The surprising thing about this month’s sweet red wine post is how muted the reaction was. Hardly anyone seemed surprised. Dismayed maybe, or irritated, but not especially surprised. That’s because the people who follow these things had an idea it was going on, and those who don’t — like most of the Winestream Media — don’t consider it important enough to be surprised.
And the wine drinkers buying all that sweet red? They weren’t surprised, dismayed, or irritated. They’re just happy someone is making wine they enjoy. Or, as a 30-something woman told me about her favorite sweet red, Cupcake’s Red Velvet: “It’s really good, and it’s really about the only red wine I like.”
The one thing most everyone agreed on? That the numbers, though imprecise, offered a real sense of how big sweet red has become — the fifth biggest category in U.S. wine sales, behind chardonnay, cabernet sauvignion, pinot noir, and merlot. Given its momentum, I wouldn’t be surprised to see sweet red pass merlot for fourth in the next couple of years.
So it’s not a coincidence that red blends accounted for 40 percent of all new wines over the past two years, compared to just 18 percent for chardonnay and cabernet combined, according to Beverage Media magazine. Yes, not all red blends are sweet, but sweet reds are at least two-thirds of red blends, based on data in the first post. This is another sign of how important sweet red has become.
How sweet is sweet? About 1.0 or 1.2 percent residual sugar, compared to less than .08 residual sugar for dry red wines. Other highlights in the wake of the first story, combined with additional reporting that I did:
• Consumers don’t necessarily see sweet red as sweet, says Christian Miller of Full Glass Research, who has probably studied this subject more than anyone in the country. ” ‘Sweet’ is not an attribute that large numbers of regular consumers use with regards to these wines,” he said. “They are more apt to regard them as flavorful or smooth or interesting. Many consumers jump back and forth between dryer and sweeter versions of these wines.”
• The wine industry remains uneasy about calling a sweet wine sweet, says Miller. “It’s possible that some of these companies have tested adding the word sweet to the label or description, and found it harmful. On the other hand, based on my experience in the wine industry, the number of decisions based on gut instinct, trade notions, or small unrepresentative samples is surprisingly high, even among large MBA-ish companies.”
• Since sweet red doesn’t depend on appellation or specific grapes, it can be made with fruit from anywhere in California, Or, as wine economist and author Mike Vesteth told me, sweet red can be made with all the merlot and syrah that wouldn’t be sold otherwise, and which costs less to use. Hence higher profit margins than more traditional wines.
Finally, no one — not even anyone at E&J Gallo, whose Apothic started all of this — expected sweet red to do this well. Gallo, I have been told, developed Apothic to appeal to Millennials, to compete with the Menage a Trois red, and to earn supermarket shelf space. That it might change U.S. wine never really occurred to anyone.