of the can may be commitment: if you don’t want to finish the full 500 ml. of pinot, you’d have to get creative about closing the can back up.  The Tetra Pak cap recloses easily, though I don’t think the cab tasted quite as fresh on day two.

“I wish more producers started experimenting with these types of closures,” Ozzie Osmonson told me.  He’s the buyer for the impressive wine department at Nielsen’s, which features a variety of wine cans and boxes at two different store displays.  “You can do a lot more with a can than you can with a bottle, and they’re just a lot easier to use.”  As we part ways, the fundamentalist voice inside my head wants to argue.  Traditional bottles rule!  But I find myself agreeing.  And I find myself adding a Sofia sparkling wine to my stash as I head toward checkout; the pretty pink 187-ml. can fits perfectly in the palm of my hand, comes complete with a tiny straw and costs just $4.49.

Still not convinced?  Understandable.  But there’s no denying that the trend toward alternative wine packaging is growing.  The classic glass bottle isn’t going the way of the dodo bird anytime soon, but store shelves are getting increasingly more crowded with wine-filled cans and boxes of all shapes and sizes.  And at such competitive prices, pulling a tab or two may well we worth the experiment.


Schaefer on Wine: Those lazy, hazy, rosé days of summer

This marks another guest post on my personal blog.  Dennis Schaefer and I share wine columnist duties for the Santa Barbara News-Press, and his wine descriptions are always genuine, consumer-focused and on point.  Of the rosés featured here, I have to tip my own hat to the Tercero and the CrossBarn wines, which are remarkable both for their value and for the quintessential summer sipping they inspire.
-- Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo

Story by Dennis Schaefer, published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/20/15

In California, we drink rosé year-round, but it always seems to taste best during the warmest dog days of summer. Just the thought of pulling chilled rosé from an ice bucket, the cold droplets of perspiration dripping from the bottle, makes me salivate.

Oh, it helps if there's some crudités, salami, olives and artisan bread on the patio table as well. But you get the picture. Here are some of the top rosé picks of the season.

Tercero Rosé of Mourvedre, Happy Canyon, Vogelzang Vineyard 2014 ($22): Light salmon in color, the red berry fruits on the nose jump out of the glass, augmented by orange blossom and mineral notes. Fruit-forward on the palate, the mourvedre grape gives a rosé plenty to work with, including flavors of strawberry, watermelon, cranberry and, best of all, pomegranate, the latter giving the wine a deeper and more complex underpinning. A wine of substance, it opens up as it sits in the glass and then finishes with crisp and tangy citrusy acidity.

Halter Ranch Estate Rosé, Paso Robles 2014 ($21): Bright garnet in color, this grenache-based rosé has a nose of cherry, red raspberry, watermelon and rose petal. Both red and dark cherry fruit come through on the palate, with a bit of a sour twist, then strawberry Kool-Aid and raspberry chime in along with a tropical touch of guava on the back end. Sounds complicated, but it all comes together with a fine focus on midpalate, while savory aspects, that lurk just below the surface, add to its complexity.

Justin Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles 2014 ($16): This cabernet sauvignon-based version, from Justin's flagship grape and picked from a select vineyard block, is Kool-Aid pink and has a big nose of red cherry and melon with hints of raspberry, strawberry and even darker fruits in the mix. Hard candy cherry, strawberry preserves, candied violets, savory herbs and a good dose of minerality come together on the palate. It's a big rosé capable of doing business with just about anything at the summer dining table.

Crossbarn by Paul Hobbs Rosé of Pinot Noir, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast 2014 ($20): This distinctive bottling has the pale pink color of Himalayan salt (I know, because I just bought some), with cherry, strawberry, orange blossom and brewed hibiscus tea on the nose. Just from the aromatics, it's very expressive yet seemingly very fragile at the same time. Delicate and multifaceted in the mouth as well, with flavors of hibiscus tea again, warm white peach skin directly from being picked, freshly grated jicama and crushed sea shell. Exotically tantalizing bordering on the erotic, it seems the more you taste it, the less you understand and the more enchanting it becomes. Great acidity on the upbeat finish invites another sip. One of the best I've tasted this year.

Saved Rosé, "Magic Marker," California 2014 ($18): Clay Brock, formerly of Zaca Mesa, now of Wild Horse in Paso Robles, has this "Saved" side project with tattoo artist Scott Campbell. He sources his fruit for this multi-grape variety blend not only from Paso Robles but also Monterey and Santa Maria Valley. Beautifully salmon hued (in a clear bottle), it has a strawberry and tart cherry nose. The strawberry and red berry flavors are enhanced by the bright, trailing acidity. Mouth-puckering and piquant, it's on the very dry side on the finish, just the way I like it. Widely available and a best-buy.


Wine as Art: Family’s Labor of Love Comes with Fundraising Potential

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos courtesy of the Willson Family
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 7/30/15

Tyler Willson at his Shepard Mesa vineyard
The Willson family harvested their pinot noir grapes last week, marking one of the earliest picks of the 2015 harvest in Santa Barbara County.

“And I’m glad we got it when we did,” Tyler Willson tells me.  “Some of the grapes were starting to split – because of the recent rains – and the bees were coming,” likely lured by the sweetness of the exposed sugars.

Willson Family Vineyard is unique on many fronts.  It’s in Carpinteria, for one: a half-acre of Clone 777 pinot noir that Tyler and his wife, Mia, planted in 2009 in the backyard of their home.   “We did it to see if we could,” he says, echoing the dream scenario for many budding wine enthusiast drawn by the notion of home grown vines.  Three of their neighbors have joined them, in fact, so that at least a couple of acres in the foothills of Carpinteria’s Shepard Mesa community are now growing pinot noir and sauvignon blanc.

Two miles from the ocean’s edge, just past the fog line’s edge and at an elevation of about 500 feet, the Willsons’ plot sees pretty dependable weather.  Highs hover consistently in the 70s, “and it never gets too hot during the day or too cold at night, like in Santa Ynez,” Willson says, so the growing season is steady and long.

The pinot noir these vines make is a genuine snapshot of the earth that breeds them.  It’s not Santa Maria, not Sonoma , not Burgundy.  It’s Shepard Mesa through and through, with snappy acids, a lean and bouncy mouth feel and bright flavors of cherries and berries.  I’ve tasted the WIllsons’ inaugural vintage, 2012, and the subsequent 2013 pinot, several times.

Tyler and Mia Willson
“I know terrior,” says Willson, who was a distributor for Henry Wine Group several years ago; he runs a language school today.  “You have to love and take whatever that terroir is giving you, whatever the climate or the soil happens to be.”

The call to plant pinot was made with the help of Willson’s friend, Brett Escalera, the winemaking mastermind behind the Sanger family of wines, including Consilience.  “Within reason, he told me, ’Plant what you like and make it work,’” the bidding vintner recalls.  “This was going to be for our consumption and friends, after all.”

The wine is made by Fabian Castel, the right hand man for celebrated winemaker Adam Tolmach at Ojai Vineyard.  The wines have been crushed and crafted at Four Brix Winery in Ventura for the last few years – the 2014 wines were bottled there just last week, after 10 months in oak.  But the 2015 vintage marks a move to Tolmach’s personal facility in the Ojai Valley.

11-year-old Tyson Willson helps with the 2015 harvest
Each harvest, though, and even much of the physical labor that’s part of the process, is totally a family affair.  Tyler and Mia, themselves, are the crew, often with the help of their 11-year-old son, Tyson.  And even their 7-year-old daughter, Mylie, likes to roll up her sleeves.  “It was so cool seeing her help clip grape clusters during harvest last week,” her dad says.

And with Mylie is where this story takes a heartwarming turn.

Mylie, a beautiful and vivacious little girl, was born with Down syndrome.  “All the tests we took during the pregnancy came back negative,” Willson tells me.  “We didn’t find out the diagnosis until 24 hours after she was born.”  Mylie would see multiple hospitalizations and surgeries even before age two.

Mylie Willson frolics in her family's vineyard during the 2015 harvest

Necessity (and, as it turns out, serendipity) led the Willsons to Alpha Resource Center, the Santa Barbara nonprofit  that empowers developmentally challenged kids, teens and adults through diverse life skill training programs.  They help them secure housing, train for jobs and find a multitude of creative and recreational outlets.  Alpha impacts more than 2200 local families every day.

“They are such wonderful people,” says Willson.  “Not just for what they’ve done for us, but also for what they do for so many other people who can’t do it for themselves.”

Mylie helps her dad with harvest
Among the group’s resources is SlingShot, a working art gallery and studio at 220 W. Canon Perdido in Santa Barbara where dozens of program participants create and showcase their artwork in many forms.  Visitors get a chance to meet and mingle with the artists at work.  And proceeds from the sales of pieces on display here support Alpha’s ongoing work.

The Willsons bought a large painting from SlingShot a few years ago – a vibrant, energetic piece by artist Michael Constantine that they call “Impulse” and that now hangs prominently in their home.  “We looked at it and immediately thought, ‘That would make a great wine label!’” recalls Willson.  “And that’s when it clicked!”

Artistic inspiration, it turns out, would create a powerful way for the Willsons to give back.  “Impulse” became the label of the Willson Family Vineyards’ 2013 Pinot Noir, making each bottle eye-popping and special.  And with the ’14 pinot now in bottle, the Willsons are looking to select several other works of art – including a painting called “Poppy” by Alpha artist Megan Isaac – to grace the glass.

2015 pinot noir from the Willson Family Vineyard
So the Willson pinots have now become a powerful fundraising tool for Alpha Resource Center.  Wine tasting art shows have started to pop up all over town, most recently at Churchill Jewelers in downtown Santa Barbara.  And SlingShot is now part of First Thursday festivities in downtown Santa Barbara, drawing the public in off the street both with art on the walls and Willson pinot in the glass; the next event is Thursday, August 6th.

“We’re also working on a silent auction for next year,” Willson says, “where bidders can take home original works of art along with cases of our pinot that feature that same piece right on the label.”

For more information on Alpha Resource Center and SlingShot, visit