Friday, September 5, 2008

Creature Comforts

By Julianna Hayes

What is it with the wine world and its obsession with the animal kingdom? It seems every time I turn around there’s another bottle with a critter on the label – kangaroos, emus, goats and hippopotamuses, just to name a few.

Virtually every region around the world has a raft of these wines and in B.C. we are equal opportunists. Here you’ll find labels decorated with baying coyotes; angelic canines; barrel-rolling rodents and endangered birds; and even, hooved herbivores native to Africa.

Browsing the wine aisle at your the liquor store isn’t just shopping, it’s a trip to the zoo.

Many of the wineries are named for a particular animal and thus their use on the label is obvious. That African herbivore depicts Antelope Ridge winery in Oliver, while that endangered bird belongs to Burrowing Owl.

Other name brands have a more subtle association with beasts on their bottles. For example, Australia’s phenomenally successful Yellow Tail line features a bounding golden-hued wallaby. The French Fat Bastard series is graced with a portly hippo. Locally, Howling Bluff in Naramata is depicted by that baying coyote I mentioned earlier. And those barrel-rolling mice belong to Church and State’s Church Mouse line.

Other brands don’t provide any obvious clues as to why a creature was trotted out for their label. No, for that you have to dig a little deeper. Take for example, the curious winged and haloed dog on the bottles of See Ya Later Ranch wines. It actually depicts the beloved canines of Maj. Hugh Fraser, the first inhabitant of the ranch-turned-vineyard where the dogs are now buried.

Why wineries choose to market their products with an animal sometimes has a great story behind it like See Ya Later Ranch or is perfectly random. It may be that the creatures are commonly found in the area such as in cases of Blue Heron Winery in Pitt Meadows, Black Widow Winery in Naramata or Quails’ Gate in Westbank.

It gets harder to figure out the story behind the brand when the beasts are not considered to be native such as with Antelope Ridge – although there is an indigenous plant called Antelope Brush – or Elephant Island Winery, which is located neither on an island nor in an area where elephants roam.

Actually, there is logic behind the madness of the latter’s name. When the Naramata property was acquired by the family’s matriarch, “Grandmother Catherine,” her husband “Grandfather Poppy” dubbed it a “white elephant.” Later, Grandfather Poppy began referring to the property as Grandmother Catherine’s “eye-land.”

Whatever the reasons for putting them there, having a pig, a penguin, a panda or any other beast on your bottle gives you a marketing edge.

That’s because sales of new wines with an animal theme outperform all other new table wines by more than two to one, according to the marketing information company ACNielsen.

"While placing a critter on a label doesn't guarantee success, it is important that winemakers realize that there is a segment of consumers who don't want to have to take wine too seriously," said Danny Brager, a vice president with ACNielsen.

"Not only are they (consumers) willing to have fun with wine, they may just feel 'good' about an animal label presentation."

Brager attributed this trend to Yellow Tail, which he said "was a spectacular success."

"And I think it taught the industry a lesson: You don't need to get bogged down into the details of wine pretension or snootiness to be a success, if you have the right product."

But with the stable of beastly beverages growing, it may not be enough to slap the image of a bird on a label and be done with it. Vintners are having to be a bit more creative with the theme to keep their edge.

For example, Les Grands Chais de France, a company responsible for a fifth of French wine exports, has a product range with each bottle containing cartoon images of a different farmyard animal; indicating to consumers what meat they should drink the wine with.

In a variation of the theme, a South African winery opened under the name Goats do Roam, which is a critter spin on the fabulously high-brow wine region, Côtes du Rhône.

Meanwhile, in B.C., Burrowing Owl does more than just feature the creature that dwells in the nearby desert landscape. It has taken a conservation stance by helping to raise awareness of the area’s fragile eco-system and by donating proceeds collected toward the preservation and reintroduction of this little bird.

And See Ya Later Ranch holds a dog-friendly, family-fun day at the winery each year during the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival, raising funds for the SPCA – Maj. Fraser was actually the first president of the Penticton branch.

Wine Notes

95-100 Sets the bar.
90-94 Outstanding, has wow factor.
80-89 Good to very good.
70-79 Average, may have minor flaws.
60-69 Drinkable, but not recommended.
00-59 Undrinkable.

Burrowing Owl 2005 Meritage
Appearance: Rich, black inky colour
Aromas: Cassis, coffee, dark vanilla, earth, chocolate, plum, pepper, clove and leather
Flavours: Smoky, cassis, pepper, olive, vanilla, mocha, cloves and coffee
Body and Finish: Warm, silky entry with good weight on the palate, dry, slightly hot but extended finish
Overall Impression: Well made, stylish and balanced wine that needs a couple years to soften up.
Would I Buy It? Yes, to cellar
Cellaring Potential: Age 2-8 years
Score: 90/100
Price: $45
Availability: Direct from winery, private retailers

Church and State 2005 Church Mouse Merlot
Appearance: Brilliant ruby red colour
Aromas: Black cherry, plums, vanilla, chocolate, herbal, leather, spice
Flavours: Sour cherry, mocha, herbal, pepper, vanilla and earth
Body and Finish: Medium weight and texture, fine tannins, slightly hot but long finish.
Overall Impression: Packs a wallop for this price point, good choice for a hearty spaghetti and meat sauce dinner
Would I Buy It? Yes
Cellaring Potential: Drinkable now, age up to 4 years
Score: 88/100
Price: $20
Availability: BC LDB, VQA shops, private retailers

See Ya Later Ranch 2006 Jimmy My Pal
Appearance: Straw colour with golden hues
Aromas: Apple, honey, vanilla, citrus rind, touch of butter
Flavours: Baked apple, lemon, apple skin, vanilla, orange peel
Body and Finish: Slightly sweet entry with a bit of roundness on the mid-palate, clean finish, average length
Overall Impression: This blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Gris has some oak aging, but it is simple, clean and straightforward. Great value though
Would I Buy It? At this price point? Yes, to drink ice-cold on the patio
Cellaring Potential: Drink now
Score: 86/100
Price: $15
Availability: BC LDB, VQA shops, private retailers

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