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Why is the red blend category so popular?



As Wines & Vines just reported (“Surging sales for red blend wines”), “[R]ed blends are growing more and more popular with consumers,” with the category, as measured by IRI, up 14% year-over-year. Red blends also accounted for the third-largest share of all DTC shipments over the past 12 months, behind only Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.

That’s pretty stunning. Red blends have become the new Moscato, although just what fueled this phenomenon isn’t as explainable as it was in the case of Moscato, which benefited from a hip-hop halo.

What, then, is behind the popularity? Well, the brands driving the explosion, according to the Wines & Vines article—Apothic, Ménage a Trois, Cupcake and 14 Hands (and I might add Murphy-Goode’s Homefront Red)—all are inexpensive, averaging $10-$12, or even less, at retail. So that’s one reason: That’s right there in the sweet spot for an impulse purchase at the market, or for a restaurant for its by-the-glass program.

But there are plenty of other wines in that price point on the supermarket shelves, so why red blends? I have a couple theories. One is just the novelty factor, as it was for Moscato. Another is that, being proprietary wines instead of varietals, producers can come up with these user-friendly names that are quirky and easy to remember, and that have a certain feel-good quality that appeals to people who might otherwise be intimidated by wine. Graphic designers can have fun with the labels. Fun name + cute label + the right price = customer appeal and loyalty.

And the wines aren’t bad. I’ve tasted most of them, and they’re perfectly adequate for everyday occasions. But there is one thing about the IRI data, as reported in Wines & Vines, that’s problematic: the “red blend” category includes “Meritage wines”…”Rhone-style wines”…and “Italian-style blends…”. As Wines & Vines reports, IRI’s red blends/Meritage category is a broad one that includes both dry and sweet red table wines as well as more traditional Bordeaux-style red blends often called Meritage.”

As we all know, “Meritage” wines are Bordeaux blends in which no one variety exceeds the TTB’s 75% threshold for varietal labeling. I don’t know why or how “Meritage” wines have much in common with a typical red blend (Apothic, for example, is Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon). Nor is it clear just how many Meritage wines were part of IRI’s data: at an average bottle price of $8.64, it wouldn’t seem that Meritage was a big part, but we just don’t know. Adding to the confusion, as Wines & Vines notes, is that the red blend category “includes both dry and sweet red table wines,” but we also don’t know precisely what those terms refer to. The article says the “hot brands…typically contain 1% or more residual sugar,” which is perceptibly sweet.

Well, we’re deep into the tall weeds of consumer analysis now, but perhaps the takeaway is that the red blend phenomenon isn’t as phenomenal as would appear at first blush (no pun intended). My hunch is that these red blend buyers are beginning wine drinkers, or just those who enjoy a little red wine and don’t want to give it any more thought than they give to their daily bread or milk. These consumers always have preferred sweeter wines: We in the trade make much of dry, varietal wines, but we tend to forget that there are millions of consumers out there who just want something simple to understand and pleasant to drink, that’s soft, fruity and a little sweet. That being the case, I think that red blends are here to stay, unlike Moscato. They’re also a great way for wineries to dispose of excess grapes and/or wine. And despite their inexpensive price, they’re really profitable. Which brings up a final point: White blends. Bordeaux notwithstanding, Chateauneuf-du-Pape is the idée originale of the red blend; there is a white Chateauneuf, but not much. In California, a few people have been making white blends for years, some of them, like Conundrum, successful brands, but something about white wine varieties seems to resist blending. Perhaps the innate character of the varieties is hopelessly obscured when mixed together. Anyhow, it’s a little weird that red blends are doing so well while nobody’s talking about white blends.

  1. Kyle Schlachter says:

    I don’t think hip hop played as much into the rise of Moscato as you think (but I do agree with the rest of the post). Various wines, including moscato, have been mentioned in hip hop songs since the 80s. Did it have an impact, sure, but I don’t think the 60-yr old moms and country music lovers are influenced by Lil’Kim or Drake. I think the bigger reason for Muscat-based wines and red blends is their simplicity (to understand), sweetness, and relative homogeneity. People know what they’re getting at a price they’re willing to spend and the brand doesn’t really matter (but the fun names and labels do).

  2. Maybe the reason a white blend trend isn’t happening to echo that of red is that inexpensive Riesling and Chenin Blanc from California or Washington have always been there for those jonesing for some prominent RS. Before Apothic, Menage, et al. California reds were either almost completely dry or sweet pop wine and not in between.

  3. My nominee for a tasty < $15 retail red blend: Shebang! . . .

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal "Off-Duty" Section
    (March 6, 2015, Page Unknown):

    "The Red-Wine Blends Trend: More Than Just Flashy Packaging"


    By Lettie Teague
    "On Wine" Column

    An edgeless wine was exactly what Morgan Twain-Peterson had in mind when he created Shebang! Eighth Cuvée in 2009. Mr. Twain-Peterson, of the Bedrock Wine Co., in Sonoma, created the wine for his “college self,” he said, harking back to a time when he favored lively, juicy reds. It was also a practical addition to his portfolio, helping with cash flow while his more-expensive Zinfandels were aging. (The winery cash flow has decidedly improved since Shebang was first introduced; the initial production of 700 cases a year has risen to 6,000 today.)

    Like many winemakers, Mr. Twain-Peterson doesn’t note the varietal content of his blend on the label. In his case it might be a matter of varietal paranoia. A lot of people have a negative impression of Zinfandel, he said. Zinfandel is one of the grapes of the Shebang blend, along with Carignane, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. (Perhaps there are also too many names to fit on the label?)

    Mr. Twain-Peterson pointed out that while Shebang is much cheaper ($12) than his old-vine Zinfandels (which can cost as much as $50), his winemaking and philosophy are the same at both high and low ends. Shebang wasn’t some cheap concoction “sourced from the bulk-wine market or pumped up with additives like Mega Purple,” he said, referring to a concentrate commonly used to make cheaper reds darker and sweeter. Shebang is produced from some of the same old-vine Zinfandel vineyards he uses for his pricier wines.

  4. Supplemental reading . . .

    From the Santa Rosa Press Democrat
    (January 28, 2009, Page Unknown):

    “Ravenswood Winery’s Joel Peterson Preserves a Part of Sonoma’s Heritage — One Vineyard at a Time”


    By Virginie Boone

  5. These wines seem very similar to the jug reds I drank when I first started liking wine: Cribari, Gallo Hearty Burgundy, Red Mountain, though probably made with some different grapes. They were fine to drink with BBQ and pizza and still are.

    It seems old ideas never die: Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Grenache are becoming chiuc once again, too.

  6. Chris Langan says:

    Another factor – considering the consumer analysis above – is that when a category like this starts growing, the retailers start paying attention, and devoting more space to featuring wines from said category. And as those categories grow, more and more producers look at the data and enter the fray. Case in point – five years ago my local Randall’s (Safeway for those of you outside of TX) had a very small set of red blends, roughly two linear feet of shelf space. It is now up to 8 linear feet and over 60 selections of wines. This is not a set for the sophisticated wine consumer, more is it a particularly forward thinking chain, but it goes to show that as a category grows, the retail segment “helps it along” by almost forcing the consumer to pay attention and choose from what the retailer gives them.

  7. Mark Koppen says:

    I think a great deal of the popularity is because of the “big” flavors they have – the American pursuit of all things big, flavors like soda pop or energy drinks, with interesting names. That being said, some of the wines are very good as you point out – these wines are a great use for some of the excess Syrah and Zin the state is growing. And we are seeing decreases in some of those varietals as consumers go to the blends. At the lower end of the scale, we’re seeing great increases in our Bota Box Redvolution and Nighthawk, but some of it is definitely at the expense of our Shiraz and Zin, both of which are very nice wines for the money (#employee).
    I also agree with Paul F above, some of the popularity of blends may lead back to interest in what varietals make up those blends, Grenache may be a good example of something that has shown an increase in interest.

  8. Perhaps the rise of Moscato tracks directly with the movement to Asian and Asian fusion cuisines in USA? Moscato (Muskat?) pretty much plays a perfect fiddle to spicier dishes and at the price is impossible to beat (Beringer sells for less than $4 a bottle in many supermarkets these days). Dry whites, price no matter, simply do not play along with spicy food and one doesn’t really need to be an expert in wine, let alone be a somm with a lapel pin, to instantly know that off sweet or sweet wines just pair perfectly with the spices.

    Red blends wise, tough to tell at this point. Especially with a generation that even at 30 or 40 years of age plays video games for hours per day, where such “fancy” labels just might play along that same mental curve and catch their attention. Its the “Look, bird!” generation, probably impossible to gauge how they react to things. Although I am certainly glad we may be past the “animal” labels by now.

  9. Bob Henry says:

    Update Spring 2016: another California red blend wine brand just got snapped up by a large corporation.

    “E. & J. Gallo Purchases Wine Brand Orin Swift Cellars”

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