Next Round: Jordan Salcito Saw the Canned Cocktail Future

On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe chats with Jordan Salcito, founder of Ramona, to discuss her pioneering canned Spritz brand. Salicto details her transition from working in hospitality, to becoming a sommelier, to finally starting her own brand. She explains how working in fine dining in New York and working harvests in Italy and Patagonia gave her the skills and knowledge she needed to launch Ramona.

Geballe explains that, though RTDs and canned wines are booming today, Ramona was one of the first brands to explore the trend of canned wine products when it came to market in 2016. Salcito explains how Ramona products fill a void in the market and reveals which new flavor Ramona is debuting this summer.

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Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe. And this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We bring you these episodes in between our regular podcasts so that we can explore a range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I’m speaking with sommelier and founder of Ramona, Jordan Salcito. Thanks so much for taking the time.

Jordan Salcito: Thank you so much for including me in this episode. I’m very happy to be here.

Z: Yeah. I imagine that lots of our listeners are plenty familiar with Ramona, but they may not have been familiar with the backstory or your backstory. If you don’t mind, can you talk to us a little bit about how you got into the wine industry? Then, in particular, how and why this product, which at the time I think was pretty out there for what wine was going to be or a canned spritz. Now, we take this for granted since there’s an industry here so maybe just a backstory to start out.

J: Of course. I got into the wine industry accidentally while thinking that I wanted to pursue a career in writing about restaurants for The New York Times. I was cooking at the restaurant Daniel at the time. I think in retrospect, I hadn’t understood enough of the world to even dream about what working in wine could look like. Actually, the first time I really had a conversation with Daniel Boulud was after work one night. I had a sweet tooth and when you’re working on the line of a kitchen, you go for a long time without really eating. You don’t eat a meal sitting down ever. At least, nobody did back in those days. After service, before I would walk home, I would check in at the kitchen because the pastry team would always leave out delicious extra pastries. On this one particular night, I had a book with me, and coincidentally, Daniel Boulud walked in and he had a bottle of 1989 Jaboulet La Chapelle. He said, “Who are you, what’s your name, what are you doing here, and do you like wine?” He was so high-energy. Anyway, that led to Daniel being very curious. It was a thing that I always loved about that restaurant and about Daniel. He really values curiosity. He starts flipping through. At the time, one of my jobs was to wrap the black bass papillote and these potato scales. He stumbles upon a page of a dish, a red mullet with potato scales by Paul Marcus. It turns out that dish was the dish that inspired the signature dish that I was in charge of cooking. Anyway, Daniel poured a glass of this wine and we ended up talking for a long time. Ever since then, throughout the rest of my duration there, he really looked out for people who he could tell cared about and tried to give them an opportunity to do the thing that they were interested in doing. An opportunity came to work at the La Paulee des Neiges. It was this Burgundian wine event that was happening every year. With this one particular year, it was only happening in January in Aspen, Colo. I got the invitation to work this event and then I was told, “No, actually, we don’t have a budget for you.” I said, “If I can get myself there and work for free, can I do it?” They said, “Sure.” That was the moment for me where I was able to line up harvest in Burgundy for later that fall. My job during that particular harvest was really picking the grapes, being out in the vines every day for about two weeks straight. I remember by day eight or nine, I couldn’t stand up straight at the end of the day because you’re basically just hunched over carrying a bucket. A bucket of these wet, dripping grapes because 2006 was not a very sunny year during harvest, and it was truly backbreaking. It was also so revelatory, and it was amazing to be in the vineyards that I had read about and finally start to understand how the light hits a vineyard differently based on its exposure to the sun. How the insects that are in one vineyard are completely different from one a few yards over. That was when the practical application started to help the intellectual peace that you can read about in books. It’s when it all started coming together for me. Then, I would work in a winery after the picking because after the last grapes are picked, they’re still processing what is happening in the winery. I think that’s when it all just started coming together for me. I realized, after deciding to pursue this direction and wine, that the one true story I have of my own paternal grandfather, who I never met, is that he used to make wine in his basement with my dad. My grandfather died when my dad was 13 and so this is the one memory that my grandfather shared or that my father shares with my grandfather. It took years later to realize that there is this through-line for me of wine with this superpower ability to bring us together. To bring people together who might not have found themselves in a room or around a table otherwise. Even beyond that, and especially now with Covid, it’s amazing how we can feel a connection to a place by drinking a bottle of wine from there, and it’s almost as if we can transform ourselves. I think really it was that harvest that made me realize that I wanted to spend my life focused on wine in various ways. I started working harvest every year, usually in Burgundy. I would sometimes go to another region after that. I went to Tuscany, starting in 2008 after the harvest in Burgundy, and it was something that I loved to do. In 2007, I took a part-time sommelier position at Nick & Toni’s out in East Hampton. The owner or rather the general manager was a woman named Bonnie Munshin. She gave me a shot, and the person that was supposed to be full-time had a no-show on Memorial Day weekend. It was the best thing ever for me because it was a chance to step up but it was a natural disaster for her at the moment. She gave me this chance and that led to a full-time position at Eleven Madison Park after harvest that fall. I think what I started to realize is any time I would work in a restaurant, I would say, “Look, I just want you to know this thing that I do in the fall is harvest every year, and it will seem inconvenient for a week or so, but I promise you, I’ll come back and I’ll be a better sommelier. I’ll add value to the guests who come in here.” That proved to be true. I was able to develop this understanding of different approaches to production. There were some years where I couldn’t go to Burgundy because we were opening a new restaurant and it was 2011. I didn’t work a fall harvest that year, but I went to Patagonia Bodega Chacra the following February, and just the more I saw and noticed, the more through-lines I realized connected wines together with a value system. The delicious wines that I found really inspiring all had — whether the soil was slate or clay or limestone or whether the country was Italy, France, Germany, or Patagonia — there was this interesting through-line of wines that had a similar value system of transparency. Of course, prioritizing taste and deliciousness, but also it was more than that. Fast forward to 2015 when at that time I was overseeing the beverage programs for David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants. I began there in 2013, and the mandate that David gave me at the time was to build a wine program. People don’t really associate Momofuku with wine, and he wanted that to change. He understood there’s this community out there of wine people, and it’s not dissimilar to the community of chefs that he didn’t love. That was an amazing mandate. The other thing he said was, “You already know the rules, so now break them.” I think that permission was just this big breath of fresh air. Growing up, my mom had always prioritized the arts for my sisters and me. My dad’s a lawyer, so we had the pragmatic side, too. I think it was almost a permission to think like a child again in a good way. Permission to not be beholden to the machine. A lot of restaurants that are great and were great, there’s no room for any creativity or independent thought. You just have to be part of the machine in order for the system to work. This was different in a way that was so invigorating, and I remember having this idea that I wanted to call it Thunder Picho. I was reading a book by Paul Lukacs. He’s brilliant. He wrote a book called “American Vintage.” It’s one of my favorite books about wine, period. It basically tracks America’s relationship with wine and going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson and trying to plant Hermitage wines in Monticello and not realizing why they would die all the time. Then, fast forwarding to a sparkling Catawba was the first great American wine. Of course, phylloxera, when we realized that we could just graft onto American rootstock. Then, Prohibition and then World War I, followed by World War II. Actually, it was fascinating for me to read the similarities between the Mondavi family and the Gallo family. They had very different approaches. The Mondavi family was spearheaded by Robert Mondavi, who had gone to France and understood that there were these excellent French chateaux in Bordeaux and he wanted to model his winery and wine culture in America after that. Whereas you have Gallo, and they want to focus on data and give people what they want. You end up with Robert Mondavi starting to craft his legacy. At the same time, you have the Gallo brothers creating Thunderbird, which then became the No. 1 wine in the U.S. The ingredients were effectively white port with lemon juice concentrate. That’s so bad and terrible, but yet there’s something interesting. America has not yet figured it out. I think we’re getting there with globalization, Instagram, and conversation. It’s so exciting to see that now great wine is made everywhere and can be made anywhere with the value system in place. I think for me it was like, “Why?” I just thought that piece of history was interesting and then coupled that with moments in Italy harvest. I remember the first time I ever had an Aperol Spritz, and it was in the piazza of Montalcino in 2008 after a really dismal harvest, whereas the Burgundy harvest was picture perfect. Everyone’s been doing this for hundreds of years and the stories are amazing. Italy was the opposite for me. We were helping out my husband’s then-business partner, who was actually a bridge player, but had bought this estate in Montalcino and didn’t know anything about making wine. He said, “Hey, I have a tournament, can you guys just make this wine for me?” We didn’t even know what to do here. This is not something we’re qualified for, and we’re happy to help but please, nobody has any expectations here.” It was a very rainy year. The tractor fell over. There was no actual winery. We had a tarp that was over the sorting table and we were the only ones with a sorting table. We saw Burgundy do this and it’s really important so we thought we should try it here, too. Anyway, it was a very difficult harvest and the moment of respite was an afternoon Aperol Spritz and it was brightly colored and happy and not too bitter, but not too sweet. Fast forward to 2013-2014, what if we do some more digging here? What even is the wine cooler? I’ve never been a beer person. I’ve never found beer delicious, despite many college parties in which I wish that I had. I remember at some point when I was 21, somebody introduced me to wine coolers, and I was intrigued by them because they were less bad-tasting than cheap beer to me, to my palate. I think it took a lot of time for me to realize and just have confidence in my palate. At this point, I had passed the blind-tasting master sommelier exam. I was going this very educated route, and I felt that I can’t be the only person that still thinks beer is terrible, and there’s nothing out there. Now that I know enough about production, why is there not something meant for casual moments that I’m personally willing to consume? That was how the idea for Ramona started. I know that’s a very long-winded answer to your question, but yeah, that is basically the idea and the decision to start. It happened in 2015. We had just gotten the nomination for outstanding wine service at Co. I remember Bobby Stucky, who’s an amazing friend and mentor, had come in with his wife Donette and his general manager from Frasca. He’s also in charge of service at the Co, and he said the tasting menu that I just experienced at Co is the best I have had in recent memory. What you’re doing here is extraordinary, congratulations. Then, I remember a week after that is when I left for the master sommelier exam, and I had already passed the tasting. I had passed theory that year, which was the one I had been so nervous about, and I passed it in a way that finally felt so easy. I missed the service exam by one table, and it was a table of people who have never seen me work in a restaurant that I personally don’t know. The feedback that I was given was not that I ran out of time because I didn’t or that I didn’t answer the questions right because I had, it was that in their estimation, I didn’t seem like myself to them. It was just this one particular table, and I remember it was a big gut punch. It took me a little while to process it all. Then the next week, I found out I was pregnant with our son Henry, and that wasn’t planned. The universe decided that you thought you were going in this direction, but now your plans have changed. It was an opportunity to say, “Wait a minute, is the hill I’m going to die on trying to be more like myself to a group of people that don’t work in restaurants and never seen me work in a restaurant? Do I even want that feedback? Is there any way in which more work or more preparation could make me seem more like myself to a group of people who have no idea who I am or what I seem like?” That was an easy moment to course-correct and do this thing that I had felt was a void in the market for a while. The timing was good. The change was happening and I either could take some control over what that change would look like or not. And I chose the former.

Z: I want to follow up on one piece here, which is that you mentioned this idea that maybe your initial conception of Ramona was something that had a lineage that it shared with wine coolers. You saw it as a very casual drinking experience. Is that because from the jump you were thinking, “This is going to be a canned beverage?” Especially when you were probably thinking about the conception of what a wine-based product in a can was, there weren’t very many and they were definitely not seen as anything other than very casual beverages. Was it just the format that led you to that? Or since you wanted something casual, of course it’s going to go in a can?

J: Totally. It was more the latter, although cans were never obvious to me until we decided to go with them. It was more like a beverage. The beverage didn’t exist, and I just saw this big void. To your point about wine coolers, I would say that Ramona winks at wine coolers, but I would not say we were inspired directly.

Z: That is fair, I understand.

J: Yeah, wine coolers are a bad American version of spritz anyway. If you go down that rabbit hole, the ancient Romans and Greeks used to add water and flavorings to their wine. Nobody drank wine undiluted, so there is a fun lineage, if you want to go down that rabbit hole. As much as I was studying fine wine and as much as my life involved fine wine, what I found that I wanted to drink a lot of the time was something low in alcohol and refreshing and, in my estimation, was also delicious. Also, it adhered to a value system that was important to me. When I’d go out to the beach and have a lobster roll, the options were beer or a really cheaply made glass of rosé that I wasn’t interested in drinking. Then, to your point about wine coolers, I did some research and wine coolers were a massive category in the U.S. in the ‘80s, up until the early ‘90s. If you look at what happened, the beer lobby very sadly and successfully kneecapped wine coolers with a law that Congress passed in 1992, quintupling the excise tax on wine-based products in favor of malt. I love that Ramona was so early to the game, and I love that to this day because there are so many things in cans now. The thing that shocks me honestly is that I really want the rest of the canned industry to catch up and start producing things organically. If they’re *going to use malt, which is a horrible industry because everything is sugar cane-based. I know a lot more about that than I should because of my sister, who runs an NGO that pushes multinational corporations to respect human rights. There’s an opportunity for businesses to make decisions that impact the world on a positive note, and I hope we see more of that. As far as cans go, initially, my vision for this was that they would be in a bottle. Yet, the more I started researching and the more that I wanted to really lean into how we as a business make decisions that I’m proud of, aluminum is the most recycled material — above glass, above plastic, above anything. On top of that, it has a much lower carbon footprint than tracking glass all over or plastic all over. It felt like the right environmental decision. It was risky because I remember people saying, “Look, nobody’s going to know where to put this on the shelf” and “Where does this even go?” I think it was fortuitous that there was enough of a groundswell among cans as a vessel, and that was something that worked out for us. However, I would be lying if I said that the vision was always the can. The vision was always the product inside of the can. The can just made the most sense in terms of alignment with our value system.

Z: I think what’s interesting about the Ramona products is that they have, in my experience, adhered pretty close to this idea of very classic Italian spritz, at least in terms of their flavor profile. I’m sure that there have been times, suggestions, and maybe even prototypes of something outside this very citrus-centric flavor profile. Have you come close to expanding? What stops you if you have? Or are you just very content with the core flavor set?

J: Good question. This is actually a good lead-in to our flavor that we will be releasing this summer.

Z: Oh, I didn’t even know about this. Breaking news here on the podcast.

J: Breaking news, exactly. I just had a production call this morning. I wish we were going to release it sooner, but it looks like it’s probably going to be July. This remains true, but my goal is always, “How we can make things that I, as a very particular consumer, am willing and excited to drink regularly?” One way that we took inspiration was from that Aperol Spritz. The most natural way to do that back when I was tinkering with recipes was through grapefruit as a flavor, because it is both bitter, sweet, and a little salty. It’s also balanced and refreshing, so that’s where we started working with an extract made from organic grapefruits. Then really to that point, if that’s our inspiration for this particular flavor profile, what are the other flavor profiles that we want to consider? Then, it was just a whole bunch of tinkering. The thing we always lead with is, what is delicious? Of course, delicious is subjective, but what is delicious to us and what is missing. That led us to produce lemon from organic Sicilian lemons. We did a test batch here in the U.S., and that’s where I was introduced to a chemical called velcorin. I was told we could use velcorin and this was on canning day. I had spent my savings on everything, and it took a year to get to this point. Then, I learned on canning day that the canning facility wants to use velcorin or potassium sorbate to make them shelf-stable. In potassium sorbate, there’s a known carcinogen on the Whole Foods no-fly list and I just knew I didn’t want to touch that. Of course, I said, what about sterile filtration? What about all these other things? Those were not options at this particular moment in time. Anyway, this was when I learned what velcorin was. It’s a neurotoxin for the first 24 hours. It has to be administered with a hazmat suit. It is growing in popularity and does not have to be disclosed. What I’ve learned from my friends in Napa is that a lot of natural wines will just nuke the wine with velcorin, and nobody has to know, and then it doesn’t explode on the shelf. In Italy, we moved production and the definitive factor for me was how do we not have to use something weird like this? In Italy, we just pasteurize a wine in warm water. That’s when I became really committed to working with Italian ingredients, and Italy has its fair share of problems and frustrations. However, one thing they are going to prioritize is what they eat and what they drink. There’s just so much emphasis on that, which I really love and respect, and that’s how we ended up with Meyer Lemon. As we were tinkering, we definitely had recipes in the works for berry-flavored things. At the end of the day, it had to be delicious. That’s how we landed on Blood Orange, but then we didn’t release a new flavor. Last year, we did the Dry Grapefruit which is the drier, slightly lower in alcohol, 90-calorie version of the ruby grapefruit. However, I had a recipe that I have been tinkering with and working on for a very long time. Instead of taking its inspiration from southern Italy and Sicily, it takes its inspiration from northern Italy and Venice. Basically, the Aperol Spritz, minus the FD&C Red 40, minus the cold tar, minus the 279 grams of sugar per liter. Aperol as a brand is brilliant. Aperol as a product is just so fun and brightly colored. I say Aperol, but Aperol is part of its own lineage that emerged during the Italian futurist art movement, which I just learned. The futurist art movement actually produced the Russian constructivist movement, which our label design is inspired by. This notion that fine art belongs to everyone and it can be on a poster and it can be in an alley. It doesn’t have to live in a gold frame in a museum. That was the reason for Ramona. You can be at the beach, you can be on a hike, you can have a sandwich, you can be at home or you can be at a restaurant, and you can have a beverage for this any type of moment that adheres to a value system of a lot of these great wines. So, our new flavor is called Amarino. Basically, “ino” means a little bit of Amaro, and it’s bitter and it is this beautiful bright color. It is orange in color, with a bitter orange peel, and bitter oranges being a major profile, but it’s a recipe with a lot of different layers and we will finally be able to release that in the summer.

Z: Excellent. I have a couple of other questions for you. On “Next Round,” we’ve interviewed and talked to lots of people about sommeliers and other restaurant professionals who have either actually done what you’ve done to some extent or are intrigued by this idea of creating a product, creating a brand, and leaving the restaurant industry. You talked about this before, this moment in your career, this inflection point where things went one way instead of another. Do you miss the restaurant life? Can you go away, or is it still a siren song for you?

J: For me, I was able to achieve what I set out to achieve, and I had an amazing set of experiences through the restaurant world. It’s amazing how I remember being terrified of parenthood, and there were so many skills that actually just translated over really well. You’re already used to not sleeping very much. You’re already used to doing things ambidextrously and eating out of a quart container really fast.

Z: Also, used to lots and lots of complaining.

J: Yes, lots of complaining. Nothing ever goes the way that you think it will. You just get used to pivoting and thinking on your feet. I would say for me, it coincided perfectly with the evolution of my life, my family’s needs, and my own desire to be more present. My son Henry was born in January 2016. I had never intended to use maternity leave to focus on Ramona, but I found I had to. As restaurant people, we are busy all the time. We’re used to doing many things at once, and a baby sleeps a lot.

Z: Yeah, that is true.

J: I had a lot of time to really focus on what it is that I want. The most important question is, “Am I doing a thing that fills a genuine need?” With any decision that we make, whether it’s a flavor or anything, what is the reason behind it? Why are we doing this? Does the world need this thing? Do we believe in what we’re doing? Are we adding to the conversation or are we just doing something that already exists? That’s something we try to be really considerate of, but I think as far as restaurants, I was really fortunate to work in them during a period of my life where it really made a lot of sense for my life. My husband was in the restaurant industry at the time. He is no longer as of a couple of years ago, but it was just part of life. I think it probably shifted mid- to late-2015, where the things that I hoped to be able to do, I have been able to achieve. It was time for a new adventure and a new journey. I believe I had a full life in restaurants, but I don’t miss the floor.

J: Gotcha. And one last question for you, Jordan. Speaking of additional things you’re doing, you also have a podcast — you’re a veteran of this medium — called “Opening Up.” Can you talk a little bit about how that came to be? I’m led to believe that there’s another season coming, is that right?

J: Yes, exactly. “Opening Up” launched last September, and we decided to limit it to 10 episodes and ensure that it goes back to that through-line of wine as this connective tissue. There are so many wonderful people that have fallen in love with wine and have their own stories to tell. It was something that I had hoped to do for a while and had been on the table in conversations for a while. Then last year with Covid, it really needed to launch then, because that was a moment where nobody was seeing anybody they didn’t live with. It was an opportunity to really have these conversations from wherever we were. I loved and appreciated the opportunity to have those conversations. As we were trying to figure out the cadence, we decided we do want to have our seasons launch in the fall, and I like to think of Ramona as season-less. However, our busiest seasons tend to be spring and summer, so it’s a really nice way to ease into fall and winter and just to stay in touch with people who also love wine.

Z: Very cool. It definitely seems from a few episodes I listened to that the wine is the nominal point of connection for you and the guest. It is definitely not a conversation exclusively about wine, which, given the interesting set of people you have on, is very cool.

J: Oh, thank you.

Z: I mean, not that there’s any shortage of podcasts out there. You all should be listening to all of our VinePair podcasts for one, but this is definitely worth checking out as well — especially because I know some of you out there have more commute times ahead of you as people actually go back to work. Jordan, I really want to thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you and hear a little bit about this pioneering product. Some of the other people out there making canned wine products may not even be aware of the debt they owe Ramona. I think you guys really showed that you could do this in that format and have it be both delicious and also taken seriously. I think that was a big hurdle for canned wine products to get over because, as I mentioned before, it was definitely not the case five, six years ago when you guys launched.

J: Zach, thank you so much for these kind words and really for the opportunity to be part of this conversation and to be part of the program and also meet your listeners in this way. It’s been a pleasure. I have a great deal of respect for you and what you have built. I am really happy to have the time to connect here.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.

Now for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

The article Next Round: Jordan Salcito Saw the Canned Cocktail Future appeared first on VinePair.