They’re not young, necessarily. But once you get past the marketing, there are values to be found.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL // December 31, 2020
OH BABY, there sure seem to be some great wine deals around. In the past several months, I’ve been offered highly touted Baby Brunello and Baby Sancerre and even Baby Bâtard-Montrachet in wine merchants’ emails. The word Baby didn’t appear on the labels but was, rather, the way the wines were characterized by the sellers—a shorthand I suspect would actually mystify many customers. In each case, the merchant promised an outstanding value, but beyond that, the exact meaning of “Baby” was unclear.
Associative marketing words have been pegged to wines as long as wine merchants have been selling them. For example, Cabernet and Shiraz are routinely called “masculine,” while just about any rosé gets labeled “feminine.” The “Baby” moniker—a fairly recent development in wine-marketing lingo—might be less offensive, but is it truly effective for selling wine?
‘Chances are you’re getting it at a much cheaper price.’
Mystified myself by the term—or its rather imprecise usage—I decided to ask retailers what they mean by it and what kind of success they have had using it. I quizzed other wine professionals and wine-drinking friends as well. Did they like or even understand the word when it is applied to a wine?
I contacted Daniel Lipman, director of marketing and ecommerce at Bottle King, a group of 15 New Jersey wine and liquor stores, about an email I received from the company in August. It advertised a Baby Barolo—aka the 2017 Rocca Giovanni Giaculin ($14). Mr. Lipman told me a handful of customers had asked what the word meant. “They thought the wine was young and not ready to drink,” he said.
Mr. Lipman did a bit of research and found he’d used the “B” word four times in promotional emails: once for that would-be Barolo, twice for aspiring Brunellos and once for a white wine from the Rhône. To him, attaching “Baby” to a wine means it is not quite as good as the wine it’s compared to, and “chances are you’re getting it at a much cheaper price.” There is no such thing as a $14 Barolo; the real deal can cost many multiples of that number.
Justin Grover, president and owner of Fine Wines International in San Francisco, recently sent an email offering a Baby Bâtard-Montrachet, the 2017 Jean Pascal et Fils Puligny Montrachet Les Enseignères ($56). When I asked why he’d identified it this way, he noted the proximity of the vineyard from which the wine is sourced to two legendary white Burgundy vineyards: Bâtard-Montrachet and Bienvenues Bâtard-Montrachet. “Les Enseignères is a village lieu-dit, or designated vineyard, and shares the taste characteristics of its high-rent neighbors: a nice balance of richness and minerality, with weight, long length and aftertaste,” he wrote. At $56, his Baby Bâtard-Montrachet goes for a fraction of the high-three-figure price tag regularly attached to a Bâtard.
Mr. Grover was surprised to learn the word “Baby” is in general use. “I didn’t know it was a thing,” he said. To him, the term means “greatness adjacent.” And yes, he said, associating the lesser-known wine with a famous one had helped sell bottles. More than the word Baby itself, that association appealed to oenophiles who knew and loved—but perhaps weren’t prepared to pay for—the “grown-up” Bâtard.
In the past few months, Manhattan’s Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits has emailed offers of Baby Pommard, Baby Ruinart, Baby Puligny-Montrachet, Baby Sancerre and Baby Château Latour. One email touted a Baby Drouhin Clos des Mouches Blanc, the 2018 Joseph Drouhin Côte de Beaune Blanc ($60), containing fruit from young vines of the storied Clos des Mouches vineyard. Sherry-Lehmann’s general manager, Matt Wong, explained in an email that the term “Baby” is meant to leverage brand recognition attached to certain wines in order to raise the profile of producers and vineyards at a more “entry-level” price point—a response to “unprecedented times” in the wine business. “The campaigns have been very successful, most selling out in a few hours,” he noted.
I asked Véronique Boss-Drouhin, winemaker of Maison Joseph Drouhin in Burgundy, what she thinks about finding this word used to describe her family’s wine. “Baby: pure marketing,” she wrote in an email. “Personally I don’t so much like the association.” Burgundians might call young wines in the cellar “babies,” but Ms. Boss-Drouhin had never heard a Burgundy winemaker talk about a Baby Chablis.
Gerald Weisl, owner of Weimax Wines & Spirits in Burlingame, Calif., isn’t a fan either. “There is a reliance on associative marketing to help convince a consumer they ought to give this probably more obscure, likely less prestigious wine a try,” he said in an email. To him the word has the drawback of being useful only to a customer with some knowledge of wine. If you don’t know Barolo, you will hardly understand what “Baby Barolo” means.
Mr. Weisl noted that retailers aren’t the only ones enamored of the word. He forwarded a pitch from Andrew Miramontes, the Northern California sales representative for Weygandt-Metzler Importing, offering a Baby Tavel rosé, the 2019 Château de Manissy La Belle Étoile Rosé. “Just had a final drop of 25 [cases] of our ‘Baby Tavel,’ ” Mr. Miramontes wrote. He explained that the wine, made by a Tavel producer, was deemed best suited to a shorter maceration, producing a lighter, leaner wine than the typical Tavel. “Fresh, delicious and cheap” was his ultimate assessment.
As I hadn’t previously seen “Baby” pinned to a rosé, I called Mr. Miramontes. “Tavel is a classified region known for its very substantial rosés; this is a much lighter wine,” he said. “When you use the term it helps give context to the wine.” Do Tavel producers use it? They do not, he replied. But to him, “Baby” is cute, charming: “Who doesn’t love a baby?”
When I polled wine-drinking friends, several seemed baffled by this use of “Baby.” “It sounds like the wine is immature or small,” said my friend Bruce. My friend Alison mused, “I like baby vegetables and fruits because they have more delicacy. Are baby wines the same?” Another friend, Alan, took umbrage: “I’m offended on behalf of Brunello producers.” He insisted he had no idea what the term means, “except that they are trying to sell wine.”
For my part, I find the term less obnoxious than others I’ve heard. And since these wines are usually quite reasonably priced—and potentially “greatness adjacent”—I think “Baby” sounds like a promising word.
Write to Lettie at firstname.lastname@example.org