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What goes around, comes around


It used to be, following the Repeal of Prohibition, that Americans favored inexpensive sweet wine by a large margin (further proof that Prohibition had an aberrational effect on the county’s wine drinking habits). In my Wines & Vines 1943-1944 Yearbook of the Wine Industry are endless ads for stuff like Roma California Sauternes, Petri California Sauterne [without the “s”], Guasti Pale Dry Sherry (I bet it wasn’t dry), Gianni’s California Port and an array of Vermouths and brandies.

It wasn’t until sometime in the 1970s, I believe (maybe someone will fact check this for me) that a taste for dry wines overtook that for sweet ones among consumers. This was generally hailed as a turning point in the history of California wine: at last, producers could get serious about European-style table wines, since the market apparently would reward their efforts. That’s exactly what happened. We saw the explosion of the “boutique winery” movement in the Sixties and Seventies, the Judgment of Paris, and the glorious birth of our modern wine indsutry.

“Good riddance,” said most educated people to the inexpensive sweet wines, which by the 1980s were seen as an embarrassment–fit for Skid Row bums and, perhaps, for college rowdies who, it was hoped, would soon outgrow their fondness (one could hardly call it “love”) for sweet booze.

So what are we to make of this report, which suggests that two of the five fastest growing wine brands in the U.S. are sweet?

Those would be Apothic (which I haven’t had, but is described on the Internet by a reviewer as “jammy, sticky-luscious,” and Daily’s, which are alcoholized fruit wines.

(The other three hot brands are Cupcake, which offers good varietal wines at affordable prices, La Marca, a sparkling Prosecco, and William Hill, from right here in the Napa Valley.)

The article doesn’t say exactly who’s buying these sweet wines, but my guess would be younger people, women and those newly arrived to our shores–not necessarily in that order.

Incidentally, three of the five fastest selling brands belong to E&J Gallo, proving once again that, when it comes to marketing, this venerable wine company wrote the book. (I’m especially impressed by William Hill’s success. Those wines are not cheap, and face mountains of competition from other California brands.) The Gallos have forgotten more about selling wine than most everybody else put together knows. Other wine companies, even big ones, come and go, get bought and sold, see their stock prices rise and fall, report huge losses or modest profits, and face generally cloudy futures. Gallo goes on and on, a survivor, riding the waves of the economy like the man on the flying trapeze, seeming to do it all with the greatest of ease. If this sounds like a paeon of praise, it is.

  1. “Good riddance,” said most educated people to the inexpensive sweet wines” is this about the time that those educated folks started drinking Rombauer, Turley, Marcassin and Caymus? Wines that, for my palate, are sweeter but pretending to be dry table wines? You had me with most of this piece but…..

  2. doug wilder says:

    Post prohibition was an interesting time. I learned a lot while doing some research for an article I wrote about the survival of old vine vineyards in Sonoma County. After repeal, consumption of hard booze (I found no data on fortified wines)far outpaced still wine which didn’t really return until post WW. An interesting little nugget that I didn’t know was from 1942-1945, the War Department essentially bought up California’s entire raisin crop for troop rations as a perfect energy food. I do love looking at books or guides that reveal some of the rich history of California grape growing.

  3. Doug Wilder, I also love old wine books. I have an extensive collection.

  4. doug wilder says:

    One of my favorites is a Sunset-published coffee table book from the ’60s with full page kodachromes of the costumes worn at Rhine wine festivals in Napa Valley. I think I have two of them. I recently came across a picture of Michael Polenske’s Maisonry in Yountville taken back in the ’30s when it had iron balconies. In the same story the writer spoke of wineries that have now vanished. You never know when a little piece of history will disappear. Like the railroad station in front of Inglenook. I recall it had been used not too many years ago for some event, but now looks ready to fall down. Be a shame to lose that because of the tie-in with rail and wine. I think I have a vintage picture of that somewhere too.

  5. Steve.. another great post to ponder. I can help a bit with the timing of America’s slow move from sweet to dry wines. I did an article on my blog a bit ago eloquently entitled “California Rose Doesn’t Suck Anymore, Really”. I was moved to write this after having two outstanding serious Rose wines. The big shock wasn’t that these were good wines but that I was so surprised. I decided to do some research into why I was so sure all California based Rose sucked.

    Turns out it all started in the 1970’s when the demand for white wine far exceeded supply. Producers began to make white wine from red grapes such as syrah and zinfandel. These produced very sweet easy drinking wines that became wildly popular. Even predominantly red producers started to sweeten their wines so they would sell in the supermarket. The cheap jug wine boom in the 1980’s also contributed as did the wine cooler explosion. As with anything popular in America, there was a backlash. In the early 80’s the “dry wine” revolution started to take shape and gained steam into the early 90’s when the “French Paradox” article aired on 60 Minutes. The French Paradox is the fact that French people eat a lot of lard in their food but have a low rate of heart disease. The theory was that it was due to the dry red wine they drank. This was now a nice marketing tool that helped push dry wines to the average American consumer.

    Even though premium producers have always made dry wines, the American consumer has always still had plenty of love for the sweet stuff. The fact that Cupcake and it’s ilk is doing well is no surprise and I can almost guarantee you’ll see much more.

    As far as Gallo goes, they are without question the best wine marketer ever and have been doing it since long before I was born. Need proof, try this awesome blast from the past:

  6. I hope this doesn’t mean that we will see the return of Cold Duck.

  7. Cold Duck! That is outstanding bad 70’s wine knowledge! Haven’t heard anything about a Cold Duck comeback but rumor has it that Harlan and Screaming Eagle are looking into a Strawberry Hill offering…

  8. Steve, I don’t know about any other wine market other than New Hampshire, but the Gallo reps here work their a@@es off promoting a long list of mostly inexpensive wines; nice people who are professional and persistent.

  9. The real question is, “when did we become so ignorant about history, the very natural preference by millions of people for sweet wines and how on earth did we become so arrogant and judgmental towards sweet wines and the people who prefer them?”

    • “It wasn’t until sometime in the 1970s, I believe (maybe someone will fact check this for me) that a taste for dry wines overtook that for sweet ones among consumers.” That is generally correct and the same movement to dry wines was occurring about the same period in France and Italy – it is not just a US phenomenon. The interesting data to look at as while US consumption was growing, French and Italian consumption was PLUMMETING as wine became more dry.

    • “This was generally hailed as a turning point in the history of California wine: at last, producers could get serious about European-style table wines, since the market apparently would reward their efforts. That’s exactly what happened.” Wrong – Europeans still loved and favored sweet wines. The reward for many was the punishment for many as well.

    • “We saw the explosion of the “boutique winery” movement in the Sixties and Seventies, the Judgment of Paris, and the glorious birth of our modern wine industry.” More like the glorious rise in misunderstanding, arrogance and the disenfranchisement of millions of consumers who simply prefer sweet wines.

    Just for the record sweet wine drinkers generally have the greatest sensory acuity and are biologically predisposed to favor sweet wines. but that is another story! They are not ‘uneducated, unsophisticated, naive or beginners.’ They like, and will always prefer, sweet wines. Period.

    If anyone cares to look back the French, Spanish, Germans and Italians historically prized expensive and inexpensive sweet wines. If you look at the trends of consumption in those countries as wine has gone drier, roughly since 1952, you will find per capita consumption in both France and Italy has declined over 60%. 60%! There were also a lot of efforts to curb rampant alcoholism and other factors involved in this decline but old wine lists show a good quality estate German wine on a French wine list were priced even, and often well above, the cost of the greatest of Bordeaux and Burgundy wines. The national drink of Spain was Sangria. Lambrusco, Nouveau and May wines were celebrated and desirable. The 1938 edition of Larousse Gastronomique declares that when the entrements were served in a formal meal, “the Lafite, Romanee, Hermitage, the Cote Rotie…or, if the GUEST PREFERS, the white wines of Bordeaux, the Sauternes, the St. Peray.” No wine and food matching – do you prefer dry red or sweet white? In fact, sweet (and I mean really sweet) wines were offered with oyster, hors d’oeuvres and of course with beef, “if the guest prefers.” What has happened to this sense of true hospitality?

    Kir, Dubonnet, Vermouth, and many more such wines were completely apropos, as was adding a cube of sugar and a little water to a strong wine to make it more palatable. Up to about the ’50s Chateau d’Yquem was a TABLE wine, great vintages of Montrachet were often very sweet from botrytis and DRY Champagne (sec) was about 60 grams per liter – or about twice as sweet at White Zinfandel (which has a flavor profile curiously close to a Kir). Amarone was always sweet (the first dry Amarone coming in 1954 according to Darryl Corti) and the finest white Rhone wines were most frequently ‘vins de paille’ – sweet wines made from grapes dried on straw mats in a fashion similar to Amarone.

    For anyone interested in statistics – France, not the UK, is the largest market in the world for Port wines. It is commonly served as an aperitif, not a dessert wine. Even vintage Port. I recommend it is time that the history books are rewritten and the wine community get the heck off its “sweet wine is bad wine” high horse. This is a much longer and even more fascinating conversation than you can ever imagine, such as the “dessert wine” category being created by the US Feds and the slow distortion of information concerning wine preferences and values, plus the complete BS surrounding wine and food ‘pairings.’

    I say enough is enough! The wine industry is losing billions of dollars in potential sales annually due to our ignorance, arrogance and bad information.

  10. Dear Tim, thanks for pointing out these facts. The one thing I’d disagree on is your statement that “The wine industry is losing billions of dollars in potential sales” of sweet wines. I could cite numerous California wine companies that are raking in money making sweet wines.

  11. Hi Steve –

    A pleasure and I love your blog and thanks for this thread.

    Yes, the US wine industry is making lots and lots of money already on sweet wine sales, just as they always have – California, Ohio, Virginia, Illinois, Italy and beyond. The shame is that we are also losing so many sales and not capitalizing on the possibility to further develop the sweet wine market!

    The loss of ‘billions of dollars’ refers to my reserach that shows clearly the migration of sweet wine drinkers to cocktails and/or light beer and our inability to introduce then to special and potentially more expensive sweet wine products that they are very, very likely to buy – but on their terms, not the current industry standards. The #1 wine in the Mondavi tasting room, smack in the center of the Napa Valley, is their 8% residual sugar Moscato d’Oro that sells for $30 per 500ml. It goes home most often as a trophy and to be served with anything BUT dessert.

    The current explosion of sweet wines is just the tip of the iceberg. The millions of what we call Sweet Vinotypes, simply wine drinkers who prefer sweet wines, will gladly spend lots of money on sweet cocktails even when they indicate that wine (sweet wine) is their favorite beverage of choice! They do not want to face the ingrained sneers and admonitions of even the best-intentioned wine people! They will spend additional $$ for premimium vodka – just to get something that is even smoother and represents value and aspiration, all at a loss to the stores and resturants who quite literally ‘choose not to serve them.’

    The key is we need to better understood, embrace and cultivate this huge market segment, return to the traditional values where sweet wine lovers are considered an opportunity, not some sort of threat, and jump on it!

    BTW, I am responsible for identifying the market opportunity and leading the product development that has resulted in the Moscato explosion – now the #3 selling white varietal in the US behind Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. My market research shows an even bigger, and very long term, global opportunity for more expensive sweet wines and the market is still very underdeveloped.


  12. To me the goes around, comes around story is Muscat. Before your time, Steve, Muscatel was California’s calling card to the world of wine. A meal in itself at equal parts sugar and alcohol, it was the preferred drink on skid rows in every American city and town. Huge production. Everyone knew the wine. It was a joke, really. If you made a nice Muscat a skidrow reference was the first thing off the lips of anyone to whom you offered it. Now three generations later our youth have re-discovered the grape. I haven’t bought a bottle as I notice it is on the bottom shelf. What are the odds we won’t screw the grape up again?

  13. @Morton: I don’t know if Muscat will get screwed up again, but as long as it sells like hotcakes, wineries will do a decent job. I’m seeing more and more new entrants into the market all the time, which makes me think: Are we in for a Muscat oversupply?

  14. Steve – thanks so much for providing this platform for discussion; it’s amazing to me that we have to shout to be heard, but I think much of the industry is covering their ears when this subject comes up. Still, as you and I talked about back in Washington, the big wineries are going after this market with appropriate haste and aggression. They well should; it’s a market that represents a larger potential consumer group than those that currently now drink wine regularly. To me, it’s equally importantly to note that these sweet wines are being embraced and even championed by minority demographics, some of whom don’t seem to carry the baggage that they should never be caught drinking a sweet wine. Tim’s absolutely right and it has ever been thus: most people like sweet things, and that includes sweet wines. But the loud voices in winedom don’t like sweet, so they think everyone else should drink the kinds of wines that they drink. Those attitudes are pompous, ignorant and, increasingly, irrelevant.

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