What we’re drinking: 2010’s 30 hottest brands

And it should come as no surprise to regular visitors here that almost all of the 30 brands in the Symphony IRI Group study are cheap, that almost none of them get big scores from the Wine Magazines, and that the wines are mostly ignored by the Winestream Media.

The sixth annual study measures not necessarily the best-selling brands, but what it calls 2010's hottest performers, as measured by 10 factors like dollar and volume sales, sales growth, and market share. The top brand using those criteria was Cupcake, which replaced Menage a Trois in the No. 1 spot. The latter dropped to No. 2. E&J Gallo's Barefoot, long popular with blog readers, was third, while Rex Goliath was fourth, and Bogle, long popular with the Wine Curmudgeon, was fifth. All, of course, cost $10 or less. In all, 23 of the hot 30 cost $10.99 or less, and 14 of the 30 cost $8 or less.

Doug Goodwin, Symphony IRI vice president of client insights for beer, wine and spirits, said turnover from year to year, given the nature of the study, is not unusual. But if one thing stood out in 2010, it was that consumers were looking for value, and that producers were willing to discount on price to give consumers that value. More, after the jump:

A couple of caveats: Symphony IRI data doesn't include sales from Walmart and its affiliated stores, which means it doesn't include data from the largest retailer in the world. Also, a brand had to sell 100,000 cases a year or more to be included, which limited it to 105 this year. Finally, Goodwin emphasized that while Symphony IRI does the study, it doesn't analyze it. So the conclusions in this post are mine.

But they aren't hard to make, given the conditions in the wine world over the last three years:

? In 2009, 26 of the 30 brands cost $10 or less, which would seem to indicate that consumers were willing to pay more for wine this year. But several of the wines that made the top 30, like Coppola and Mark West, are officially listed at the $11-14.99 price point — even though extensive discounting kept their prices around $10 in much of the country. This is an example of the consumer-friendly pricing that is so prevalent in the market.

? Bigger is better. How dominant are these wines? Very. They accounted for about one-third of all wine sales in the U.S. at drug and grocery stores that aren't Walmart. Which is an astounding statistic, given that some 7,000 brands are sold in the U.S. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that three of the biggest wine companies in the world accounted for 18 of the top 30 — Gallo and Constellation Wines U.S. with seven each and The Wine Group with four. This demonstrates, I think, that it is going to be increasingly difficult for mid-sized wineries to prosper, even when the wine business rebounds. There won't be enough space on supermarket shelves.

? The weak dollar continues to hurt imports. Only four of the top 30 were non-U.S. brands, and one of them, the Argentine Alamos, is owned by Gallo. Though, interestingly, in a separate new brands survey, seven of the top 10 were foreign wines.

? Marketing matters. Cupcake's ascent to the top spot was surprising, given that the label wasn't anywhere on the 2009 list. But The Wine Group, which owns Cupcake, is one of the best wine marketers in the world, and four of the top five brands fit the critter/cute label category.

And, finally, how little does the Winestream Media care about these brands? None at all. I just did a Google search for "cupcake wine reviews," and the first three items listed that weren't Snooth were more than a year old. I've been remiss, too, in not reviewing Cupcake. Look for something soon.