Missing Moscato: lessons from the bottom shelf of the supermarket
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.