What’s so Bad About Sweet Wine?

    Americans’ love of all things sweet extends well beyond their sodas and their breakfast cereal – all the way to their fermented grape juice

    October 2006 issue of Wines & Vines

    Parker Carlson, owner and winemaker of Carlson Vineyards outside Palisade, Colo., just loves to hear customers in his winery’s tasting room walk in and proclaim, “Oh, I only drink dry.”

    Carlson tells them, “OK, then just try this as a favor,” and serves them a semi-sweet wine, often a red—then waits for their reaction.

    Almost inevitably, “They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s really good,’ and then they walk out of here with an armload of it,” Carlson says.

    Each month, consumer publications such as Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate publish pages upon pages of reviews of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and other dry wines from the world’s most prestigious growing regions. And every month, wineries in every other nook and cranny of America (and some in the “prestige” appellations as well) tally up their sales sheets and count their profits from bottles whose contents bear little resemblance to those most-reviewed wines—and not just because of a difference in terroir.

    It’s because they’re sweet.

    Sweet Wine
    At the 2006 Ohio Wine Festival, winemakers sold $204,000 worth of bottled wine — almost 70% had 3% residual sugar or more, attesting to the endurance of America’s collective sweet tooth.

    Winery owners and winemakers either know a little secret, or they are fast discovering it: Americans’ love of all things sweet extends well beyond their sodas and their breakfast cereal—all the way to their fermented grape juice. Yes, it’s true: Americans talk dry and drink sweet. At least, a large portion of them does. It’s an important segment for many reasons.

    “The industry at large looks down on sweet wines, but we do so at our peril,” says Doniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association. “We just sold $204,000 in bottled wine to go during two eight-hour shifts at our annual Ohio Wine festival, and between 65 and 70% were wines of 3% residual sugar or more.”

    That won’t stop the wine-producers’ association from promoting those wineries that are focusing—with increasing success—on dry wines from vinifera grapes such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Grigio, Winchell says. But it does mean those marketing pitches won’t neglect the sweet-wine drinkers who form the backbone of many wineries’ customer base.

    Carlson launched his Colorado winery in 1988 with sweet and semi-sweet wines, then started to experiment with dry reds. “But they just don’t sell as well,” he says.

    “I’m actually cutting back on dry reds and moving to semi-sweet reds,” Carlson says. He produces a blend of Cabernet and Merlot that contains about 6% residual sugar, along with enough acidity to keep it from being cloying.

    Several new wineries have opened in recent years in his stretch of Colorado wine country, and most focus on dry wines, Carlson says. When tasting room visitors at the new wineries ask for sweeter wines, they’re sent up the road to Carlson’s winery.

    “Sometimes I really wonder why it takes them so long to catch on, but I’m not complaining,” Carlson says. “I suppose it depends on your reasons for getting into the business. I do it to make a living.”

    Winchell says that in winery circles, “It’s a well-known saying that a winemaker who makes wine to his personal palate soon goes broke.”

    She uses a pyramid analogy to categorize wine consumers, with sweet-wine drinkers—many of them new to wine and just discovering its pleasures—forming the base of the pyramid, and the connoisseurs of the world’s finest and most limited-production dry wines at the pyramid’s apex.

    “If we’re going to grow the business, we’ve got to feed the base of the pyramid so we’ll have more reach the apex,” Winchell says. “So we must not denigrate the taste of those sweet-wine drinkers—we should celebrate it.”

    If a portion of those sweet-wine drinkers doesn’t graduate to appreciating dry wines, so what? Winchell cringes when she tells a story about the mother of a colleague who, when she goes to fine-dining restaurants, orders beer instead of her preferred White Zinfandel because she has grown weary of enduring the condescension from waitstaff.

    Patty Held-Uthlaut, the co-owner and public relations director of Missouri-based Stone Hill Winery, encounters a similar attitude when she tries to place her wines on the wine lists of restaurants that consider themselves fine dining destinations.

    “It’s a huge challenge,” Held-Uthlaut says. “Restaurants are a very hard sell when you’re producing nontraditional varieties and many of them are sweet.”

    Stone Hill offers 20 wines from native American and French hybrid grapes that span the full spectrum of sweetness levels from bone-dry to dessert. “But our top sellers are our sweet wines, with Concord No. 1 and Pink Catawba No. 2,” Held-Uthlaut says. “That tells us that here in the Midwest, sweet wines rule.”

    Restaurant owners are sometimes surprised that Stone Hill even produces dry wines, the winery spokeswoman says. That’s why she tries to convince the owners to try her wines on the by-the-glass list, so they and their diners can overcome any stereotype or stigma they may hold about the winery’s offerings.

    She has some rather persuasive ammunition in that fight: Stone Hill’s 2003 Norton—a dry red made from a Native American grape that also happens to be the state grape of Missouri—captured “Best of Class” at the 2006 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and also captured gold in the 2006 Tasters Guild International Wine Competition.

    Some Midwestern wineries that have seen sales of some of their traditional strong-selling sweet wines fade have replaced them with other sweet wines, perhaps a bit more upscale.

    Valley Vineyards in southwestern Ohio watched sales of some of its wines made from native American grapes decline—then moved to fill the void.

    “Niagara and Concord used to be the mainstay 30 years ago, but in the last 10 to 15 years, sales have fallen quite a bit,” though Catawba-based wines still sell well, says Valley Vineyards winemaker Greg Pollman.

    The family-owned winery responded by producing other sweet wines instead. Valley Vineyards began selling ice wine in 1993. It was the first in Ohio to do so, and several wineries have followed suit. Its version is made from Vidal Blanc, and it’s a consistent favorite among many tasting-room visitors who didn’t think they liked wine, Pollman says.

    And in 2001, the winery started producing a Port-style wine from French hybrid grapes such as Chancellor, Foch and DeChaunac. “It’s done real well for us,” Pollman says. “Even people who say they don’t like Port will like ours, which is made in a ruby style. Maybe some of the French hybrids we use to make our Port don’t have as much tannin, so the wine is a little softer.”

    Pollman and his fellow winemakers and winery owners are optimistic about the nation’s youngest drinkers—marketing types have dubbed them the Millennials—who don’t seem to have the sweet-wine hangups of their older wine drinking colleagues.

    “The Millennials will drink both sweet and dry wines, and they have no qualms about it,” Held-Uthlaut says.

    Ohio’s wine producers are targeting Millennials, in part because, “They have no memory of lousy Ohio wine, the lousy Pink Catawbas of decades past,” Winchell says.

    Daniel Alcorso, winemaker for Crown Valley Winery in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., watched two burly Millennial men, “who looked like they just stepped off the football field” walk into his tasting room, sit down next to two Millennial-age women, and without batting an eye, order the winery’s sweet strawberry wine. Their choice didn’t seem to deter the ladies one bit, Alcorso says.

    Mark Fisher is the food, dining and wine writer for the Dayton Daily News in Dayton, Ohio. He is also author of the wine blog Uncorked at daytondailynews.com/wineblog. To comment on this column, e-mail edit@winesandvines.com.

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