February 26 2011
Over the course of the last year, I’ve been chronicling trending in sweet wines. From Jam Jar, the first semi-sweet red to forthrightly come to market with national intent, to Tim Hanni, a Master of Wine who is advocating a respected hierarchy for sweet table wines and their consumers, to the growth of Moscato both in acreage under vine and wines on the shelf. The growth of sweet table wine is palpable, even if a vocal minority views it as potably unfit plonk.
With national wine companies like Bronco nationally rolling out their Crane Lake Sweet Red in 2011, joining Gallo’s Barefoot Sweet Red that launched in 2010, the big guys see a market niche and sweet reds are taking their place next to Moscato in the opportunistic growth category…
…An opportunity that, to this point, has been the province of local and regional wineries…and their happy customers.
I recently attended the annual Wine Market Council research presentation in New York City. Combined with Nielsen data, the presentation presented a number of eye-opening insights into opportunities in the domestic wine business. Notable amongst many data points was a Nielsen slide that presented wine sales growth from state of origin.
Citing notes I took from the presentation, Indiana had 13.1% growth in sales value and 11.2% growth in volume. North Carolina had 9.7% growth in sales value while they increased 12.6% in volume.
Of course, the question that begs to be asked is: What is leading a Midwest and an east coast wine-producing state to grow their wine sales numbers at such rapid rates?
The answer it turns out is premium-priced, easy drinking sweet table wines – whites and reds—a fact that the national players are just now viewing as an opportunity, joining a party that has been going on for years.
Indiana’s bellwether winery is Oliver, a favored son and a winery that was named one of Wine Business Monthly magazine’s ‘Hottest Small Brands’ in 2004. In an interview with owner and winemaker Bill Oliver, he confirmed that Indiana’s growth percentages are largely attributable to Oliver’s increase in distribution throughout the country, from as far west as Colorado and throughout the southeast and eastern seaboard, with more growth on the way. In fact, Indiana’s top selling wine for the last eight years has been – yes, you guessed it – the Oliver soft red and soft white wine, a sweet wine made from vitis labrusca concord grapes that fly’s off the shelves of grocery stores and big box warehouse club stores.
In our conversation, Oliver cited two regional winery peers that have similar market profiles – St. James in Missouri who claim to have one of the top selling wines in the state year after year from their line-up of predominantly sweet and semi-sweet non-vinifera wines, as well as Duplin winery in North Carolina who also claim to be the producers of the perennially bestselling wines in their state from their line-up of Muscadine wines. To their credit, Duplin has been named a 2009 and 2010 Beverage Information Group’s Fast Track Brand Award winner—the award is given based on percentage of sales growth year-to-year, with a minimum of 10% growth each year.
These regional wineries, with case production and spot distribution that would make most producers in California blush, are doing something right.
As virtually every state in the union has fostered a wine industry over the last 25 years, almost every one, save for wineries in California, Oregon and Washington, have a sweet table wine line-up that acts as the profit engine for the winery. As Oliver noted, “It’s a no brainer. I want to keep the lights turned on; I want to send my kids to college, and we’re serious about quality.”
What is curious, however, is why it has taken this long for the national players to recognize the trend that sweet table wine sells exceedingly well between the coasts. Simply, why has it taken this long to give the people what they want?
The answer to why a sweet opportunity isn’t more manifestly addressed by the west coast wine industry is likely two-fold:
1) Sales data is notoriously poor making it difficult to spot trends that don’t start in your own backyard, or are shared over a cup of coffee
2) Save for dessert wines, sweet wines and their customers are viewed in a derogatory fashion by the fine wine segment of the wine industry
To wit, a recent Symposium at the University of California, Davis, the wine industry’s principal academic arm, called, “Sweet, Dessert, and Dried Fruit Wines: A Worldview” focused mainly on dessert wines, as reported by Wines and Vines magazine. The lone outlier discussing sweet table wine, Tim Hanni, from the Wines & Vines article said, “There are people out there who would love to drink wine, but we won’t let them” remarking on an institutional perception from the majority of the wine industry.
For his part, Oliver is hoping that more people don’t catch on to the trend as he cautiously watches Barefoot and Crane Lake move into markets where Oliver sells exceedingly well. Referring to Barefoot’s Sweet Red, he noted, “It tastes like Central Valley wine with sugar in it,” a stark contrast to the years of craft that have gone into making his Soft Red a high-quality people-pleaser.
In sum, we’re at the beginning of the sweet white and red wine trend. Typically, there’s trend trickle down from the large wine companies into the finer wine segments of the west coast wine industry over a period of years. Yet, until strapped west coast wineries, wrestling with how to grow, get the gospel, fast-growing wineries in the rest of the country are continuing their growth path on a foundation of high-quality, affordable, people-pleasing wines while muttering to themselves, “How sweet it is.”