The Ballad of Honey Bubbles, Malibu’s Buzziest Moscato
Picture a Moscato, and your mind may flash to an ultra-sweet, post-dinner, “one-glass-and-you’re-done” sort of wine. With half the sugar and double the alcohol of most other Moscatos, Honey Bubbles Wine is another type entirely. But what makes this sparkling libation especially unique is the heartfelt mission behind it, one that’s dedicated to plight of the endangered honey bee.
“Sipping Bubbles, Saving Bees” is Honey Bubbles’ mantra and mission all rolled up into one, meaning those who enjoy this semi-sweet delight are also supporting grassroots efforts to address the decline of the planet’s most important pollinator. (That, of course, includes guests of Malibu Beach Inn’s Carbon Beach Club*, who can give back to bees by the glass or the bottle.)
Below, co-owners Scott Roughgarden and Christiana Gifford tell the tale of Honey Bubbles from the ground up and explain the (literally) buzzworthy purpose that inspires them to spread it far and wide.
With its roots in hospitality, the growth of Honey Bubbles is somewhat of a serendipitous story. When Roughgarden and Gifford met, both worked as servers at a prominent Santa Monica hotel under Gregory Day —now the GM of Malibu Beach Inn (and president of its parent company). “He is very passionate about wine, bringing Wine Spectator awards to any property he’s involved with,” says Roughgarden.
In early 2014, Day spearheaded a Wine & Spirit Education Trust training for all his serving staff. For the job, he hired Master Sommelier and instructor Peter Neptune, who shared his enthusiasm about the sweet sparkling wine known as Moscato.
“’Moscato is growing 1000 percent per year!’” Roughgarden recalls Neptune exclaiming to the class. In the middle of the classroom, Roughgarden’s hand shot up. “What if I start my own Moscato company?” he asked, to which Neptune offered a two-word response: “Good luck.”
Roughgarden found his close friend Gifford immediately after class with three words of his own: “Let’s do this.” And so began the entrepreneurs’ painstaking process of getting a sparkling wine company afloat with no formal background in business, importing, or distribution.
First came the name, Honey Bubbles, which marries Moscato’s most effervescent attribute to Gifford’s lifelong love of bees. “They’re friendly, cute, and marketable, and we said, if it’s going to be a sweet wine, we have to give back to beekeepers,” explains Gifford, who, along with Roughgarden, was already philanthropically driven in her daily life. “The cause came to us with the name,” she says.
They put their heads together, and using their robust relationships within the hospitality industry, raised enough seed money to incorporate the company by the end of 2014. Next, the novice vintners used New Mexican grapes to ferment their first batch.
“Even though we are a Moscato, we broke all the rules,” says Roughgarden. “Christiana and I, we’re wine geeks — we love wine. We actually pulled the residual sugar back by half and fermented out to 11 percent, essentially doubling the alcohol of the traditional Moscato d’Asti.”
Using the Charmat method (the traditional sparkling method for aromatic grape varietals like Prosecco), they yielded a wine that was sweet — but not as sweet as the vast majority of other Moscatos found on the shelves. They then sent their unique prototype to Piedmont, one of the world’s most coveted regions for winemaking, where an Italian vineyard company took the time to perfect it and ramp up production.
By the middle of 2016, Honey Bubbles started supplying its very first accounts, with the owners personally delivering each case from the back of their cars. With the continued support of their former manager, Day, the owners’ initial customer was the very same Santa Monica hotel where their dream was hatched. And when Day came to Malibu Beach Inn, he added Honey Bubbles to Carbon Beach Club’s world-class wine menu as well.
“We’ve been really blessed to have him help us,” says Roughgarden. “Starting at establishments like that sets the tone for what you can do in the rest of the market.”
A Noble Mission
Moscato comes from the ancient Noble Grape varietals, the same ones that were favored by the gods in Homer’s classic novels before trickling from their Greek origins down into the verdant valleys of Italy. Gifford says that some of the earliest texts around the Moscato grape describe it as so vivaciously sweet, that it actually tends to be destroyed by eager honey bees seeking its irresistible nectar.
“Bees are natural predators to the grape vine,” she says, explaining that many vineyards try to stay away from beekeeping, especially because grapes themselves don’t need pollination as one of the world’s few “hermaphroditic” fruits. “But that being said, bees are part of a healthy ecosystem, and without bees in general, you wouldn’t be able to sustain the health of a vineyard.”
This awareness comes at a dire time for earth’s most important pollinator, a creature that has been in decline for at least the last 50 years due to the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). According to Honey Bubbles’ website, “more than one in three honey bee colonies has died nationwide over the last three years,” and this is statistic is particularly troubling given the fact that honey bees are responsible for pollinating one third of the American diet, including nuts, produce, and coffee.
Between factors like invading Africanized bees, loss of native habitats, and the agriculture industry’s latest silver-bullet pesticide, the exact cause of CCD is somewhat of a controversial debate among beekeepers, but they unanimously agree that honey bee populations are under serious threat worldwide.
“We chose to support the prevention of CCD because it’s an issue that can and will affect us all,” Gifford says. “One of our goals in creating Honey Bubbles is to bring awareness to CCD and make a real effort to prevent these remarkably social insects from dying off for good.”
From the sale of their very first bottle, Honey Bubbles has contributed a portion of proceeds to non-profits like Honey Love, a local organization that trains beekeepers and sets up hives in urban areas, such as those around Dodgers Stadium. As their sales and wine production increased, Roughgarden and Gifford grew their bee-centric mission as well, and they are now proud to support the efforts of various urban beekeeping organizations nationwide.
In educating others about the plight of honey bees, the business partners have discovered that many remain unaware of the situation’s gravity, and so with each account they land in a new area, the duo takes the opportunity to talk about their cause and pass out wildflower seeds. Thus, wherever Honey Bubbles can be found, so too can its noble mission.
“Honey bees are a quintessential part of our environment, so it’s an important cause to give back to, but it’s also very light-hearted,” Gifford says. “Whatever way we can give back, we will, and in multiple different ways.”
Ask Roughgarden and Gifford, and they’ll tell you that helping the honey bees begins with an awareness of their plight, and then continues with personal actions on their behalf. The partners think an individual can make the most positive impact by eating locally, keeping pollinator-friendly plants (like lavender) in their landscapes, using bee-safe products, planting wildflower seeds in fire-ravaged areas, and of course, supporting beekeeper efforts and outreach through a glass or bottle of Honey Bubbles’ wine.
The Buzz Continues
Roughgarden reports that Moscato was voted the most popular wine varietal in the U.S. last year over Chardonnay, and this accolade seems to track with the success of Honey Bubbles Wine. Each year since its debut, the company has experienced organic growth of 100 percent or more, and today, its singular Moscato can be found in 20 states and counting.
“We’re very fortunate in every capacity that we’ve been able to build this brand,” Roughgarden says. “These doors just keep opening for us.”
Gifford credits the wine’s success to its social element, explaining: “Even if you’re not a sweet wine or Moscato drinker, we have that feel-good component of giving back to saving bees,” she explains. “People are very intrigued by it, and by bringing in our product, they feel like they’re helping.”
Honey Bubbles is named for its bee-focused mission, so while the semi-sweet Moscato’s tasting profile bears characteristics that are similar to honey, it does not contain any of the golden nectar whatsoever. And while most drinkers associate Moscato with an overly sugary dessert wine, Honey Bubbles’ fermentation style proves that the noble grape can be transformed in a whole new way.
“It’s not a cloyingly sweet, syrupy type of Moscato,” says Gifford. “It’s not just a one-and-done. You can have a couple glasses and you don’t get so much residual sugar, you don’t get that headache, and you have the desire to take another sip.” What Honey Bubbles is — the partners concur — is definitely a wine for food.
“The higher alcohol, combined with the semi-sweetness, makes it go well with anything that’s fried, anything spicy, and of course goat cheese, especially Humboldt Fog — it’s a textbook pairing,” says Roughgarden. Gifford adds that Honey Bubbles has a slightly higher acidity than other Moscatos, making it strong enough to pair with meats, cheeseburgers, or the savory elements of brunch like eggs benedict and bacon.
“Moscato has had a bad reputation, and we’ve tried to educate people about how it can be done differently,” says Gifford. For her and Roughgarden, “doing it differently” not only means crafting a delicious, rule-breaking Moscato — it means giving back to a bigger cause.
*Carbon Beach Club’s dining room is currently closed, but Honey Bubbles is available to Malibu Beach Inn guests through our 24-hour in-room dining menu.
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