What Wine and Craft Beer Have Learned From Each Other
I fondly remember the Hamm’s beer commercials from the 1970s. The silly Hamm’s beer was always up to some hi jinx while an outdoorsy spokesman declared the beer to be refreshing because it was from the land of sky blue waters. I don’t once recall the bear or being discuss the beer’s color, texture or flavor profile. It was beer. In Wisconsin, where I lived at the time, there were plenty of other local craft beers that nearby residents could claim as their own. Our town, Eau Claire, had Walters Beer. Fifteen miles to the north, Chippewa Falls enjoyed their Leinenkugels. About 90 miles to the south, La Crosse boasted of their Old Style. Another 90 miles to the east, Stevens Point advertised their Point Beer. Each had a tasting room that brought the full experience of the beer to the local population, but none used a vernacular similar to wine in describing their suds.
At that same time, wine came from far-off lands like France or California or Italy or Germany, not from up the road. The ads for these distant wines used language far more sophisticated and discerning in depicting the product itself. Sovereign talked about its micro climate and cooperage. Almaden distinguished between the different vintages and varietals. Paul Mason discussed the full varietal aroma, brilliant color and long, lasting finish for its Chardonnay, or at least Orson Wells did on behalf of Paul Mason. The vernacular made it so you could almost taste the wines from the ads, but there was no feeling of local pride in these wines.
Over the past 15 years, the craft brew and wine industries have been growing together in these two respects, vernacular and localization, and perceptibly learning from each other along the way.
Today’s craft beer, drawing from the success wines have seen in product differentiation, take great pains to distinguish themselves from other offerings by character, color, flavor and components. Terrapin beer company describes its Pumpkin Fest Brew in a way you would expect from a wine label:
Perfectly balanced pumpkin and spices are added to, without overwhelming, this German style brew. Expect a pumpkin pie nose followed by a strong malt backbone, low hop bitterness and authentic fall taste, all wrapped in a light bodied beer.
The description of Prohibition Ale from Speakeasy Ales & Lagers treads even more closely to what you would expect from a winemaker:
Prohibition pours a deep reddish amber hue, with a fluffy tan head that leaves a beautiful lacing on the glass. A lush, complex aroma teases the senses with juicy grapefruit, citrus, pine, spice and candied caramel malts. Mouth-feel is creamy, with a silky, medium body and modest carbonation.
On the other side of the aisle, the wine industry has learned from craft beer of the plentiful opportunities that lie in an authentic local presence and local wineries now dot our nation’s terroir. In 2001, there were just over 2,000 wineries in the United States. Today there are more than 9,000 wineries, including at least 3 wineries in every state, including Alaska and Hawaii. Much like with craft beers, thousands of these wineries serve solely as local destinations for those within a comfortable drive, or visiting the area, to take in the full experience of tasting wine at its source and bring home a few bottles along with the stories of the winery.
In the 1980s, my family visited the Wollersheim winery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. I don’t recall Robert Parker rating their quite good Prairie Fumé, but the fact that it was local and had a story we could connect with behind it, made it worth buying (Wollersheim was originally planted by Agoston Haraszthy before the Count bolted to California to start the Sonoma wine industry). At the time of our visit, Wollersheim, along with Stiehl and Stone Mill, was one of only 3 wineries in Wisconsin. Today the Wisconsin Winery Association boasts of more than 100 wineries in the state, putting the opportunity to visit a winery within a one hour drive of almost every resident of the state, and rivaling the number of craft breweries. In the past two years, I’ve visited wineries in Texas, Missouri, South Carolina, North Carolina, Minnesota, Florida and Arizona. Although you are not going to find their wines on the list at your favorite restaurants, they all proved to be wonderful experiences with their own unique charms and fascinating stories.
If there is a winery near you or you are visiting an area with a local winery, I encourage you to stop in for a visit. Spend some time talking with the owners or family members. Find out why they opened a winery. Learn about how they produce the wine and what makes it unique. And, most importantly, taste with an open mind. The best thing about the world of wine is the unlimited number of adventures and experience that can be found with wine. The growing number of local wineries continues to add to those experiences.