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A New Type of Gimmick Wine Has Hit the Market

Wine companies are matching fast food with fear of missing out

Chris Losh By December 23, 2021
image collage of taco bell, oreo's and coffee beans
Photo illustration by Pix

Food and wine pairings are part of the world’s shared culture, with matches handed down from generation to generation like an old watch: Barolo and truffles, whisky and smoked salmon, goat cheese, and Sancerre. These are tried and tested combinations, often from the same region. What grows together goes together, is rule number one in the sommelier’s handbook.

But of late, things have been getting more complicated. The last few years have seen a slew of drinks created specifically for a particular food, or even made using food ingredients.

The high point — or nadir, depending on your viewpoint — came earlier this month with the launch of a new Barefoot wine specifically created to partner with Oreo Thins cookies. Social media ran hot with wine industry disapproval.

But there have been plenty of other such food and drink mash-ups over the last 18 months. And you’re about to see lots more of them.

Here’s why

Take this fall’s Cheez-It sparkling wine pack. Containing crackers and a bottle of fizz, it’s a dopamine hit of crunchy flavored joy and alcohol; the adult equivalent of candy after school. This wasn’t Cheez-It’s first attempt at tying their product in with wine; a red and rosé had already appeared. 

Others are at an earlier stage in the cycle. In 2020, Taco Bell teamed up with Queenston Mile Vineyard in Canada, to create a Pinot Noir house wine. Jalapeño Noir was specifically designed to go with the eatery’s toasted cheesy chalupa.

According to Wine Spectator, Queenston’s president Andrew Howard loved the tie-in. “Democratizing wine and making it more available is what the wine industry should be doing more of,” he said. The fact that the wine sold out on day one probably pleased him too.

That these tie-ins are taking place in the fast-food eatery or snack aisle rather than the world of somm-driven food and drink matching is no accident. 

“Wineries are increasingly looking to break into the cultural mainstream, and out of the traditional confines of wine marketing,” says Jeremy Benson, president of wine and spirits marketing agency the Benson Marketing Group. 

As to why, it’s because the baby boomers, who have been a reliable cash cow for decades, are drinking less. Wine producers now have millennials in their sights. 

Millennials may have a reputation for being big fans of natural wine, but there are plenty who are only just starting out in wine or don’t drink it regularly at all. Crucially, they aren’t as bound by tradition as previous generations. 

Mariana Fletcher, head of insights and analytics, North America, at the analyst firm International Wine and Spirit Record, says millennials are more driven by “personalization and freedom of choice,” because these elements “make the purchase more thoughtful and seemingly more meaningful.”

Different, in other words, is good. And if it annoys stuffy older drinkers then that’s just an added bonus.

Wines fermented in barrels previously used for bourbon, rum, and even tequila have been big news for a while. Established wine lovers might throw their hands up in horror, but they’ve been successful at pulling in new drinkers, who aren’t so squeamish and enjoy the novelty. 

It is, after all, easier to attract someone who is hesitant about wine into the category by merging it with something with which they’re familiar, much to the horror of wine lovers

Blockbuster Australian brand 19 Crimes has gone one step further with their The Deported Coffee Infused Red, a red wine that contains actual cold brew coffee. Currently limited to the U.K., it’s only a matter of time before it reaches the U.S. Given how coffee literate many millennials are, it seems like an obvious way to attract them into wine through the side door.

“Under 35s, in particular, are intrigued by wine fusion products,” says Ben Blake, head of marketing at Treasury Wine Estates, the company behind 19 Crimes. He adds that blurring categories is one way to entice millennials to try new flavors.

In other words, if you’re a millennial, this stuff is all your fault.

The fact that these products are all made in such limited quantities begs the question of how many of them are genuine launches and how many are, in fact, just about creating a lot of noise around the brand.

Plus, there’s a twist

One feature of these mash-up products is that it’s striking how many of them sell out incredibly quickly.

If you want to buy a bottle of Curly Fry or Crinkle Fry vodka, dropped by sandwich chain Arby’s this autumn with the presumably tongue-in-cheek justification that both are made out of potatoes, you’ll be out of luck.

Likewise, the wine launched by mustard brand Grey Poupon in October.

It was supposedly a way of “celebrating” the white wine used in the mustard itself. It conveniently omitted to mention that if your average Frenchman discovered someone had put mustard seeds in his Viognier his face would probably actually turn the color of the relish itself.

But that didn’t stop it selling out in 24 hours.

The fact that these products are all made in such limited quantities begs the question of how many of them are genuine launches and how many are, in fact, just about creating a lot of noise around the brand.

People will, after all, buy something out of curiosity, even if they don’t expect to like it — rather like visiting a restaurant that’s had a terrible review. It’s car-crash consumerism.

Which means that sometimes, if a product looks like a gimmick and tastes like a gimmick, it actually is just a gimmick. Look behind the eyes and you will find nothing but cold, hard marketing.

Wine and chocolate

So where does this latest addition to the wine ‘n’ snacks canon, Barefoot Oreo Thins Blend sit?

Certainly, it ticks lots of the gimmick boxes: It’s a pairing guaranteed, indeed proven, to generate acres of free media; it’s squarely aimed at de-formalizing the drinking occasion; it came complete with PR nonsense about “everyone knows red wine pairs well with chocolate,” which is news for anyone who’s ever tried washing down their Hershey’s bar with a glass of Bordeaux.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t well crafted. It was not, after all, created by the winemaker dropping packs of cookies in the fermenting vat. Rather, winemaker Jen Wall and her team have put together a wine imbued with flavors they think pair well, specifically chocolate, blackberry, and cherry.

The first reviews were generally positive. “It actually tasted very similar to an Oreo!” wrote Ni’Kesia Pannell from thekitchn. “Mixed with the red blend, however, the cookies and creme notes weren’t too heavy for my palate and left me wanting to take another sip to catch all of the flavors.”

Sarah Jane Evans, a Master of Wine, is a specialist in pairing red wines and chocolate. And she thinks, in theory, that such a wine can work. 

“Serious red wines with tannin can be a problem because chocolate has tannins too,” she says. “A 70% cocoa chocolate wouldn’t work at all. So perhaps going down the biscuit line is a good idea.”

According to Evans, a sweeter wine is essential, or the sugar in the cookies will make the wine taste bitter.

“Texture is important too,” she says. “Something that’s a bit crunchy can really work, so what they’ve done here is actually very clever. It’s something that can bring people into wine in a good way.”

If you’ve missed out on the Oreo Thins Blend, then don’t worry. All the evidence suggests that another attention-grabbing match-up will be coming soon. It might even taste good.