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8-Bit Vintners: Video Games Become Wine

Pour a glass and save the princess.

8-Bit Vintners Wine
8-Bit Vintners Wine

by Mike Supple
published: 29 Jul 2009
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There's just no way around it - drinking wine and playing video games are simply things that a lot of people enjoy. Video games were a part of my childhood and becoming an adult doesn't mean I have to give them up. It does mean I get to drink wine now and then while playing. For me, this combination of passions spawned the idea of wine and video game pairing. For Mike James, an energetic young winemaker just hitting the scene, wine and video games took on a whole different life.

Mike recently started a winery called 8-Bit Vintners, a throwback to the days when video game consoles were less powerful than my cell phone. What games back then lacked in graphics and speed, they made up for in sheer originality (at least the good ones did - Addams Family Fester's Quest was just terrible.)

When I heard about Mike's new winery and his first release, "Player 1," I had to get the inside scoop and make sure all gamers and wine lovers out there heard about this small production wine before it hits the market and immediately disappears. The following interview gives you more insight into how this brilliant idea arose, what Mike and his wine are all about, and how you might be able to get your hands on some of the wine when it is released this fall.

Mike Supple: What games did you play when you were growing up?

Mike James: I was primarily a Nintendo gamer as a kid. My first game was Super Mario Bros. in 1987. A next-door neighbor got the system with the combo Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt cartridge with the packed in Zapper. I was at his house every day for weeks until my parents got us one. The games I remember loving and playing the most were all over the place in terms of genre. I'm a big sports fan as well, so games like RBI Baseball, Tecmo Bowl, and PunchOut! were pretty awesome. I loved Contra, Castlevania, and the Ninja Turtles Arcade game - the Konami code got a lot of use at my house. It's funny because I think I enjoyed my Super NES more than any other console, but my original Nintendo is what got me hooked.

Supple: What is your favorite system now, and what games do you play?

James: I don't think I have a favorite current gen system. I own and like all 3 [Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii] for different reasons. I think the first party games for each system warrant owning all of them. I get a lot of use out of my blu-ray player in the PS3 which is awesome, but the party chat system on 360 is the reason I won't buy a multi-platform multi-player game on the PS3. Currently, I've been playing the new UFC game on PS3, finishing Call of Duty: World at War on 360, and trying to defend my title in the new PunchOut! for Wii. That game is tough!!

Supple: Do you drink wine while playing?

James: I do drink wine while I play on occasion. I tend to have more success in Call of Duty 4 when I don't, but I also don't get as upset when some 10 year old keeps spawn killing me for an entire match. It tends to mellow me out. I prefer playing the Pixel Junk games on PlayStation or turn-based strategy type games when I consume vino. Peggle is a great game for wine!

Supple: Totally understand where you're coming from with the little kids. When I get rocked in Halo, I take comfort knowing that the screechy, high-pitched voices on the other end are rotting their teeth on soda while I sip my Champagne. What first got you interested in wine?

James: I'm a first generation wino in my family, so it certainly wasn't a passion passed on by exposure from my parents. I've always had a great affinity for handcrafted things and I love things that people sink their whole lives into. A buddy of mine's dad exposed me to some nice restaurants when I was in college and after my first experience with a Sommelier, I was hooked. I loved the history and story behind the wines the Somm brought to the table, not to mention the sensory experience. I found myself consuming anything wine related and it really developed into a deep passion.

Supple: You're making wine in Washington but living in Arizona. What are those two world's like? How's the wine scene in Scottsdale? Do you see a lot of WA wines? Imports? AZ wines?

James: I think the wine scene in Scottsdale has improved dramatically over the past few years. There are some great wine bars, and if you're a foodie like I am, the restaurant selection is excellent. You're going to pay a lot, but it's very good. It seems like places are willing to take some risks with their lists and offer wines that may get people out of their comfort zone. The problem with an area with lots of money is that people feel the need to show it off. So people will buy the old standbys simply because they are the highest priced on the menu. The recent economy has changed this a little, but it's still there. There is still unfamiliarity with Washington wines in general, but people who are really into wine know that what we produce is world class. The Washington Wine Commission has done a great job promoting the state's wine industry and I feel confident that as more people get exposed to Washington wines, more people will ask for them. As for AZ wines, there have been incredible developments in the quality and quantity. It doesn't hurt to have guys like Maynard James Keenan [lead singer for the bands Tool and A Perfect Circle] and Dick Erath [a pioneer of wine producer in Oregon] making wines in your state as well. The key has been finding the right varieties to grow and not just making what the market wants at the moment. The best wine regions make wines based off of what grows well, and I think Arizona vintners are still figuring that out.

8-Bit Vintners Player 1 Red Wine Label

Supple: What made you choose the Center for Enology and Viticulture at Walla Walla for school?

James: I chose the Center for Enology and Viticulture in Walla Walla [Washington] for a couple reasons. I had traveled through Walla Walla a few years ago, and I absolutely loved it. The people were fantastic and the accessibility and quality of the wineries was outstanding. One of the guys I met in a tasting room mentioned he was attending the two year program in town and I was really intrigued. At the time, I was still trying to figure out what to do with my life, but it turned out to be the place that changed my life. It was also a cost issue. The cost of living and education were much lower than say California, and it was really all my wife and I could afford to do. It was a great experience and I would highly recommend it.

Supple: How did the idea for 8-Bit Vintners come about?

James: I was actually working for a wheat farmer my first summer in Walla Walla before school started to make a little cash. My wife and I didn't know anyone when we first moved to town other than my viticulture professor, Stan Clarke, who unfortunately passed away later that year. Stan was a pioneer in Washington viticulture and would do anything for his students. He got me the job, which almost killed me a couple times, but I had a lot of time to sit and think while those combines cut up the wheat. I really wanted to make an impact on this industry, and I felt like I really had to do something unique and genuine. I knew the wine had to be good, first and foremost, but I didn't want to get lost on the shelf because I was just another wine label with a last name, exotic animal or environmental object. I love games. I love wine. I figured, why the hell not? I also realized there were a lot of people who grew up with games that were of drinking age now that were completely overlooked by wine marketers. It seemed like a natural fit for me.

Supple: The blend for "Player 1" sounds pretty spicy and delicious. Why did you choose those particular grapes?

James: The blend for my first wine "Player 1" is definitely unique. Because I don't own my own facility at this point and I'm working with an extremely limited budget, I had to work with what I could get. It turned out that the varieties I had access to were all ones that have had great success in Washington. The main variety, Syrah (50%), really lays the foundation for the wine. It has great color from an excellent '07 vintage and adds a dark plum and black pepper element to the wine. The next dominant character in the wine is Tempranillo (30%). Washington has been having great success with this [native Spanish] grape and I was thrilled to be able to use it in my blend. It is certainly the power in this wine when it comes to the tannins. It offers the wine just enough grip that it feels substantial in your mouth without being over the top. There is also a little Cabernet Sauvignon (10%) for some dark fruit and herbaceousness, Malbec (5%) that adds a little passion fruit component, and Carmenere (5%) for cherry and white pepper accents.

Supple: What price point are you aiming for with this wine, and who is your target audience?

James: I am hoping to keep "Player 1" around the $20 or under range. It's a hard thing to nail down a price point. Go too low and people think it's cheap garbage, go too high and it's overpriced grape juice. I had to consider my costs, which I have been able to keep relatively low, while trying to achieve a profit so I can hopefully make more and release other wines that I have planned. My target audience is anyone who's ever picked up a controller. I love the idea that there are so many of us out there who share such great experiences even if we've never met. My wine is a reflection of those good times and hopefully more to come.

Supple: Will there be a white wine in the future? And what is the likely blend?

James: I am hoping to release a white wine sometime next year, hopefully in the spring, called "Player 2." As for the varietals, I'm looking into what's available this harvest, but I'm a big Riesling fan and a bone dry, highly acidic wine sounds good to me. I like wine that pairs well with food.

Supple: Where do you see 8-Bit going in the future? Do you have any plans for varietal wines, limited runs or higher priced wines from 8-Bit?

James: The future of 8-Bit Vintners is really in the hands of the consumer. If people dig what I'm trying to do and like the wine, then I would love to expand the brand into some higher end limited production runs. I've got some really cool ideas that I would love the opportunity to flesh out, but I'm not gonna get ahead of demand and create something people don't want. I would love to get the gaming community involved in the future when it comes to label design, names, etc. The bottom line is that I'm doing something I never thought I would have a chance to do. We're bottling later this week and I still can't believe it's happening. It's a really exciting time for me and my wife right now and we can't wait to share the wine with everyone.

Supple: If I wanted to catch you online for some gaming, when am I most likely to find you?

James: I'm usually online for gaming after 10pm or when my wife passes out. I keep on both the 360 and PS3 to see what friends want to play. Both IDs are "eightbitvintner" so please friend me up if you want to hang out.

Supple: Where will I be able to find/buy Player 1, and when are you releasing it?

James: People should be able to grab a bottle sometime in September or early October at the latest. "Player 1" will be available through the website at 8bitvintners.com, and I'm working at trying to get it into retail on the West Coast only at this point. Hopefully the next vintage will allow me to get it into the Midwest and East Coast markets.

Supple: What is the best video game to play the first time I open a bottle of Player 1?

James: It would make me happy to know you fired up a game of "Mega Man 2" on the NES or, if it must be more current, "Shadow of the Colossus" for PS2 when you pop the top off your first bottle of "Player 1."

Supple: Speaking of opening the bottle, what type of closure are you using for this wine and why?

James: "Player 1" will be released under screw cap for the first bottling. I want people to consume this wine soon after they buy it. I feel like screw caps offer a wine the ability to maintain its freshness and youth with no chance of TCA. If I get the chance to do some higher end stuff down the road, I'm sure I'll use cork, but I feel like screw caps were the right choice for this bottling.

Mike James, founder of 8-Bit Vintners.
Mike James, founder of 8-Bit Vintners.

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