Tag Archives: Mark West

The revolution in cheap pinot noir

The moscato and sweet red wine trends have received more attention, but the revolution in cheap pinot noir may eventually be just as important to the wine business and to consumers.

That ?s the gist of a story I wrote for the Beverage Media trade magazine. Pinot, traditionally the province of oenophiles with deep pockets, has long been considered fine wine more than mass wine for two reasons: The grape was always difficult to grow and difficult to turn into wine. Neither is especially true any more, and these changes have allowed winemakers to produce millions of cases of pinot that costs less than $15 a bottle and is clean and professional ? if sometimes not very pinot-ish in taste.

In addition, the popularity of these wines is another indication that U.S. wine drinkers are looking for fruitier, less tannic, and less alcoholic options than merlot and cabernet sauvignon, and this ties into the moscato and sweet red trends. The tremendous growth in the popularity of these three wines hints at larger changes in what wine drinkers want, though it ?s probably too soon to know more than that.

The story ?s highlights and a few other thoughts, after the jump:

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Mark West and the revolution in pinot noir

This is the wine that helped changed pinot noir in the U.S., both in how it tasted and how it was sold. As such, it probably deserves some sort of lengthy academic treatise and recognition for those accomplishments — good and bad. Instead, Constellation Brands, one of the world’s biggest wine companies, just bought it, and who knows what ?s going to happen next?

Before the current version of Mark West debuted in 2001, drinkable pinot noir cost at least $20 and came from Burgundy in France, Oregon, and parts of California no one knew much about. Most of the rest of the world ?s pinot wasn ?t very pleasant ? harsh and unripe, even on its best days. That’s because pinot is not only difficult to grow, but difficult to make. Those who grew it in un-pinot places or who made it without having Zen-like pinot skills almost always failed.

Mark West ?s great accomplishment had three parts: Making a quality wine, making it cheaply enough so it cost $10, and making so much of it that it could be sold in grocery stores. The irony is that, to do this, Mark West had to make pinot noir that didn’t taste like pinot noir had always tasted.

The entire region of Burgundy produced about 5.2 million cases of pinot noir in 2011, and about half of that stayed in France. Mark West, all by itself, made 600,000 cases. That’s an amazing statistic, and points to how important the brand is in the marketplace. You might not be able to find a bottle of red Burgundy in a U.S. supermarket, but you’re almost certainly going to be able to find a bottle of Mark West. And for just $10.

More importantly, its pinot noir, from the beginning, was not unpleasant. It was soft and fruity, but it wasn’t sweet and it tasted like wine. This helps explain its continuing success, given how many cheap wines make no effort to taste like wine but try to get as close to a soft drink as possible. Because, of course, American consumers are stupid and need to be treated like small children when it comes to wine.

The problem, though, was that Mark West didn’t really taste like traditional pinot noir. It didn’t have any real oak aging, since that costs so much that it’s almost impossible to do in a $10 wine. It also didn’t have pinot’s trademark earthiness and mushroom aroma or its unique tannins, which can’t be done with grapes grown in those parts of California where Mark West gets its grapes.

Turns out, though, that wasn’t a problem. The people buying Mark West probably didn ?t know pinot was supposed to have those things. They wanted a fruity and easy-drinking wine, and that’s what Mark West gave them. It certainly didn’t hurt, either, that the wine can be served chilled and pairs with just about everything. It turned out, truly, to be what its marketing materials proclaimed: “Pinot for the people.”

We can argue forever whether pinot should taste this way. I don ?t think so, but the marketplace, as well as the comments and emails I get, say otherwise. I’d also argue that the success of this style of wine made it possible for winemakers to produce the high-end versions of Mark West — the alcoholic, fruity and very non-traditional pinot noirs that have gained such notoriety and high scores over the past several years.

What’s more certain is that Mark West’s success (which coincided with the success of “Sideways,” the movie that made pinot noir a star) spawned about a gazillion similar wines. There was such demand for $10 pinot noir, in fact, that producers used as little pinot as legally possible to make them, filling the wine out with cheaper syrah and grenache. There was even a $10 pinot noir scandal, when a French exporter sold syrah to a U.S. producer and claimed it was pinot.

It speaks to Mark West’s success that many of those other $10 pinots are gone, and Mark West is still around (and worth $160 million to Constellation). I tasted the 2010 vintage the other day ($10, purchased), and it was the same as it has always been. The wine itself looked a little thin in the glass, but tasted more like pinot than I thought it would. There was blueberry cobbler fruit (one CellarTracker review noted cardamom), but no earthiness and certainly no complexity, even for a $10 wine. It was, to paraphrase Dan Berger, the kind of wine that’s fine to drink as long as you don’t get hung up on varietal character. And it went very nicely with Sunday night patty melts and corn on the cob.

Can Mark West survive as part of Constellation? The brand will certainly continue to exist, though I expect Constellation to dumb down the wine — replace some of the pinot with syrah or grenache, use less expensive grapes, and substitute wood chips for what little oak aging the wine does get. In this, it will taste even less like pinot that it does now, Which may not necessarily be a problem.

Winebits 236: Mark West, wine labels, drug stores

? Constellation buys Mark West: Constellation, the second-biggest producer in the world, has purchased Mark West, best known for its $10 pinot noir (and long a favorite here). And why did Constellation snap up Mark West, which wasn't for sale? Because it needed a $10 pinot noir, said company officials. And why did it need a $10 pinot noir? Because that's the wine consumers are buying, which says a lot about where wine prices are going. This also speaks volumes about the massive sizes that are dominating the wine business. Mark West does 700,000 cases a year, and that wasn't enough for it compete with companies like Constellation, which does 40 million, with a grocery store brand like this. The final question — what will Constellation do to the wine's quality? If its past track record means anything, price will stay the same, but quality will decline to enable it to make its margins on a $10 wine.

? More consumer-friendly labels? Caroline Henry asks that question in Palate Press, reporting on a big-time conference in London. The answer? That it ?s an increasingly popular topic, and that the industry is divided. It ?s a thorough look at something we ?ve talked about here a lot, though missing from the discussion was anyone from the biggest and most important wine producers. It ?s one thing to hold a panel about the subject; it ?s another for one of the multi-nationals who make the bulk of the world ?s wine to offer their insight.

? Wine in drug stores: Walgreen ?s, one of the world ?s largest pharmacy chains, is testing an up-scale store concept that includes expanded wine offerings. Shanken News Daily says the 25,000-square-foot store in Chicago, about twice the size of a normal Walgreen ?s, will also have sushi, a smoothie bar, and expanded fresh food. The company is looking at former Borders bookstore locations for possible expansion. If Walgreen ?s makes the decision to take this idea national, it will join a variety of other retailers, including Starbucks, who see premium wine as a way to lure high-end shoppers to their stores. Whether high-end shoppers want to buy wine at Walgreen ?s is another story.