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Giving props to the broad market


We wine writers, and the popular wine media in general (I include the major blogs), frequently suffer from a rare myopia: while we’re obsessed with cult wines, collectibles, the Big Names and expensive boutique bottles, meanwhile the everyday work of producing and selling inexpensive wine to the majority of drinking people continues around the clock. The labors of the people behind lower-priced wines from California’s 5 largest wineries–Gallo, The Wine Group, Constellation, Trinchero Family and Bronco (according to Gomberg Fredrikson)–are largely invisible to the average consumer. But their vast sales forces are out on the sidewalks every day, meeting with buyers from the nation’s leading chains, negotiating deals, driving from venue to venue, flying from city to city, market to market, battling it out for shelf space in a never-ending grind that’s almost gladiatorial.

It’s easy for wine lovers of a certain cultural milieu to turn up their noses at boxed wines, wines with no vintage in big bottles at the bottom of the supermarket shelf, or indeed even vintaged, varietal wines that cost only $10, give or take a few bucks. But these are the wines that fuel America–more importantly, they are the entry-level wines that, for many consumers, will lead up the price-point ladder to more expensive ones. And let there be no doubt that Americans are drinking inexpensive wines in droves. We justifiably celebrate the cool-climate coast as the soul of California wine, but the truth is that the vast, inland Central Valley is California wine’s heart and lungs, the circulatory system that pumps out vast quantities of sound, everyday wine across the country and, increasingly, abroad, from Scandanavia to China. So great is the appetite for inexpensive Central Valley wine that, to quote the Ciatti Company’s May 2011 report, “Bulk inventories continue to be depleted, driven by large wineries, negociant brands and the re-awakening of mid-sized wineries expanding into the $8-$15 a bottle category. The majority of San Joaquin Valley grapes now have commitments…”.

According to Ciatti (an important broker), while Chardonnay continues to trend upward, so does white Zinfandel and “generic” white wines, while “new products such as Muscato, Sweet Reds and [domestic] Sangria” are increasingly popular with “a new demographic of wine buyers.” Just who these new buyers are is less clear, but several assumptions are safe: (1) they’re value conscious, (2) many are likely new entrants to wine and (3) they may well be precisely the younger (Millennial and Gen X) consumers who are said to be more adventurous and experimental when it comes to wine, looking for things their Dad doesn’t drink.

At any rate, the shipments of inexpensive California wines so far this year are soaring, and when you compare them to the stagnation of expensive (more than $15-$20) California wines, it’s clear that this segment is keeping the market alive. And not just in the Central Valley. So tight has the bulk market there become, says Ciatti, that it’s “pushing buyers into the coastal regions for next year and into the future…”. These coastal growers may not get the prices they’d hoped for or historically have received, but at least they’ll have someplace to sell their grapes and/or wine, and make enough to keep them going until the economy recovers.

What today’s post is, I guess, is a toast to the big wineries and inexpensive wines we so often overlook. They’re the base of the pyramid, the legs under the stool, the “broad market momentum [that] continued to soar” in early 2011, according to Gomberg. Here’s to America’s vins de pays.

  1. Jon Campbell says:

    nice job….as I always say, it is a hell of a lot harder to make a 20,000 gallon tank of sometimes marginal fruit palatable than it is to make 10 barrels of 2500 dollar a ton cabernet taste great…..

    particularly when a winemaker is babysitting a few hundred thousand gallons rather than a few hundred………..

    of course you do usually have to deal with the public more at the boutique winery…hmmmmmmmmmmmmm

  2. Let the masses drink their cheap, homogenized wine.

    It’ll leave more of the real stuff for me.

  3. too bad it all tastes like cr**…. but I will toast them anyways with a glass from the bottle of 2006 Clarksburg Petite sirah from M2 Vintners I opened last night (juicy and tannic…mmmm….)

  4. Wow. I’m quite astounded at the heat of the comments so far. First of all Thanks to Steve to sending out some love for the larger winemakers. Second, to Andy, please don’t generalize that it ALL tastes “like cr**”. It’s insulting to all the winemakers out there that do their job and do it well everyday trying to make a consistant product for their consumers. Very likely if you are reading Steve’s blog here you are not in that category however it doesn’t mean it’s bad wine. Very little of the wine that Steve is talking about is truly flawed. It may be simple, lacking the nuance and concentration of higher priced wines perhaps but it fits the consumers it was meant to please and it pays the bills of many of the wineries producing the “real stuff” according to Sean. In other words, don’t be snobby. If someone likes the wine somewhere, then the winemaker has done their job.

  5. Nice post Steve. I will have to jump in with Nova on this one. A lot of great winemaking happens on both ends of the spectrum you can make some great wine when you are trying to put out a couple hundred cases at 50.00 a bottle. Life gets a lot more complicated and for some a whole lot more exciting when you are trying to make 1,2 or 300,000 cases of one product over multiple bottling runs while maintaining consistency and house style meanwhile your juice and vineyard sourcing may very well change each year. And then after all that work trying and find some profit in it at under 10.00 a bottle.

  6. Steve, as for the big wineries, at least in many other parts of the world they simply kill the little guy, they bulldoze the talent in the seedling. I’m not sure they’re adored in every single household. Yup, capitalism sometimes can’t be stopped. Not everyone can be a cult winery (or a cult soybeans farm, or a cult restaurant, or a cult plastic surgery clinic, or a cult supermarket, or a cult fast food chain…), we need speed, spread, low prices…

    Concerning the constant mentioning of California and America, Steve, please be more worldwide oriented…. i know it’s hard for you as your market is the biggest in the world and you’ve lived in California and America for x+y years… but there are thousands (i hope so) of readers who are truly citizens of the world. As i was reading the post today i really though that you could have exchanged the words america and california for world (replace using word tool) and be nice to everyone…

    I lived a longe in america before, boy, how easy it’s to think that’s the center of the world…

    Picture a smile. That’s what i have on now. No hard feelings…

  7. Sean/Andy ~ Thanks for the meaningful and well thought out responses. I am glad I pounded the pavement for the last forty years selling wine. “Bottoms up!” Or is that “Noses up Bottoms?”

  8. Norm Gary says:

    Steve, I appreciate your attempt to be even handed. For the record, I drank a good deal of the wines from the bottom shelf in my long ago youth. I didn’t swirl, smell and sip; I drank. Period.

    I do want to make a comment concerning the big guys’ marketing, which I think deliberately attempts to mislead (at least by ommission) consumers. I often come across wines in standard bottles that I don’t know; I don’t remember names specifically, but something like Redwood Estates, etc that turns out to be made by a Franzia or Gallo or some other big producer. There is no way to know if you are buying a lesser known wine at a good price or just one of the jug wines relabeled and tarted up. And they often aren’t accurately labeled so the consumer can know anything about its origins.

    I understand that this is classic marketing, but it doesn’t exactly make me want to try such wines.

  9. To Nova C and others….OK, I was being a bit flip and I am unabashedly a wine snob but I have a point. Most (not all, but most) mass produced Central Valley wine under $10, while not being flawed, is also not good — typically flabby, insipid and not varietally correct. Personally, I’d rather drink 1 glass per night of the “$20” wine than 2 of the “$10” . Of course, I am well aware that exceptions exist and buy them in quantity when I do find them…but those exceptions rarely come from the Big 5 (except Gallo of Sonoma, I can occasionally find this line for < $10). Of course, the real response to this is: "If you like the wine, then its good" and clearly people like this wine as it sells quite well. But for my palate and wallet…I'll drink less of better. ANd if everybody did that, it would be sooo much better for all of the small producers out there making really good $20 wine. Just sayin….

  10. Norm, as a reader of this blog, you’re probably a good deal more sophisticated about wine than the average consumer. I doubt if they care who bottles a wine, as long as it tastes good and is priced right.

  11. Hi Carlos, the reason I write mostly about California is because that’s where I live, and California wine is what I review and know the most about. Every once in a while I write about other countries, but I’m not really in a position to do it a lot. So sorry!

  12. Steve how about some reviews on the better of these types?

    There is crap in the expensive wines too. Less $ does not + less quality in every case.

    Wine is a global beverage made from grapes and not just the royal quaffe of the noble classes. (get it, global like in round like grapes, or was that to obtruse?)

  13. ^^Admitted wine snob

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