“That’s the greatest thing ever,” said Savannah Thrasher, 23, a medical biller who was at the Cat Town Café here. “It would be good if my cat can enjoy wine with me,” she said.
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?”
Mr. 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 coloring. 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. Mr. Zavala imbues his products with sayings like “Making Cats Great Again” and #whydrinkalone.
Cat wines are the latest manifestation of a growing trend of pet owners treating them like people.
Over the past 15 years, “the pet market has been transformed by humanization of pets,” said David Sprinkle, the research director at marketresearch.com. A survey his organization conducted last year found that 62 percent of cat owners (and 64 percent of dog owners) consider their pet to be a part of the family.
“The term ‘pet parent’ has increasingly replaced ‘pet owner,’” Mr. Sprinkle said. Cat products and supplies make up 30 percent of the $40 billion United States pet market, excluding services, he said.
David Grimm, a deputy news editor at the journal Science and the author of “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs,” said the increasing closeness between humans and pets began in the early 1900s, when flea products allowed people to bring dogs indoors, and kitty litter did the same for cats. Soon, animals were on people’s beds and in their hearts.
Farm animals, which once roamed the land, began disappearing and multigenerational families gave way to smaller ones and more people living alone. “The final piece of the puzzle,” Mr. Grimm said, “coincides with the rise in technology and the severing of a lot of human relationships. We’re doing so much virtually that when we go home at night, our dogs and cats increasingly are beings in our lives that want to interact with us when other relationships are fraying.”
Even Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.
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 Mr. Pfretzschner’s lab.
Mr. Zavala is not amused, but Ms. Nahm is unapologetic.
“Apollo Peak doesn’t get to own the market,” Ms. Nahm said. “We have our own viewpoints,” she said, and their own recipes. “We did salmon oil with catnip,” she said.
Mr. 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.
Needing to know which brand finicky cats preferred, I asked Ann Dunn, the founder of Cat Town Café, 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 Mr. 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, Ms. Dunn of Cat Town Café 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 Ph.D. student of 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.
Robert L. Vetere, the head of the American Pet Products Association, a trade group, said that Ms. Gounalis’s 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,” Mr. Vetere said. Pet lovers are buying “high-cost collars, and premium bedding and other human-based rewards.”
Sarah Davidian, 34, a veterinary technician who was visiting the cat cafe, said she had read mixed reviews online for cat wines, but could not resist buying Pet Winery’s Purrgandy for a dinner party to celebrate her friend’s one-year anniversary with her cat, Jimmy. They planned a Mexican dinner for five, “not counting Jimmy,” Ms. Davidian said, noting that the meal was chosen because Jimmy likes tortillas and shredded chicken.
Two days after the wine tasting I staged, Ms. Davidian sent me a text saying that her friend had let Jimmy taste the Purrgandy. He became “very affectionate and took a long nap,” she reported, adding: “I’ll have to buy a case for him now.”
“I buy stuff that spoils my animals rotten,” said Stephanie Turner, who works as a volunteer at the Cat Town Café. Her dog has 17 squeaky toys. Otto and Floyd, her cats, have disco balls and an electric mouse.
“We don’t have kids, so the money that would go toward kids we spend on our pets,” she said. She watched the lackadaisical response of the cats to the wine, but said she too, would buy cat wine.
Not all cats are attracted to catnip or flavored drinks. “Cats in the wild don’t drink that much — 75 percent of their hydration comes from their food,” said Jackson Galaxy, the host and executive producer of the Animal Planet show “My Cat From Hell.”
Cat wines “are silly,” he said, but “if they bring people closer to cats, then they can’t be all bad.”