Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Love Hard Seltzer? Have We Got a Wine for You!

Wine seltzer podcast
Illustration by Vidhya Nagarajan

Over the past few years, hard seltzer has taken over the drinks world. Has the bubble burst? Or, is it about to take a different shape?

Say hello to wine-based seltzers. While most hard seltzers are made from fermented sugars, specifically malt, these drinks use wine as a boozy base. And more winemakers are getting into the seltzer game.

To explore this space, Managing Editor Lauren Buzzeo speaks with Andrew Nelson, Managing Partner and President at War Room Cellars, a company that produces the wine seltzer Bubble Butt, among others.

For more about the rise of hard seltzer, check out this story. Wine Enthusiast’s Beer Editor, John Holl, looked at hard seltzer’s intersection with craft beer in this podcast. He also examined early adopters in the wine and beer worlds here.

Episode Transcript

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.

Speakers: Lauren Buzzeo, Andrew Nelson

Lauren Buzzeo 0:08
Hello, and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. your serving of drinks culture and the people who drive it. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the managing editor at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, we wander down a bit of a different wine path. Over the past few years hard seltzer has taken over the drinks world has the wave finally crashed, or is it about to head in a new direction? I have the pleasure of speaking with Andrew Nelson, managing partner and president at WarRoom Cellars to consider what might be the next big thing: wine-based hard seltzers. But first a word from today’s sponsor. Savor every drop of summer at Total Wine & More because they’ve got a sizzling lineup. Of course for the great outdoors. Get ready for the holiday weekend with their top 12 wines under $15. Taste your way to a new flavor it try ready to freeze cocktail pops and fun fizzy hard seltzers. Lime, pineapple or peach, anyone? And here’s a recipe for a delicious late summer evening: Take smoke ribs, good friends and just add Cabernet. Let your imagination go grill crazy. From good old-fashioned hotdogs to turkey burgers with all the toppings, you can’t go wrong with fruity and fresh reds. And when it comes to seafood, salmon and tuna swim nicely with Chardonnay. So no matter if you’re grilling, chilling, or both, you’re sure to find cool prices on over 8,000 wines, 4,000 spirits and 2,500 beers in store or at totalwine.com.

So today we’re going to wander down a little less traveled wind path, or maybe it’s a new route still being carved out of the drinks woods, I’m really not sure. But either way, I’m really excited to explore it. So it’s pretty clear that hard seltzers are here to stay. The category that simply burst onto the market and turned all of our summers upside down a few years ago, really kind of has yet to crash and continues to find fans in thirsty consumers the world over. But like all drinks categories, considerations of quality and innovation have certainly begun to come into play. And what was essentially a one brand driver has turned into shelves of options across different styles, flavors, producers and the like. And while the majority of hard seltzers are made using fermented sugars as the alcohol base, some companies are now instead using spirits and even wine to add booze to their flavors. So this is certainly not necessarily a new idea in theory, but luckily, they’re much better and different than the wine coolers that were popular in the ’80s and early ’90s. I could tell you stories about those another time, but more and more winemakers seem to be getting into this seltzer game. So to take a look at this emerging category of wine-driven seltzers, I am joined today by Andrew Nelson, managing partner and president at WarRoom Cellars. So just real quick WarRoom is described as protectors and stewards of heritage brands, vintners of meaningful wines, and masters of guerilla winefare. And WarRoom is also the producer of the wine seltzer brand Bubble Butt, so I think it’s safe to say, Andrew, that you will have a lot of great insight and information to share on this subject. So thank you so much for joining me today.

Andrew Nelson 3:40
Well, thanks for having me, Lauren. I’m really excited about this.

Lauren Buzzeo 3:43
Me too. There’s so much good stuff to talk about and information to share. So let’s get into it. And I think a great place to start right off the bat. Let’s just get into what is a wine seltzer? And how is it different from the other hard seltzers that are currently in market?

Andrew Nelson 4:01
Yeah, so I would say that there is some debate over this, but the way that I would define the wines out there is a seltzer made with wine. So there’s no malt and I would even go as far as saying that there’s no synthetic flavoring. Although there are many wine seltzers releasing that have synthetic flavoring, ours, Bubble Butt, is wine. And we make it in the same way that we would like a California sparkling so harvesting at very low Brix, 16, 17, fermenting it bone dry so it’s quite acidic and then we add seltzer water right before we’re canning it and we can it at the same carbonation level of Champagne. So it’s very carbonated and it’s essentially wine made in the style of sparkling water and carbonation. A wine seltzer, how does that sound?

Lauren Buzzeo 5:05
It sounds delicious. And talking from experience, it is delicious. But let’s not get too far down that promotional path at this moment. Just tell me a little bit more, I guess, in terms of differentiation with, you know, it’s not just the malt base in terms of the alcohol and the fermentation, but we’re talking about a wine base. So you’re following production, just like you would a rose, a sparkling wine. So how does that ultimately differ in terms of the final flavor profile, in your opinion, and I guess in terms of sugar, or alcohol levels, or characteristics, etc.

Andrew Nelson 5:41
The the alcohol content is particularly interesting, because we’re adding water to lower the alcohol. The base wine is usually around 11%. And then we’ll lower the alcohol. Bubble Butt is at 8.4% alcohol, but I have seen some wine seltzers down into the four and five range. And we really we trialed it. So we wanted it to be delicious. We wanted it to taste like wine, but have kind of a more refreshing aspect. So we trialed from four to eight and a half. So we’re targeting a younger demographic here, obviously the name is Bubble Butt, it’s a cheeky concept. So we would have we have college girls come to the office, my wife hated this exercise. And we would we would taste, we would do blind tasting trials from about four all the way up to about eight and a half. And what we found pretty unanimously was that the higher alcohol content was more attractive, both from a flavor and from a marketing standpoint. So we lean into that with with Bubble Butt that it’s almost eight and a half percent alcohol, rough almost twice as much as some of the leading malt-based seltzers.

Lauren Buzzeo 7:11
So it’s actually really interesting in terms of the alcohol levels, and the studies that you did, I guess maybe that coming from a wine drinking preference that consumers would actually be used to having alcohol levels, sort of on the higher end of the spectrum, as opposed to the more traditional four to 5% that you’d find in other seltzers or beers, etc.

Andrew Nelson 7:36
Yes, yes. Well, it’s interesting. We’re really walking a fine line. We’re trying to bridge that gap between a seltzer drinker and a wine drinker. And I think we’ve underestimated the level of customer education needs to take place, you hit on a really good point there. To a wine drinker, eight and a half percent alcohol is very low. But to a seltzer drinker, it’s high. So we’re really trying to carve out our own little niche here, with Bubble Butt. So there’s, there’s another differentiator that I’d like to hit home that we felt was really important as we launched a wine seltzer, on the level of carbonation. So most sparkling wines in a can, they’re very low levels of carbonation. If you’re over eight and a half percent alcohol, you go into a significantly higher tax bracket. If you’re at any meaningful level of carbonation, it can double your cost of goods. And so we felt that the carbonation level, super carbonated, the same carbonation level of Champagne was really important. And that was really what led us to seltzer. Because as we looked at doing a sparkling wine in a can, we weren’t able to deliver that really high level of carbonation at a great value price because of that sparkling tax. And so that’s really what led us into the innovation of adding water and seeing what what what base wine would be the most delicious when adding water that would allow us to achieve this very high level of carbonation. So that 8.4% alcohol is as high as it can be, and still be at the Champagne level of carbonation without going up into that higher tax bracket.

Lauren Buzzeo 9:32
That is super interesting. And definitely a good point. I think a lot of people aren’t aware about the different tax considerations that go into production and that there’s actually a higher rate for sparkling wine.

Andrew Nelson 9:44
In terms of the future of this category, I think it’s here to stay. I know that there that there’s some skepticism on how wine will evolve in its place in hard seltzer. But I think particularly what we’re interested in making is a hard seltzer for wine people. And so it’s lower alcohol than a wine. And it’s it’s carbonated. And it has a lot of the same flavor properties as a seltzer, the refreshing characteristic, but it also tastes like a wine. So we’re very confident that this is going to be a category. And we want to be a leader in that. And Bubble Butt is here to stay.

Lauren Buzzeo 10:26
No buts about it. But you know, you are definitely a leader and an innovator in this category. So I guess my question also is, since you’ve launched Bubble Butt, since you’ve started to, you know, get into this emerging category in space, what have you seen in terms of other wineries or wine companies also interested in this category or subcategory? What have you seen in terms of the interests building there? How they may or may not be able to get into it? I mean, certainly, we’ve seen a lot of brewers, as an example, get into the hard seltzer game, because a lot of the equipment translates over. But in terms of the wine world, what do you see in terms of the interests and the gains and the potentially limitations there in the market space?

Andrew Nelson 11:13
Oh, great question. You know, I think that the operational complexities of making a wine seltzer, that I think the bar is really high, we did not realize how difficult it would be to make this product. So I think that you see, a lot of big companies—Duckhorn has recently launched a wine seltzer. Obviously, Barefoot has a wine seltzer. So you see a lot of the big companies, but I don’t think a small wine company, but we’re not a big company, I think I think it’s very painful and difficult. There’s a global can shortage, the the stability of the product is really tricky. You basically have to can it within four or five days. And then there’s there’s some shelf life questions. So I don’t think that you’re going to be seeing lots of smaller wine companies launching a seltzer due to one just the really challenging operational ability of making it and making it at a really high quality. I think if we knew how difficult it was going to be, before we set out to do it, we probably wouldn’t have done it. And the second thing is, I think that the category is really competitive. It’s what we call a fast traffic category. So you know, we’re a small company where we operate out of a log cabin in Santa Margarita. And for us to compete with, you know, global seltzer brands, I think it’s really challenging. So those two aspects, I think, make it real difficult for a small wine business to launch a seltzer.

Lauren Buzzeo 12:54
Yeah, that definitely makes a lot of sense and, and adds some really good context. So thank you so much for that, Andrew. And certainly, we’ve already seen that, again, a lot of competition, and a lot more space taken up at retail within this category and the subcategory overall, but I have to believe that there’s a really strong audience out there, again, you have these hardcore wine lovers that are absolutely going to be interested in the emergence of this category or the subcategory, if you will, of the wine-based seltzers. So do you think that actually, this might be a bit of a marketing question, but do you think that the audience is primarily established wine drinkers that are looking to add something maybe more refreshing? Maybe I’ll say, like, more easy drinking, but I mean, that’s a great thing. Right? So it’s not a bad thing. But is it something that established drinkers do you think are looking to add something different to their repertoire? Or do you think that this is maybe bringing in a new audience and sort of having some crossover from people who might have been exclusively drinking malt-based hard seltzers? Right now moving as an entree, this is their entree into the wine world?

Andrew Nelson 14:08
Yeah, you know, at first, I would have said both, I think what we’ve learned over the last year of launching Bubble Butt is that the price point within the malt seltzer category is very, very sensitive. And I don’t think that a wine seltzer can compete directly on pricing with a malt-based seltzer. It’s more expensive to make a really quality wine seltzer. So it’s kind of a long winded way of saying I think the real opportunity here is with wine drinkers, or people who are just getting into wine and like wine, and are looking for kind of a lower alcohol a more refreshing option or a premiumization of the seltzer category. So Bubble Butt is $13 for a four pack, and it’s a 250 milliliter can, so it’s considerably more expensive than White Claw, but we’re not trying to compete directly with White Claw. We’re really trying to be the Champagne of seltzers. So if you want something higher quality, that’s really delicious, Bubble Butt is for you.

Lauren Buzzeo 15:27
Right. I actually really love what you’re saying right now about the premiumization of the category because I do think that that’s generally where it’s headed. Right now, I even just saw a commercial I want to say like a couple of days ago for a new product from a big seltzer producer for their new organic seltzer offering. And really promoting that and pushing that hard. So I think looking to take things to that next level is definitely where it’s at, and differentiating one product from another and from a wine consumer or wine drinker, understanding the quality that’s there and almost immediately associating that if this is a wine based seltzer, that it might inherently carry some different or, like, you know, better connotation or quality standards to me as a wine drinker. I think that is a huge draw.

Andrew Nelson 16:19
Definitely, definitely. And we drink a lot of Bubble Butt at home. My wife and I are wine drinkers, obviously, you know, we’re biased to the product, but it’s delightful. It’s refreshing, it has both the Champagne, and kind of the seltzer quality. So I like the idea that this is a an emerging category for wine drinkers. And ideally, it’s kind of also pulling up some seltzer drinkers that are looking for a more premium product, something to trade up from their seltzer.

Lauren Buzzeo 17:06
Definitely, and I like what you also talk about in terms of, you know, differentiating between the different offerings out there, when you’re talking about flavorings. I think that there’s also something a bit more perhaps natural or organic in perception by using wine and grapes as the flavoring for this product. There’s no, you know, lime flavor, pineapple, mango, whatever the case may be, and an artificially introduced. But it might again come across as like a more possibly pure expression of fruit or flavor for someone who’s looking for something in that seltzer category that’s not artificially flavored.

Andrew Nelson 17:46
Yes, you know, we talked about this a lot in development. So it took us almost three years to make Bubble Butt we we we tried dealcing wine, we looked to Portugal to maybe like a Vino Verde base. We really did a lot of research and development to make sure that it was it was delicious. And the synthetic flavoring or just the flavoring was something we took a stance on really early. We wanted it to taste like wine, and particularly a champagne style flavor profile. So the great taste, and then the really high level of carbonation. We haven’t done any flavors of Bubble Butt we don’t have a plan to. Interestingly, we trialed with many different grape varieties. So Bubble Butt is a base of burger and French colombard, so, you know, two kind of classic workhorse grapes of California and neither of those grapes are particularly tropical. They’re floral, but they’re very clean. And one of the things that we learned, that we became concerned about, a more aromatic white, like a Sauvignon Blanc or a Muscat at extremely low sulfur levels with carbonation and in and aluminum can, can volatize and become just less delicious. So we really did a lot of research into which grape variety would taste the best and have some longevity in the cans. And that’s where burger and French colombard came from.

Lauren Buzzeo 19:26
That’s super interesting and definitely makes sense though. I don’t know I have a feeling that I might hear about you experimenting with some other grapes down the road? I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m not saying it’s true. I’m just saying I wouldn’t be surprised.

Andrew Nelson 19:41
We’re definitely innovative. But I think that the challenges within the seltzer category, it’s high risk to do innovation in an aluminum can with carbonation because we just don’t know quite how it will behave. So I think we’re cautious in the innovation. But it’s it’s certainly coming. And if the team is listening to this, they’re either excited or they’re rolling their eyes. I think that we’re really torn in how we will innovate with with Bubble Butt, with our very cheeky seltzer brand.

Lauren Buzzeo 20:19
Oh man, I was gonna use the cheeky but you beat me to it ,but it makes sense it sounds like a like a complex process and there’s a lot.

Andrew Nelson 20:28
We’re launching a subscription model, and it’s called The Ambassador Program.

Lauren Buzzeo 20:34
Oh my god, you know, this is why I love talking to you also. And this is why I thought were a great person to talk about this category because, you know, you obviously have a lot of information and a lot of experience in winemaking and production and marketing, but you just don’t take it too seriously. You’re also very aware about how things come across and leaving the enjoyment and the pleasure and the fun and the drink consumption part so that I could get behind it no matter what you call it. So thank you, thank you for what you do.

Andrew Nelson 21:08
Thank you, Lauren. Thank you. That means a lot coming from you.

Lauren Buzzeo 21:12
But I have to ask, I have to cover this because I know that it’ll come up somewhere with readers that are going to send me a question like, how did you not ask this? What is the difference? Can you really tell me? So here it goes. In your opinion, can you tell me what you see is a difference between a wine seltzer and a spritzer? Because we all know that spritzers are a hot drink of summer and people love them. But I think when you say wine seltzer, people might not be sure what exactly the differences. So, to you, what is the difference between wine seltzer and a spritzer?

Andrew Nelson 21:51
In the simplest way to say it, I think it’s fruit juice. So a spritzer is going to have added fruit juices, and most often residual sugar, whereas the seltzer is not going to have any juices and it’s going to have a very bright profile.

Lauren Buzzeo 22:08
Right. And that residual sugar, that’s what gets you the next day, right?

Andrew Nelson 22:11
Right, right, right. But don’t get me wrong. I definitely think there’s a time and place for a spritzer. And we debated spritzer versus seltzer. But we’re really trying to showcase a flavor profile with the word seltzer. And it’s a dry flavor profile, it’s refreshing, and it’s not fruity. So versus with the spritzer, I think in our opinion, the expectation is that it will be fruity, it will have some sweetness to it. Sometimes a spritzer is kind of effervescence, as well, in terms of a carbonation level, whereas with seltzer, I think that the customer is looking for like a soda level of carbonation versus just kind of a spritz or frisante, you know, just a little bit of carbonation. But the simplest definition that I’d stand behind and I’d be really interested in if any of your listeners disagree is a spritzer has fruit juice and residual sugar. And seltzer is a dry profile with no juice.

Lauren Buzzeo 23:23
Yeah, yeah, no, that definitely makes sense. And I think especially if you’re talking about the ready to drink and the canned space that that’s the assumption that’s kind of there when you’re picking up a product. One labeling versus another when you’re looking at it. And I think that, you know, it also talks to what we were saying a little bit about marketing and audience that you’re speaking to in terms of what their expectations are for this product. And I think selter has been pretty well defined, at least on the carbonation front, and largely on the dry, although that really does kind of vary based on the company and the product. But I think that that also ties into the quality conversation, and your definition, to me, is very suitable, I will absolutely take it and I will let you know what feedback we get.

Andrew Nelson 24:13
And feel free to disagree with me learn I’m wrong all the time. So feel free to push back. But I would also just note that I don’t think one is better than the other. I think that there are some really great spritzers on the market as well as as seltzer. So, while we’ve gone with seltzer, I don’t necessarily think that it’s it’s superior category.

Lauren Buzzeo 24:37
Sure, sure. And I absolutely agree with you. And you know, I drink my Buzzeo Spritz all summer long, so you know, if you want to know all about it, just email me at LBuzzeo@wineenthusiast.net and I’ll give you the recipe. But basically I am not beyond a spritzer either, although I have enjoyed my fair share of wine seltzers as well.

Andrew Nelson 24:58
Cool, but I would say I would say with conviction that a wine base is superior to a malt base. So as long as people are drinking wine, I’m happy. Convert from malt to wine.

Lauren Buzzeo 25:14
Oh, absolutely, proud cross drinker over here. I am equal opportunity across all categories. And I love people that drink enthusiastically the same. So I love that and I think that that’s the exciting thing and again, why I wanted to talk about this. The wine seltzer space, there’s room for a variety of delicious drinks in our lives, from beer to wine to seltzer to spirits and everything in between. So the more the merrier, and the more the funner, right. We can just enjoy it all. So thank you so much again for your time and talking wine seltzers with us today, Andrew, really appreciate it.

Thanks so much, Lauren, really enjoy the time with you.

It’s pretty clear that hard seltzers are here to stay. But like most drinks, the space may be taking new shape with innovation and even more varied offerings in the months ahead. But the good news is wine lovers can now join in the fun and rejoice in the availability of convenient, refreshing selections based on their preferred drink of choice. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. And if you like today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine and seltzer loving friends to check us out too. You can also drop us a line at podcast@winemag.com. For more wine reviews, recipes, guides, deep dives and stories, visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com and connect with us on Instagram Facebook and Twitter @wineenthusiast. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers.

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Published on August 18, 2021
Topics: Podcast