When someone mentions the term “wine connoisseur,” many of us think of a monocled fusspot who, after a protracted swirl of the glass, takes a sip and waxes on about, “hints of black currant and notes of new leather and cigar box.” Even though California’s Wine Institute estimates that wine consumption per person in the United States has nearly tripled over the past 50 years, the culture surrounding the beverage can still feel unapproachable, especially to newcomers. Let’s face it: No one feels anxiety about what to do when the waiter brings a bottle of beer to the table.
“There’s definitely an exclusivity and pretense that the wine industry has leaned on for a long time to make its products feel special,” says Corey Miller (B.S. ’04), a cofounder of the San Francisco–based company Barrel + Ink. “The industry has done a horrible job of making people who are new to wine feel like they know enough to enjoy it.”
After speaking with millennials about wine, Miller realized they did feel comfortable with one aspect of the experience: They enjoyed talking about the label. Rather than viewing that as a lack of sophistication and a reason to dismiss them, Miller saw an opportunity for engagement. His company puts an emphasis on what’s inside and outside the bottle by bringing together celebrated winemakers and renowned graphic designers to create limited-release bottles that he hopes will have broad appeal.
For the winemakers, it’s an opportunity to explore their craft without the restraints of their existing brands and the influence of the critical press—the wines are intentionally not scored on the 100-point scale—while the artists are able to breathe new life into a medium most of them have never even considered.
Andy Erickson, pictured here on his property in Napa, is widely considered one of the premier winemakers of his generation. Erickson teamed with lettering artist Jessica Hische for a Barrel + Ink white they called Interessante.
“The hope is that the sum total of these pieces is a product that both excites a younger consumer and delivers a wine they wouldn’t find on a grocery store shelf,” Miller explains. “That was really the genesis of the idea: bringing together two exceptionally skilled artisans on different sides of the bottle in the hope of doing a lot of education to newer and younger consumers who are generally turned off by the wine industry.”
The Wine Doctor
It’s fitting that Barrel + Ink is an outlier in wine country, as Miller’s story is hardly that of your typical winemaker. Originally from Denver, he was attracted to Michigan because of its research community. While at LSA, he pursued a rigorous biochemistry curriculum through the Honors Program. After graduation, he spent the next nine-and-a-half years obtaining an M.D./Ph.D. at the University of California, San Francisco. Three key factors set him on his journey from lab to libation: 1) the Bay Area’s dynamic food-and-wine scene, 2) a longstanding itch to do something entrepreneurial, and 3) the offhand comment of a family friend at dinner one night while Miller was still at U-M.
“Our family friend is a professor at UC Davis,” Miller says, “and we were talking about creative ways to use my biochemistry degree. He brought up the viticulture and enology program at Davis and said, ‘You could become a winemaker because it’s basically applied biochemistry and microbiology.’”
Though Miller didn’t follow that path, the comment stuck with him. Years later when he was working on his doctorate and had more freedom to structure his time, he convinced a lab partner they should try their hands at making a batch of wine in his garage. They saw a listing from the owner of a vacation property looking to sell grapes to home winemakers.
“We lined the trunk of my 1995 Honda Civic with garbage bags, drove up to Sonoma, and picked about 250 pounds of cabernet,” Miller says. “Then we drove back home and hacked our way through making some of the worst wine that’s ever been produced anywhere.”
The botched batch gave Miller and his partner the chance to use their scientific backgrounds to try to figure out what went wrong. Over the next three years, Miller learned more about the craft and the business while making wines on a commercial scale through a cooperative facility in Berkeley. Talking to the people he met there gave him the idea for how to bridge a gap between the industry and one of its most coveted—yet resistant—consumer demographics.
Let It Flow
Through Barrel + Ink, Miller and his team have released six collaborations that each range from 200 to 300 cases, putting them on the smaller end of commercial wine ventures. The bottles typically cost between $25 and $40. Each batch begins by identifying a winemaker who’s interested in trying something different, and some of Napa’s most respected vintners have signed on. The company then pairs them with an equally prominent graphic designer, facilitates an introduction, and does its best to keep out of the way.
"It's been interesting to see that some bottles have performed better than others," Miller says. "The design itself has really been challenging for people who have the idea that a wine label should be a cream rectangle with a small-script font."
“We allow them to have total freedom on how they work together,” says Miller. “One of the guiding principles is that we don’t try to interfere at all with the creative process. We trust that these people are renowned for what they’re doing, and they’re both putting their names on the products, so they’re going to produce something they’re proud of.”
The result is something collaborative, unique, and likely to appeal to an audience that’s aware of each bottle’s rich backstory. But there are challenges: With each bottle taking on such a distinct look, how do you establish brand awareness? And how do you convey that rich backstory as people are scanning bottle after bottle on a store shelf? Miller’s goal is to skip those shelves and sell 90 percent of their wine direct to consumer via their website and through a subscription model. Even though the company is actively selling bottles through its site right now, Miller admits that his vision would be a coup.
“I think one of the more exciting aspects of the project is very aligned with my background as a scientist and as an academic: having creative freedom to explore your ideas,” he says. “In science, we’re working at the edge of what we know. We’re bringing that idea to a different industry, and that’s really the driving force of what Barrel + Ink is all about.”