Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Americans like sweet wines, but nobody talks about it. Missed opportunity for wineries, and media?

The question was, "How do you prefer your wine to taste? Check all that apply."
Dr. Liz Thach
Americans like sweet wines. Big wine companies know it. East Coast wineries know it.

The main people in the dark are the wine media: people like me. We usually write disparagingly about red wines with residual sugar, if we write about them at all. We drink in an ivory tower.

This is my main conclusion from Sonoma State University's American Wine Consumer poll, which was published last week. According to the survey, dry wines are enjoyed by only 36% of American wine consumers, compared to semi-sweet (45%) and sweet (38%).

I combined this story with another Sonoma State professor's gloom-and-doom seminar the week before about the outlook for small wineries and wondered, should more small wineries be making sweet wines?

I called Dr. Liz Thach MW, the professor of wine and management who led the survey, to chat. Here's an edited transcript.

Thach: Every time we've done this survey, we always get these same results. This is a survey of the everyday consumer in America.

Me: How do you choose the people to survey?

Thach: You try to get a representative sample of your target population. Our target population is the American wine consumer. We try to get a sample of at least 1000 people. We need to have at least 40 percent men and 60 percent women. It used to be 45 percent men and 55 percent women. We're using Wine Market Council statistics.

Me: Men aren't drinking as much wine as before?

Thach: It's slipped a little bit. A few years ago we also went all the way down to ethnicity, but that cost more. So we did it down to gender in all 50 states. It's not as good as random, and you can't completely generalize, but it gives you a good representation on the population.
I think it's pretty true that the American consumer wants fruity, smooth, and just a touch of sweetness. If I look at the profile of the top 10 selling wines in the United States, they all have that profile. That touch of sweetness. We often talk about Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay. KJ, they put .9% residual sugar in that wine. That makes it a little sweet: semi-sweet. Not super sweet, just a touch.

Me: The cliché in the wine industry is that people talk dry and drink sweet. I'm surprised you were able to get consumers to admit this.

Thach: When you interview the American wine drinker face to face, they won't admit this to you. My mother's like that. She says, "I don't like sweet wine." But she loves Sutter Home White Zinfandel. It's about 3% (residual sugar).

Me: It makes me sad that so many people say they won't drink Riesling because it's sweet, and no matter how many people write about it that perception doesn't change.

Thach: The Riesling thing drives me crazy because I love Riesling and want it to succeed. But people always say, Riesling, it's too sweet. It's really hard to shift the psyche.

Me: How do you get people to be honest about their sweet tooth?

Thach: We used to ask people, What are your favorite varietals? Please check all that you drink. Then I realized I just got the same data I can get from Nielsen Scantrack. It was a waste of time. I started asking about how they want their wine to taste.
Here's the question: how do you prefer your wine to taste? Check all that apply.
The first box is "Dry." The next box is "Sweet." The next box is "Semi-sweet." The next box is "Savory, less fruity." Those are the choices. What came out the highest was semi-sweet first, then sweet.

Me: Does the age of the respondents matter?

Thach: There's a perception that palates change over time. That as you mature, you like drier wines.
Last year I asked them, Have your tastes changed over time? A huge percentage of people said yes.
About 75% of people said their palates changed over time. Then we ran some analysis of gender to see if there's a gender bias. We found that it wasn't statistically significant. A lot of people said as they get older, they do start liking a little bit drier wine. Less sweet.

Me: What about those 25% who say their tastes haven't changed?

Thach: I went back and looked at that. They loved sweet and semi-sweet and they don't change. My mother is like that, but she won't admit it. "No, I don't like sweet wines." If you go back and look at genetics, there's a certain section of the population where certain wines are actually painful for them to drink.

Me: Tim Hanni has done a lot of work in this area.

Thach: Our research completely supports what Tim has to say.

Me: Who markets to these people? It's a big market.

Thach: Gallo, and Constellation and the Wine Group. They're tapped in to the market. If you go to the Midwest or back East and talk to the small wineries there, every single one of those winery owners will tell you, we always have a sweet wine, because that's what we sell. They also have a sweet red. Here in California, we live in Napa and Sonoma around a lot of sophisticated wine drinkers who have been trained. With food, often a drier wine tastes better. Whereas if I'm just going to sip a glass of wine and watch the sunset, something that's a little bit sweet -- Prosecco fits this perfectly -- that's desirable.

Me: Do you think small wineries in California could make some money selling sweet wines?

Thach: I definitely think a small winery could make an impact (with sweet wines). On the East Coast, they already know this, and they're already doing it.
If a winery is focused on critic scores, they're probably trying to make a more serious wine. You have to look at who their customer base is. In Napa and Sonoma now, it's gotten so expensive to go wine tasting. A college student around here can't afford to go wine-tasting anymore. We've become California wine snobs out here. On the other hand, you do have some wineries over here -- take a look at the dessert wines over in Napa. Dolce flies off the shelf. Everybody loves that wine.

Me: What about wine media? We never write positively about sweet wines. Should we be serving those readers?

Thach: It depends on who your target audience is.
(Editor's note: your humble blogger is US Editor for Wine Searcher, the world's most visited wine website.) Wine Searcher is targeted more at trade and the sophisticated or highly involved wine consumer. You're writing for your target audience.

Me: What about people writing for mainstream publications, like newspapers?

Thach: Somebody who does that really well is Dan Berger. He loves Riesling and he's not afraid to talk about sweet Rieslings and sing their praises.

Me: Every now and then this crops up and gets a little coverage and then we all forget it and get back to praising dry savory Pinot Noirs (which I probably will do immediately after this post runs.)

Thach: Very few people pay attention to this except for the big companies: Gallo, Constellation and the Wine Group. They do wine focus groups and they know what consumers want. The smaller wineries don't have the money for that.

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Unknown said...

When I traveled to Georgia in 2017 I made a point of asking to taste all the semi-sweet Saperavi. The winemakers were under the assumption that these were only for the Chinese and Russian markets, but the one that I selected is doing very well in NYC.

Paul Franson said...

Don't know if it's still true, but Moscato used to be the most popular wine in the tasting room at Mondavi - before that craze came and went (from people who worked there).

And the most popular wine at V. Sattui (which makes a range of wines including excellent dry Cabs etc.) was a sweet Napa Gamay (red!).

Look at the most popular Chardonnays! Most red blends I've tasted are off dry.

Don't tell the consumer the wine is sweetish. Just pour it.

Unknown said...

What is the definition of "sweet wine"? I would say it's a dessert wine - one that can harmonize with the average dessert course. Wines that are off-dry to semi-sweet and medium sweet are not sweet enough to accompany the average dessert. Take a typical "sweet" Riesling Kabinett from Germany. Put it with the average sweet dessert and the Riesling Kabinett tastes dry, bitter and sour. We all should be careful about how we use the word sweet to describe wine.

Paul Franson said...

I agree, but then, I was a math major and prefer percentages. I like the scales used on some Rieslings, though I'm not sure most wine consumers understand them. Too bad there's not a simple test like those used for diabetes but alcohol throws them off.

Tim Hanni MW said...

The definition of "sweet wine" is easy for consumers in general, but wine people love to obfuscate things, don't we? The traditional and even technical use of the French term 'sec' is actually applied to wines that are, by today's standards, quite sweet: sec Champagne is by definition 17-32 g/L residual sugar with demi-sec 32-50 g/L.

For Tom Elliot - even more interesting than the definition of sweet wine is the definition of DESSERT WINE - a construct of the US feds after prohibition, not a French of European term, and the definition dealt with imposing taxes on alcohol levels and had nothing to do with sweetness.

A perusal of classic French and other European gastronomy/culinary books will expose that Ch. d'Yquem and great German sweet wines were table wines, rarely even showing up with dessert. Very commonly served with oysters, lamb, beef, seafood, wild boar or whatever was being served. AND Montrachet, most of the highest quality white Rhone wines, and white Bordeaux were similarly very sweet. And if a wine was too dry, too high in alcohol and unpleasant adding a cube of sugar and a little water was common practice.

Ignorance of history and traditions, where Sangria, Kir, spritzers, Vermouth, gluhwein and sweet Champagne (typically as high as 140 g/L, 30% more RS than Coca Cola!!!) were commonly served before and throughout a meal and enjoyed by millions. The French, German, Italians and Spanish have always enjoyed sweet wines, and that somehow the enjoyment of sweet wines is a US soda-drinking phenomenon if purely fiction. Kalimotxo, 50/50% cola and red wine, is the unofficial 'national' drink in the Basque country today. Port, Madeira and Sherry were served as aperitifs and throughout the meal, not at the end.

Alcohol levels, tertiary aromatics ('petrol' in Riesling for example) and bitterness are important in the mix trying to communicate sweetness with consumers. The wine lovers with the highest sensory sensitivities (# of taste buds, tactile sensitivity, alcohol burn sensitivity and bitter sensitivity) are the sweet wine lovers that the wine industry ridicules and disenfranchises.

Time to end the cliches, ignorance and arrogance about sweet wines and sweet wine lovers. Wish Harvey Posert Sr. was here to weigh in on his career as a Sweet wine lover!

Oh, and by the way, 1947 Ch. Cheval Blanc has over 30 g/L or RS. And the traces of sweetness, or the moderately sweet wines of today, are over the top? Come on y'all, let's set the record straight and clean up our knowledge base on this!

Chris Cook said...

Just recently, we spent a month touring around TN, VA, and NY -- and the folks in TN and NY are listening to their customers. Sweet and semi-sweet wine abounds! Visiting more than 100 tasting rooms a year, we've recently seen more and more tasting menus with sweet and semi-sweet options. This week, we're in NorCal, and when we've talked to the staff about it, they agree that the days of sweet-shaming are gone (or going) and the producers are listening more and more to the consumers. We'll keep watching.

Mike Dunne said...

Americans may like sweet wines, but it's a stretch to say they prefer sweet wines over dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, etc. Even the study's summation indicates that: "This year’s survey highlights that Americans continue to enjoy a wide variety of wine types, but many have a preference for smooth and fruity wines—sometimes with a touch of sugar." If consumers generally, not just Americans, want their wines sweet why have so many styles become increasingly dry? Could it be because dry wines can be both fruity and provide a sense of place? Tim Hanni knows his stuff, but I'll quibble that the Kalimitxo is the beverage of choice in Basque country today. Maybe once, not now, but my sample is small. In Boise last fall, which has perhaps the largest Basque population in the country, I had to search to find a kalimitxo, succeeding at the Basque Center, where the bartender was so surprised to get an order he wondered what I was up to.

Lizthach said...

I love this conversation. All great comments and good debate.

Olsen said...

Vivian Olsen said
As "Mom" I have evolved from Pink Zinfandel in 15 years to now preferring Pinot Grigio and Prosecco.

Unknown said...

Great stuff, Blake! I’ve always believed that sweet wines would be readily accepted at tables in the south where almost everyone born and raised here drinks sweet tea with most meals.