When I started writing this column back in 1999, one of my first subjects was the Wine Brats, an organization founded in 1994 for the promotion of wine to Gen-X. The slightly cutesy name aside, the Brats were a smart outfit. The founders -- Jeff Bundschu, Jon Sebastiani, and Mike Sangiacomo -- all hailed from wine-industry families with their names on the label; if not quite boutique, the wineries were small enough to carry a little cachet in the tradition department. The group came off as less of a marketing effort and more of a mission on behalf of a public that didn't know what it was missing.
The kids wrote their own book: The Wine Brats' Guide to Living with Wine. They partnered with Wine X magazine, which shared their goal of selling wine to college grads who were burned out on beer. The Brats organized Wine Raves, taking wine tasting as far from the "sit-down, sip, spit, and speculate" format as they possibly could. They sought to make wine fun, to rid it of its musty-fusty reputation.
In some important ways, they succeeded. Rich Ikemeier, current head of San Diego Uncorked -- a group devoted to carrying on the Brats' work -- was a Wine Brats man for years: first in Atlanta, and then here in San Diego. "Five years ago," he recalls, "we were kind of the only group around town that was independently offering wine tastings," without connection to any particular restaurant or winery. "Now, there are a lot more of those groups. A lot of wine bars and wine retailers are offering tastings on a weekly basis. Go to localwineevents.com, and you'll see a lot going on. It wasn't really like that five years ago." The Brats' efforts probably account for some of that proliferation. Wine culture, says Ikemeier, "is a lot more casual than it was not that long ago. There are certainly not the barriers that there were." (Progressive, flavor-based wine lists and wine shops did their part, of course, along with animal-based wine labels and a host of other factors, but the Brats' 45,000 members in 33 chapters spread across 18 states surely helped out.)
Five years ago, Ikemeier was still relatively new in town, and he was watching the local chapter of the Brats shut down. "The president was having her second child. No one on the board decided to step up." It was probably for the best. Social whirlwind Annie Dierickx took the helm of a new board, with Ikemeier as her number two. The group moved out of the suburbs and into the city, sold itself well, and grew, and thrived.
But it didn't last. It might be that the Brats were, to some extent, a victim of their own success. Once the kids were sold on wine, what was to keep them from simply going their own way as ordinary consumers? And it didn't help that, according to a 2004 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, even the management thought the events "had become monotonous." Corporate sponsorship dropped off, and the wines -- always donated -- couldn't always hold the interest of an increasingly sophisticated membership. The founders left the board in 2002, and in 2003, the group's longtime executive director left, too.
There were lots of plans for restructuring, but Ikemeier says they didn't really pan out. "They had a couple of events in a couple of major cities, but they couldn't get back to what they had before. Before, we were structured to operate independently." Under the new system, headquarters called the shots (and controlled the money). "They didn't get local support. So subsequently, most everybody that ran the chapters in the other cities reformed independently under different names. About a half dozen took the 'Uncorked' name, but we're not tied to one another."
The goal is the same: "There is still a need for people -- basically, younger people -- who are interested in wine and trying to learn more about it." But as that last phrase suggests, the format has shifted a bit toward the traditional; the Wine Rave may never return. "We did have some of those types of events, but these are more people who are interested in really learning about wine, as opposed to just replacing beer as a beverage." (These days, San Diego Uncorked is hosting monthly gatherings: either walk-about tastings, wine dinners, or restaurant happy hours with certain wines discounted for Uncorked members.)
The industry upon which San Diego Uncorked relies has shifted as well. "There has been a lot of change, a lot of consolidation in the wine industry. Constellation is now a huge wine company. I couldn't tell you how many wineries they've bought up in the past two years. It's just kind of amazing who is no longer independent. Ravenswood used to be independent; they're part of Constellation now. We were aligned with Mondavi; they're part of Constellation now."
And when corporate management takes over, you get a new set of decision makers when it comes to donated wine. "It all depends on the brand" and where corporate thinks that brand ought to be marketed. "For example, the Little Penguin brand, the Alice White brand, they're interested in sponsoring some of our events. They're more than happy to donate several cases of five-dollar, six-dollar wine." But, notes Ikemeier, "Those are very entry-level--type wines." On the one hand, it makes some degree of sense to introduce new wine drinkers to the pleasures of the grape via "entry-level" wines. On the other, when it's your goal to educate folks about wine, entry-level will take you only so far -- and will command only so much attention. "I don't know if we're going to have a Little Penguin event every other month. I don't think that would be serving anybody. We need to find those second-tier wineries."
But sometimes, those second-tier wineries aren't as interested in working with smaller-scale, single-city organizations, which don't promise the sort of exposure the Brats could deliver. In other cases, they'd rather work with a wine bar or wine retailer, someone they already know through distributor channels.
"We need to go back and reconnect with the people we knew before," says Ikemeier. "The key is to identify those wineries that are interested in sponsoring our events. We just did our holiday dinner at Cuvee with Michel-Schlumberger. It's the second year they've sponsored our dinner. We just have to do more legwork than before. Before, we had a list of contacts at wineries. We just called them up and said, 'Hey, would you like to sponsor a tasting?' My business takes me up to Sacramento, and I've knocked on a few doors up in Lodi, made my rounds up there along the 99."