Every year, on the third Thursday of November, a new vintage of Beaujolais Nouveau is released to fanfare, parties and even a bit of good old fashioned finger-pointing wine snobbery. As the clock counts down to midnight – and not a minute before – the first bottles of the year are popped open and a new vintage of Beaujolais comes alive. To some, Beaujolais Nouveau Day may be a bit of a “Hallmark Holiday,” but it’s hard to deny that there’s something quite exciting and luring about it. It makes you want to let loose, have fun and be one of the very first to get your hands on a bottle of the freshest wine of the vintage.
This year I was fortunate enough to get a direct line into the heart of the Beaujolais Nouveau action in Boston, MA. Tom Steffanci is the President of W.J. Deutsch & Sons, a leading importer and marketer of a rather impressive wine and spirits portfolio that includes the “king of Beaujolais” himself, Georges Duboeuf, along with brands and wineries such as Andre Lurton, Joseph Carr, Ruta 22, HobNob and a small Australian wine company you may have heard of called Yellow Tail. Tom was in town this past week to celebrate Beaujolais Nouveau Day in style and help launch the 2011 Duboeuf release, Noveau Expression, at the Second Glass Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau Party.
I sat down with Tom to sample the new release and talk to him a bit about the the 2011 Duboeuf, the partnership with renowned Brooklyn artist Michael McLeer (a.k.a Kaves) featured on the label, and his perspective of trends in the industry.
Beaujolais Nouveau has a certain youthful appeal. Especially with this partnership between Duboeuf and Kaves. How do you look at the millennials and the new generation of wine consumers, do you see this audience in an entirely different way?
We do. We think that the millennial consumer has a different set of values, many of which are driven by how they grew up. If you’re 25 years old in America, particularly in a metropolitan area, you probably grew up eating foods from all over the world, listening to music from all over… you grew up with such a diverse repertoire of influences. I think that the way this consumer sees wine is much less hemmed in by “this wine is from this country” or “I only like this varietal,” so it’s really an open-minded consumer. But I think that can affect older consumers as well. We can democratize wine for people of all ages and take away misconceptions and help consumers open their mind a little… but certainly this younger consumer is fearless and they’re not afraid to say, “oh Malbec, what’s that?” Or, “where’s Patagonia? What’s this about?” There’s not this sense that I’m supposed to know something so I won’t ask. I love that. I love that about younger wine consumers. I think that experimentation has made it easier for us as wine marketers to be a little more daring.
How does Beaujolais Nouveau fit into this picture?
We see Beaujolais Nouveau as a way to reach young consumers that maybe have yet to experiment with wine or are just beginning to experiment with wine. These 23-year olds, 25 year olds, 28-year olds… wine may be only a small part of their repertoire of alcohol beverage and they may be a little put off by some of the snobbery that maybe some brands bring to wine. We think that Beaujolais Nouveau is great in a wine glass, it’s also just as good out of a rocks glass. It’s fine at room temperature but it’s even a little better chilled and with what we did with Kaves – the artist that we partnered with this year – is something that we feel will appeal to everybody but will be particularly appealing to a younger consumer.
Tell me a little about Kaves, it’s certainly an interesting partnership.
Kaves is fascinating because he started out as an artist who was working in the medium of graffiti and then he went to tattoos and now he’s also leading a hip hop band. This is a guy who came from a pretty gritty street environment and is creating fantastic art. And I think that people are open minded – art doesn’t have to be on canvas and it doesn’t have to have been born in a French cafe. It could have been born under an underpass in Brooklyn. So it made him a fascinating guy to partner with. And he saw immediately the connection between wine and art. The whole notion of starting with a set of ingredients and we’re combining those ingredients with ingenuity and wine making is very much a mix of science and art, so it proved to be a great partnership. Even in the label he created, “Live and Love,” he described this scene as his idealistic day, and it just happens to be some folks enjoying wine on a bright afternoon in a big city – could be anywhere in the world. So, it was really a great fit. It wasn’t something that we had to manufacture.
Georges Duboeuf has been at the forefront of Beaujolais Nouveau since the beginning. He’s dedicated endless time and resources into building the tradition and the culture around it – does he feel a certain responsibility to carry on the tradition to the next generation? Was this project a specific effort to pass on the torch? What did he think about the collaboration with Kaves?
Georges is tireless. He personally approves all of the final art. He loved the partnership with Kaves. This is something he personally chose. For a guy who has been doing this for 50 years, he is still full of energy and passion for it and he sees Beaujolais Nouveau as something that is still under development and he sees it as a way to introduce people to wine and he does this all over the world. These events are happening all over the world. There are 100 Beaujolais Nouveau events in the US alone.
There are people who write off Beaujolais Nouveau as a marketing gimmick and others who really see the celebration and excitement in it. What are your thoughts on the perception of Beaujolais Nouveau in the US?
Everyone is entitled to their opinions. Certainly those of us who love wine are never bashful about showing our opinions. So to each their own. We’ll never create something that’s for everyone. But from our point of view before the marketing of this there is something really interesting that has a core value – you have literally the first wine of the vintage. By law we can’t share it with anybody until the third Thursday of November at 12:01AM. So you literally have the first opportunity to taste wine from the new vintage in a almost a naked state. This is a wine that has been fully fermented – it’s finished wine, it has no age on it, it hasn’t had any oak on it – and I think it’s a really pure way to get a sense of what the vintage will bring. It’s the freshest wine of the vintage. Who doesn’t want to taste the freshest of something? It’s fruity. It’s easy to drink. Something that goes well with food. So I think there is reality there.
I agree. So, what do you think of the 2011 vintage?
I’m excited and we’re fortunate – you saw Italy go through this run, in Piedmont, where they had five good vintages in a row. I mean we are here with three really good vintages in a row. An hour ago was literally my first taste and I’m very happy with this.
Even in the industry you’re not allowed to crack the bottle early?
They’re very strict about this. They come in boxes with padlocks… (chuckles)
This 2011 is in the same league as 2009, which Georges called the vintage of his lifetime. So I’m really happy.
I think Beaujolais Nouveau has a place and if you think about it for what it’s trying to be which is a way to introduce new people to wine or a way to allow people like us to enjoy wine on certain occasions, I think what’s not to like?
So, Tom, you’ve had an impressive career trajectory that has taken you across the drinks industry, from Coors to Diageo, Allied Domecq, Terlato and now President of W.J. Deutsch. In your perspective of the industry as a whole, what general drinks trend is exciting you most?
I’m most fascinated by the consumers desire for real flavor. If you start with beer, and what the big domestics did, they basically spent the better part of a decade defining what their product wasn’t. It’s less calories, it’s less carbonated, it’s less this… so they spent the better part of a decade stripping away flavor. It shouldn’t surprise them that the craft movement has exploded. I think it’s great for the beer business, great for consumers. The explosion of real flavor and growing distinctions between products is interesting.
And then you go to wine and how much of an explosion of open-mindedness there’s been in regards to different countries, different varietals. I think it’s great that we can find Grenache now. I think it’s really cool that brands like Ruta 22 can find a big audience for Argentinian Malbec that wasn’t there before. This explosion of taste and the openess to exploration is a good thing.
I couldn’t agree more. The explosion of taste and the openess to exploration is a wonderful thing. It’s what is taking the drinks industry to a higher level – a more exciting level where quality and distinction matter. Cheers to that!
And to all of you, go out and buy yourself a bottle of the 2011 vintage of Duboeuf’s Beaujolais Nouveau. It really is a wonderfully fresh wine from what should be another great year. Better hurry up before your local store runs out.
I’d like to kindly thank Tom Steffanci for his time and thoughts. Also, a big thanks to Second Glass for connecting the dots and throwing a hell of a Beaujolais Nouveau party in Boston.
Drink well this Thanksgiving.