Cat wine: Why drink alone when you can drink with your pet?

Taste test: Elsa the cat drinks Apollo Peak's 'cat wine' at Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California.
Taste test: Elsa the cat drinks Apollo Peak's 'cat wine' at Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California. Photo: New York Times

The question comes from two competing start-ups in the unlikely product category of faux wine for cats (and, to a lesser extent, dogs) that comes in miniature bottles with cutesy names. No alcohol is involved (think liquid catnip). But already the company that brought its products to market first, Apollo Peak - which calls itself "the original cat winery" - is accusing its newer competitor, Pet Winery, of being a copycat.

Both ran discount promotions for Valentine's Day. Both have come up with clever names for their products: For $US11.95 ($15.50), people can buy Fluffy an 240ml bottle of catbernet or Pinot meow from Apollo Peak, which is based in Denver.

Or for $US14.95, they can pour 250ml of Meow & Chandon from Pet Winery of Fort Myers, Florida.

Brandon Zavala, the chief executive of Apollo Peak, at the company's headquarters in Colorado.
Brandon Zavala, the chief executive of Apollo Peak, at the company's headquarters in Colorado. Photo: New York Times

Since alcohol can harm cats, these products are essentially catnip water, which can make a cat loopy and an owner happy.

But based on a wine tasting I conducted at a local cat cafe-slash-adoption centre, the products are primarily catnip for the owners: The shelter cats did not like wines from either company - only two of them indulged - but the people visiting the tastings loved the concept.

"That's the greatest thing ever," said Savannah Thrasher, 23, a medical biller, who was at the Cat Town Cafe. "It would be good if my cat can enjoy wine with me," she said.

You're imagining this alternative universe, in which cats live miniature versions of what you do.

It all started two years ago when Brandon Zavala, the chief executive of Apollo Peak, "spawned the idea of wine for cats out of nowhere," he said. "A pet is more like a friend, a roommate or a family member," he said. "Why are we just feeding them water?"

Zavala, 32, used to sell pet food products and has been learning more about the business through his start-up. Initially he called his product a "snack beverage". If he had not changed it to cat wines, he said, "it wouldn't have gone viral".

He named his business for his cat, Apollo, and for the mountains of Denver. Organic beets from California provide the colouring. The catnip comes from the higher elevations of Colorado. His small wine bottles are sold online and in 200 stores, including T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. Zavala imbues his products with clever sayings such as "Making Cats Great Again" and #whydrinkalone.

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Cat wines are the latest manifestation of a growing trend of pet owners treating their pets like people.

Over the past 15 years, "the pet market has been transformed by humanisation of pets," said David Sprinkle, the research director at marketresearch.com. A survey his organisation conducted last year found that 62 per cent of cat owners (and 64 per cent of dog owners) consider their pet to be a part of the family.

"The term 'pet parent' has increasingly replaced 'pet owner,'" Sprinkle said. Cat products and supplies make up 30 per cent of the $US40 billion US pet market, excluding services, he said.

A 'cat wine' from Pet Winery is poured for a taste test.
A 'cat wine' from Pet Winery is poured for a taste test. Photo: New York Times

Even Zavala was surprised by his success. Early on, he blasted out tweets and emails hoping to be noticed. Then, he said, "I over-marketed." A story in the Huffington Post led to 44,000 Facebook shares, as well as articles on People.com and NationalGeographic.com and shout-outs by Jimmy Fallon and Bill Maher.

Zavala was making the wines in his home kitchen and could not keep up. He hired employees and moved into a larger building. Last year, his company sold $500,000 worth of pet wines.

The competition moves in

In July 2016, Taryn Nahm, 31, who previously sold advertising, and her boyfriend, Kai Pfretzschner, 37, a chemist, started a cat wine company which they now call Pet Winery. (Their tagline: "Original beverages for pets.") Their wines, also in tiny bottles, are sold online and in 40 stores; they are made in Pfretzschner's lab.

Elsa the cat sniffs the 'wine' before the taste test.
Elsa the cat sniffs the 'wine' before the taste test. Photo: New York Times

Zavala is not amused, but Nahm is unapologetic.

"Apollo Peak doesn't get to own the market," Nahm said. "We have our own viewpoints," she said, and their own recipes. "We did salmon oil with catnip," she said.

Zavala sees it a bit differently. "I don't mind competition," he said, "but they have cloned our products."

Both companies have expanded into the dog wine market: Apollo Peak brews chamomile and peppermint in water. Pet Winery adds salmon oil and bacon extract.

Feline focus group

Needing to know which brand finicky cats preferred, I asked Ann Dunn, the founder of Cat Town Cafe, to let me conduct a feline focus group involving six fully awake cats and a dozen who were more interested in naps than liquid refreshments.

There was a surprise: Only one cat, a black-and-white one named Dickie, seriously liked the beverage. He sipped, then groomed himself and got blissful. Other cats lounging in cubbyholes ignored the offerings, though one was briefly interested.

Nevertheless, the cat lovers - even after seeing that the animals did not like the wines - were smitten with the products.

When I told Zavala, he understood. "The best part of the idea is having wine with your pet - that's what drives it," he said. "It's not how it tastes for the cat."

If you really want to attract cats, Dunn of Cat Town Cafe said, open a can of sardines. But sardines lack the coolness factor of a bottle of cat wine (which in turn lacks a strong fishy stench).

"We want to believe we're making their lives more luxurious, however silly that seems," said one observer of the wine tasting, Nicole Gounalis, a doctoral student in Italian studies at Stanford University.

She watched the wine tasting flop, but said she would buy the beverage anyway for her two cats, Dez and Ember.

"You're imagining this alternative universe, in which cats live miniature versions of what you do," she said.

The urge to spoil our pets

Robert Vetere, the head of the American Pet Products Association, a trade group, said that Gounalis' sentiment is an increasingly common one.

"We no longer reward our pets in animal terms," he said. "We feel the need to reward our pets in human terms."

For instance, "Suddenly, a tennis ball for our dog is not enough," Vetere said. Pet lovers are buying "high-cost collars, and premium bedding and other human-based rewards."

Not all cats are attracted to catnip or flavoured drinks.

"Cats in the wild don't drink that much - 75 per cent of their hydration comes from their food," said Jackson Galaxy, the host and executive producer of the Animal Planet show My Cat From Hell.

He said cat wines were silly but "if they bring people closer to cats, then they can't be all bad".