On Aug. 24 an earthquake struck one of California’s most popular winemaking regions injuring more than 200 people and causing at least $100 million in damages. The strongest quake in the area for 25 years and centered just south of the city of Napa, the 6.0 quake even damaged buildings that were specifically retrofitted to resist tremors, and of course led to fires. It is estimated that 60 percent of Napa’s wineries were affected in some fashion by the quake, with 25 percent sustaining moderate to severe damage.
Most of the area’s nearly 800 wineries are located in the north and only 4 percent of U.S. wines are actually made in the Napa Valley. While disruptive, and in some cases tragic, the quake occurred prior to harvest and spared the vineyards so the effect on the 2014 vintage should be minimal.
Prior to the earthquake, one of Napa’s two kosher wineries, Covenant, had already moved to new facilities in Berkeley. Owner Jeff Morgan will still make his star cabernet sauvignon from Napa grapes but because he also makes wines from grapes sourced from other locations in the state, he decided to move from a custom crush facility in Napa to a more affordable urban setting. The new location is closer to the Oakland home of associate winemaker Jonathan Hajdu, and is across the street from Urban Adamah, a Jewish organic farm and educational community center.
While contemplating these shake-ups and new beginnings, we suggest a glass of the Covenant “RED C” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2011 ($44). Lush, soft and mouth-filling, it opens with cassis and blueberry notes that expand into spicy blackberry, currant, raspberry, and cherry flavors with anise, oak and earth characteristics.
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d — cautiously — revisit a story we mentioned briefly a few weeks back about alleged marketing fraud in the sale of Tito’s Handmade Vodka from Austin, Texas. We feel compelled to comment for various reasons, not least of which is a little bit of protest against the mob mentality.
Now, as regular readers know, we tend to be critical of marketing hogwash, particularly when such campaigns get in the way of our enjoying our hooch, or when such marketing clouds reality, and needlessly crowds out the truth. But we are selective and, we think, prudent about it. For one thing, not every bit of obvious marketing hooey needs to be pointed out, much less rooted out.
Mature consumers understand that some marketing statements — like “arti-anal” or “handmade” — should be taken with a grain of salt, especially when such terms are not subject to clear definition. For another, we get that there is an accepted context of marketing blather that is embraced in the industry for brand development and differentiation and all that. Also, we tend to go easier on those spirits that are solid products that do not actually need any fancy packaging or bogus backstory and that do not go overboard on the marketing claptrap or price gouging. That is, if you make good booze, and it is priced well, we’ll not get bent out of shape over every little bit of “info” or “facts” employed to bring that product to market and persuade folks to buy it. We only ask that you not actively insult our intelligence with total marketing or branding idiocy.
With all of that said, we note that the climate for what is and is not acceptable marketing in the liquor trade is suddenly shifting and Tito’s is, for better or worse, at the epicenter.
Tito’s is a value- and volume-priced vodka with phenomenal sales (1.3 million cases annually with an upward trajectory) and clear brand loyalty (read: happy, repeat customers). Yet “Tito’s Handmade Vodka,” owned by Austin, Texas-based Fifth Generation Inc., is now facing class-action lawsuits in both California and Florida that challenge the use of “handmade” in its labeling — the claim being that the hooch is actually made offsite via mostly hands-free automated, mechanical or industrial production. In response Mr. Bert “Tito” Beveridge II, president of Fifth Generation Inc., and founder and master distiller of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, issued a preliminary written statement. It reads, in part, “Here at Tito’s Handmade Vodka, we are proud of our process that focuses on the quality of the product and involvement of human beings. We distill at the same distillery in Austin, Texas where I, Tito, started the business in 1995, distilling batches in pot stills that are customized and hand-built on-site to our proprietary specifications. We hand-connect the hoses and pumps as we taste and qualify the next steps with the distillate. We taste our product to ensure head and tail cuts, all of which are done at our distillery in Austin, Texas, and are made to our exacting standards to deliver the highest quality. The artistry involved in knowing when it’s time to make those cuts is something that cannot be duplicated by even the most sophisticated machines. Our proprietary process is designed to bring the very best quality vodka to our friends and fans for a reasonable price… . In addition, all of our labels have gone through the approval process of the Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). After sending a field agent to Austin to review our processes, the TTB has approved our use of ‘Handmade’ on our label. We think our pot still batch distillation process is one of the key things that differentiates us from a great majority of other vodkas. We disagree with the claims made against us, and plan to defend ourselves against this misguided attack.”
Now all of this has hit the community of whiskey geeks (we prefer the phrase “distilled spirits aficionados”), like red meat to a baying pack of wolves. The drinks-world social media has mostly run off the rails with pop-anti-capitalist excitement at the thought that someone is trying to stick it to the man, and slay the beast, meaning the increasingly corporate, multinational producers and their marketing minions.
Only, Tito’s is not some multinational conglomerate owned, focus-group-tested brand crafted for suckers. It is the creative product of one man, Tito Beveridge, who has fought tooth and nail against bigger and better financed competitors. His only crime, it seems to us, is success. Instead of still living off credit cards and sleeping on friends couches struggling to get his project financed, tirelessly making hand sales just to push a little product, Mr. Beveridge is now enjoying the fruits of his success with high volume and expanded production. His success does not make him, suddenly, one of the bad guys. Don’t get us wrong, we are not huge vodka fans, nor do we especially view the “handmade” in the name of his vodka as passing the Boy Scouts’ honor code, or whatever, and nor are we trying to wade into areas that will now, likely, be settled in the courts. But people, please, calm down. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is just, well, a brand of vodka. Besides, it happens to be both well priced, well made and mighty tasty — for vodka. Indeed, it is cocktail friendly, good for shooting or sipping and it should also be good enough to not offend your most avid Russian or Polish vodka-drinking foodie friends — for American vodka. So, without further ado:
Tito’s Handmade Vodka (40 percent abv; $14-20 so shop around): is incredibly smooth and clean, with aromas of white pepper, and the tiniest whisper of sweet corn, followed by subtle flavors of mellow and elegant woody notes, muted cracked black pepper, and a lingering, mildly sweet, mildly spicy finish with an almost undetectable herbal hint. Delivers exactly what well made vodka should, at a bargain price point. L’chaim!