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Chardonnay declining? I don’t think so


Far be it from me to dispute the findings of a survey conducted by a reputable outfit, but I’m not buying the portentous headline, “Popularity of chardonnays declines” and the report that “consumption is down,” as this study contends.

It was done by Napa Technology, whose website describes it as “dedicated to designing innovative Intelligent Dispensing Solutions and Products that drive wine revenues, operating control, and growth for the Restaurant, Retail, Entertainment, and Hospitality industries.”

The company counted “90 respondents” to a survey (not revealed is how many people they actually surveyed), and of them, “forty percent…said that Chardonnay is on the decline.”

Forty percent of 90 is 36. That means 36 people in America said Chardonnay is declining, out of a population of more than 300 million. The respondents were said to be “sommeliers, wine directors, restaurant and hotel operators, wine producers, media, analysts and wine buyers.” That’s eight categories, meaning that there were about 4.5 respondents in each category. Even if you round 4.5 up to 5, that means that 5 somms, 5 wine directors, 5 restaurant operators, 5 hotel operators, 5 wine producers, 5 media people, 5 analysts and 5 wine buyers in the entire United States said that Chardonnay is declining.

I’m no expert in statistical analysis, but that doesn’t sound like a scientifically valid poll to me.

There’s plenty of evidence Chardonnay is not declining. Planted acreage of it in California alone was the highest ever, with 95,511 acres recorded in 2011 (the last year for which I have Dept. of Food and Agriculture Acreage Report numbers). While it’s true that the pace of new Chardonnay plantings slackened off from previous years, that’s easily explainable by the Great Recession. Nobody knows what the future holds, of course, but there’s no group of human beings on Earth more knowledgeable about what wines Americans will be drinking in 5 years than grapegrowers. If they’re still growing it, it’s because they believe Americans are still drinking it.

And they are, in droves. Chardonnay consumption is enormous among American wine drinkers. As the Wine Institute reported in 2011, “Chardonnay far and away remains the most popular wine in the U.S. and has continued to be the leading varietal wine for the last decade, with sales increases every year.” I get more Chardonnay samples sent to me than any other type of wine, except for Cabernet Sauvignon. That tells me that winery sales and marketing execs also believe Chardonnay’s popularity remains high. Like growers, they get paid to figure out what Americans will be drinking in the future.

The problem with little studies like the Napa Technology one that seem to “prove” things that aren’t necessarily true is that, in this age of the Internet, the “fact” of Chardonnay consumption spreads far and wide–even if it’s false. Google “Chardonnay consumption” and the Napa Technology study, as reported in Nation’s Restaurant News, is the fifth result. That’s very high up on a Google search, meaning that a lot of people will inhale that information, believe it and repeat it. The “news” goes viral, with who knows what negative impacts.

I’m willing to bet a hefty amount that ten years from now Chardonnay will still be the number one most purchased white wine in America. I don’t believe for a moment that Chardonnay has anything to fear from Albarino, Torrontés, Cava or Prosecco–all wines that the Napa Technology study said are “increasing in popularity” to Chardonnay’s detriment. Nothing personal against Albarino, Torrontés, Cava or Prosecco, but does anyone really think any of them is the Next Big White Wine?

  1. Even if their announcement is carefully worded to say “in a study…xx% of those responding said” they should be embarrassed to make such an absurd observation. Credibility is an incredibly important currency in business, and not to be squandered.

  2. Jim: Yes. But too often, it is.

  3. Steve: Great post. I agree with you wholeheartedly. As relatively well-read consumer and bigger than average wine buyer, I’ve more than once altered my buying habits at least a little as a result of prognostications of wine critics, sommeliers, etc. about Chardonnay being passe and touting the new greatest white wine — including some of those you metion above, plus others like Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet (can you believe it?) etc. I enjoy a lot of varieties of white wine. I thoroughly enjoy a fine Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc on the right occasion. But as I was recently drinking a Vouvray from a very highly-touted producer my thought was, “this is a really good wine, but not nearly as good as the [$45 California Chardonnay] I had not long before.” Not only is Chardonnay the leader in mass-produced wines for the everyday consumer, it remains the case that the most expensive and prestigious white wines in the world are made from Chardonnay. There’s a reason for this. Well-made Chardonnay wines are delicious and deliver exceptional quality, complexity, and enjoyment. This will always be true.

  4. With a sample of 90, IF you assume it’s truly representative(tricky to do for a trade survey), the margin of error at 95% confidence level would be roughly 10%. In other words, their number implies that from 30 to 50% (less than 1/3 to half) of the trade thinks that Chardonnay is declining. It’s worth noting that if the choices were increasing, declining or flat, just random guessing by respondents would give you 33.3% saying decline.

  5. Steve – I go back and forth on CA Chardonnay, but I have had 3 recently that were fantastic. All of them can be found at Safeway.

    2010 Pine Ridge Dijon Clones Carneros Chardonnay $23
    2011 St. Supery Oak Free Napa Valley Chardonnay $13
    2011 Joel Gott Unoaked Monterey, Napa, Sonoma Chardonnay $10

  6. Mike, I love a good Chardonnay. I sometimes wonder if people who dismiss it are simply being ornery.

  7. Not only is Chardonnay demonstrably not declining in sales, in the US, it is IMHO achieving as good a quality as ever.

    The “Anything but Chardonnay” movement was cool 10 years ago. Now US Chardonnay appreciation is the leading edge.

  8. Setting aside the sampling issues, 60% of those surveyed presumably indicated that Chardonnay is not on the decline. So even if, as Christian posits, the other choices are “increasing” and “flat”, the headline and conclusion appear to be directly contradicted by the very survey that they cite.

  9. An interesting label where different sides of Chardonnay can be compared is Marimar Estate: from the same vineyard there is an all stainless steel (unoaked) version called Acero; there is a barrel fermented, lees contact version called La Masia; and there is a version that is aged a second year in the barrel, with enhanced lees contact (lees from the La Masia are added to roughly double the lees contact) called Dobles Lias. All are full malolactic fermentation, eliminating that as a variable. Full disclosure, I am Technical Director there (an upscale term avoiding calling me a consultant).

  10. Bill, Marimar makes compelling, complex Chardonnays. One of these days I’d like to do a vertical.

  11. Greg Crone says:

    87.3 % of all statistics are made up on the spot.

  12. The Saint says:

    Can’t remember the last time I drank a Chardonnay, except in a sparkling wine.

  13. The way Chardonnay is being made these days may be changing but definitely not declining…

  14. Chardonnay is huge in the Willamette Valley. We’re making all sorts of wacky wines up here, from gruner veltliner to viognier, but chardonnay is growing the fastest. At this point, it has surpassed riesling, and is second only to pinot gris

  15. Great post. Chardonnay is such a versatile wine (and grape), that I too see it retaining its leading role among whites. The problem is that it’s also the most abused grape variety out there. Because of its versatility and malleability, the cheap banquet Chardonnay that many of us are forced to drink at conferences or banquets is pretty damned awful. So, when I am stuck with the no-name brands at a hotel ballroom, I always choose the bland, but harmless Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc over the Chardonnay. It’s not the grape’s fault that it shows off bad winemaking, but wow, when it’s bad, Chardonnay is really bad!

  16. This would be “statistically insignificant”. It reminds me when large winery Marketing departments place too much emphasis on a small focus group for consumer research. It can be extremely misleading.

  17. Great piece! I totally agree. I’m kind of biased though, because it is my favorite varietal. I think what happened is the American palate and the wineries shifted to less oaky chards, so it may “feel” like there is a decline but the statistics sure say otherwise. And maybe people stopped talking about chardonnay as much too, because the love affair with pinot noir blossomed. That said, I’ve had 2 excellent California chards recently, both different from each other in style. The 2011 Hoopla and Qupe 2011 Bien Nacido Y Block.

  18. Someone better let Rombauer and Trinitas Cellars know :)!


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