U.S. wine market comes of age

Photo by William M. Dowd

The American wine-buying public has, in large measure, matured beyond the "If it's French, it must be good" and "To be good, it must be expensive" mind-set.

It was merely a matter of time. The veritable flood of wine pouring forth today from an ever-increasing number of foreign producers makes comparisons inevitable. Now, buying choices often are made on nuances, not old strictures like red-with-meat, white-with-fish.

And as the old guard became outnumbered, wines from South America, South Africa and southeast Australia no longer are automatically rejected by the wine cognoscenti. Every variety from everywhere now gets a trial.

"Wine is slowly becoming part of American day-to-day life, rather than a special-occasion affair. And while we aren't yet at the point of stepping up to a hose, grass-roots acceptance is growing for 'boxed wines' or 'quality cask wines' as they are variously called," said Richard Kinssies, an instructor at the Seattle Culinary Academy and director of the Seattle Wine School in Washington state.

Most industry sales figures for 2004 still are being compiled, but all indications are that they will surpass those of 2003, when U.S. wine consumption hit an all-time high. That year, according to the Adams Wine Handbook, consumption rose 5.2 percent to nearly three gallons per adult.

Americans drank a record 258.3 million 9-liter cases of wine in 2003. That extended a decade-long increase in all categories of wine, with the exception of wine coolers, which dropped off around 1990 and never regained their prior popularity.

The reverse may seem to be true in New York, in which all categories of alcoholic beverage sales by volume showed a drop in the seven-month period ending October 2004 compared with the same period a year earlier, according to Beverage Media magazine: still wines down 2.14 percent, sparkling wines down 0.96 percent, beer down 5.2 percent, liquor down 2.16 percent. However, more money is being spent than ever, so the drop-off in volume seems to indicate people are spending more for what they do purchase.

Nationwide, overall sales of imported wines -- up 11.3 percent in 2003 versus 2004, according to some early industry estimates -- have been outpacing domestics, up 3.4 percent. The domestic rise may not necessarily be a result of harder marketing pushes or better products. Availability is a big factor. Even though there now are wineries in every state, many foreign wine conglomerates have much greater production capacity. That and continual education of the consuming public -- through more wine coverage in newspapers, magazines and on TV lifestyle and food shows -- helps demystify wine and its complex jargon.

Prices for Australian and New Zealand wines, a glut on the lower-priced market with such ubiquitous brands as Yellow Tail, are down to the $10-or-less range on many bottles, so they're becoming the "house wine" in many homes. Chilean and Argentine wines are making more and more inroads as well, and the French, Italian, German and Spanish labels are struggling at certain price points here.

However, there are many exceptions to these general trends. At the Saratoga Wine Exchange in Saratoga Springs, NY, for example, California and New York wines were 1-2 in gross dollar sales last year, ranking ahead of French, Italian and Australian, in that order.

"We have a tendency to concentrate on higher-end wines, so even when the number of bottles sold goes down, revenue can go up," said owner Josh Hiebel. "You have to sell a lot of Yellow Tail to make up for a $500 bottle of rare collectible French wine."

Wine merchants rarely have to persuade customers these days to try something beyond the one-time French and German standards. Instead, they have to struggle to keep pace with the stunning array of possibilities to stay competitive.

So how does a wine seller wade through the available stock to find what might appeal to his or her customers?

"You educate your palate on a regular basis," said Craig Allen, owner of All Star Wine & Spirits in Latham, NY. "We just had a tasting of 600 wines up at Longfellows," a Saratoga Springs restaurant. "The number is staggering, but you're best off if you don't look at prices when you first taste. You have to get to know what a good cabernet or pinot or whatever might be. Once you can tell that in a blind tasting, then you can start figuring out what price range a particular wine will be worth to your customers."

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