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Missing Moscato: lessons from the bottom shelf of the supermarket

25 comments

We were talking at Wine Enthusiast the other day about trends in the wine world, and I admitted I’d missed Moscato. I blogged on this last October, so I won’t go into detail except to say that the Moscato thing started in the street (whether via hip hop or something else), then leaped onto the bottom shelf of the supermarket in the form of cheap, sweet wine. This is not the stuff of which I’m aware. My instincts are attuned to the higher shelves, where the premium wines are sold, and to wines that would never be caught dead in a supermarket. I can’t be bothered to bend over and see what’s selling way down there on the bottom shelf because frankly I don’t give a damn.

But that’s why I missed Moscato. And it made me wonder what other wine trends started in the street. One certainly was white Zinfandel, which of course was “invented” by Sutter Home, and the rest is history. Like Moscato, white Zin was sweet and cheap, and it swept the nation, making the fortunes of the Trinchero family and leading to a million copycats. Had I been writing about wine in the 1970s, when a stuck fermentation created that first white Zin at Sutter Home, I probably would have missed it, too. Another trend that began in the street was wine coolers, of which there have been multiple iterations. I think Gallo started that one with Bartles & Jaymes. Great concept, that; I always thought the fictional Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes characters represented Ernest and Julio Gallo.

Other than Moscato, white Zinfandel and wine coolers, I can’t think of an instance in which a wine trend began with the booboisie, as H.L. Mencken called it. Pinot Noir, now there was a trend that’s still happening, but it was driven by the one percenters. Cult Cabernet Sauvignon, ditto. The most important, lasting wine trends, if they occur at all, usually start at the top of the economic pyramid and then trickle down, Reagan-style, to the masses.

Why should there be two focii of wine trends in America, the street and the country club? Because we’ve always been of two minds when it comes to wine. More so than with beer or hard liquor, wine lovers who enjoy “the good stuff” tend to have disdain, not only for cheap wine, but for the people who drink it. This is the definition of elitism, of course. It’s not politically correct to point out that there is elitism in our wine industry, but there is. It even affects me; if it didn’t, I would have been aware of Moscato’s emergence–especially since it was probably happening all around me, in the mean streets of Oakland. But  I kept my nose in the air, and so my eyes were blind to what was in front of me.

I don’t suppose the twain will ever meet, of the high end and the low end coming together. Most wine companies couldn’t stand the strain of catering to both. Robert Mondavi tried, and failed spectacularly. Gallo, I suppose you could say, comes close; but Gallo never really tried for the highest of the high end, not because they didn’t know how, but because the Gallo family were smart enough to know that you can’t be all things to all people, even if you can be many things to many people. High end wineries, for their part, would never think of catering to the masses; they’d think of it as craven. Even if they thought they could make some money, they wouldn’t, because a low-end wine would tarnish the high-end wine’s image.

Some wineries, of course, try to work both ends of the street by hiding the connection between the expensive and the cheap stuff. This seldom works, because a house divided against itself cannot stand. To prosper in this insane market, you have to be very good; and it’s very hard to be very good at very different things. Ibid, Robert Mondavi.

So I’m now keeping an eye on the supermarket bottom shelf. Don’t like it when I miss something. What do I see down there? Cheap, sweet red wine. Is this a trend the wine critic for a fine wine periodical should know about? Yes, but I’ll only write about it if my editors in New York want me to. I don’t think the cheap, sweet red wine thing will last, nor will the “Bitch” wines, or the athlete-themed wines aimed at men. Kooky critter labels are on the way out, mercifully. Sweet Moscato will have its 15 minutes and then fade away, and all that Muscat the big corporate wineries planted will end up going into blends or something. Maybe wine coolers will come back. The masses always need something sweet, cheap and alcoholic, although I can’t for the life of me tell why.

  1. Sadly, some of us are forced to spend more time on the lower shelves than we would like – and suggest that perhaps the trends to look for there are smaller details rather than entire wine types.

    For example, surely the trend for screwcaps began on the lower shelves? The use of consumption/health warnings on back labels? The growth of wine boxes? In the UK at least, these all began with cheap wines, but are gradually climbing upwards.

    Yours from the gutter, looking up at the stars…

  2. Steve, I guess confession is good for the soul, but paraphrasing Drew Zahn: “elitists do what elitists do,” says one character, not because they’re victims, not because they had bad childhoods, but “because they can.” My guess is that you did because of your willful ” eyes were blind”; don’t make that mistake with Scotch whisky-drinkers.
    Nevertheless, this is a worthy read with 1% and scripture to boot.

  3. PA Wine Guy says:

    Beringer has balanced PR Cab and White Zin for years and through multiple ownerships… probably the best example in the market.

  4. Steve,

    If Drake started the Moscato trend by mentioning it in one of his songs, he is moving his listeners (I am one) with his new album and the song “The Ride”–

    “And deal with the questions
    About all your excessive needs
    And you do dinners at French Laundry in Napa Valley
    Scallops and glasses of Dolce”

    Wonder if the folks at Far Niente know?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  5. Scallops and Dolce? Depends on the sauce.

  6. Waka Flocka Flame is on the Moscato bus too. From his song “No Hands”:

    “Girl the way you’re movin’, got me in a trance
    DJ turn me up, ladies this your jam
    I’mma sip Moscato and you gon’ lose them pants”

  7. Chuck Hayward says:

    From the blogpost above:

    “The masses always need something sweet, cheap and alcoholic, although I can’t for the life of me tell why.”

    I would suggest reading Tim Hanni’s groundbreaking research on sweet wine preferences. A summary of his research and implications:

    “To date, the industry message to consumers who prefer light, delicate and sweet wines is that they need to become more ‘educated’ and ‘move up’ to ‘higher quality wines’ such as dry wines. Our study demonstrates that physiological differences in human sensory anatomy are the driving force behind our wine choices and that the people with the greatest taste sensitivity may well indeed be sweeter wine drinkers and not the consumers of highly rated less sweet wines. The industry is guilty of alienating a large segment of consumers who frequently opt for other sweet beverages or even stop drinking wine altogether.”

    To sum up: Ignore the bottom shelf at your peril.

  8. raley roger says:

    Will someone out there please write a rap song about Syrah already?

  9. Chuck-thanks for that! Too true.

    Steve-disappointed in the perspective. Drier wine is not “better”, it is just less sweet. In other words a different style. Just like high-end dry wines, there are both good and bad examples of sweeter wines.

    I will give you a pass on not seeing the trend as this isn’t what you work on…and that is fine.

    But to say “The most important, lasting wine trends, if they occur at all, usually start at the top of the economic pyramid and then trickle down, Reagan-style, to the masses” is simply incorrect.

    White Zin doesn’t have the growth curve of NZ Sauv Blanc or Argentinean Malbec but it is still a behemoth in the marketplace both from a volume and a value perspective. Also, I would propose that White Zin has done more for the wine world than over oaked, over priced, bloated Chardonnay’s ever did. It brought new consumers…some of which now drink dry…and some of which don’t. Either way, it actually added something to the equation.

  10. Steve, Americans talk dry, but drink sweet. They talk red, but drink white and they talk room temp but want an ice bucket with an already frozen bottle of white wine.

  11. So how long does a wine have to be making ripples in the pond before it’s a trend? I was astounded at the sales of “Bitch” during 2007 & 2008, even in the teeth of the Great Recession. Working retail wine sales in Phoenix, AZ, at the time and we’d put out stacks of this inoffensive grenache (then from Australia, with Chris Ringland as the wine maker) that was about $10 per bottle.

    Women drove the sales of that wine, especially the younger women who would giggle, pick up the bottle and fall in love with the label. They’d show it to their friends (usually women) and immediately start planning parties for themselves! I was also taken aback with the amount of the stuff we’d sell just prior to Mother’s Day — many a 20-something young woman would laugh, pickup the bottle and exclaim, “Mom will just *love* this! She has a great sense of humor!” I sure hope she did —

    Will the Bitch come back (apologies to Sir Elton) from the implosion of Grateful Palate and bankruptcy to more success in its current incarnation as a grenache from Spain? Like all trends, time will tell if it has the strength and legs…

  12. Steve Hare says:

    You may not drink low priced sweet wines…i may not drink low priced sweet wines…but how do we, in the industry, tell people who buy (and enjoy) millions of cases per year of low priced sweet wines that they are wrong?

    Low priced sweet red wines are here and in demand…ask the millions of new wine drinkers in the central part of the country.

  13. George Ronay says:

    Steve:
    While Bartles & Jaymes may have been early, it started with (as I recall) California Coolers – two college buddies from Stockton who literally made the stuff in their garage – and within a few years sold out to Brown Forman for something like $40 million… (back when $40 million was REAL money…) Brown Forman promptly managed to lose the momentum of the brand – not sure if it’s even still around….
    I found out about Moscato when calling on a retailer and standing there while a customer brought a pack of cigarettes and asked the owner if they had any Moscato…… Times do change!

  14. H.L. Mencken once described Puritans as those “with a haunting fear that somewhere, someone is having a good time.”
    I agree with Raley, there are quite a few places of quality to find pleasure.

  15. I don’t see Moscato as bottom shelf, there certainly is a bottom shelf Moscato trend going on but the good thing about this trend is that it will bring awareness to a category that has always deserved more attention. Is there any grape with as varied a history in viticulture as Muscat? There are plenty of world class Moscato/Muscat wines and for this reason I do not associate it with White Zinfandel. Moscato d’Asti can be enormously complex even if it has a very limited lifetime. Then there are the rare dry Moscato/Muscat wines, my favorites are usually from Trentino and Alsace. You might say that Moscato is lucky to get the attention, there are certainly plenty of bottom shelf Cabernets out there yet the name doesn’t suffer.

    Also, what about the “sweet red” trend? Scary? Maybe. But it is not going away either. I have not given up hope for decency and authenticity in the world of inexpensive sweet wines. Tim Hanni’s research should be more widely discussed because one day there will surely be vast numbers of sophisticated and demanding customers looking for sweet table wines.

  16. Viniferatu, there are great Muscat-based wines in the world but I do not think the Moscato boom is based on them or will benefit them.

  17. I do agree that the Moscato boom is not based on the great Muscat wines of the world but it was probably Moscato d’Asti that started this contemporary craze, and if someone who has enjoyed a swarthy warm climate moscato can come to appreciate the delicacy of fine Moscato d’Asti (they certainly aren’t all fine) then I believe that this bottom shelf boom has done some good for the top.

  18. I find it interesting that we assume that these people who go for the sweet reds are going to “blossom” into fine wine drinkers. I have met plenty of older persons who have been drinking the same sweet stuff for YEARS, and have no intention of changing. I have found it funny that they keep apologizing for their love of the stuff.

    For me it’s is two different markets. Jag, Lexus, BMW and Rangrover can make lower-end less expensive models and hope to pick up young loyal branded customers. Why doesn’t that seem to be the case in wine? I don’t see a lot of people moving on from those sweet reds. Maybe I am wrong and people do move from “cheap sweets” to drier wines. I did, and it was Gallo’s muscato that made me “get” wine for the first time but then I worked on my palate and wanted to change and grow.

    Here are a couple of quotes from Theise’s “reading Between the Vines” that I thought were right on.

    Would we argue that today’s Burger King diner is tomorrow’s Thomas Keller aficionado?

    It’s is helpful to recall that when we cherish the best – the “elite”- in a given field it is a gesture not of snobbery, but of love.

    I love those quotes!

    These are just thought’s, am I wrong? Did most people start with sweet wines and move up? If so how many people never go for the next step?

  19. Jamie Peterson says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog and the many thoughtful comments posted. First time commenting. Hope I can add something of value to the forum, now and in the future.

    “The masses always need something sweet, cheap and alcoholic, although I can’t for the life of me tell why.”

    In so many fields of aesthetics (I am a believer that wine is art- a separate discussion) or pleasure, the masses gravitate to what is easy to enjoy, a quick fix, instant gratification.

    The Movie over the book.
    Pop music over classical.
    Double cheeseburger over anything else.

    We drink wine for the pleasure it brings us, whatever the pathway in each persons brain to reach it. Sugar is a basic flavor that we are wired to react positively to without any effort. Combine that with alcohol and we’ve got a real winner. For those that get their enjoyment from the thought and background that goes into a wine, as well as the more intricate flavors, these cocktail wines seem vapid, but does that make them lesser or inferior? We all have our diversions and “guilty pleasures,” and the majority of people don’t want to work too hard at them. Less and less do I hear of people with hobbies that require commitment, effort, or concentration. Wine is just a guilty pleasure to many people, nothing more. Unfortunate for we that make our living from wines that ask for more thought and time to express all they have to say, but there it is.

    I’d like a world where people moved over to dry, more complex wines because they enjoyed reflection and a savoring of their enjoyment rather than have the notion that that there is something wrong with their favorite sweet wine and feeling inferior. That doesn’t sound like fun. Let’s put it in a logical equation/question to look at it a little differently- if thoughtfulness is better than being brain dead, then is drinking thoughtful wine better than drinking “one dimensional” wine? Are pleasure and intellect correlated? How many of the masses would even consider this question?

    On a winemaking side- sugar can be an easy cover up for lack of depth and structure, or even too much structure (reviewers ever considered checking residual sugar levels in wines, even expensive, “dry” reds? You’d be surprised). Many times I’ve heard winemakers make the decision to blend sweetness (from juice, concentrate, or another sweet wine) into a sub-par wine to bottle something that will sell. Of course there are fantastic, complex wines made with sweetness (Germany, Alsace, yes even some Moscato) that would satisfy the “intellectual drinker.” Perhaps our aversion to bottom shelf wines with sweetness is we are aware on some level that the wines most likely were given much less care and thought, and this turns us off?

    Just a few thoughts on something that we discuss almost daily in the tasting room. I am pleasantly surprised by how many “sweetheads” (term taken from a guest in the TR) come in, say they don’t like dry wines, hesitantly try a few before saying they like them and proceed to buy some. Maybe it has something to do with trying them in the place they were made, with the people that made them. Perhaps it’s that they’ve made the trek from thousands of miles away, and are already more interested in wine than those who buy the cheapest bottle of a flavor they like with the prettiest label.

    I’ll hope for more people to make the move over to a more reflective way of drinking and living.

  20. XXXXX you make valid points and those are some great quotes, I’ll have to find a copy of that book. I do however see in your comments the pervasive idea that sweet means “low” or “unsophisticated”. I imagine that Terry Theise would be one of the first to argue that sweetness has a rightful place in the “elite”.

    I started dry and only later came to appreciate sweet. I enjoyed mediocre dry Iberian reds at first, then moved on to some pretty good stuff from all over, and eventually was exposed to some of the world’s very greatest, including all sorts with residual sugar.

    Obviously a great many White Zin drinker never moved on and how many people still watch Days of Our Lives? It is unseemly but it seems to be a stark inevitability that swill and drivel persist. Need some apologize for a lack of love? Not an easy question to answer. There will always be people, affluent and destitute alike, who refuse to spend more than 5-10 bucks on a bottle of anything, dry or sweet. I’m not expecting that the market for a cheap drink will shrink, I just haven’t given up hope for an expanding market of quality beverages. There’s more information to glean than ever before, the fighting chance is alive and kicking.

    Sweet wine drinkers need not blossom into anything, perhaps they will, perhaps they won’t, it’s not my body. A certain percentage of the population have physiological differences that makes it difficult for them to appreciate dry wines, I guess that’s not you or I. Those whose physiology causes them to lean toward the sweet could have more authentic options available and I just hope the market goes this way.

  21. Jamie, I couldn’t agree more, especially with that last sentence.

  22. jon campbell says:

    Muscat is my favorite grape to crush…..ah the smell of flowers all around you on the crushpad

  23. Steve —
    Sorry to be a little late on this, but a couple of pr people and I started a trade association for the varietal last October — Moscato Nation. Eight members so far but all interested parties are directed to our spot: moscatonation@gmail.com.
    Happy Holidays,
    harvey

  24. Mitchell Williams says:

    I have to say I think its a good thing people are looking at muscat again.It is a great start for people who are just getting in to wine.Who knows one day they might even come to like a overblown Chard.I know muscat is used mostly in small amounts in the wine industry to sweetten wines and to give a nice floral tropical nose.Sweet dull cheap Moscato does have a proper home on bottem shelf with other dull cheap varitals but well made muscats do need to be seen as the great wines they are at eye level.I like well made wines that taste just like the grapes they came from not something there not.To each his own!

  25. As a simple peasant, I wondered if I would never become refined-wine, regardless of price, shelf or vendor, inevitably tasted vile. So many wines, all of them I had ever tried, really and truly tasted like what I imagined week-old cat urine might. After my wine-loving husband, in sheer desperation, brought home a moscato, I have to agree with the sentiment that suggests that I may really just have a sensitivity to sweet wines. I am learning to differentiate between a good moscato and not so good, and cannot deny that price is a good indicator of the difference. I don’t care for wine coolers, any reds, and so far-not a single other white. It simply has to be just this grape. I am still in despair that my father thinks the world of a cheap red and turns his nose up at Sarracos 2009 moscato, but now I can rest easy in the belief that there is hope for me. Book over movie. Ravel over Poledouris (only just) and originals are hard to beat everywhere regardless of the medium from which it hails.

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