Social media in China marries interaction with commerce. Will the social media giants in the West follow suit? If so, the day could come when consumers don't just take pictures of wine bottles, but follow up with an order. Robert Joseph has some thoughts.
The big trends on the East Coast of the US.
Wednesday, 21. September 2016 - 15:15
US wine consumers are evolving rapidly. They’ve had little choice not to. The breadth and depth of wine information now available is staggering, and the level of knowledge and professionalism in restaurants, wine bars and retail shops is unprecedented. Loaded with information with which to plot their own wine course, an entire new generation has chosen to figure it out on their own, eschewing any hand-me-down stereotypes.
This generation is, of course, the Millennials, who now form the US’s largest generational demographic, and are now of legal drinking age. According to research conducted by the Wine Market Council and Princeton, New Jersey-based Opinion Research Corporation, they already outnumber wine drinking Baby Boomers. Not only that, but they are rapidly becoming the largest generational segment of high-frequency wine drinkers, and in a decade they will be the largest generational consumers of fine wine.
This changing consumer landscape has had a polarising effect: Go big or go craft. Wine has become a story of volume producers versus smaller producers (which have been bolstered by direct-to-consumer sales to the tune of $2B last year), and consolidated distributors and big box wine stores versus independent importers and retailers. Sommeliers and retailers are now searching for unexplored regions, varietals, and vinification methods that will stimulate their customers’ interest. The mainstay regions, varietals and brands aren’t disappearing from wine lists anytime soon, but they’re now accompanied by lesser-known or even esoteric wines.
This is the wine service world in which Percy Rodriguez lives. “Customers have become more aware and more intelligent in regard to what they are drinking,” says Rodriguez, beverage manager of celebrated chef Laurent Tourondel’s L’Amico, The Vine, and other venues under the New York City LT Hospitality umbrella. “And, speaking broadly, they are more willing to take risks, and more open to the fringes of winemaking. And as sommeliers, we get excited. We want to talk about this really cool micro grower Champagne, or this crazy Sicilian red that’s fermented in concrete, and people like the stories, and appreciate the personalisation. But maybe they don’t have a whole lot of experience with it, and that can be a challenge.”
Rodriguez returns to what’s most important: “Food is the star, first and foremost.” When sommeliers are pressed for what types of wines would generally fill their lists, a recurring theme emerges: higher acidity, lower alcohol. “There needs to be acid,” says Rodriguez. “I create my list around wines that do not compete with the food, and first and foremost there is always that focus on acid.”
This also corresponds with the growing preference for lower alcohol, particularly in North America, which has shown the largest consumer growth for lower-alcohol wines worldwide according to a recent Wine Intelligence report. So US consumers, armed with knowledge gleaned from tableside interactions with sommeliers, and a general belief they’ve got a chance to improve their health — or at least impede its decline — are increasingly seeking out higher-acidity, lower-alcohol wines. “The days of big, powerful fruit bombs with alcohol levels to match are numbered, as younger drinkers seek out more balanced wines,” says Michael Warner, co-owner of Washington, DC-based boutique wine shop DCanter. “Consumers still want complex flavour profiles, but they also don't want a headache in the morning.” This can at least partly explain the US’s increased interest in varietals such as Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Vinho Verde, Txakoli, and, in some cases, rosé.
In some markets, like South Florida, rosé’s always been a natural fit, as South Florida master sommelier Virginia Philip can attest. Philip is master sommelier at The Breakers Palm Beach luxury resort and principal of the Virginia Philip Wine Shop & Academy in West Palm Beach. “In all honesty, we have been pouring this category in all of our restaurants by the glass for well over ten years,” says Philip. “How could we not? It's South Florida. It's the perfect wine for hot weather.”
In markets farther north, restaurants and wine bars have in the past offered summertime promotions named The Summer of Rosé or Summertime is Rosé Time, introducing customers to a wider selection. The promotions now are hardly necessary, as a glass of rosé on a sunlit patio is a matter of course. But still there are seasonal ties. Each spring in Boston’s south end, for example, The Urban Grape expands its customizable shelving system to show off more than 140 shades of rosé, and then reduces it back to half that amount as summer fades away. There are hints, however, that rosé has become so widely accepted that it may break this seasonal summer bond and finally spill over into the rest of the calendar, even in cooler climes. “The incredible growth of rosé is slowing,” says Warner, “but it is not going away. Instead, the growth is shifting away from the summer months and rosé will take on more of a year-round appeal.”
Rosé itself is changing. “A lot of the winemakers in Tuscany, Central Italy and even the islands have realised that the market really doesn’t care for the super-extracted, really deep, almost orangish-reddish rosés,” says Rodriguez. “There has been a shift in what they produce. Frescobaldi’s Alìe — and I can’t order enough of it — for example, is on par with any Grenache/Syrah from Southern France.”
Right now it’s Germany’s 2015 vintage that is receiving widespread acclaim, including from Philadelphia-based Jason Malumed, partner at New York importer and distributor MFW Wine Co. “There has been a lot of rightly deserved hype for the 2015 vintage, especially for the Rieslings, and that has spurred a lot of interest,” says Malumed. “The quality is great, and the wines are very expressive right out of the gate. Interest also continues to grow for regions outside of the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. Württemberg, for its different expression of Riesling on limestone/sandstone, gulpable Trollingers, and Baden, especially for producers like Enderle & Moll and others working naturally and making Pinot Noir with more delicacy in mind.”
A recovering Old-World-only wine drinker, Malumed has a rejuvenated interest in domestic production, particularly in California and Oregon. “There is just so much interesting stuff going on there,” he says. “Producers like Chris Brockway [of Broc Cellars in Berkeley, California] continue to put the emphasis on vineyard health, and finding interesting and heritage grape varieties to work with to make balanced and drinkable wines.” Even more interesting to him is what’s happening in Oregon. “Lots of small producers with a great youthful energy and similar desire for experimentation have broken free from the ‘Pinotstocracy’,” he says. “People like Bow & Arrow, looking more to the Loire for inspiration versus Burgundy, making great wines at accessible prices from Gamay, Melon de Bourgogne and Cabernet Franc.”
And then there’s the Columbia Gorge, a region he considers to be one of the most exciting in the country due to its unique terroir. “Producers like Analemma are leading the way, working organically, biodynamically, planting Mencía, Godello and Trousseau, making incredible sparkling wines.” And this is news that might be of interest to Warner’s customers in DC. “Sparkling wines have been gaining in popularity for some time,” he says. “But consumers are requesting drier sparkling wines more and more frequently. Many former Prosecco drinkers, for instance, are now reaching for Brut Nature Cava.”
Boston-area master sommelier Michael Meagher, principal of consulting company Sommelier on Demand, sees Australian producers beginning to emerge from the shadows. “Merlot and Malbec are still not ‘cool’, but Australia is making a play for re-emergence,” says Meagher. “I've been a full-throated supporter of high-quality, terroir-driven Australian wines, and finally some of these small-production wineries are getting their global recognition and the massive commercial wineries are losing a bit of their market share.”
And with a better awareness of Australia’s different producers comes a better understanding of Australia’s diverse viticultural offerings, particularly the discovery of grape varieties not named Shiraz. “Riesling, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sémillon — a personal favourite of mine — are finding more and more love from winemakers as terroir and microclimates are starting to hold greater sway,” says Meagher. “Look at Peter Fraser at Yangarra. Shiraz is his bread and butter, for sure, but look for his Roussanne, Grenache or Mourvèdre, as they are the superstars for me. Taras and Amber Ochota at Ochota Barrels are also exceptional,” he adds. “Along with Ashton Hills, Shaw and Smith, and Grosset are eschewing the Shiraz path and forging ahead with Australia's ‘other’ varietals.”
Virginia Philip at The Breakers has seen a spike in interest for Sauvignon Blanc, regardless of origin. “The category is up by about 20% overall in Florida,” she says. “Eighty-five per cent of the category is dominated by New Zealand and California — not Sancerre, oddly enough.”
As sommeliers and independent wine shop proprietors seek out those esoteric gems overseas, they’ve been aided by a favourable exchange rate. “Spain and Greece are capturing the imagination of wine geeks, and doing so at reasonable prices,” says Meagher. “These are probably two of Europe's worst economies, but there continues to be incredible investment and interest in their wine regions. It seems like every few weeks, a colleague or friend of mine pops up on some social media platform with selfies from Santorini or Naoussa, or a photo of a massive plata of pintxos and a porron of Txakoli or copita of Manzanilla Sherry.” Meagher says that while the US dollar remains strong, these countries will see their market share grow, “as the quality and values are too good to turn away.”
Value is key, of course — so much so that a perceived lack of value can send a preference for a region into a tailspin. “A lot of young people have seemed to write off Bordeaux recently,” says Malumed. “But when someone writes something off, that’s exactly when I get interested in it.” He attributes the Millennials’ disenchantment with Bordeaux to the big châteaux’s sky-rocketing prices, a perceived air of superiority, and operations that more closely resemble big commercial enterprises than small grower-producers. “But if you do some digging,” he says, “there are some great values to be found. We have had a lot of fun turning people back on to ‘real Bordeaux’. Small growers working organically and biodynamically — not the norm in the region — who are making fresh, honest wines without a lot of makeup of oak and extraction.”
Bordeaux’s price pain and the search for value is a story very familiar to Boston-based wine educator Jo-Ann Ross, one of 200 international accredited Bordeaux wine tutors. “I am tasked with the messaging that only a small amount of Bordeaux is part of the five First Growths,” says Ross. “Consumers who adore drinking Bordeaux but are looking to seek out value-driven wines need to look at second labels, small producers, Cru Bourgeois, wines from Côtes de Bordeaux, and locations that abut famous appellations, like the Saint-Émilion satellites of Montagne-Saint-Émilion and right bank sweet Bordeaux Loupiac. And let’s not forget lovely, refreshing white Bordeaux.”
On the rise for their value as well as their perceived trendiness are red blends, which Nielsen has called the “craft beer of the wine category”. This is the fastest-growing wine segment product, accounting for almost 41% of new wine entrants in the US market in recent years. Red blends generated value growth of 8.7% and volume growth of 3.2% for the year ending 12 September 2015, according to Nielsen, so not only are consumers buying more red blends, but at more premium price points as well. “Red blends are increasing in popularity,” says Warner. “Consumers still seem to favour some varietals over others, but they increasingly appreciate the complexity that an additional two or three blending grapes can add to a wine.”
Something that faces mixed appreciation is natural wine. While championed heavily by many sommeliers, the concept doesn’t always gel for the average consumer. And this hurdle isn’t exactly lowered by conversations that aim to explain the wines, but which often end up sounding like a post graduate discussion on comparative religion. “We definitely get more questions about orange wine than we did five or six years ago, and there’s a lot more awareness of organic wines and biodynamic wines,” says Rodriguez. “But not a whole lot of people have a true understanding of what biodynamic means, at least for those who aren’t immediately in the wine industry.”
“Some people are fully ingrained in the belief that what is called ‘natural’ wine is the best way to enjoy wine — no additions in the winery, no fining, no filtering,” says Meagher. “This can lead to an experience that many guests are quite honestly not ready for and do not enjoy.” Warner agrees. “Orange wines, which have been the darlings of trendy sommeliers in recent years, have failed to catch on with consumers,” he says. “Many will purchase a bottle after hearing about it from a friend or reading about it, but very few will purchase it a second time.”
In fact, reports have emerged from the Organic Winegrowing Conference held in Yountville, California, 21 July, of producers that have chosen not to promote that they are indeed producing organic wine. Whatever a producer decides to promote is up to them, but Meagher believes, at least at the table, it’s not up to a sommelier to play gatekeeper. “There are those who see this trend and are actively rebelling against it as much as one can,” he says. “They automatically discard out of hand any wine that is brought to them that is advertised as ‘natural’ or even biodynamic, and that, too, is a disservice to their clientele.”
Malumed adds that despite all the confusion — “I think a lot of people use the term ‘natural wine’ and ‘natural’ wine interchangeably, so you have to be careful” — the natural wine message still resonates. “People are still very interested in natural wine,” he says. “Just as consumers are paying more to prioritise their health, they will continue to look for wines that also share those ideals. There are a lot of people who would rather give their money to a small grower, working organically, and not messing around in the cellar, than give their money to some big commercial winery’s marketing department.”
So, about those Millennials. As the largest demographic segment in the US, and the soon-to-be greatest consumers of wine in the US, their fascination with undiscovered and lesser-known regions, varietals and vinification methods are a major consideration for US wine industry professionals. Fortunately, it would seem there is a wealth of sommeliers and wine shop proprietors who appear quite up to