Ep. 128: Is Chardonnay the Low-Rise Jeans of the Wine World?

Low-calorie wines see growth while the rest of the industry shrinks, glass bottles are getting slimmer and cleaner, dozens of new Criohl-ya grape varieties are discovered centuries after their ancestors arrived in South America, and Chardonnay, the low-rise jeans of the wine world, is hot once again, to the tune of $400 million. These are the stories we're following this week.

[00:00:00] Katherine Cole: 

Hey, listeners, this is Catherine, your host speaking. I am coming at you from Palmilla, Mexico, where I am, well, let’s just say I’m researching the fermentation of the agave plant this Thanksgiving week. And in case you missed our new season kickoff episode last week, I wanted to tell you about our new format. We are adding weekly episodes in which we cover all the breaking wine news you need to know. Don’t worry, we will still have those long form conversations with your favorite co-host, Martín Reyes, Master of Wine. But in between, we’re going to keep you up to date on all the news worth drinking to.

And now let’s get this show started.


[00:00:42] Nick Toole: Alright guys, I have a game for you today.


[00:00:47] Katherine Cole: Producer Nick Toole:, what have you cooked up for us?


[00:00:50] Nick Toole: I have a game called, VinoVIP. And I’ve been reading a lot about celebrity wines. Seems like a lot of celebrities have a lot of wines. And so I’m gonna read you guys the name of a celebrity wine brand and you’re gonna tell me the celebrity behind that brand.


[00:01:04] Katherine Cole: Alright, let’s do it!


[00:01:06] Nick Toole: Okay, here we go. Sun Goddess. Sun Goddess.


[00:01:11] Katherine Cole: So, I’m just envisioning Rihanna, but I have no idea.


[00:01:15] Nick Toole: I would say, Rihanna, you’ve, you’ve entered the right, uh, job.


[00:01:22] Ruby Welkovich: Okay. Um, Lady Gaga?

[00:01:25] Nick Toole: Now you’re slippin a little bit further away. Uh, I’m gonna give you a not so great hint. It’s, uh, a line of Italian wines.


[00:01:33] Katherine Cole: Italian. Lady Gaga’s Italian, isn’t she?


[00:01:36] Nick Toole: Yeah, I think you’re right.


[00:01:38] Ruby Welkovich: Hmm, I have no idea.


[00:01:40] Nick Toole: It’s named after a, uh, nickname given to this person by her mother. And it is Mary J. Blige.


[00:01:49] Katherine Cole: Oh, okay.


[00:01:50] Nick Toole: There we go. Sun Goddess.


[00:01:52] Katherine Cole: Yep.


[00:01:53] Nick Toole: But, uh, let’s get to the actual news.


[00:01:55] Katherine Cole: Oh, the actual news. Well, hey, I have news for you guys. I went to Sammy Hagar’s bar last night. It’s called Cabo Wabo. And I don’t know what to say. Let’s just say as someone who’s a fan of high quality beverages, that was not the place to get them. Although someone did offer us drugs on our way in. So that was interesting


Anyway. Not really my, not really my jam. Um, but yeah, let’s get to the news. 


Low calorie wines see growth while the rest of the industry shrinks. Glass bottles are getting slimmer and cleaner. Dozens of new Criolla grape varieties are discovered centuries after their ancestors arrived in South America. And Chardonnay, the new low-rise jeans of the wine world, is hot once again to the tune of $400 million. That is the wine news we will be covering this week. And this is The Four Top. And now a quick word from our sponsor. 


This episode is sponsored by Our Legacy Harvested, a fantastic organization that educates, advances, and empowers the BIPOC community at every career level in wine. In August 2022, Our Legacy Harvested launched their wine production internship, which focuses on vineyards and winery production. And I have to say, I personally love this program.


They call their interns, their “Cru.” And if you’re in wine, you get the joke. It’s spelled C R U. And I actually met this past summer, one of their interns, Alice Achayo, she’s also known as the Wine Linguist and I was so impressed by her. She’s a total rising star in the wine industry and she was actually recently named one of Wine Enthusiast’s Future 40.


So, Our Legacy Harvested is this great organization that really identifies these folks with a tremendous amount of talent and gives them that little boost, gives them some real life experience in the vineyard, in the winery. Uh, you can follow Our Legacy Harvested on Instagram, just spell it out, and that’s their handle.

And you can read about Alice and their other amazing interns. So thank you, Our Legacy Harvested, and back to our programming. 


All right, so let’s pick up from this game that Nick just had us play, and Ruby Welkovich, you are our in-house celebrity, so I think you should introduce our first story, and Ruby listeners is an actor and director and I actually just saw you in an H& M ad. I kind of stalked you Ruby. So I think that I think the debut of your personal wine label is only a matter of time


[00:04:31] Ruby Welkovich: Well, if I ever have my own wine label, it definitely won’t be low calorie. But low calorie wines, and in particular one celebrity label, are big news this week. According to Shanken News Daily, low calorie wines increased in volume by 30 percent last year, while American wine consumption decreased for the third consecutive year.


So people are drinking less, and what they’re drinking claims to be better for your health?


[00:04:56] Nick Toole: Uh, we’re gonna play another round of VinoVIP. One of the biggest winners among these locale labels was Avaline, which saw off premise volume growth of nearly 70%. Do you guys know who is behind Avaline?


[00:05:11] Katherine Cole: Well, we’re reading the…


[00:05:12] Ruby Welkovich: We all read the same articles, so…Cameron Diaz!


[00:05:18] Nick Toole: All right, okay.


[00:05:19] Katherine Cole: Um, yeah. So Cameron Diaz is low sugar wine. Well, so I have to jump on a soapbox here and say I’m very happy for Cameron’s success, but seriously, claiming that a dry table wine is quote low sugar is redundant and meaningless. A dry table wine, by definition, of course, is a beverage whose sugars have been converted into alcohol via fermentation.

So, I would not expect any of the wines in the Avaline lineup to have more than 2 grams per liter of sugar, simply because she’s not selling dessert wine or Moscato or off-dry Riesling or anything like that. She has a sparkling wine, Brut Zero Cava. So again, there’s no dosage, there’s no sugar in that wine.

So basically, she’s calling her wine low sugar. But so is just about every other wine, also low sugar. There’s nothing special about this.


[00:06:09] Nick Toole: I’ve always had a problem with low calorie or guilt free alcohol. Let’s not get ourselves about what we’re putting into our bodies, but I’m a grump, so whatever. Anyway, Katherine, what do you think the rest of the industry can take away from this? 


[00:06:22] Katherine Cole: Well, you know, we actually discussed this back in our natural wine episode. That was episode 94. Um, a lot of producers are frustrated that these new brands are just coming up out of nowhere and they’re calling their products, quote, clean wines. Like, where are these people coming from with their clean wines?


Now, of course, Avaline wines are made from organic grapes, but then again, so are a lot of other wines. Avaline wines are low in sugar. So are most other wines. But it seems to me that instead of kvetching about this, more wine producers could just… Take a note from Cameron Diaz, like take advantage of the truth and advertise it.


I think there’s this hesitation in the wine industry to promote your own product in any way other than maybe sharing critical scores. But if your wine is dry, hey producers, just go ahead. You can use terms like clean and low sugar in your marketing materials. Millennials. Right, guys? Uh, Nick and Ruby, are you guys millennials?

You’re millennials right?


[00:07:19] Ruby Welkovich: I am.


[00:07:20] Katherine Cole: And hey, New Year’s resolution season’s right around the corner, so position your wine as part of that 2024 weight loss plan.


[00:07:29] Nick Toole: Speaking of weight loss, we have some exciting news on the glass front. If you follow us, The Four Top, you know we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the toll that glass wine bottles take on the environment. They weigh a lot, which makes them costly and carbon intensive to ship, and the process to make glass is pretty toxic.


[00:07:50] Ruby Welkovich: Oh, I get the concept of toxic. Don’t get me started about the Thanksgiving cruise I’m gonna be on starting tomorrow. My entire extended family… On a boat for five days, but I digress. We’re talking about glass production here. And I know that glass is basically melted sand. And in order to melt sand, you have to get a kiln incredibly hot.


And in order to achieve that heat, you need to burn fossil fuels, which releases CO2 into the atmosphere.


[00:08:16] Nick Toole: That’s right!


[00:08:17] Katherine Cole: Yeah, not only that, but glass production can also emit super dangerous chemicals. We had a big news story a few years ago in Portland, Oregon, where it turned out that a local glass factory was polluting the neighborhood all around it with massive amounts of arsenic and cadmium gasses. Bad news folks.


[00:08:34] Nick Toole: Yeah, it’s super cool. I work in beer production. I regularly fill, like, 100,000 plus bottles with beer each week, so it feels good to be part of the problem, I guess.


[00:08:45] Ruby Welkovich: But Nick, you sent us a promising news story this week. It sounds like a French wine bottle producer, Saver Glass, has been testing hydrogen combustion and is seeing promising results.


[00:08:55] Nick Toole: Yeah, hydrogen is in the news for a lot of reasons recently, but just this week, Saverglass announced that they’ve been testing that hydrogen combustion, and it’s great news for wine regions and businesses that are working toward a carbon neutrality goal. It was previously thought that hydrogen just couldn’t get hot enough, but new melting technologies have changed this thinking, which is pretty exciting.


[00:09:12] Katherine Cole: Yeah, i’m really excited to hear this. I remember reading over the summer that Schott, the german manufacturer that makes those Elegant Schott Zwiesel wine glasses we all love, had actually successfully produced glass using 100% hydrogen as a fuel source. But stemware of course isn’t the big polluter of the wine industry, bottles are, so this is really exciting news. There still is a sticking point because the source of most hydrogen has until now been fossil fuels, but that’s changing right now.


The future is apparently green hydrogen, which used to be prohibitively expensive to produce, but new green hydrogen plants are coming online around the globe right now and prices are dropping.


[00:09:56] Ruby Welkovich: Don’t try making green hydrogen at home, folks. It’s produced by running an electrical charge through water. I would make a joke about dropping a blow dryer into a bathtub, but that’s just a little too dark…


[00:10:12] Katherine Cole: Hey, so guys, we have some exciting news this week out of Argentina, where the largest ever summit on Criolla, Criolla, Criolla, I’m just trying to pronounce it properly, uh, grapes happened. And the wonderful Amanda Barnes, author of the South America Wine Guide, was there to cover it for Drinks Business. Now, listeners, if you don’t know about Criolla, spelled C R I O L L A, its name comes from the term Criohl-yo, which is like the French term creole.


It basically means Spanish American. So this is a family of South American grapes that grew out of Spanish colonization, dating as far back as the mid 16th century.


[00:10:52] Nick Toole: Right, and last week research teams announced that they had identified 60 different Creole varieties, 36 of which were new discoveries in Argentina, and then 86 different Creole varieties, 43 of which were new discoveries in Chile. That’s, it’s a lot of grape varieties.


[00:11:07] Katherine Cole: Yeah, I mean, the legacy of colonialism was, uh, yeah, not so great in most cases around the world, but in South America, it did result in these interesting grape varieties like Torontes, the aromatic white, and Pais, which for many years was kind of a village workhorse grape, you know, it was used for bulk wines, but recently has come into its own.


Now, many of these Criolla grapes have clear Spanish heritage, but interestingly for some of them, even DNA testing is inconclusive. And I will say, I just love following these mystery stories in which we have to kind of unravel the mystery of what the heritage of a grape variety is. And it’s just a, I think it’s a fascinating reflection of the way in which the wine industry is a reflection of globalism.


[00:11:53] Ruby Welkovich: Absolutely. Those 16th century conquistadors were just like, we wanna get drunk. So we’ll throw some grapevines on a ship from Spain and plant them here. And 500 years later there are scientists studying this stuff. I mean, it’s pretty amazing that they’re testing DNA.


[00:12:07] Katherine Cole: Yeah. Who would have thunk? 


Well, folks, we have one more shout out here to our episode sponsor, Our Legacy Harvested, founded in 2020 by friend of the pod, Tiquette Bramlett, vice president of Chosen Family Wines, and Tiquette is the first black woman hired to oversee a winery in the United States. Our Legacy Harvested educates, advances, and empowers the BIPOC community at any career level in wine. Just go to ourlegacyharvested.com to learn more, to donate and make sure to subscribe to their newsletter so you can find out about their very fun public events.


They do these in the Willamette Valley. The annual block party in McMinnville is fantastic, and I know they have additional events throughout the year. They’re fundraisers and events support the nonprofit’s long-term goal of building a permanent campus to foster the growing and evolving BIPOC wine community. I think that’s just so cool. I love this organization and everything Tiquette is doing to make wine a more equitable industry.


[00:13:14] Ruby Welkovich: And for our final news story this week, I’m confused. I thought it wasn’t cool to like chardonnay. But the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the Napa Valley-based Duckhorn Portfolio has acquired the Russian River Valley’s Chardonnay giant Sonoma-Coutrer Vineyards for $400 million. 


[00:13:32] Nick Toole: That’s, that’s just wild. I was reading Janelle Bittker’s article about this and it’s clear that Chardonnay-focused wineries are a hot commodity these days. If you guys remember recently, E. & J. Gallo acquired Rombauer in late August. And they didn’t tell us how much they paid, but Wine Business estimated between 600 and 700 million dollars.


And keeping with the theme here, I looked up Chardonnay sugar content and it comes in at 1.4 grams per serving. So that’s about 1/26th of a Gatorade. 


[00:14:03] Ruby Welkovich: So our moms and our aunts have always drunk Chardonnay, and apparently everyone else is drinking it, too.


[00:14:08] Katherine Cole: Yeah, this is so funny. This is just how the wine industry works and how culture works in general. I mean, I remember back in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, it seemed like everyone was kind of thinking they were cool and tossing around this term ABC, which stood for Anything But Chardonnay. Anything but Chardonnay.


Everyone had decided that all Chardonnay was super oaky and buttery, and it was like super uncool to drink it. But, you know, this was the era of the bistro on every block, and this was the era of…Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio in every glass. I mean, people thought they were cool back then because they were drinking Pinot Grigio.


And they basically just wanted their wine to taste like water. But, you know, just like with fashion and music, wine trends come and go. And so now suddenly everyone’s wearing bell bottoms and listening to Hall & Oates, which were so uncool for so long. So, of course, they’re drinking Chardonnay again. But, you know, of course, those of us who are total wine geeks, we all know that Chardonnay was always a standout grape. I mean, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love White Burgundy.


[00:15:10] Ruby Welkovich: And now it’s time for our dessert course. How about we each just recommend a Thanksgiving dinner wine? I’ve actually got a really interesting one. It’s NA or alcohol free. I’m not sure it’s technically considered a wine, but the brand is NON, N O N, and the specific one is NON One, Salted Raspberry and Chamomile. I tried it a few weeks ago, ironically, at a wine bar, it’s just really nice and sweet and a little bit salty, and yeah, I recommend it if you’re looking for something that doesn’t have any alcohol in it.


[00:15:40] Katherine Cole: That sounds really good.


[00:15:41] Ruby Welkovich: It really is…

[00:15:42] Nick Toole: It’s funny you mention that. I live with my brother and sister-in-law, which works out better than you might think. And, uh, my sister-in-law is a big fan of this, this wine. So I can vouch for it as well.


[00:15:54] Ruby Welkovich: Nice.


[00:15:55] Nick Toole: I’m gonna break the rules a little bit. I, as I mentioned earlier, work in the beer industry, so I have a beer to recommend.


Um, and I find if you work in the beer industry, oftentimes, when you just want to drink a beer, you don’t go for the newest, most intense, fruity, whatever beer, because you just want a good standby. And so I’m actually going to recommend a Sierra Nevada beer. Uh, every year for the holiday season, they release a beer called Celebration, which uses fresh hops, so basically fresh from the, uh, the hop yards, uh, in the Yakima Valley.

Celebration’s great. It’s got that, like, piney, resininess that you expect from a, a West Coast IPA. And it goes really well with… A lot of different, you know, the, the fatty and sugary foods we eat this time of year. 


[00:16:40] Katherine Cole: Sounds good. Classic American beer. Okay. Given what we know about the demographic of our listeners, um, my understanding is that you all are wine geeks listeners. So I’m not sure that I even need to recommend Thanksgiving wine pairings to you. I think we’re all on the same page there. Uh, you know, we all know that Gamay is fantastic this time of year, or Gewurztraminer, or I personally would reach for maybe a Lambrusco or a Riesling, you know, these are known to us. But I did want to suggest maybe that we all consider supporting an indigenous American business this Thanksgiving. Um, and so of course I thought of friend of the pod, Tara Gomez. She has a label with her wife. It’s called Camins2Dreams, and she does a Carbonic Carignan that would kill with turkey. And of course her Gamay as well. 


[00:17:26] Ruby Welkovich: Wow, that sounds really good.


[00:17:28] Katherine Cole: I know it’s making me thirsty. Well, that’s it for this week, folks. You can find The Four Top again next week on your favorite podcast platform for more wine news and analysis.


I have been your host, Katherine Cole, joined by producer Nick Toole, and media and design manager Ruby Welkovich. Kielen King is our sound supervisor and the composer and performer of our fantastic theme music. You can listen to more of that at kielenking.bandcamp.com. 


[00:17:57] Ruby Welkovich: Please visit our website, thefourtop.org, to learn more about us, listen to back episodes, and purchase books written by our amazing panelists.


[00:18:05] Nick Toole: If you have not already subscribed to The Four Top on iTunes or Spotify, please do so. And leave us a rating, because every rating feeds the algorithm and helps new people find The Four Top.


[00:18:14] Katherine Cole: And from Palmilla, Mexico, I am just apologizing for my bad sound quality, everyone. This is Katherine Cole signing out and saying Happy Thanksgiving.


[00:18:24] Nick Toole: And from the bustling metropolis of South Portland, Maine, this is Nick Toole signing off.


[00:18:30] Ruby Welkovich: And from Brooklyn, New York, this is Ruby signing out. Stay safe out there and thanks for listening. And happy Thanksgiving.


Sources & Citations

Citations reference first appearance, without repeating for subsequent usage:

[00:01:06] – Delish: 23 Celebrity Wines We Love

[00:04:31] – Shanken News Daily: Low-Calorie Wines Sustain Strong Double-Digit Growth

[00:07:29] – The Washington Post: Winemakers are using lighter bottles to go green

[00:08:45] – Wine Business: Saverglass Sets New Industry Standards with Successful Hydrogen Combustion Trials in Pursuit of Sustainable Glass Production

[00:09:12]Schott: Glass production without natural gas: Successful laboratory tests with 100 percent hydrogen

[00:10:12] – The Drinks Business: Research in Argentina and Chile reveals greater Criolla diversity ‘than ever expected’

[00:13:14] – San Francisco Chronicle: Napa power player buying one of California’s biggest Chardonnay wineries for $400 million