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The craft wine dilemma

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craft wine dilemma

Which is craft wine and which isn’t?

How do you describe a wine that isn’t made by a multi-national and that doesn’t sell millions of cases? Is craft wine the proper description? And, if it is, how do you prevent the multi-national from describing its product the same way?

That’s the craft wine dilemma, as producers try to find terms to separate their wine from mass-produced grocery store plonk — even if their wine isn’t all that different.

There is no legal definition of craft wine, and borrowing the term from beer doesn’t help. Craft beer, which is assumed to be made by small, independent producers, is driving what little growth there is in the beer business, but craft beer includes Shiner and its 6 million cases and Boston Beer’s Sam Adams and its $2.9 billion in sales. Both belong to the Brewers Association craft beer trade group, demonstrating how empty the term is. Consider (and allowing for a 24-can case of beer vs. a 12-bottle case of wine) that Shiner would be tied for 12th on Wine Business Monthly’s top 30 U.S. producers list, just ahead of Bogle, and Boston Beer would be among the top three or four biggest wine companies in the country by sales.

The Brewers Association trade group guidelines don’t help much either, offering lots of PR speak (“Craft brewers tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy”) and little else. Also complicating matters: The rash of lawsuits over the past year from disgruntled consumers suing craft brewers and distillers because their craft products don’t seem to be that much different from the products made by multi-nationals, save for higher prices. No wonder there was such a spirited discussion on Tom Wark’s Fermentation blog this summer about the subject, looking for the best way to describe what Wark calls wine made by a “small, hands-on, privately owned, high-quality oriented winery.”

The craft wine dilemma reminds me of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” If an 8 million case producer like Delicato Family Winery uses the term hand-crafted for some of its wine, does hand-crafted have any meaning? On the other hand, can a producer that mostly fits Wark’s definition be called a craft winery if its idea of quality is to make an overoaked fruit bomb designed to get 98 points and cost $100?

Establishing legal (or even trade group-agreed) definitions for craft and similar terms is the obvious solution, but most of the wine business will burn down the blog and carry me off with pitchforks for suggesting it. Still, given that some plaintiffs have won their craft definition lawsuits, maybe that idea is worth considering. Otherwise, it will be a long time before anyone solves the craft wine dilemma.

 

The continuing grocery store wine revolution

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grocery store wine revolutionFirst, Nielsen reported that 42 percent of all wine sold in the U.S. is sold in supermarkets. Then IRI, which also also tracks consumer purchases, reported that wine was the seventh biggest selling item (in dollar terms) in U.S. supermarkets in 2014. Call it one more piece of evidence pointing to the grocery store wine revolution.

Yes, part of that sales ranking is because wine is more expensive than most grocery store merchandise. But even allowing for the higher prices, says my supermarket consultant, this is the kind of change that transforms an industry. The increase in sales in dollars was greater than the increase in the number of bottles sold, which means grocery store wine shoppers are buying the more expensive wine that they used to buy in liquor stores and wine shops. Given that wine sales in the U.S. have been flat for a couple of years, that should terrify every wine shop owner in the country.

More thoughts about the grocery store wine revolution:

• Wine was ranked ahead of cold cereal (No. 8), coffee (No. 11, and also relatively expensive), bacon (No. 17), dog food (No. 27), and diapers (No. 92).

• Keep in mind that wine did this well despite three tier’s sales restrictions — reduced hours for purchase in many states, and that it isn’t sold in supermarkets in key states like New York and Pennsylvania.

• Wine sales were 37th in the number of items sold, despite its higher prices. That may be the most mind boggling fact, given that wine in grocery stores was almost unheard of when I started drinking wine in the early 1980s.

• Wine sales increased 5 1/2 percent in dollar terms, also impressive given its higher price.

For more on grocery store wine:
How to by wine at the grocery store 
Why grocery stores love wine
Wine education: Four things you don’t needs to know about wine

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

 

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