A New Year, A New Vintage of MLB Wines

Now you can open your MLB team wine bottles with a MLB team wine bottle opener. (via Brian Reinhart)

Now you can open your MLB team wine bottles with a MLB team wine bottle opener. (via Brian Reinhart)

Since we checked in on the growing MLB Wine business in summer 2015, the pairing of wine and baseball has grown only more popular among audiences and entrepreneurs. Now more bottlings are on the way, along with ballpark wine bars and an assortment of team-branded accessories. As a novelty market grows into a flourishing industry, it’s time for a taste of the new developments.

New Wine Collaborations

Last year, a crack panel of Hardball Times taste-testers got to try six wines bearing the logos of baseball teams, and were most impressed by offerings from the San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners. This year, MLB Wine is rolling out new branded team bottlings, including wines for the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers, on a steady march to coverage of all 30 clubs.

The most exciting news is that the wine program’s short-term future is guaranteed, says Diane Karle, CEO of Wine by Design. Wine by Design manages baseball’s line of branded bottlings, having more or less invented the idea. “We’re moving into a new contract with baseball,” Karle explains. “We just signed an exclusive five-year contract,” keeping MLB Wine’s future assured until 2020.

This is season four of the partnership, and Wine by Design will reach 21 teams and markets, a new high. The most interesting new additions are red and white wines for the large-market Los Angeles Dodgers, with over a thousand cases of each hitting area stores. The Dodgers lucked out by finding a volunteer: lifelong fan and winemaking legend Bob Lindquist offered his services. Lindquist is the man behind Qupé (kyoo-PAY), a titan in the world of syrah based just up the road in Santa Barbara. Qupé has, notably, preserved the good reputation of its wines while becoming a major nationally-distributed operation.

Qupé wines were already served in the Stadium Club for high-dollar Dodger fans, so the team-up wasn’t a stretch. Plus, Lindquist was passionate about it. As he told the Santa Maria Sun, “It wouldn’t have felt right if somebody from Napa Valley who was a Giants fan actually made the wine for Dodger Stadium. That just wouldn’t cut it.”

Just up the highway, northern California remains the most successful of baseball’s wine markets, and the Giants are capitalizing on their proximity to Napa with a third local partnership. Cline Cellars, which like Qupé combines mass-market size with a history of good-quality juice, will be bottling the Giants’ new pinot gris, a lighter summer-day white. The Giants will continue to offer their Triple Play red wine, one of the grand champions of the 2015 THT baseball wine tasting, and a bubbly from Mumm Napa.

The other big change for the wine brands, as a whole, is more of a big-picture shift in business. As Karle explains it, “it’s year-round drinking now,” as opposed to a purely seasonal affair. Retailers see MLB Wine as a good Father’s Day gift and a way to celebrate playoff victories (or drown out the defeats). Arizona Diamondbacks bottles landed in Phoenix-area shelves just in time for Cactus League spring training games, as newly acquired pitcher Shelby Miller discovered:

Might need to give this a try…

A photo posted by Shelby Miller (@shelbycmiller19) on

The list of national retailers carrying official team wines continues to grow, too. With names like Total Wine, Kroger, Sam’s Club, Sprouts and airport bar chain Vino Volo on board, baseball bottlings are officially going mainstream. The Diamondbacks are even opening a full wine bar at Chase Field, with their own glasses on tap and a variety of guest winemakers available. This is a step ahead of the current ballpark situation, where generic supermarket wines are typically sold at little kiosks, seemingly targeted toward people who just can’t stand beer. Creating and improving wine bars, and what Karle calls the “ballpark experience” in general, could be a major growth market in years to come.

But it’s not just about the wine itself anymore. Because now we get toys.

Gadgets!

The real trailblazing in 2016’s MLB wine market might be in the world of gadgets and gear. Soon you’ll be able to set your Yankees Riesling in a Yankees ice bucket, after opening it with a Yankees bottle opener, saving a glass for tomorrow with a Yankees stopper. Truly, we are living the American dream.

The company behind the new toys is Wine Ovation, which sent me a Texas Rangers electric bottle opener to test drive. It charges by plugging into the wall, and you can open a couple dozen wines on a single charge. The baseball bat shape is a stroke of genius: it fits perfectly over the neck of a wine bottle and looks damn sharp. Plus, it lends itself to all sorts of “corked bat” puns.

The Pitcher’s Wife Danced
A player's wife's profession meant she had a higher profile than her husband.

MLB was impressed, too. Wine Ovation’s Aaron Knirr told me he created a prototype before approaching baseball executives. “We were able to make contact and get them in hand a prototype without the logo,” he explains. They fell in love. The response: a rare direct license to use each team’s insignia.

Where’d the idea come from? “This occurred to me probably about two or three years ago,” Knirr says, “over a bottle of wine my wife and I were having.” They pondered their “boring cylindrical electric wine opener” and wondered if another shape would look cooler. The first designs to go into production were a bowling pin and a revolver, but the baseball bat is clearly Wine Ovation’s coup de grace. My friends expressed admiration over the design: “Damn, that’s sharp,” somebody said. Another added with bemusement, “It’s the size of a wine bottle.”

When we tried using it, we ran into a bit of a hurdle. Though Knirr mused that “everybody has them,” none of my friends had ever owned or used an electric wine bottle opener. “You push the down button until the corkscrew is all the way in, and then you push the up button, right?” one friend asked. That’s what I thought, too. Nope! On our first attempt, it took 11 tries to successfully remove the cork.

I asked Knirr to clarify for electric wine newbies. “The best advice I can give specific to our electric wine openers: Hold that down button down ‘til the wine opener turns itself off. The up button is how you spit the cork back out.” And it’s true. If you hold the down button down long enough, the gizmo does turn itself off, having flawlessly extracted the cork. Then hit reverse and the cork will pop out (or, as someone suggested to me, “poop out”), into your hand.

As impressed as we were by the operation, my informal focus group of thirsty friends was divided on whether they’d be buying. One said the price was fair, but we all know how to operate old-fashioned waiter’s corkscrews, which are considerably faster. (My best friend carries a corkscrew in her purse for emergencies. This parenthetical is here solely to brag about how cool my friends are.)

Luckily, Wine Ovation is planning other accessories. Need an ice bucket for summer nights when you’d like to sip bubbly on your patio? Stainless buckets with baseball team logos are set for production soon. There are also future plans for branded wine stoppers that create a vacuum inside your bottle, perfectly preserving the juice if you plan to have half a bottle tonight and the other half tomorrow. Bars use pressurized stoppers to preserve champagne, especially, since the fizz goes flat if the bottle sits in open air too long.

Conclusion

As the wine business grows nationally, and as light beer and “coolers” lose market share to the more interesting kinds of alcohol, Major League Baseball is hitching along for the ride. The pairing of baseball and wine may be reaching a tipping point. With baseball team wines displayed at stores like Kroger and Total Wine, and dedicated bars opening at the ballparks themselves, a novelty is seeking to become a mainstay instead.

For most fans, a summer day at the ballpark will still call for the cold thirst-quench of good craft lager. But at home, you can be like Miller and try Diamondbacks cabernet using an official team bottle opener. And the truth is that many (unfortunate) people, even baseball fans, simply don’t love beer. MLB’s tie-ins with wine and wine accessories may be a money-maker, but it’s also a much more interesting and inclusive enterprise than trying to sell more Budweiser.

Karle describes this business as “building better wine experiences.” True, that sounds a little bit cornball. But there’s always a chance that as the sport tries to appeal to new demographics and young fans, a wine like the Dodgers’, or a bar like Arizona’s, might build somebody a better baseball experience, too.

References & Resources


Brian Reinhart is the Dallas Observer's food critic. You may also know him from FanGraphs as the "Well-Beered Englishman." Follow him on Twitter @bgreinhart.
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Wildcard09
Guest

I would also like to see ballparks opening up with more local craft beer choices, particularly stouts, rather than the traditional Bud/Coors/Miller lagers and light beers. I know stouts and darker beers in general are more of a niche market (especially here in America), but the beer choices at ballparks are always pretty uninspiring.

Brian Reinhart
Guest

I’m all for more diversified alcohol offerings at the ballpark in all areas – even knowing that a glass of wine, or a good craft beer, will set me back $12.

(If you ever come to Arlington, by the way, the Rangers have a very good craft beer stand on the ground level behind home plate, with over a dozen offerings from hefeweizen to local bock to I think at least one porter.)

Wildcard09
Guest

Yeah definitely. We’ve seen them really open up with food selections and it’s time to do the same with alcohol. Also, as I wrote that I realized it’s actually been 7 years since I was able to go to a game (lived in NC for a while, 6 hours away from both Baltimore and Atlanta. Recently moved back to FL so I’ll catch some games in Tampa) so things certainly could have changed, but I always remember the Trop just having your standard American beers. That craft beer stand in Arlington sounds pretty great, a direction I think every park… Read more »