The Tasting Panel magazine

December 2017

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december 2017  /  the tasting panel  /  75 T o date, Cooper & Thief Cellarmasters has produced one wine and one wine only: a California red blend aged in bourbon barrels. Why bourbon barrels? For VP of Marketing John Seethoff, the better question is, why not? "One of the inspirations for this wine was seeing an increase in consumers drinking across categories—wine drinkers exploring spirits and beer drinkers exploring both wine and spirits. At the same time, brown spirits and red blends have been showing incredible growth, and we saw a great opportunity to bring all of these elements together in a really unique flavor experience," he explains. "As our winemaker Jeff Kasavan says, 'You shouldn't have to make the deci- sion of wine or whiskey . . . now you can enjoy the best of both worlds.'" "We were inspired by the idea of cross-aging, though it is not our original thought," Seethoff points out. After all, craft brewers have been experiment- ing with used casks of all kinds—from Scotch to Chardonnay—for some time now. "Jeff's passion, adventurous spirit, and more than 30 years of experience made him uniquely suited to explore this new winemaking territory," Seethoff describes, but not without many "trials and tribulations" in the journey to arriv- ing at the final product. For starters, "to stack up to the strength of the bourbon and the robust flavors imparted by aging in the barrels, you've really got to think about the grapes' flavor intensity and tannin structure," Seethoff explains. To that end, Kasavan came up with a blend of predominantly Merlot and Syrah (38% and 37%, respectively) to produce his desired fruit profile. Seethoff adds that Kasavan also did "a lot of work around Zinfandel that offers some jammy notes, but also some spice to comple- ment the vanilla and toasty character- istics" of the wood, which accounts for 11% of the composition. Seven percent Petit Sirah and another four of Cabernet Sauvignon were added for structure, while the remaining 3% is a blend used to top off the barrels in which the wine spent three months. As for branding, Seethoff says the desire to come up with "something that really represented the concept in a package" led to a "shorter, stouter bottle of heavy glass with a capsule that suggests the wood grain of the barrel." The label is also a nod to bourbon's heritage and echoes the Cooper & Thief name, which "likewise brings the imagery of spirits and wine together" by referencing both the cask builder and the winemaker's sampling pipette. First released in the fall of 2016, the inaugural 2014 vintage saw its national launch in March of this year. The wine, which retails for about $30, has succeeded beyond the company's wildest dreams. "We thought it had potential to be a fun niche segment," says Seethoff. "Who knew what people would think about wine aged in bourbon barrels?" To find out, the team began participating not only at festivals like Aspen Food & Wine, where the reaction was "surprise and delight," but at whiskey fairs as well. "People don't expect to see us at these events," Seethoff continues. "They say, 'I never would have thought I'd enjoy red wine—I like whiskey—but this is a really interesting experience.' It has definitely captured the attention of people who aren't traditionally wine-focused." Sure enough, after barely a year in the marketplace, Cooper & Thief Red Blend has shot to the top of the domestic super luxury red blend category by reaching third in sales per IRI data. "It's a pretty staggering feat," Seethoff marvels. Cooper & Thief is taking a similarly unconventional approach to its on- premise presence. "We're continuing to develop our focus in restaurants, and our top priority is not necessar- ily white-tablecloth," Seethoff says. Because the wine clocks in at a whop- ping 17% ABV, suggested pairings include chocolate-laced desserts—spe- cifically lighter-textured concoctions that balance the wine's richness, like mousse, trifles, or tiramisu. They're also exploring its use in cocktails, exempli- fied by what Seethoff calls the Cooper & Thief Vineyard Julep: one part wine to one part High West American Prairie Bourbon with simple syrup, a dash of bitters, and mint. At the time of this writing, Kasavan is putting the finishing touches on the 2016 vintage and expects that fluctuations in the varietal composition—though inevitable—will be minor from here on out. But considering Cooper & Thief Cellarmasters has a vision as bold as its wine, it will hardly come as a surprise that the company has other innova- tions in the works. "We're not ready to divulge all of our plans, but there's a lot of thought about how we expand the brand and explore the opportunity of consumers moving into new segments," Seethoff explains. "We're trying to understand which varieties work with barrels that have aged other spirits. It's not just about throwing wine into liquor barrels; it's about what the wine is offering and what the spirits barrel aging brings to the mix." Tempranillo in tequila casks, anyone? PHOTO COURTESY OF COOPER & THIEF PHOTO COURTESY OF COOPER & THIEF WINE & SPIRITS Bourbon and Wine Unite ROLLING OUT THE BARREL WITH RED-HOT DOMESTIC BRAND COOPER & THIEF CELLARMASTERS by Ruth Tobias John Seethoff is the VP of Marketing for Cooper & Thief Cellarmasters.

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