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