What the Wine Market Wants

It might not be what critics think, Washington panel suggests

by Peter Mitham
wawgg high alcohol
A panel discusses high alcohol levels in wines at the annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. Panelists included (from left) Juan Muñoz Oca, head winemaker at Columbia Crest Winery; Christophe Hedges, national sales director, Hedges Family Estate Winery; Bill Owen, winemaker, OS Winery; Steve Heimoff, California editor, Wine Enthusiast; Joshua Maloney, director of winemaking, Milbrandt Vineyards; Carolyn Ross, associate professor, sensory analysis, Washington State University-Pullman; and moderator Jim Harbertson, research/extension enologist at WSU-IAREC in Prosser.
Kennewick, Wash.—Startling revelations from the opening session at this year’s annual meeting of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers (WAWGG) cast new light on two issues now facing U.S. wineries and winemakers. Powerful reviewers may have been more influential than climate change in driving up the alcohol content in wines; and as new consumer segments open, the wine market is no longer a monolithic entity.

A panel assembled to bust myths associated with winery and vineyard practices kicked off this year’s convention by discussing high-alcohol wines, which (myth has it) taste better and get higher scores.

The discussion was timely, given recent publication in the Journal of Wine Economics of a paper by researchers Julian Alston, Kate Fuller, James Lapsley and George Soleas, which investigated whether elevated alcohol levels in California wines are the result of high temperatures during the growing season or longer hang times designed to meet market demand for riper, more intense wines.

Perceived market demand, the paper concluded, has propelled the shift, a conclusion echoed by the WAWGG panel. Speakers pointed to the palates of A-list wine reviewers among the factors, which also include climate and viticultural practices, that contribute to wines checking in at 14% alcohol and higher.

Steve Heimoff, an editor with Wine Enthusiast magazine, cited data in the Journal of Wine Economics paper indicating that the average Brix in California’s red winegrapes at harvest rose from approximately 22.2° in the 1980s to 24.3° today, with some varieties and regions showing an even more pronounced increase.

While climate change could be pegged as the lead factor, Heimoff suggested that notions of acceptable Brix levels could also be influenced by the kinds of wines wineries wish to produce.

The most significant change in three decades may have been more in the wine publishing climate than the global climate. “What was the difference then? No Parker, no Spectator,” Heimoff quipped.

Left to make their own choices, consumers may not prefer the richer, full-bodied—and very often high-alcohol—wines that score well with top reviewers.

“If people don’t know what they’re drinking, they can arrive at surprising conclusions,” Heimoff said. “The A-list critics are aging baby boomers.…It seems to me this Taliban-esque clique out there is prejudiced.”

Joshua Maloney, director of winemaking at Milbrandt Vineyards in Mattawa, Wash., and the former red winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, agreed that reviewer prejudices can play a role in how winemakers style their wines.

“High alcohol tends to make wine stand out,” he said, a factor that can help draw reviewer attention—especially if the alcohol illuminates a wine’s positive attributes. “Bingo!” called a voice from the back of the room.

“But is that a wine you want to take home and drink?” Maloney asked.

The question highlighted the other point dogging wineries trying to discern what style of wine to make. A high-alcohol wine may garner high scores from some reviewers, but if the wine isn’t something people want to drink on a regular basis, Maloney implied, it’s more likely to build a winery’s reputation through positive reviews than find a niche—and sales—among consumers.

Diversity becomes the norm
With markets less uniform than ever, that niche may not even exist.
Diversity is now the rule with younger wine aficionados bringing their own tastes and influences to the table, and emerging markets such as China favoring wines with as little as 8.5% alcohol—at least two percentage points less than the average among U.S. drinkers.

“The rules are now going out the window and being replaced by chaos and arbitrariness,” Heimoff said. “There’s no such thing as ‘the consumer.’ There are 10 million consumers.”

He advised winemakers: “Make what you love. Make it the way you want, not the way someone thinks you should.”

Christophe Hedges, national sales director for Hedges Family Estate on Red Mountain, endorsed that attitude.

“Who cares?” he retorted when asked what the market wants. “We try to create wines with a good sense of geography.…That’s the authentic component.”

The good news is that Washington state has geography on its side. Mike Veseth, Robert G. Albertson Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma and author of the Wine Economist blog, advised an audience gathered to hear market insights that wines evoking a distinctive sense of place can offer protection against the commodification of wine in a global market.

Veseth pointed to the rising prominence of subappellations as a sign of how Washington has brought attention its unique grapegrowing areas. While these have contributed to a devaluation of the vast Columbia Valley designation, they’ve strengthened Washington’s identity as a producer of high-quality wine. People now want to know where a wine is from and what makes it unique to Washington state.

“We’ve got the brand and the reputation,” Veseth said. “But to get to the next level, we need a wave to ride.”
That wave may be taking shape: Danny Brager of the Nielsen Co. reported that sales of Washington wines are showing strong growth among consumers. The most positive segments of the market include the $6-$15 per bottle category and affluent drinkers with household incomes of $70,000 per year and up.

Brager said that sales of Washington wines rose 4.1% by value in 2011, and 2.9% in volume.

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