More and more, wine labels are coming around to the idea that creative branding is an important part of reaching new consumers, and many times it starts with the bottle. If you’re wandering the aisles of your local wine shop, you certainly won’t be able to ignore the wild labels on Michael David Winery’s Freakshow wines. Inspired by elaborate touring attractions like Barnum and Bailey Circus, the collection is a series of six wines with circus-themed images adorning the bottles, complete with fire-eaters and bizarre fairytale creatures.
Similar to other modern wine labels such as 19 Crimes, Freakshow is as much about brand interaction as it is the wine. Upon purchase, consumers are encouraged to download a custom app that will reveal a series of face filters, allowing you to become one of Freakshow’s outlandish characters. All you have to do is make a quick social media search to realize that fans are absolutely wild for this brand and for the all the fun that comes with it.
While Freakshow is becoming a big-name brand, the winery behind the famed bottles is still very much a family affair. Founders and brothers Michael and David Phillips come from a long line of grape growers and have since welcomed their own children into the business. Located in Lodi, California, in the northern part of the Central Valley, the winery has upheld high standards of production since its inception in 1984. The business operates with a team of experienced wine-enthusiasts and spans over 650 acres of prime grape-growing territory.
The winery itself operates with as much respect for the land and the region as for its rich history. With a goal of passing the family business on for many generations to come, there are strict rules that govern the sustainability of the winery. The soil, water and natural pest management are carefully monitored to preserve lucrative resources while ensuring their high quality, and the winery has a carefully planned infrastructure that enables its own sort of ecosystem to form. The growers encourage biodiversity and welcome all sorts of new life to the farm, such as a family of owls that serve as the perfect pest hunters. The result of these meticulous practices is a superior and honest product you can be proud to purchase.
While brothers Michael and David Phillips continue to run the business, the winery has taken off to include multiple consolidations and brand expansions over the years. With over five different collections of wine including 7 Deadly Zins, Freakshow, Inkblot, Earthquake and Petite Petit, Michael David has taken over a large portion of the California market covering many wine varieties and consumer bases. 7 Deadly Zins was the wine that put Michael David Winery on the map, and it soon became the most popular Zinfandel in the country. Seeing an opportunity to market other varietals to already loyal fans, new brands were created to highlight the winery’s other offerings like Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.
Now with the ability to make about 2 million cases of wine per year, the business is truly a household name. But no matter what, the family will always want guests to feel welcome at the Lodi tasting room, where it all began. With a café on-site, special events around the year and a 6,000 member wine club, the winery itself is still very much a part of the Michael David experience.
It’s no secret that California is one of the capitals of new world wines. With moderate temperatures year-round and natural ocean breezes, California’s breezy coast is an ideal setting for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and other cool-climate loving grapes. The state’s terrain is exceptionally diverse as well, and as we’ve seen in old-world vineyards, the mountainous areas provide an ideal mix of sunlight, cooling winds and drainage for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other bold reds.
The Michael David Winery sits within California’s Inland Valley, a rich agricultural region which produces 8% of the country’s crops. Lodi, Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley make up this region, and Lodi has a rich history that dates back to the Gold Rush when home wine-making was deemed legal during the Prohibition. The land itself proved to be a source of riches, as the warm sunny days give way to cool nights provided by rivers from the Sierra Nevada mountain range. A dry growing season and wet winter provide soil high in minerality, and depending on the position of the vines, the soil may be heavy and clay-based in the south and stony in the north. What results is a perfect climate for rich Cabernet, Zinfandel and Merlot, as well as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
As Michael David Winery has grown, and the wine business in Lodi has thrived, vineyards have been pushed further outside the city limits into the more mountainous regions and rolling hills. These conditions provide great sunlight and drainage though and are ideal for Lodi’s signature wine, Zinfandel. Despite its size, you can rest assured that Michael David Winery grows 100% of its grapes in and around the Inland Valley.
The Freakshow Wines
Freakshow Wines emerged on the market in 2012 and have since grown from a production of 5,000 cases to over 230,000 cases. The brand has quickly gained recognition for quality and boldness of flavour, as well as the unique packaging of course. Just this year Michael David Winery announced the release of the Freakshow face filter, called Freakshow Maskerade, a genius example of experiential marketing.
Freakshow initially began as a way to highlight the winery’s bold Cabernet Sauvignon, which is still one of the more popular bottles in the collection. As the brand has developed, new wines have been added and the complete collection now consists of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petite Syrah and a red blend. The line-up is a true homage to California wine, with all the classic flavours and styles represented.
2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, $20
My personal favourite out of the Freakshow collection, the Cabernet Sauvignon is the best place to start for anyone delving into the world of California wine. The young Cab is medium-bodied with bright notes of raspberry and pepper, but with the deep garnet colour, you expect. Aromas of cranberry and coffee are bold and fresh on the palate, and if you let this bottle age for a while, which I highly suggest, the red fruit flavours will deepen, and the tannins will become silky smooth.
The bottle undergoes a unique ageing process, with 40% aged 13 months in new French oak and the other 60% aged 13 months in neutral oak. The result is a strong hit of oak, vanilla and spice on the finish, but with a lush mouthfeel that lingers long after the first sip. The oak also lends a mellow earthiness to the wine’s bright fruitiness which pairs exceptionally well with foods that also have an inherently savoury, earthy flavour. Pair with salty cheese, mushrooms or truffle risotto for a truly sumptuous experience.
2017 Zinfandel, $20
Seeing as Michael David Winery started as a powerhouse for Zinfandel with their collection 7 Deadly Zins, it’s no surprise that the Freakshow Zin is a true force of flavour. The wine is extremely rich, with all the concentrated fruitiness you expect from a good Zinfandel. The jam-like fruit is first to hit the palate, followed by a smooth spiciness of oak and vanilla. It’s full-bodied with perfectly smooth tannins, but the youth of this wine also lends a unique brightness that you don’t always find in this varietal.
High alcohol content and pungent acidity are almost masked by the richness of this wine but lend a complexity of texture and flavour. Pair with foods that are equally powerful in flavours, such as braised short ribs, funky cheese and hearty pasta Bolognese. This Zinfandel is lovely to sip on its own but really comes to life when paired with bold flavours and rich, succulent meats.
2016 Red Blend, $18
California can often be attributed to giving red blends an honourable place at the table. While sometimes criticized for lacking depth of flavour, or for masking low-quality grapes, red blends have become much more popular among winemakers who want to create a signature bottle and completely unique flavour. Freakshow’s blend contains Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah and Malbec for a wine that is smooth and easy to drink.
This is a bottle that makes a great hostess gift or dinner party wine, as it’s exceptionally smooth and pleases many palates. Sweet fruit, caramel and tobacco are at the forefront, but a lovely peppery finish adds depth to this bold wine. It’s extremely versatile when it comes to pairings, but meat, spicy chilli or pizza make excellent accompaniments. Drink this bottle young, but let it air for about an hour before consuming, as the flavours flourish when given a bit of time.
2017 Petite Petit, $18
Once again, you will find another big, bold red in the Freakshow line-up. With 85% Petite Syrah and 15% Petit Verdot, this bottle is jam-packed with flavour. The black fruit comes forward in full force, while a medium acidity and smooth tannins round out the jam-like blackberry and plum flavours. The finish is subtlety smokey, with a definite vanilla aroma. While some Petite Syrah’s can be overwhelmingly fruity, this one has a lovely dry finish that will be a big crowd-pleaser.
The lingering smoke and savoriness of this wine lend itself to the meaty flavours of BBQ, prime rib and even nice eggplant parmesan. It also stands up very well on its own, so make sure you take a few sips of this wine by itself to truly appreciate the complexity.
2018 Chardonnay, $18
Buried among all these bold reds is a true hidden gem, a bright Chardonnay that will please any wine drinker whether they typically gravitate towards white or red. This wine is delightfully fruit-forward and crisp, and as someone who tends to shy away from Chardonnay, I was pleasantly surprised by the brightness and subtle oak. Mango, nectarine and cinnamon fill the palate while butterscotch and vanilla round out the finish with the smokiness you expect from a good Chardonnay. It begins light and has a fairly heavy finish, but it’s quite dry and lacks the buttery mouthfeel you get from some Chardonnays.
With a 33% oak and 67% steel ageing process, this bottle has the perfect balance of brightness and richness. Pair it with a good steak fish such as salmon or swordfish or enjoy with a nice creamy brie. Once again this is a great introduction into California wines, particularly if you are new to new world whites.
Pros and Cons
This line of wines from Michael David Winery is exceptionally approachable and fun. With a limited collection of five varietals, the average consumer will be able to make a selection based off prior knowledge, while the wine aficionado will be impressed with the complexity of flavour and meticulous production techniques. While not cheap, the bottles are priced moderately and fairly, offering exceptional value for the quality of the wine.
Particularly if you enjoy big, bold reds, this collection will make you very happy, and you really can’t go wrong with any option. And if you are new to the world of California wines, Freakshow is a wonderful example of what Northern California has to offer, with some unexpected flavours thrown in for good measure. Fans of Michael David Winery’s other collections are sure to enjoy this amusing line of wines and let’s not forget that you can enjoy a bit of fun with the delightful Freakshow Maskerade app.
One thing to note for those new to big California wines is that this collection is not for the faint of heart. If you prefer very mellow flavours or very light reds like a classic Pinot Noir or Beaujolais, you may be overwhelmed with the boldness of Freakshow wines. While all quite dry, they are extremely fruit-forward and could put off the wine drinker who is accustomed to very tart and spicy reds. Similarly, these are also wines that you will likely want to steer away from as gifts unless you know that your gift recipient is a fan. Apart from the red blend, each bottle is quite strong in flavour and may not appeal to every palate.
Freakshow is a collection of five classic California wines, four red and one Chardonnay. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel are two of the more popular bottles in the brand and are very bold, rich red wines with powerful flavour. The Petite Petit is a blend of Petite Syrah and Petit Verdot, another very full-bodied red, and the red blend are very smooth and a bit milder in flavour. Finally, the Chardonnay is a bright, fruity twist on a classic white.
The winery is owned by Michael and David Phillips, two brothers who are 5th generation, grape growers. Their family has been in the grape and farming business for decades and the brothers now run the winery in Lodi, California with their own children.
Petit refers to Petit Verdot, a grape originating from France that was primarily used in Bordeaux blends. This grape thrives in warmer climates where it has time to reach full maturity. Petit Verdot grapes that undergo a shorter ripening period will be more acidic, bitter and herbaceous, while those with a longer ripening period will have flavours of sweet blackberry and violet. Freakshow blends Petit Verdot with Petite Syrah, a bolder red, for a very rich and lovely blend that is fruit-forward.
Freakshow’s Petite Petit, a blend of Petite Syrah and Petit Verdot, is very fruit-forward and has notes of blackberry jam and black cherry. You will detect some sweet fruit on the palate at first, but the wine has a dry finish which cuts the rich fruit. While this bottle is probably the sweetest of the Freakshow reds, it is still pleasantly dry and not characterized as a sweet wine.
The Freakshow wines come from the Michael David Winery in Lodi, California, an agriculturally rich town in San Joaquin County near Sacramento. All of Freakshow’s grapes are grown in the state of California.
Michael David Winery proved long ago that it was a staple of the California wine industry, and by taking risks such as launching utterly unique brands under the family name, they have shown the ability to grow and adapt. And while the labels may be crazy, the wine is the same high-quality, flavorful product you expect from a wholly California winery.
This collection of wines is a great way to explore California’s viniculture whether you’re already a consumer of classic Cali Cabs, or you’re just starting to learn. With bold flavour, fruitiness and spice, these wines are far from boring, and great for those who have an adventurous palate. Tempt your friends and family with these outrageous labels, and I assure you they will become fans of the delicious wine inside.