Dunne on Wine

Forget taste and smell. Sound is the new way to sell wine to millennials

Levi Dalton
Levi Dalton

Not long ago, I asked a Sacramento wine merchant what moves millennials to ask for a particular bottle when they wander into his shop.

“Podcasts,” he said without a moment’s hesitation. This was new. In the past when I asked merchants why customers sought specific wines, their answers ran to the usual suspects – they’d had the wine at a dinner party or restaurant and wanted it again, they’d read of the wine in a magazine article or newspaper column, they’d tasted the wine while exploring a wine region.

“What podcasts?” I asked.

He didn’t have a clue. This led me into the strange new world of wine podcasts, populated with hosts I’d never heard of, in places often far removed from wine regions, with agendas unclear other than a desire to yak intelligently and enthusiastically about wine in the hope of cultivating an attentive audience. Wine podcasters as the new wine bloggers.

Podcasts are hot. Around 70 million Americans listen regularly to them, The New York Times reported last month, quoting findings compiled by Edison Media Research. In his book “Profitable Podcasting,” Stephen Woessner, also attributing his information to Edison, reported that the proportion of Americans 12 and older listening to podcasts rose from 12 percent in 2013 to 21 percent in 2016. But not even Edison knows how many listeners a given wine podcast may be drawing, says Tom Webster, the company’s senior vice president, in an exchange of emails.

At any rate, there are scores of wine podcasts, approaching wine from about as many angles. Podcasters often perform in pairs, though several wing it on their own. For anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours per episode they talk of wine, sometimes by themselves, often by interviewing one or more guests in their studio, which could be their apartment. Subjects can be as broad as Bordeaux, as specific as yeast, which turns out to be a surprisingly wide and varied topic.

People listen to podcasts by downloading or streaming them from such platforms as iTunes, Stitcher and SoundCloud. Some hosts regularly and frequently post segments, while others take a more relaxed approach, posting erratically. No matter, their archives can be tapped at any time someone gets curious about this or that winemaker or wine matter. The quality of production almost invariably is high. And they’re free.

Since chatting with that wine merchant, I’ve listened to dozens of wine podcasts, and fell asleep only once. Many were entertaining, several were informative, a few were surprising in their revelations. Here is a brief introduction to those I found especially rewarding, arranged alphabetically by title:

A Glass with Olly Smith

With crisp diction and a charged manner, English wine writer Olly Smith corners celebrities for his erratically posted podcasts (four last June, one in July, then none until October). Some of his subjects have just a peripheral interest in wine, such as novelist Ian Rankin, whose best-known character over the past 30 years, dark and troubled Edinburgh detective John Rebus, is more a scotch guy than wine enthusiast. Others, however, are more deeply involved in the wine trade, such as New Zealand actor Sam Neill, who has been growing grapes at Central Otago for 25 years and whose winery, Two Paddocks Wines, is acclaimed for its pinot noirs. Somewhere in between is Alecia Beth Moore, better known as the singer Pink, who is growing grapes on her 25-acre estate in Santa Barbara County but hasn’t yet released any commercial wines. In his interviews, Smith eschews the technical in favor of the personal, allowing guests to reminisce about pivotal wines in their lives. He has a knack for revealing unknown or little-known aspects of his subjects, such as Neill’s fondness for the ukulele and Pink’s passion for pruning vines. Segments customarily run 30 to 40 minutes. More: www.aglasswith.com.

Rick Kushman Courtesy of Rick Kushman

Bottle Talk with Rick & Paul!

“Rick & Paul” are seasoned Northern California wine enthusiasts Rick Kushman and Paul Wagner. Kushman is a former Sacramento Bee columnist who has written two well-received wine books. Wagner is a recently retired Napa Valley wine-trade publicist who continues to teach in Napa Valley College’s department of viticulture and enology. With “Bottle Talk,” which they launched four years ago, they provide fast-paced and good-natured chatter intended to lighten up wine and make it more meaningful to listeners who can range from novice to experienced. They chide and chuckle endlessly, giving “Bottle Talk” a levity rare for the genre, but they also weave through the jokes opinions both provocative and helpful. So brisk and natural are their exchanges that it’s difficult to tell where the script leaves off and spontaneity takes over. Recurring segments rib wine snobbery, dredge up what they call “horrible wine writing” and answer questions from their audience. What do you do with that box wine you sheepishly bring to a party? Before putting out the wine, pour it into a decanter. How do you assure you will get your share of that really good wine you bring? Put it far to the back of other wines on the table, because guests are likely to first grab bottles up front. If there’s a professional sleekness to “Bottle Talk” that eludes many other podcasts it’s likely because of Capital Public Radio producer Matt Pacini, who massages the recordings into seamless presentation. Segments customarily run about 30 minutes. More: www.rickandpaulwine.com.

Chappy Cottrell Courtesy of Chappy Cottrell

Cru: Stories From the People Behind Wine

Chappy Cottrell, once of North Carolina, now of Healdsburg, explores wine with an earnestly inquisitive attitude as he interviews people involved closely with the nuts and bolts of the trade, usually a winemaker. He approaches most with a fixed set of questions – What are you grateful for? What’s a wine that’s excited you lately? – but lets them roam freely once they get their teeth into a topic. Longtime Sonoma County winemaker David Ramey, for one, was especially enlightening as he worked out the math of whether a vintner really could make a living by producing 1,500 or so cases a year. Cottrell could benefit by having a producer to help him keep the focus on guests rather than letting the conversation drift back to himself – and to avoid distracting noises such as what could have been the clicking of a ballpoint pen or the clipping of nails during one recording. Segments customarily run around an hour. More: www.crupodcast.com.

Guild of Sommeliers

Just as sommeliers come in all shapes and attitudes, so do the podcasts of the Guild of Sommeliers. By and large, they are the geekiest of wine podcasts, earnestly and relentlessly plumbing the depths of winemaking and wine culture. They can be truly enthralling and educational, such as an hourlong survey on the role of yeasts in winemaking, as studious and perhaps more compelling than a lecture on the topic in a classroom at the department of viticulture and enology of UC Davis. On the other hand, who with any kind of life would care to listen to a couple of sommeliers talk for nearly an hour about the color, smell, minerality, “tearing” and the like of wines they are tasting blind? Segments customarily run around an hour. More: www.guildpodcast.com.

I’ll Drink to That

Former New York City sommelier Levi Dalton has evolved into the country’s most productive and most celebrated wine podcaster. He posts new podcasts almost weekly, and he aspires to corral and interview with deliberation and patience many of the principal players on the world wine scene, some well-known, some not so much. Recent guests have included Barbaresco specialist Aldo Vacca, Amador County grape grower and winemaker Bill Easton, and the energetic and entertaining Kansas City wine-consultant and wine-writer Doug Frost. Dalton comes prepared and gets to the point, aiming to put wine into the familial, historical, geographical and cultural context of his guest. He’s adept at keeping the conversation moving; thus, two hours during which winemaker Christian Moueix of Bordeaux and Napa Valley expounds on such topics as soil profiles and “green harvesting” pass quickly. At times, though, Dalton is so fixated on what he next wants to ask a guest he overlooks opportunities for follow-up questions to expand on an intriguing but incomplete answer. Segments customarily run from about an hour to an hour and a half. More: www.illdrinktothatpod.com.

Jim Duane Courtesy of Jim Duane

Inside Winemaking

Two tourists walk into a bar in Napa Valley. At the next table a couple of local winemakers are talking shop. For the next hour the tourists eavesdrop. The punchline is that they don’t learn much unless they already understand things like “tartrate precipitation,” “evapotranspiration” and “extended maceration.” In effect, that’s “Inside Winemaking,” a loose and meandering conversation among winemakers, led by the podcast host Jim Duane, himself a Napa Valley winemaker. Eager to learn more of the craft, he invites in a winemaker to swap insights on grape clones, fermentation regimens, irrigation protocols and the like. For the non-winemaker, the podcast can be esoteric and not particularly enlightening, but when Duane and guest veer from the technical jargon they can provide some meaty and colorful biographical information. Segments customarily run a little more than an hour. More: www.insidewinemaking.com.

Wine Enthusiast

Editors of the magazine Wine Enthusiast take advantage of their reporting for a podcast that is unpredictable in subject and uneven in execution. One episode will be a sweeping and varied survey of today’s Australian wine scene, while another will be a poorly conceived and thinly executed report on “how music makes tasting room experiences memorable.” The funnest and fastest episode I heard in this series debunked candidly and humorously prevailing wine myths: several kinds of white wine can be aged; not all Napa Valley wines are heavily oaked. Segments customarily run around 30 minutes. More: www.winemag.com.

Elizabeth Schneider Courtesy of Elizabeth Schneider

Wine for Normal People

Elizabeth Schneider, the Atlanta-based host of Wine for Normal People, is a lively and outspoken cheerleader for the wine trade. Her shows can range from a jumpy yet comprehensive look at sangiovese to a breezy update on winemaking trends in Sonoma County and Paso Robles. Her topics can get wonky, such as when she devoted nearly an hour to discussing the direct shipment of wine from wineries and retailers to consumers, but her guest, Napa Valley wine publicist Tom Wark, kept the discussion spirited and moving by drawing on his long experience with the subject. Segments customarily run about an hour. More: www.winefornormalpeople.com.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.