Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Here's what Americans are really drinking -- and not

There has always been a huge disconnect between wines that people like me write about, and wines that the general public actually drinks.

This disconnect is larger in wine than any other field covered by critics. Book, film and music critics champion their favorites, but also write reviews of the summer's No. 1 hit.

If all you knew about wine was what's in the newspaper or on blogs, you might think red Loire wines are mainstream, pink wines are topping the sales charts and nobody ever drinks Merlot anymore.

Some might be dismayed to learn what Americans' 20 favorite wine brands over $20 are, according to an article in Wines & Vines. I find data like this gathered by the Symphony IRI group an interesting reminder that media love and public buying habits in wine are completely out of sync.

First, I'll run down what Americans really like. Below, I'll point out a few things that aren't on the list -- which is much more surprising than what is.

#1: Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio With 2.5 times the sales of the next-most-popular wine over $20, this is easily America's favorite wine splurge. It tastes like nothing, and the logical conclusion is that's what many Americans are looking for.

2: Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay A big contrast from the wines on either side of it. I like this wine, particularly the single-vineyard versions. People could be drinking a lot worse.

3: Rombauer Chardonnay Just last week the wine buyer from my local market -- Bi-Rite -- told me it took months to sell a few cases of this overly oaked, buttery wine. Like I needed more evidence that my gourmet ghetto neighborhood of San Francisco is out of the mainstream. About the same total sales as Sonoma-Cutrer; 1.8 times as much as the next brand on the list.

4: Charles Krug Owned by Peter Mondavi, this winery usually delivers pretty good value for money. I tend to like their cheaper Napa Valley appellation wines better than their most expensive ones, which can be over-oaked. Normally my favorite is the Sauvignon Blanc, but I don't like the current vintage.

5: Stags' Leap Winery I like Cabernet from the Stags Leap District as well as from anywhere in Napa Valley, but I think this winery is directionless as its owner, Foster's, goes through painful restructuring. I wouldn't be surprised to see this brand drop down the charts next year.

6: Grgich Hills Mike Grgich's nephew Ivo Jeramaz inherited a way with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Stick to the whites here and you'll be happy.

7: Groth Cabernet Sauvignon This was the biggest surprise to me on the list because I don't hear much about them, but I suppose that's because they don't need press. Another pretty good choice, America.

8: St. Supery They make one of the most consistently good Sauvignon Blancs in America and some interesting red and white blends with good balance and restraint. Great choice, America. But sadly, this 1-10 ranking disguises the fact that Nos. 6-8 combined -- all good brands -- sell less than half as much as Santa Margherita.

9: Silverado Vineyards Owned by the Disney family, the brand is marketed with class but I usually feel the wines don't live up to the prices. How much of its success is due to the Disneys' brilliance at selling things?

10: William Hill Estate Here's one I wouldn't have guessed. It's the biggest-selling premium brand owned by Gallo, which is a shame because they have better brands like Louis M. Martini and MacMurray Ranch.

11: Conundrum Who said Americans don't like sweet wine? Or overpriced sweet wine made from any old grape?

I'll leave off 12-20 because they're all similar; solid, long-established brands that I'm glad to see doing well, but not radical exciting wines.

So what's not on the list?

NO: Anything from France Imported wine makes up about 20% of sales over $20, and two Italian brands made the list. There are no Champagnes, no Bordeaux, nothing from France in the top 20. That may be Rush Limbaugh's wet dream, but it's screwed up. Order more French wine, folks. They're our oldest ally and they were right about Iraq after all. Move on and have some Champagne.

NO: Anything from Australia or New Zealand This isn't surprising; too many Americans think Australian wine should cost under $10. But it is worth noting.

NO: Any American wine owned by Constellation I can't understand this. Where's Robert Mondavi Winery? Ravenswood? Blackstone? I know they all have cheap wines, but the first two at least also make some excellent wines over $20. And Robert Mondavi Winery not long ago was one of the most popular premium brands in the country. I have been believing that Constellation are experts in wine marketing. I guess I have been wrong.

NO: Any wine owned by Jackson Family Estates This is a function of the price cutoff point, because Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay is still selling by the truckload. I'm just surprised Jess Jackson hasn't done better in the higher end of the market, considering how much he's invested in it. And he's got some good wines too, like Cambria and Stonestreet.

NO: Any American wine from outside California Chateau Ste. Michelle is a good large brand from Washington, but its wines are just a little too cheap for this list. I'm not sure who else would come close to making it; Oregon doesn't have any wineries that big, and while New York has done both volume and quality, it has never successfully combined them. This is just a reminder for the aggressive Californaphobes I encounter all the time -- 18 of the top 20 brands in the US are from here. Hate California wines and you hate America.

NO: Any California brand not from Napa or Sonoma County Want more evidence that Americans care about varietals and not terroir? "Sideways" kicked off a Pinot Noir obsession that the article states is still ongoing. But despite the beautiful Santa Barbara County vineyard views (and ostrich farm), none of the 18 California brands is from anywhere south of Carneros.

Last night I cracked open a delicious Australian Riesling -- Leeuwin Estate Art Series Margaret River 2008. Mmm, stone and nectarine. But tonight, after reading this list, I think I'm going to get in touch with the rest of the country. I've got a Grgich Hills Chardonnay in the wine cellar, and that's as high up the list as I can go on short notice. The Burgundy and Albarino and Touraine Rouge will have to wait until I'm feeling less American.


Anonymous said...

Interesting report. But Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio has to taste like something or no one would buy it.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Santa Margarita does taste like something. It tastes like water with a small amount of artificial acidification.

W. Blake Gray said...

Nice edit.

headpruned said...

I'm as anti-Constellation as the next guy but of course they're not on the list, what wine do they make over $20? You should've added one more to your "NO" list..."wines over $20." >$14 wines are a whopping 4% of the total volume. your number 1 should've been: Moscato. a 93% volume change since Jan with no dedicated section in any store, only 4 brands to choose from, and all south of $5. Most drunk wines over $20 is like saying who's the best pro football team in Ohio. Irrelavent unless we're solely talking quality, which we aren't.

FrankM said...

Are you sure you're talking about the right Stag's Leap? I believe it is Stags' Leap that is owned by Fosters and Stag's Leap that is owned by the tobacco company.

W. Blake Gray said...

Re Constellation: I just went to Robert Mondavi Winery website to count wines for sale over $20, but got bored when I turned up over 25.

Ravenswood's single-vineyard Zins are over $20, though I suppose they don't make enough volume of those to make this list. But it's Robert Mondavi Winery's fall from the list that shocks me.

cbleary said...

The secret here is that most of these wines realistically sell for less than $20 by large retailers running them as loss leaders.

Joel Brüt said...

Stags' Leap Winery is owned by Fosters; Stag's Leap Wine Cellars is the one started by Warren Winiarski.

Joel Brüt said...

They put the apostrophe in the wrong place on the W&V article.

W. Blake Gray said...

Through the miracle of Internet publishing I have fixed it here. No one will ever know but me and you, LeBaron.

1WineDude said...

Ah, and here I thought that Americas cared about varieties and not varietals... sorry, couldn't resist.

Totally agree with you on Sonoma-Cutrer, btw. A lot worse exists out there.

Ian said...

Keep in mind IRI data is not inclusive of the entire market, it's just select grocery + drug stores.

No restaurants, no Costco, no specialty wine/liquor stores (as far as I know). Given that it's not representative of the whole market, it's tough to draw conclusions vis a vis specific brands.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Ravenswood owner VP of Contellation?

W. Blake Gray said...

Constellation owns Ravenswood; Joel Peterson, founder and winemaker, is also a VP of Constellation. Sell some more Robert Mondavi wine, Joel!

Anonymous said...

Is the Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio in a larger format bottle?

Pinot Grigio taste like water...maybe people think they are buying expensive bottled water!

Anonymous said...

Agree with Ian -- IRI only covers about 40% of the wine sold in America, and a much smaller percentage of wines selling over 20 bucks (which skew to independent wine shops and restaurants not covered by IRI). That said, while the actual brand list might be a little different if one could take a true measure across all channels, the thesis would most likely remain unchanged. Nice report.