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Sparkling wines for the holidays: why not all year long?

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The sparkling wines have been coming in over the last two months, as producers look for good reviews to use leading into the holiday season. They know they have to do well between now and New Year’s Eve, because that’s when they sell the overwhelming majority of their wine.

How did sparkling wine find itself in the trap of having its sales window of opportunity open for such a short period of time? It’s because the Champenois were the greatest marketers in the wine world. Man oh man, did they know how the sell the sizzle as well as the steak. Way back in the eighteenth century they convinced the world–well, Europeans and Russians, anyhow–that Champagne was the wine of glitz and celebration. The world took them at their word, and by the fin de siècle mauve decade of the 1890s, Champagne was the most famous wine in the world–for celebrating.

Double-edged sword, that. Most people only celebrate New Year’s Eve once a year. Maybe they have an anniversary, wedding, job promotion, birthday or some other special occasion to toast. But Americans by and large don’t see Champagne or sparkling wine as an everyday wine.

A few years back a discussion arose in which I was involved concerning how to persuade more Americans to buy the likes of Roederer Estate, Iron Horse and Schramsberg–in other words, California’s têtes de cuvée. The question producers wanted to know was how to persuade Americans to drink these as often as, say, a good Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. My suggestion was to have the entire industry collaborate in a big advertising blitz, a marketing order similar to the Got Milk? campaign here in California. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats, right? If consumers could be broken of their habit of seeing bubbly as a special occasion wine, all bubblies–value as well as prestige–would enjoy increased sales.

The problem, from the point of view of the high-end producers, is that they don’t want to see their wines linked in any way to mass-produced sparkling wines, especially those made Charmat or bulk style. Of course, I totally understand. Of all wines, sparkling is most concerned with image. Still, there’s another side of that coin: the mass producers don’t necessarily want to be associated with the high-end wines. They’re the ones who pay for the advertising (Barefoot, Korbel, etc.), not the têtes de cuvée. They’re not about to push the sparkling wine category; they’re going to push their own brands in a way that offers little, if any, spillover benefit to the high-end houses.

I ran into one of California’s great modern day sparkling wine pioneers yesterday, quite by accident in Oakland. Michel Salgues for many years ran Roederer Estate. He left some years ago and I more or less lost track of him. Turns out he’s now the winemaker at a new Santa Lucia Highlands winery, Caraccioli Cellars, whose 2007 Brut Cuvée I tasted and reviewed less than a month ago. I gave it quite a high score (which will appear in the Dec. 31 issue of Wine Enthusiast), but it’s also a little pricey: $52. Michel and I talked about the reluctance of American consumers to pay a lot of money for sparkling wine.

This is, I think, a real challenge to Calfornia’s high-end sparkling wine producers. Even if someone does want a good bottle of bubbly, they’re more likely to reach for, say, a Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label (about $40), because they’re heard of it and because it’s from France (and they may even be aware of VC’s association with top prestige Champagnes). Yellow Label may not be anywhere near as good as, say, Roederer Estate’s L’Ermitage, which is about the same price, but they’ll buy it anyway because it comes with the insurance of being bullet-proof and with the image of France with all the prestige that implies.

I don’t know what the answer is to the dilemma of sparkling wine in America. The foundations of the problem were constructed over centuries, and its resolution will not take place overnight. All I, as a critic, can do–and I want to help–is to tell people that inexpensive bubbly is a great bargain that can be drunk regularly, and the high-end stuff is easily as good as anything in Champagne, with perhaps a few exceptions, and ought to be enjoyed as often as they can afford it. Beyond that, consumers have free will. You can’t make them buy something they don’t want.

  1. Patrick Frank says:

    One way to encourage more everyday drinking of bubbly is to highlight moderately-priced and decent-quality products, such as Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Brut. It retails for about $14 at Trader Joe’s (I have no connection with them). Maybe there are others.

  2. Steve, one way to get people turned on to sparkling wine is to pour them a glass of cold Prosecco, almost any Prosecco will do, on a hot afternoon, and watch them fall in love. I know, I know, you were talking about Champagne or its equivalent, but for the money it is molto delizioso!

  3. Steve, the solution is not so much one of breaking peoples’ association of sparkling wine being just for special occasions, but rather of replacing it.

    A “Got Milk” (deprivation) strategy could work but I think that may be one step too far. Sparkling wine has yet to establish its own version of milk-with-cereal, milk-with-cookies, milk-with-chocolate-sauce. The only images we see are of romantic couples or groups of people toasting.

    I think Freixenet tried something like this once, something about always having some on hand for when guests drop in, but they didn’t sustain it.

    I’ve created a couple of successful off-season DTC promotions for Cordon Rouge and Grand Cordon but that was some time ago. I’d love another shot at it if anyone’s listening. That would be you, Roederer, Iron Horse, Schramsberg, Domaine Carneros . . .

  4. One thing that might help is if the wine press did more than one issue a year on sparkling wines. We have been pretty successful in getting our customers to see our grower Champagnes as food wines buy showing people what to do with them, what foods to serve them with. Stay away from those awful chocolate and sparkling wines cliches….which only make the wines taste like shit. We do a Champagne and fried chicken night once or twice a year and now, we have people doing that combination all the time, not just on special occasions. Fried shrimp and seafood for Blanc de Blancs, roast duck, roast chicken, simply prepared roast beef for Rose. If we as an industry, (and this means those sparkling wine houses too by the way,..seen a couple do goofy crap like sparkling wine and cupcake tasting, masterful use of their wines that) treat those wines like actual wine…might be a start.
    Sorry, end of rant.

  5. Fred, actually brands such as Korbel and Barefoot do a very good job of portraying sparkling wine as an everyday experience. That’s why they’re selling like hotcakes. It’s the pricy sparkling wines that are facing the greatest challenges.

  6. Christopher says:

    My wife and I drink bubbles on a nearly weekly basis. For us, it represents one of the better QPR for wines. It’s hard to beat a decent Gruet for less than $15 and even the pricier sparkling wines top out around $40 – $50 compared to the high end Pinots and Cabs.

  7. Ciao Amici, greetings from Italy..

    I agree with Dennis Tsiorbas : Love is the key-point..

    The second key comes from Samantha Dygan : finger food..daily food..

    All the rest is Accademia..!

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