Tag Archives: wine sales

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


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.

Big Wine strikes again

Big Wine

“Who do we want to buy next?”

That E&J Gallo bought J Vineyards, the highly-regarded California sparkling wine producer, last month was shocking, but it did make business sense. Gallo, for all its vastness, doesn’t make high-end bubbly and doesn’t have many successful restaurant wine brands, and J does and is. Plus, J owned 90 acres of prime Sonoma vineyards, making the deal even sweeter for Gallo.

So how to explain this week’s news that The Wine Group, second-biggest to Gallo among U.S. producers and with even less of a critical reputation, bought the fiercely independent and much beloved Benzinger Family Winery? The Wine Group has never shown any desire to make wine not sold in grocery stores, and its two biggest brands are Franzia and Almaden, the five-liter box cash cows.

Call it one more step in the Big Wine-ing of America:

The increasing consolidation in the U.S. wine business, something I wrote about at the beginning of the year. It is getting harder and harder for wineries that make less than one-half million cases to find distributors and space on store shelves. Benziger makes less than 200,000 cases a year, which wouldn’t even make it the biggest producer in Texas, and J sells only about one-third of that. Said the owner of a leading California independent: “My guess is that a winery really needs to be above 200,000 cases to really get the attention of a distributor. But maybe 500,000 is the new 200,000?” A distributor told me: “There are too many labels fighting for too few spots on the shelf or wine list. It’s crazy.”

• Family and independence, two hallmarks of the California wine business since the 1980s, aren’t enough anymore. These are just the latest sales involving long-time family wineries, which saw an opportunity to cash out to avoid succession problems, solve family disputes over winery operations, or to take advantage of Big Wine’s deep pockets. Sale prices weren’t disclosed, but one report said the J deal may have been worth as much as $90 million, which would make the Benziger price well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Even of the sale price was half of that for each, which is probably more accurate, that’s a winning payout.

• It’s all about the land. Benziger, with sales of less than $10 million, is so small compared to the multi-billion dollar Wine Group that there is almost no way it could affect the parent’s financial performance. This makes the deal even more baffling, unless it was for the 200 or so acres of quality Sonoma vineyards that were part of the sale.

Will Big Wine run their new companies successfully? Certainly, if success is defined by profit. Otherwise, expect the new owners to do what new owners always do, despite best intentions and protests to the contrary — cut costs, eliminate unnecessary products (so say good bye to J’s lovely pinot gris), and “rationalize” operations. Gallo and The Wine Group won’t ruin J and Benziger the way Sears destroyed mail-order clothing retailer Lands’ End, but they won’t be the same wineries they were before the sale. That’s something we’ll have to learn to live with, because consolidation is going to be with us for a very long time.

More about Big Wine:
How to buy wine at the grocery store
Downton Abbey claret — wine merchandising for dummies
Big wine tightened its grip on the U.S. wine market in 2013

Sweet red wine to merlot: Drop dead


sweet red wineGrocery store merlot’s reason for being is that consumers like its fruity taste and that it seems sweet even though it’s dry. That combination, plus the fact that these wines have little in the way of tannins, translates to “smooth,” the ordinary wine drinker’s favorite descriptor.

So what are we to make of the news that grocery store merlot sales tanked in 2014, while those for sweet red wine went in the opposite direction?

Call it a sign that we may be seeing the beginning of a seminal change in the U.S. wine business.

One year’s sales figures do not necessarily make it panic time for merlot. But it is worth noting that sales of sweet red, which is grocery store merlot without the hypocrisy — truly sweet, very fruity, and no pretense of tannins — rose seven percent last year, according to Nielsen, while merlot (from a much larger base) fell six percent. Zinfandel, meanwhile, which mimics merlot’s sweet fruitiness, also suffered last year, with sales falling two percent.

This should give the wine wise guys something to ponder, no?

A couple of caveats: Sweet red is included in the red blend category, so some dry wines are part of that seven percent growth. But most of the analysts I’ve talked to say it’s safe to say that sweet red is behind the increase. Second, though supermarkets account for 42 percent of all the wine sold in the U.S., it doesn’t include two key states, New York and Pennsylvania, where grocery stores aren’t allowed to sell wine.

Third, people have been predicting the end of merlot since “Sideways” in 2004, and merlot has always proved them wrong. The difference this time is that sweet red offers much that pinot noir, the “Sideways” merlot-killer, didn’t. It’s less expensive and it’s much easier to make, since it’s a blend and the grapes in it don’t matter to most wine drinkers. Plus, it’s easier to market and sell; witness the success of E&J Gallo’s Apothic Red and The Wine Group’s Cupcake Red Velvet, which didn’t exist until a couple of years ago and today are brands that everyone else seems to be copying.

My guess? This may well be the beginning of the end of merlot, at least as it’s sold as a varietal in supermarkets. Merlot certainly isn’t going away, and will certainly be used to make sweet red. And, as the wine business continues to evolve into two parts — a huge, Big Wine-dominated mass market, and a smaller, independent retailer-driven market — merlot will remain important to the latter. But at some point in grocery stores, there may be little difference between a wine like Apothic and Charles Smith’s Velvet Devil merlot, which is sweet red in everything but name.


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