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The revolution in cheap pinot noir

The moscato and sweet red wine trends have received more attention, but the revolution in cheap pinot noir may eventually be just as important to the wine business and to consumers.

That’s the gist of a story I wrote for the Beverage Media trade magazine. Pinot, traditionally the province of oenophiles with deep pockets, has long been considered fine wine more than mass wine for two reasons: The grape was always difficult to grow and difficult to turn into wine. Neither is especially true any more, and these changes have allowed winemakers to produce millions of cases of pinot that costs less than $15 a bottle and is clean and professional – if sometimes not very pinot-ish in taste.

In addition, the popularity of these wines is another indication that U.S. wine drinkers are looking for fruitier, less tannic, and less alcoholic options than merlot and cabernet sauvignon, and this ties into the moscato and sweet red trends. The tremendous growth in the popularity of these three wines hints at larger changes in what wine drinkers want, though it’s probably too soon to know more than that.

The story’s highlights and a few other thoughts, after the jump:

Mark West and the revolution in pinot noir

This is the wine that helped changed pinot noir in the U.S., both in how it tasted and how it was sold. As such, it probably deserves some sort of lengthy academic treatise and recognition for those accomplishments — good and bad. Instead, Constellation Brands, one of the world’s biggest wine companies, just bought it, and who knows what’s going to happen next?

Before the current version of Mark West debuted in 2001, drinkable pinot noir cost at least $20 and came from Burgundy in France, Oregon, and parts of California no one knew much about. Most of the rest of the world’s pinot wasn’t very pleasant – harsh and unripe, even on its best days. That’s because pinot is not only difficult to grow, but difficult to make. Those who grew it in un-pinot places or who made it without having Zen-like pinot skills almost always failed.

Mark West’s great accomplishment had three parts: Making a quality wine, making it cheaply enough so it cost $10, and making so much of it that it could be sold in grocery stores. The irony is that, to do this, Mark West had to make pinot noir that didn’t taste like pinot noir had always tasted. More, after the jump:

Winebits 236: Mark West, wine labels, drug stores

Constellation buys Mark West: Constellation, the second-biggest producer in the world, has purchased Mark West, best known for its $10 pinot noir (and long a favorite here). And why did Constellation snap up Mark West, which wasn't for sale? Because it needed a $10 pinot noir, said company officials. And why did it need a $10 pinot noir? Because that's the wine consumers are buying, which says a lot about where wine prices are going. This also speaks volumes about the massive sizes that are dominating the wine business. Mark West does 700,000 cases a year, and that wasn't enough for it compete with companies like Constellation, which does 40 million, with a grocery store brand like this. The final question — what will Constellation do to the wine's quality? If its past track record means anything, price will stay the same, but quality will decline to enable it to make its margins on a $10 wine.

More consumer-friendly labels? Caroline Henry asks that question in Palate Press, reporting on a big-time conference in London. The answer? That it’s an increasingly popular topic, and that the industry is divided. It’s a thorough look at something we’ve talked about here a lot, though missing from the discussion was anyone from the biggest and most important wine producers. It’s one thing to hold a panel about the subject; it’s another for one of the multi-nationals who make the bulk of the world’s wine to offer their insight.

Wine in drug stores: Walgreen’s, one of the world’s largest pharmacy chains, is testing an up-scale store concept that includes expanded wine offerings. Shanken News Daily says the 25,000-square-foot store in Chicago, about twice the size of a normal Walgreen’s, will also have sushi, a smoothie bar, and expanded fresh food. The company is looking at former Borders bookstore locations for possible expansion. If Walgreen’s makes the decision to take this idea national, it will join a variety of other retailers, including Starbucks, who see premium wine as a way to lure high-end shoppers to their stores. Whether high-end shoppers want to buy wine at Walgreen’s is another story.

 

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