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Where’d You Go, Piquette?

March 15, 2024

Story: Steven Grubbs

art: Jarett Sitter


Where’d You Go, Piquette?

March 15, 2024

Story: Steven Grubbs

art: Jarett Sitter

Just a few years ago, the low-key, fizzy category was wine’s coolest new fad. Now it’s practically endangered.

Winemaker Patrick Cappiello has a Google Alert for the word “piquette.” 

These days, most pieces of news that bubble up are not about the fizzy beverage that began popping up on shelves in the late 2010s, but Piquette Avenue, a street in Detroit. “It’s always some kind of crime report of bad shit going down,” Cappiello says. “It’s never about wine.”

Cappiello—whose winery, Monte Rio Cellars, cranked out a healthy amount of piquette across four vintages under the name The Piquette Project—believes the category is in trouble. He’s a transparent guy, and I knew if I called him, he’d tell me exactly how much trouble. 

“Oh, I’ll call it dead,” he says. 

The pronouncement would surprise anyone reading a wine trend piece around, say, the summer of 2021. Google “piquette” and you’ll find articles declaring it “the wine of summer”; the “perfect bottle of bubbly” for natural wine lovers; “White Claw for wine lovers.” Each new story would reliably tick off piquette’s of-the-moment virtues: natural, fizzy, low-alcohol, refreshing. Winemakers seemed as bullish on the trend as writers, and the market was suddenly awash with takes from all over the globe, both canned and bottled.

Piquette is technically not wine; it’s the result of adding water to pomace—i.e., stems and seeds of wine grapes left after pressing—and then letting that mixture ferment. The result is a prickly brew once used as compensation for ancient Greek and Roman vineyard workers. In the 19th century, it resurfaced to hydrate crews during harvest and winemaking. Flashing forward to 2021, piquette was amid a resurgence, particularly among America’s natural-leaning winemakers, who saw it as both something fun to drink, and a smart reuse of valuable fruit. The combo of industry chatter and media fanfare felt like the rare creation of a new, thriving category. But in just a matter of years, light, fizzy, easy-to-drink piquette has taken on the heft of an omen.

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Cappiello’s first go at piquette was in 2019; he made 60 cases from a chenin blanc base and quickly sold it all in his home state of California. The second year, 2020, he added a rosé, dubbed Pinkette. In 2021—inspired by legendary lambic brewery Cantillon—he grew the line and added fruits like lime and apricot, four different styles designed to match the year’s seasonal changes. Each one sold out within three months of release.

Then came the 2022 vintage. “I sent the notification to my distributors that they were ready to rock,” says Cappiello. There were 300 cases ready to ship. “It was fucking crickets. Nobody ordered any.” 

Cappiello didn’t produce The Piquette Project in 2023, as the demand simply wasn’t there. “The world will have to make the decision for me,” he says in response to whether he’d consider making one again. 

What, exactly, happened? Some see the boom and bust of piquette as akin to pét-nat’s. A similarly fizzy, low-alcohol “party wine” that became a media darling around the mid-2010s, pét-nat soon became plagued by what some cite as piquette’s fundamental problem: uneven quality. 

“A lot of people bought pét-nats that were flawed and decided they all must taste like cider vinegar. They got over it,” says Phil Stice, owner of Specialty Wines, a distributor based in my hometown, Atlanta. “Piquette seems to be following that same pét-nat wave.”

In just a matter of years, light, fizzy, easy-to-drink piquette has taken on the heft of an omen.

Carson Demmond, owner of Atlanta distributor Rive Gauche, sells Patrick Cappiello’s piquettes (which, she emphasizes, “are quite good, by the way”). Or, rather, she tries to sell them. After checking the year’s reports, Demmond confirms that more bottles have been consumed by her sales staff than sold in the state. “We won’t be adding any more [piquettes] to the portfolio,” she says bluntly.

A few of the bottles Rive Gauche has sold went to Atlanta boutique Elemental Spirits. During Elemental’s opening year, 2020, wine buyer Jesse Kirkpatrick carried three piquettes after fielding requests from customers. In 2021, that expanded to seven selections and sales jumped by around 350 percent. In 2022, sales tripled yet again across 12 SKUs. In 2023, sales dropped by half. I ask how 2024 is going. 

“Oh, I don’t think we have a piquette on the shelf at the moment,” Kirkpatrick says. “Wait, that’s not true—just this week I picked up a couple in can by Sans Wine Co. They are piquettes but not labeled as such.”

Those cans, tellingly, bear “Natural Wine Spritzer” on the front, while shunting the “piquette” name to the back label, a keen marketing calculation that navigates one of piquette’s other major hurdles: Consumers don’t understand what it is.

“A lot of customers will pick up our spritzers because it’s a more familiar category,” says Jake Stover, proprietor of Sans. “We understand split-second decisions are made at the store level.”

Demmond notes that Rive Gauche has zero trouble selling that adjacent category. Even Todd Cavallo of upstate New York’s Wild Arc Farm, whose first piquettes in 2017 sparked the drink’s modern wave, is embracing a name change. “We’ve definitely begun to think of other options to keep the train going,” Cavallo says. “Luckily for us, by 2021 we’d already started to move a lot of our piquette production into what we call the ‘Botanical Spritzer’ territory.” 

A winery is not, and never has been, a speedboat.

Curious whether a similar categorical do-si-do was happening on the West Coast, I reached out to Stevie Stacionis. Her Bay Grape stores in Napa and Oakland, California, aren’t exactly struggling to sell piquette, but she’s keeping the selections limited.

“Guests were really excited about it,” Stacionis says. Then she sharpens the point: “But those guests tend to drink on the fringe and they got excited about other, newer fringe things to drink.” 

Whereas their parents might have signed up for winery mailing lists and drank chardonnay after chardonnay, pinot after pinot, today’s wine drinker is unlikely to stick with one category for very long. A core clientele dead set on dabbling speaks to a larger problem that small, low-intervention producers face. 

Changes in wine trends used to happen over the course of decades, centuries even—a cadence that suits the life of the vine and the slow-turning rudder of a winery, where a vigneron might be lucky to put out just 35 or 40 vintages of wine over their entire life. A winery is not, and never has been, a speedboat. Piquette appeared to be, and was framed as, wine’s answer to White Claw—a quick-to-market crusher with colorful branding that could provide equally quick cash. Instead, breezy piquette has served as a grim indicator of just how destructive oversupply can be when matched with a fickle audience.

“Piquette is a shadow of the larger problem for small, independently funded and operated wineries,” says Cappiello. “We’re chasing a consumer that is eluding us in the way they’re drinking. It’s this constant tug of predicting what they will want next versus what they want now.”

Since we first talked, Cappiello has been sending me the day’s harvest of “piquette” Google Alerts. Too many of them are obituaries. 

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Tagged: trends, wine