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Category Archives: Wine trends

Update: Sweet red wine is taking over the U.S.

winetrends

sweet red wineThe surprising thing about this month’s sweet red wine post is how muted the reaction was. Hardly anyone seemed surprised. Dismayed maybe, or irritated, but not especially surprised. That’s because the people who follow these things had an idea it was going on, and those who don’t — like most of the Winestream Media — don’t consider it important enough to be surprised.

And the wine drinkers buying all that sweet red? They weren’t surprised, dismayed, or irritated. They’re just happy someone is making wine they enjoy. Or, as a 30-something woman told me about her favorite sweet red, Cupcake’s Red Velvet: “It’s really good, and it’s really about the only red wine I like.”

The one thing most everyone agreed on? That the numbers, though imprecise, offered a real sense of how big sweet red has become — the fifth biggest category in U.S. wine sales, behind chardonnay, cabernet sauvignion, pinot noir, and merlot. Given its momentum, I wouldn’t be surprised to see sweet red pass merlot for fourth in the next couple of years.

So it’s not a coincidence that red blends accounted for 40 percent of all new wines over the past two years, compared to just 18 percent for chardonnay and cabernet combined, according to Beverage Media magazine. Yes, not all red blends are sweet, but sweet reds are at least two-thirds of red blends, based on data in the first post. This is another sign of how important sweet red has become.

How sweet is sweet? About 1.0 or 1.2 percent residual sugar, compared to less than .08 residual sugar for dry red wines. Other highlights in the wake of the first story, combined with additional reporting that I did:

• Consumers don’t necessarily see sweet red as sweet, says Christian Miller of Full Glass Research, who has probably studied this subject more than anyone in the country. ” ‘Sweet’ is not an attribute that large numbers of regular consumers use with regards to these wines,” he said. “They are more apt to regard them as flavorful or smooth or interesting. Many consumers jump back and forth between dryer and sweeter versions of these wines.”

• The wine industry remains uneasy about calling a sweet wine sweet, says Miller. “It’s possible that some of these companies have tested adding the word sweet to the label or description, and found it harmful. On the other hand, based on my experience in the wine industry, the number of decisions based on gut instinct, trade notions, or small unrepresentative samples is surprisingly high, even among large MBA-ish companies.”

• Since sweet red doesn’t depend on appellation or specific grapes, it can be made with fruit from anywhere in California, Or, as wine economist and author Mike Vesteth told me, sweet red can be made with all the merlot and syrah that wouldn’t be sold otherwise, and which costs less to use. Hence higher profit margins than more traditional wines.

Finally, no one — not even anyone at E&J Gallo, whose Apothic started all of this — expected sweet red to do this well. Gallo, I have been told, developed Apothic to appeal to Millennials, to compete with the Menage a Trois red, and to earn supermarket shelf space. That it might change U.S. wine never really occurred to anyone.

For more on sweet red wine:
The ultimate Internet guide to sweet red wine 
What’s next for sweet red wine?
Wine terms: Sweet vs. fruity

 

Let the computer write the wine reviews

artificialintelligence
computer-generated wine reviews

How am I supposed to know if there’s too much oak?

Could artificial intelligence make writers obsolete? Because I’m not the only one who wonders. Barbara Ehrenreich, writing in the New York Times, firmly believes that “the business of book reviewing could itself be automated and possibly improved by computers.”

So why not wine writing — computer-generated wine reviews?

This would solve any number of problems, not the least of which is that winemakers wouldn’t have to deal with people like me. I had a brief email discussion recently with an annoyed producer who insisted that her wines didn’t taste the way I described them; she certainly would have been better off with WineNet than what Ehrenreich calls a “wet, carbon-based thinking apparatus” with self-awareness and a sense of obligation to its readers.

The last time I wrote about this, a company called Narrative Science had made significant inroads in taking disparate facts and turning them into a readable narrative. Unfortunately, it seems to have veered elsewhere, developing a product that “creates new revenue opportunities by transforming data into engaging content that can be productized and monetized.” This approach has little to do with writing, since there is money involved.

Still, much work has been done. TechCrunch reported last month that robot writers are all the rage in Silicon Valley, while a data scientist named Tony Fischetti has written that Markov chains can be used to simulate what he calls the “exercise in pretentiousness” that is a wine review. The concept of a Markov chain, which deals with probability, is far beyond my math skills, but Fischetti used 9,000 reviews from the Wine Spectator to write a program that came up with tasting notes that are no worse than most, including: “Quite rich, but stopping short of opulent, this white sports peach and apricot, yet a little in finesse” and “this stylish Australian Cabernet is dark, deep and complex, ending with a polished mouthful of spicy fruit and plenty of personality.”

Meanwhile, a wine producer in France, using N-Gram analysis (also beyond my math skills, but apparently related to word order) also thinks it’s possible to generate wine reviews without a wine writer. Both approaches seem to jive with what I wrote last time, that an artificial intelligence, working with a wine term database and the proper algorithm, could scrape together effective reviews. Probably even scores, too.

I just hope, if and when this puts me out of business, that someone will remember that I saw it coming. Maybe I can monetize the blog that way.

Image courtesy of Techbrarian, using a Creative Commons license

 

Has sweet red wine taken over the U.S. wine market?

winetrends

sweet red wineIs it possible that sweet red wine sales totaled one-third of all the chardonnay sold in the U.S. over the past year? And did slightly better against cabernet sauvignon? Or that sweet red wine outsold syrah, zinfandel, and malbec over that time period, and almost overtook merlot?

Hard to believe, but apparently true. A leading wine industry analyst, working with proprietary data, has estimated sweet red wine sales in the 52 weeks ending April 25 were about $534 million. That means, besides outselling syrah, zinfandel, and malbec, sweet red also did better than moscato — the current next big thing — and missed sauvignon blanc by just a couple of percentage points.

The analyst — call him Smart Wine Guy — asked not to be identified because his figures are based on that proprietary data, and legal problems could ensue if I used his name. But he has worked in the wine business for most of his life, including stints in retail and for Big Wine.

Smart Wine Guy used sales figures for red blends that cost between $7.50 and $15.49 a bottle and are sold in grocery and liquor stores. That includes most of the wine we think of as sweet red — those blends, like Apothic and Menage a Trois Red, that have more residual sugar than traditional dry red wine. It also includes red blends like 14 Hands Hot to Trot that aren’t identified as sweet red in most sales surveys, even though they’re as sweet as Apothic. Hence Smart Wine Guy’s total is three times bigger than Nielsen’s sweet red total, which is the accepted sales number but which probably undercounts sweet red sales.

The other things to know about these figures?

• Some 80 percent of sweet red wine is sold in grocery stores. By comparison, about two-thirds of cabernet sauvignon in the U.S. is sold in supermarkets. This should scare the hell out of liquor stores that assume sweet red drinkers don’t matter.

• Sweet red’s success is just five or six years old, dating to Apothic’s debut. There has always been sweet red, of course, but Apothic was the first brand to treat it like real wine, with a proper bottle, better quality, and well-designed label. In those five years, sweet red has become the one of the top six categories in U.S. wine.

• Sweet red sales increased about 20 percent last year, even though the overall wine market was flat, chardonnay declined almost one percent, and cabernet grew just four percent.

• Apothic, Menage a Trois Red, and Cupcake Red Velvet account for about half of the sweet red wine sold in the U.S. Not coincidentally, all are Big Wine products. If anyone who doubts the power of Big Wine still needs to be convinced, this is it.

• The best-selling sweet reds are just slightly sweet, and aren’t the over the top sweet bombs that many people expected when the sweet red market was developing. This says something about U.S. wine drinkers, who want wine, even if sweet, but not a soft drink.

• Sweet red wine has done all of this without any help from the Winestream Media, which speaks to how little most of us who write about wine understand about what Americans drink.

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