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Wine Enthusiast Podcast: How We Fell In Love With Wine

In our launch episode, Wine Enthusiast editors reveal how we fell head over heels for wine, beer and spirits. Also, Jordan Salcito, beverage director for Momofuku restaurants, and Brandon O’Daniel, head distiller at Copper & Kings American Brandy Co., talk about what lured them into the beverage world for the first time.

Listen to other episodes of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast

Read the full transcript of “How We Got Into Wine”:

Susan Kostrzewa: Hi. I’m Susan Kostrzewa. I’m the executive editor of Wine Enthusiast. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking to Jordan Salcito, who’s the beverage director of Momofuku Group. Brandon O’Daniel who is a head distiller out of Louisville, Kentucky, and a few of us as well, talking about how we fell in love with wine, beer, and spirits.

Jameson Fink: Hi, I’m Jameson Fink. I’m the senior digital editor for Wine Enthusiast.

SK: How did you get into wine?

JF: I’d have to say that wine coolers were my entry into the world of wine. I remember, well I remember the commercials more than the wine coolers. I remember the 2 Bartles and Jaymes guys, “Thank you for your support.” Bruce Willis doing this Seagrams Golden wine cooler.

SK: It’s always songs like that that stay in your mind, but the good ones you can’t remember. I guess they did their job properly.

JF: They did. I still remember them 20 some odd years later.

SK: Mine was also wine coolers. I had older siblings who were obviously drinking legally, but there was stuff around the house, and Bartles and Jaymes were probably one of the first things I ever tried. I don’t know if that deterred me or got me into wine, but at least I eventually ended up drinking really good stuff, so.

JF: I think the fact that also the wine coolers, they came in like beer bottles more or less, like 12 ounce bottles, made a difference. That it was sort of like, “Oh, it’s just like a beer or something.” There wasn’t like a corkscrew involved, or any sort of machinations or technical skills like, open it and drink it.

SK: It wasn’t supposed to be fussy, I don’t think. It was supposed to be … I mean obviously from a flavor perspective, but also just yeah, exactly the way it was marketed. Also, I think reflected kind of where the country was at the time in wine. It wasn’t a super sophisticated market for wine yet. Even if they had been pushing like higher-end, like you say, more elegantly packaged stuff, it probably wouldn’t have resonated with the public in the way that something like that did.

I don’t know. It’s interesting that now there’s like a new re, sort of take on wine coolers. It’ll be interesting to see how they do, given the current market.

JF: Now, I’d like to drink a wine cooler but I just drink it myself. I just get some white wine or rose, some ice, maybe some club soda, a little fruit, like a sangria type thing.

SK: Right.

JF: Now my idea of a wine cooler has a whole different connotation other than something that’s a-

SK: That’s a good point. If you think about- this is a little bit off of the wine cooler topic, but even cocktails. I was in Italy last year and I was drinking a lot of Campari and soda. There’s just certain … I don’t know. I felt very adult doing that. It’s- there’s different combinations of beverages that you can drink that are great, and wine is included in that. It doesn’t have to be a spirit. You can kind of play around with wine. It just depends on what you want your experience to be, what the wine is, and what the situation is, I guess.

Joe Czerwinski: My name is Joe Czerwinski, managing editor of Wine Enthusiast magazine. In our house growing up, wine was pretty much just a special occasion thing, so we’d have a Liebfraumilch or a Chianti around the holidays. What was big was food.

My grandmother was a big foodie, and was part of like the single gourmet clubs and things like that, so she always knew what the cool restaurants were. Since we’re talking a while back, in the 70’s, all the cool restaurants were French. I guess because I identified strongly with French food, wine came along with that.

When I started doing my own cooking, I started to cook classic French dishes, and they always used wine. That’s how I got into wine.

JF: After we started with wine coolers, what was like the first time you started drinking wine, and you were like, “I’m kind of figuring it out,” or, “This is what I like”?

SK: College, for sure.

JF: Uh-huh.

SK: I was just remembering. We had this great apartment in Evanston. I remember I shared it with like 4 other girls. It was kind of chaotic. We had this really cool sun room in the front of this apartment, and we used to throw dinner parties in there. As much as we knew what that meant at a young age, but we were trying.

I just remember we were buying wine, and I think it was- I’m going to mispronounce- was it Vendange?

JF: Oh yeah. Vendange.

SK: Vendange? I’m giving it a French pronunciation to try to elevate it. Anyway, we would get like large format of Vendange, but it was just like work for us to drink. That was my entry level. What I do remember, regardless of whether the wine itself was great, was just how much it was to sit around a table, have a meal, and drink wine.

JF: Yeah. My first thing was college were I was cooking dinner with some of my friends. For some reason, I don’t know, I think I must have had- I’m sure I had the Wine Bible, or something about [inaudible 00:05:38] with a little bit of- something that has a little sweetness to it. It’s just a very lush wine. Something that can be nice with spicy foods, and I was like, “I don’t know.” I bought a bottle of it. Ended up being great.

When I went to Chicago, when I moved from Chicago from this college I went to in Iowa, I had like a job where I had a salary, and I was like, “I can buy wine. I can spend money on wine.” I would go to my little bodega, which I thought had a great wine selection, because they had more than like 5 bottles.

SK: Right.

JF: Which it had like racking in there, and I was like, “Ooh. Racking. Wooden racks.”

SK: That must mean it’s good.

JF: Yeah. I remember buying- the 2 brands I remember buying were Meridian Chardonnay and Ravenswood Zinfandel.

SK: Oh, yeah, Ravenswood was a good, really good- I don’t want to call it entry level because I actually do like Ravenswood a lot. That was one of mine as well that really got me into wine. I can totally get it. It was affordable.

JF: The packaging was cool.

SK: It was cool packaging. Yeah.

JF: Yeah.

SK: No, that’s definitely true. Did you- I think a lot of times we, people who are first getting into wine tend to gravitate towards sweet. It was interesting that you said- you were drinking Gewurztraminer, which obviously good Gewurztraminer doesn’t have that, it’s very balanced.

I remember drinking … I lived in California for awhile, and I was- that’s where I really got into wine. Living there, obviously. One of the wines I loved at the time, when I was first getting into wine was called A Thousand Flowers by a winery called Hop Kiln.

JF: Oh yeah. Sure. I remember that wine.

SK: Yeah. Yeah. It had a really pretty label.

JF: Yes it did.

SK: I started, definitely started with like a sweeter palate, then kind of moved away. Now I’m rediscovering all the great sweet wines of the world, because obviously balance is a huge part of it. Like grape minerality, and all that stuff.

Did you start- you were talking about some of the wines.

JF: I’m sure Meridian Chardonnay probably had some sweetness in it, even though it wasn’t labeled as such. No, actually I was thought that when I started drinking wine, I always thought that wine was like- it’s kind of like that first sip of beer that you have, like it was like my dad’s Old Style. I was like, “This is awful. This is so harsh.” Then, I can’t understand why people would drink it and be like, “Ah.” The thing with wine was I always thought it had to be like strong and harsh, and like that was wine. It’s like big and rich and bold, and like powerfully tannic. I guess my idea of wine would be something like every wine is like a massive Cabernet and you need to wait for 20 years to open it.

SK: That’s what- a lot of what was around.

JF: Maybe it’s like coffee. You have to- I’m not saying put cream and sugar in my wine, but you kind of start a little bit sweet, and then once you get sort of a feel for it, like with coffee, I started backing off on the cream and sugar.

SK: I think it’s your palate and it’s also the quality of what you’re drinking. It’s definitely, you start to get more of a taste for nuances in like coffee, but also you start to get smarter about what type of coffee you’re buying.

Coffee’s a good example of something similar to wine. It’s like, if it’s good, if the grapes are good, if the coffee’s good, you don’t need much, to add much to it. Not much needs to be done. It’s just good on it’s own.

Carrie Dykes: Carrie Dykes, tasting coordinator for Wine Enthusiast magazine. My first experience with wine would be somehow acquiring a Boone’s Farm strawberry flavored. Opening it, having a little bit, putting it in my closet to hide from my parents. Revisiting it a month later with my friend, when they went out, not realizing that wine turns. Immediately getting so sick, I said to myself, “I will never do this again.” Here I am today.

Marina Vataj: Hi. I’m Marina Vataj, digital managing editor of Wine Enthusiast magazine. My dad used to make like underground wine in the basement. He carved out this cellar, which was like so cool. He would just, every night we would go down to the cellar, and get another bottle. He’d open it and we’d be having like massive chunks of lamb and fresh made bread and cheese, and he’d just pop open the bottle, and we would just all drink.

I was in my teens, and I had like a little bit here and there, but it was never this thing that was taboo. It was always like something you did at the dinner table with your family. It just so happened my dad’s wine, was at the time, really, really great. Since then, I’ve had other wines that probably make his not so great.

Yeah. It was just part of my dinner table tradition, having my dad’s homemade wine.

JF: It’s senior digital editor, Jameson Fink. I’m speaking with Jordan Salcito. She’s the beverage director at the Momofuku Group. I’m wondering if you could tell me what Bellus Wines is.

Jordan Salcito: Of course. Okay. Bellus is a company that I founded in 2011. Really, when I- my entry point to wine was, aside from drinking actually decent wine with my parents, when we’d get like a sip here and there, but in college. I went to a college and Natty Light was the beer of choice. Every party had Natty Light, and I am not somebody who enjoys that, so by the time I was a junior, and I’d lived in Italy at this point, my junior year. You had like Chianti and cheap prosecco, but I got back to college and I was sort of like, “All right, I don’t have to deal with Natty Light anymore. I’m drinking wine.” Franzia. That’s my entry point.

I drank Franzia Rose, probably my entire senior year. That was a great entry point into wine. I felt like that’s very accessible, and that was like way more delicious than Natty Light in my opinion. Then, very soon after, a couple years later when I started working Harvest and [Burgundy 00:11:16] and got really seriously into this world of wine, in a sort of more focused way, the wineries that I was lucky enough to work at- Domaine Dujac, [French 00:11:30]. These were wines that were certainly above my price point, so I could drink them because I was in the industry, but what about all of my friends who were sort of saying, “Hey, what wine should I drink?” I can’t be like, “Oh, go get a bottle of [L’Etage 00:11:44]. It’s really delicious.”

I felt like there was this sort of void in the market at the time for wines that were made with exactly the same integrity. Minimal intervention, organic farming, and just meant to taste like the place that they were from. I felt like that sort of message was missing from this world of wine that people who are not in our industry had access to. That was how Bellus started.

JF: Then, just tell me what else you’re working on that’s new and exciting.

JS: The thing I’m super super excited about is Ramona Fizz. Ramona- I, also, in addition to Franzia in college, I really loved the wine cooler. The wine cooler was like way too sweet. I mean, in retrospect now, now that I’ve gone through the Court of Master Sommeliers, and all of that, would I drink a wine cooler today, the same wine cooler I drank 10 years ago?

JF: The Bartles and Jaymes, the Seagrams.

JS: Probably not. I feel like it is due for an upgrade, and it’s due for a refresh and they actually disappeared sort of in the late 90’s because of an excise tax that Congress passed in 1991, that made it much more favorable to use malt liquor as a base for any of these products. That’s where your like Zima sprang up, and your Smirnoff Ice, and all of those are malt liquor based, instead of wine. I prefer to drink wine, and why not make an organic one.

We are using some organic grapes from Italy and it’s actually less of a carbon footprint to ship wine over from Italy to New York than it would be to ship them from like, on truck from Oregon or from wherever over to where we are. We’re going to blend it with some grapefruit, and we’re going to release the first, that I believe- I believe it’s the first organic wine cooler. It will be served in a 250 ml slim can, which is like the size- think of like a Red Bull can. It’s like that size.

I’m really excited about it. We worked a lot. It started with experiments in the kitchen, and sort of fresh grapefruit juice here, and this wine versus that wine, and my little carbonation machine, which totally got ruined in the process. That will launch this year, and yeah, we’re excited.

JF: Jordan, thanks for your perspective on restaurant wine lists and wine coolers, and big boxed wines, and really a accessible wines made in the manner that some of the best wines are, but at more affordable prices. I just want to say, if people want to follow you on Instagram, you’re @jordansalcito, S-A-L-C-I-T-O. Thanks for joining me today.

JS: Thank you so much. It was really- it’s an honor to be a part of this group of people and an honor to be having this conversation today. Thank you.

JF: We’ll enjoy some Hershey’s miniatures now.

JS: Yes. Yes we will. Yes we will.

SK: Okay. Jameson, now that you have the worldly perspective that you have, what would you tell somebody who is sort of new to wine, and maybe just right now are just drinking wine coolers, but they kind of want to move to the next level. What would you say would be good advice for them?

JF: I think- I mean, a particular wine I would suggest would be Vino Verde. Although it’s a large, broad category with a wide spectrum of wines, but there’s a lot of welcoming, friendly, inexpensive- it’s from Portugal. It’s a white wine. It’s got a little spritz to it. It’s low alcohol, too. It’s not- it’s just really fresh and fun. I think it’s a nice introduction into the world of white wines, transitioning from something like a wine cooler, or like a malt slash wine beverage.

Susan you talked to a distiller who’s initial foray into the world of beverage making wasn’t in spirits. Tell me how he got his start.

SK: Yeah. It was really interesting. He started out as a winemaker, and then through his interest in wine, got into distilling. He had gained a lot of perspective from his time in wine that he applied to spirits.

This is Susan Kostrzewa, executive editor. I’m here with Brandon O’Daniel, who’s the head distiller at Copper & Kings American Brandy company in Louisville, Kentucky. Welcome, Brandon.

Brandon O’Daniel: Thank you very much for having me.

SK: Absolutely. Brandon, you’re doing some really interesting things at Copper & Kings. One of the things I wanted to talk about was your lavender infused absinthe, and some of your offbeat brandy bottlings.

BO: Absinthe was originally made with fruit. Brandy is definitely a fruit-derived spirit, so when we got back flipping into the history books and we saw how absinthe used to be made, it was a natural fit for us to get into the absinthe market, and make it with grapes versus [GNS 00:16:34].

SK: It’s interesting, too, because now all of these changes in the way that the American public experiments with what they’re eating and drinking, the timing seems right for these things, even though like you say, these are actually a nod to the tradition. What are you seeing as far as people trying new spirits? You see a change in the way people are approaching these sort of fun approaches?

BO: I think I’m seeing a change in general with people going from a lot of processed, big manufacturer products to more of a craft, hand-made product. Especially when you start linking it back into our forefathers and what we were doing before that, it just kind of- it tugs on that heart string with the American people to get back to their roots, so to speak. Really in the last few decades, it’s kind of been lost.

SK: When you look at American history and culture, spirits are a part of our DNA. Going back for so long, there are these great recipes. Some of them are resurging. Can you talk to me a little bit about your interest in the history of spirits in the U.S.? How much of that are you researching as you go into these new projects?

BO: The history aspect of it is absolutely huge. At Copper & Kings, we’re history buffs, at least for the alcohol, above everything else. Really kind of flip through and see how alcohol used to be made, before we were all worshiping that bottom dollar, or that high dollar, however you want to see it. It kind of always sparked an interest in me.

When I got the opportunity to make spirits in a traditional sense, all done by hand, and I start from start to finish with the grapes, and we go all the way to the barrel, it was just something that kind of struck in me that seemed important.

SK: There’s a trend right now in home distilling. Again, actually, if you look to history, something that’s been done for a long time in the U.S. I’m based in New York, and we always talk about in Brooklyn you pretty much can find somebody distilling something in their apartment at some point. What do you think about this? Do you support it? Do you- what’s your feeling about that?

BO: It’s kind of a mixed bag. I’m from Kentucky, and home distilling is a huge deal down there. There is no doubt about it. Some of the finest spirits I’ve ever had have come out of Mason jars. That being said, there are a lot of people that are getting interested in it, but don’t necessarily know the safety aspects of it. That’s kind of my main concern. I would hate to have any of my friends go blind because they drank something that they weren’t supposed to, made by somebody that didn’t know how to do the cuts, and didn’t know how to do the fermentation.

It’s extremely fun, and I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t get started in on small little 5 gallon pots, too. At the same time, it’s nice to know what you’re drinking.

SK: Overall, talk to me a little bit about trends in distilling and trends in spirits that you’re seeing that are exciting to you, and that either you’re trying- you’re looking at doing, Copper & Kings, or just overall in the industry that you want to try or see more of.

BO: There’s 2 sides of that. Again, we’re going back to the originality thing, pre-Prohibition cocktails, pre-Prohibition spirits, pre-Prohibition stills even to speak. At the same time, you’re seeing another trend on the exact opposite, where they’re doing very modern stuff, very high science, very low loss. Both of them interest me as far as the science aspect of it. When it comes to art and actually lifestyle and how I like to live mine, I’m all about doing everything by taste. It’s old style or old school or nothing for me.

SK: Talk to me a little bit about your process when you’re coming up with a new product like that. Does it come from an inspiration? How do you create something and what is your process?

BO: That’s really the cool thing about Copper & Kings. Even though we’re really in several states- we’re in 24 at the moment- we’re still a very small company. Really, what happens is, we do a lot of brainstorming. It’ll be myself, the bosses, and a few other employees will sit down. We’ll throw back and spitball ideas back and forth.

When a few of us decide that’s where we want to go, I’ll then go downstairs and I have a 50 gallon pot still named Sarah. She allows me to basically get as creative as I want to. It’s a whole lot easier to dump 50 gallons worth of wash if it doesn’t turn out, versus 750 which is one of my other style pots. That’s really where it starts.

We’re just basically sitting around over lunch or over cocktails, coming up with either new ideas or reinventing classics. From there, it’s kind of up to me to go downstairs and see if I can actually make that come together and connect the dots.

SK: Am I correct that you have a wine making background?

BO: I do.

SK: Okay. This is interesting to me, because I always wonder about the crossover, not only in styles, but the process. How do you feel that your wine making background informed or influenced what you’re doing now?

BO: My wine making background was definitely the foundation for my entire career. I fell in love with the grapevine before I even fell in love with alcohol. I was the vineyard manager well before I was a wine maker. When I got started, I wanted to stay in the vineyard completely. From there, the wine kind of crept in and I got really into that. The distilling aspect of it was really just icing on the cake. As far as connection, they’re all one in the same.

I really find, or I guess believe, so to speak, that in order to be a true vintner, or wine maker or distiller, you’ve got to do all of it. Starting in the vineyard, a good bottle of wine is made in the vineyard, there’s no doubt about it. Everybody says that. At the same time, a fantastic bottle of brandy is also made in the vineyard. If you don’t know the structures of the vines, the soil, the weather conditions, it’s really hard to miss that gap and still produce a really nice brandy at the end, because there are a tremendous amount of steps between vineyard A and brandy still Z.

Starting at the base and getting my hands dirty for several years before I even got into the winery side of things, I think really gave me a foundation that allows me to sit here and have a little bit of confidence about what I say and about what I want to go with it, as far as my choices throughout this career.

SK: Cocktails. Talk to me a little bit about cocktails in general and some of your favorites, and some of the cocktails you think people should be paying attention to.

BO: I kind of have a different approach about cocktails. My philosophy on cocktails is, the original cocktail was made was to hide or kind of knock off some of the bite of that spirit. After working at Copper & Kings and really being able to taste a tremendous amount of different- at least variations- of spirit, my cocktail preferences seem to be leaning towards let’s promote that spirit and let’s showcase that spirit.

I like a cocktail that when you taste it, and you smell it, you can actually tell what that base spirit is. My favorite cocktail is an Old Fashioned. Actually, my new favorite is actually one we do at Copper & Kings, it’s called the C & K Express. That’s basically a couple ice cubes, a couple shots of brandy, and then just a little bit of citrus peel. I try to stay as simple as possible.

I like a good 9, 7 part cocktail, there’s no doubt about it. It’s an art form to make those. That being said, after 12 hours of watching the still and you want something to drink, it’s nice to be able to pull out 2 to 4 ingredients and still make a cocktail, and then be able to taste the spirit you made on that day, or 5 years ago, whatever it may be.

I’m kind of more on the pre-Prohibition style. A little bit on the heady side for alcohol, a little light on the sweetness. To each their own.

SK: I really like the idea of- I think that obviously trends, there are cycles. I think that right now, everyone’s really enjoying the more simple approach to cocktails, and I think you’re right. We have access to such better spirits now. I think people are more knowledgeable about those spirits. What do you think has been the change in the American understanding of spirits over the last, say, 10 years? Do you see people becoming more and more discerning and knowledgeable about the spirits they’re drinking and expecting more than they used to?

BO: Without a doubt. Really I think that all relates back to the farm-to-table movement, the small farm agricultural movement. Spirits is agriculture, there’s no doubt about it. Whether you’re making fruit brandies or you’re making grain spirits, it all starts out at the farm.

I think people are really starting to miss and notice they no longer have that connection to where their food comes from. I think once they bridge that gap and they figure out, oh my goodness, that tomato that I got from my neighbor down the road was so much better than the grocery store tomato, they start asking more questions. What else is better when it’s hand crafted? What else is better when the guy down the road is doing it?

It was just a natural progression from food to beer, to spirits. It’s just kind of how we go as Americans.

SK: Yeah. I think it’s a great thing that we’re rediscovering that side of being connected to food that we drink- or food that we eat, and everything we drink. It’s a great evolution for us. Brandon, thank you so much for being here. We’re really excited to see what you come up with next.

BO: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

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