Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Barefoot Cellars’ winemaker listens to consumers

“We want our wines to be varietally correct, fruit forward and food friendly,” says Barefoot Cellars winemaker Jennifer Wall.
“We want our wines to be varietally correct, fruit forward and food friendly,” says Barefoot Cellars winemaker Jennifer Wall. Sacramento

On Wednesday evening, with the standard workweek more than half over, we might want to party, but mildly, with an inexpensive wine, the sort picked up at the corner grocery store on the way home from the job.

Chances are pretty good that the wine is going to bear the simple, playful label of Barefoot Cellars. Barefoot wines are everywhere, they customarily cost about $7, and they come in more than 30 styles, including 17 table wines and 11 sparkling wines.

They aren’t wines that critics anoint with high points, nor are they touted by sommeliers in white-tablecloth restaurants, but when tasted blind in competitions they tend to capture a bushel of medals.

They are immensely popular among consumers who want a wine with dinner that’s reliable, interesting and true to form. Barefoot is a brand of E&J Gallo, whose officials balk at divulging sales figures, but industry sources peg Barefoot’s annual production at about 18 million cases and its yearly revenues between $600 million and $1 billion.

That impact, plus the awards that the brand regularly wins on the competition circuit, well may make Barefoot winemaker Jennifer Wall the planet’s most successful vintner.

Wall was born in Sacramento, but for the most part grew up elsewhere, most notably Vacaville, where she was the high-school mascot, a bulldog. The tenacity, loyalty and stamina associated with bulldogs must have stuck with her, given her tenure and success with Barefoot.

She graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in biology in 1991, went to work as a lab technician with a Sonoma County winery that summer, and after taking courses in enology at UC Davis and elsewhere joined Barefoot as winemaker in 1995, when the brand still was owned by Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey. Wall has remained in charge since Gallo acquired Barefoot in 2005. Today, she oversees “over 20” winemakers scattered about Gallo wineries in the San Joaquin Valley. She spends nearly as much time on the road as in wineries, representing Barefoot in major markets and commuting from her Sonoma home to Livingston, Modesto and Fresno.

We met over lunch at the Kitchen Door in Napa. I’d asked her to bring along a few of her favorite Barefoot wines. The assortment included the round and fruity chardonnay-based Extra-Dry Champagne, the citrusy and sailing sauvignon blanc, the juicy and meaty shiraz, the satiny merlot, and the surprisingly spicy and focused zinfandel, the only wine in the Barefoot portfolio with an appellation more specific than California – Lodi.

She also poured Barefoot’s most popular wine, the liltingly sweet pinot grigio, which pretty much sizes up her approach to the entire portfolio.

“It’s an approachable style, not as dry, taut and austere as Italian pinot grigio,” Wall says. “We want our wines to be varietally correct, fruit-forward and food-friendly. The aromas and flavors we find in the vineyard should be found in the resulting wine. The wines aren’t to have too much alcohol, oak or sugar.”

While she is keen on varietal integrity, her approach also is deliberative and precise. She generously exploits “back blenders,” trade talk for adding other grape varieties to a varietal wine. The pinot grigio, for example, has chardonnay, viognier and symphony blended in, in large part to help “pop the florals,” Wall says.

Gallo gets grapes from all over California, with extensive vineyards in Sonoma County, but the fruit for Barefoot is mostly from the Central Valley, where plantings have been declining as the industry turns more of its attention to cooler coastal areas. Wall, however, has no issue with Central Valley grapes, noting that most of the pinot grigio comes from the cool Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta. What’s more, to maintain the freshness and firmness of its grapes, Gallo harvests in the cool of the night.

In marketing, Barefoot steps aside from the California wine trade in at least two respects. For one, it doesn’t vintage date its wines, preferring to emphasize style rather than season. Since Gallo took over, Wall notes, Barefoot’s packaging has included an 800 phone number that consumers can call with questions and comments. “We pay attention to Barefoot drinkers. Rarely does anyone say they want our wines vintage dated.”

By and large, Barefoot also eschews traditional television and print advertising to promote its wines. Instead, for 25 years its principal marketing effort has involved supporting nonprofit groups by pouring wines at tastings, with revenues going to the organizations. Barefoot joins “thousands” of such events yearly, raising “millions of dollars” for the groups, Wall says. “This has worked well for Barefoot. People taste our wines, find what they like, and help their charity of choice at the same time.”

The overall tone of the brand is for people to relax and have fun with wine. Barefoot’s longtime label art is a simple bare foot as it might be imprinted on a sandy beach, though Wall is quick to note that it also is a sly nod to the old-world winemaking method of stomping grapes by foot.

The Barefoot portfolio is ever evolving. Its foundation remains straightforward varietal wines, traditional sparkling wines and serious blends, the latter best represented by its relatively new Rich Red Blend, a husky, spicy and persevering mix of tempranillo from Spain, syrah from Argentina and cabernet sauvignon from California and Chile, one of few wines in the brand’s lineup that isn’t solely Californian.

At the same time, Barefoot is quick to adapt to shifts in consumer tastes, especially when that change gives it an opportunity to extend its emphasis on casual wine drinking. Barefoot’s “Fusion” line, for one, is a series of sparkling wines infused with fruit flavors, while its lower-alcohol, delicately effervescent “Refresh” lineup consists basically of wine spritzers in bottles and cans for enjoying at beach, ballpark and the like. “We’re keeping people and bringing in new people by giving them an opportunity to experience wine more frequently,” Wall says.

Despite the popular and critical success of Barefoot, Jennifer Wall isn’t exactly a high-profile name, even in homes where wine is enjoyed often. She’s OK with that. A few years ago she tried her hand with her own brands of higher-end vineyard-designated wines, but gave them up to continue to focus on the growth of Barefoot.

“I’m very happy making Barefoot wines, which people can enjoy on a regular basis. Success to me is when people choose Barefoot wine at their grocery store. It’s an honor. That energizes me,” Wall says.

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.