“This is the first-ever marijuana infused wine,” announces the weed-wine pitchman with a revolutionary fervor that makes my fellow wine writers at the Santa Rosa Wine Bloggers Conference lean in. “Our company is called Rebel Coast and we’re winemakers,” he continues, proudly displaying his green wine. Flowers of the marijuana plant are heated to activate the THC, then immersed in partially-fermented wine for three to five days. This wine is unique – no alcohol – so expect it to taste…. different, from what you’re used to.”
Good different or bad different, I wonder.
With 16mg THC* and 0.5% alcohol in Rebel Coast’s new Marijuana Infused Sauvignon Blanc, you may get high but you definitely won’t get drunk. New rules in the state of California around recreational cannabis use say producers can’t infuse alcohol with weed, so it’s either alcohol or THC, but definitely not both. So – if the grapes aren’t fermented and there’s no alcohol production – it kinda begs the question – is this even wine?
A curious blend of hipster and cowboy, the guy with the impressive Movember mustache and cowboy hat races around our table filling glasses with a lime-esque liquid. He and his sidekick ooze a heady, opportunist vibe. It’s a frenetic energy that comes with the prospects of cracking the multi-billion-dollar legal marijuana market expected to take root in California in January 1, 2018.
Unlike other wine producers in the room who are trying to get the 300+ writers here to live-tweet nice things about their wines, these guys seem more interested in our reaction to the concept of cannabis wine, than to the wine’s taste profile. And let’s be honest; at the end of the day, is their audience really going to be buying this pot wine for its stunning aromas and fruit forward profile?
“I just read Constellation bought a 10% share of the Canadian weed company, Canopy Growth,” I tell the guy with the bottle, trying to appear like I know what I’m talking about. “Yea, they paid something like $90 million???” he says, excitedly. “These are definitely interesting times,” he says with a you-and-me-we’re-in-the-know smile.
I wonder if I should dash off and call my broker. But I’ve only got two minutes left to taste and tweet about this “wine” before the next winery in the “pitch your wine” hour-long roulette exercise, visits our table.
On the nose? Yup, I think it’s fair to say the blend is aromatically unique from the Sauvignon Blanc I’m accustomed to. I smell citrus, hops and something else…. Ragweed? It’s definitely herbal. I tweet “grass” since I don’t want to offend.
On the palate? I’m getting something akin to Mello Yello and aging asparagus. Also, higher acidity and rustic, savoury, herb-de-Provence flavours. “Notes of freshly picked pot,” the millennial to my right, knowingly adds.
Final impression? I’m sure the “wine” the guys in cowboy hats are calling Sauvignon Blanc is indeed made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. But it bears no resemblance to any new or old world Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé I’ve had before.
Still, I’m willing to give these guys points for trying. I’m all about vive la difference. And they’re a hoot. Pioneers need balls, and there’s no question these bad boys have a pair.
Pot Wine & Beyond: Redefining the wine marketing playbook
The moustachioed winemaker behind this Cannabis infused Sauvignon Blanc is a guy named Chip Forsythe, and near as I can tell, he is the living, breathing personification of the Rebel brand.
As I creep (ok, research) the (mostly UPPER CASED) Rebel Coast website and execute a deep, forensic dive into Rebel Coast images, a fascinating wine-marketing case study (my life’s work) emerges. These guys are not only redefining wine as we know it by adding pot to the blend, they’re also taking wine marketing to some new places.
Here are a few choice copy lines from their website:
“Our dream was to build a bad-ass winery.”
“Our wines will always pair well with wild nights, good friends and ignoring your parents’ advice.”
“It takes a lot of good beer to make good wine.”
“This wine tastes like I’ll be texting you later.”
Bad-ass in spades. If the frat-house website copy doesn’t get your attention, there’s a good chance the photos will.
Lots of alcohol brands – especially beer – have used that frat formula, i.e. good times, hot bodies and sexual innuendo to build a brand identity and attract young, adventure-seeking consumers to their brands. They’ve spent decades getting their wrists slapped by regulators and enraging organizations like MADD for producing advertising that equates booze and getting smashed with good times. Certainly, emotional advertising has always been at the top of the food chain for marketers selling lifestyle brands. As Rob Sands of Constellation Brands tells his shareholders: we sell a lot of this beer because the advertising “makes them feel good when they drink it – it fits their image.”
So, yes, we’re used to seeing “aspirational” advertising with beer, but not so much with wine. Most wine marketing focuses on selling facts vs. feelings. It’s typically risk-free and predictable, focusing on the wine production story, the winemaker’s story or the quality of the wine. While there’s been a marked increase in hip packaging over the last few years, most wine marketing still plays it safe.
Not the boys at Rebel Coast.
Serving a healthy dose of irreverence and carnal pleasure
Rebel Coast revels in anti-establishment, bad boy imagery. Risk taking is their modus operandi and their mission statement – my word, not theirs – seems to be “Don’t bend the rules, break ‘em.”
Their creative messaging includes a generous mix of hunk-vertising and orgy-like behaviour, positioning their Rebel Coast brand as the Tinder of the wine world. Legend has it, in pre-Harvey Weinstein times – Chris Forsythe scored $160,000 in seed money from a business accelerator in San Mateo when he shocked – and apparently delighted – investors at a pitch meeting with slides of half-naked women enjoying his “Naked Rebel” wine. Beyond the we’ll-help-connect-you-to-the perfect-mate message, they’ve layered on an autobiographical element that celebrates their play fast and loose, sorry mom and f##k chateau wines attitudes.
Peppered throughout their marketing, are these backhand swipes at the wine establishment. “People are bored with typical wines with cursive on them. The Chateau du Somethings. They want to try new stuff,” says Forsythe. And: “We spend an enormous amount of time creating wines that are easy to pronounce and relatable.”
Forsythe attributes their success ($5 million in sales in 2016) and cult following to a generation of wine drinkers who don’t take wine seriously. Wine shouldn’t be stressful, he says. He also argues there is no right way to describe a wine.
In their mission to de-pomp and circumstance the wine category, they add brand value by doing quirky things like putting their phone numbers on their corks. They also have a fun, back label peel-off feature on their Sunday Funday white blend that reveals a scavenger hunt with a Rebel Coast recommendation: “perfect after your second bottle. Or fifth.” Their Reckless Love bottle – a red blend – features a glow-in-the-dark stencil of perhaps their greatest asset: Chip Forsythe’s moustache, with copy that reads: it goes best with “wild nights” and “ignoring your best friend’s advice.”
Their audience? Let’s avoid the cringe-worthy catchall – “millennial” because the term describes a vast demographic and already packs in waaaaay too many stereotypes. Instead, I’d suggest a target of young spirits, cocktail-in-a-can and craft beer consumers who typically stay away from wine because of the intimidation factor and it’s staid, boring, brand image* (wine is significantly under-developed with U.S. 21-34 age demo). I’d argue the guys at Rebel Coast are targeting – to borrow a descriptor from Doritos – young “hyper-lifers”, who buy alcohol based on the aspirational qualities of a brand. I mean, seriously: what fun-seeking, young hipster doesn’t wannabe aligned with a wild and crazy wine brand that’s provocative, rebellious and promiscuous?
That said, the $59.99 price point for Rebel Coast’s cannabis infused wine has me scratching my head. It certainly puts a bit of a crimp in all that rebellion and doesn’t quite cater to the hard-bodied, hard lemonade pounders looking for a buzz.
So who are these self-proclaimed bad boys of wine?
Chip Forsythe graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, in the Central Coast of California in 2009, with a degree in wine and viticulture. According to Internet lore, Chip worked five harvests and apprenticed under four different winemakers while he learned the art of winemaking (including – apparently – weed winemaking). To pay for school, he made wine in trashcans in his backyard selling bottles to students in the dorms.
After graduating he created SLO Down Wines – where he found his “d-bag” marketing groove, and produced just one naughty wine: Sexual Chocolate. He sold the business in 2012. A year later he recruited a similarly irreverent and rebellious classmate, Doug Burkett, and the pair started Rebel Coast Winery. They slept in their van, picked up a few employees along the way, and relocated to LA. On his wine-making chops, Chip likes to make sure potential wine buyers know that while they may be bad-asses, their wine kicks butt. The website lists the numerous awards they’ve received for their blends.
“We have this disdain for authority”
I’ve been waiting for the Rebel Coast weed wine website to move beyond the “coming soon” phase and on December 10, the team finally posted their final blend metrics (now 16mg of THC vs the 20 mg THC that we tasted), wine order information and FAQs (flavour profile, de-alcohol process). The website is iterative – changing by the minute – (so be warned…). But for now, the team’s copywriting prowess – specifically around consumption and dose levels – is as witty as ever:
“Our goal is not to kill you after you’ve had a few glasses. The goal is to get giggly and naked with someone. We set out to mimic the experience you’d find with traditional wine; a couple glasses will put most people in a great place.”
“Similar concept with booze–if you want to get wasted– rip some shots, if you want to get really stoned– take some dabs.” (Dabs???? Right…..cannabis concentrates that – according to Leafly, are the most efficient way to get really, really stoned.)
“You’re going to get a little giggly,” says Forsythe in an interview with the North Bay Journal, “but are unlikely to overdose on the THC. “You can ‘accidentally’ eat two brownies and have too much, but you can’t accidentally drink four glasses of wine.”
But, can you deliberately drink four glasses of wine if you’re, say, a young aspiring Rebel Coast wannabe?
Perhaps that’s the better question.
Low dose wine consumption, with a ceiling of one glass and 4 grams of THC (the full bottle is 16 mg of THC) assumes your audience has highly evolved executive function (consequential thinking) or media literacy skills (i.e. can see through the advertising) or, is drinking for the medicinal benefits of cannabis. The Rebel Coast brand is all about good times and unbridled consumption. To state the obvious – Rebel Coast’s marketing frowns on boundaries, cuz where’s the fun in that?
And that, folks, is where I stumble.
* Millennials 21-34 represent about one-fourth of adults 21 and over, but account for 35% of U.S. beer consumption and 32% of spirit consumption. Comparatively, they represent only 20% of wine consumption. Nielsen Research