Posted on | October 31, 2012
Written by | David Lincoln Ross
Chardonnay remains America’s #1 white wine. When it comes to selling it, the secret is selection.
Nowadays many merchants sing the praises of sweet Moscato, zeroing in on the varietal’s soaring growth rate, albeit on a small but growing base. Meanwhile, sommeliers near and far ardently talk up the bff (“best food-friendly”) appeal of Riesling and Albariño and Grüner Veltliner.
But let’s get real here.
Year in, year out, it’s Chardonnay that accounts for a monumental one-of-five bottles of wine sold in the United States, according to the California-based wine research firm Gomberg, Frederikson & Associates. Despite the perennial ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) litany trumpeted by numerous wine critics and beverage buyers (who may all be numbed, it’s true, from tasting far too many Chardonnays), this variety has nevertheless charmed both discerning and amateur palates across the globe like no other noble white grape in history. Old world, new world; Dijon clone or Wente; oaked or un-oaked; aged or youthful… make no mistake: Chardonnay remains the Queen of White Wines, and she corners consumer cash!
Some retailers, restaurateurs and hoteliers wonder, however: Has Chardonnay’s ubiquity bred complacency, even a certain degree of contempt in the wine trade? A number of industry executives believe this to be the case, contending that too many merchants devote only perfunctory attention to the world’s best-selling varietal.
“In wine geekdom, many industry professionals have declared Chardonnay is dead; but it is still the number-one choice. It’s important for operators to remember Chardonnay still has a very strong guest preference,” says Dan Hoffman, director of beverage specifications for Marriott International. Hoffman adds that during 2011 and 2012, Marriott’s American guests have been drinking more Chardonnay as a percentage of total wine sales, with Sonoma-Cutrer and Clos du Bois as its two best-sellers.
“Chardonnay dwarfs all the other categories, certainly by dollar volume,” says Jasper Russo, director of wine marketing at Sigel’s, a 12-store group based in Dallas, TX. “We sell everything from $7.99 imported and domestic screwtops to $400 bottles of Grand Cru white Burgundy.” Russo says great selection backed by in-store tastings are the most effective tools to interest customers in Chardonnays of all styles and prices.
Big as it already is, Chardonnay seems to be strengthening its grip on mainstream wine in America. Donna Hood Crecco, senior director at the Chicago-based hospitality research firm Technomic Inc., reports, “The incidence of Chardonnay offerings on chain restaurant beverage menus has increased 4.4% from the first six months of 2011 to the first quarter of 2012.”
At Cool Springs, a wine and spirits store in Franklin, TN, an affluent suburb of Nashville, General Manager Philip Thompson says: “It’s such an important varietal. Chardonnay has a major presence in our market. It’s the number-one choice during summer.” Thompson cites Kendall-Jackson, Sebastiani and magnums of Yellow Tail and Woodbridge as the category’s best sellers. Beyond these staples, a broad selection across all price points and styles plus ongoing staff training translate into Cool Springs’ ability to up-sell customers to new and different styles of Chardonnay.
Putting Variety to Work
Emily Wines, wine director for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, a San Francisco-based company comprised of 56 hotels and 54 restaurants in 24 cities, says, “I see a trend among our guests and customers going away from over-oaked, high-alcohol Chardonnays to leaner, more understated bottlings, especially those from Napa Valley.”
Her comment serves as an important reminder that it has become unrealistic to discuss the category of Chardonnay without clarifying the style(s) at hand. While oaky-buttery-rich monsters are still being produced in California (and are still adored by a core of loyal imbibers), Chardonnay’s astounding ability to take on multiple personalities gives it a power of stylistic diversity few other grape varieties possess.
Noting the evolution apparent in California Chardonnay, Katie Bundschu, partner at Gundlach-Bundschu Winery in Sonoma Valley, says: “Chardonnay is a huge category with broad appeal and diverse styles, and that in itself is an exciting change from the days of homogenous, oak-driven California Chards.” Her experience in working with accounts in many states leads her to add, “Many top retail and restaurant accounts are trending toward a fresher style that uses less malolactic and less new oak. [Malolactic treatment during vinification adds rich, buttery flavors to Chardonnay wines.] The most important thing is to offer your customers a choice of styles that display unique characters—and then be able to help people decide what they prefer. California Chardonnay producers have come a long way in offering wines that showcase unique vineyard sites and winemaking styles, and we should celebrate and explore that range of options,” notes Bundschu.
Joy Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards in Sonoma’s Green Valley (which produces as many as seven separate Chardonnays in a vintage) shares her formula for selling: “The single most important way to promote Chardonnay is with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff—on-premise, off-premise or at the winery. The beauty of Chardonnay is that it is a conversation. Do you like dry? Do you like oaky? As you know, once you are in conversation, you are in a selling situation.”
Artists and Appellations
Sketching a vivid way to describe the principal styles of French Chardonnay to the trade as well as to consumers, Martin Sinkoff, director of marketing for the fine wine division of Frederick S. Wildman & Sons, Ltd., thinks Burgundy’s appellations can best be grasped using parallels to famous artists.
Says Sinkoff, whose firm imports a wide selection of Burgundian wines from Christian Moreau Père & Fils, Domaine Faively and Olivier Leflaive, among others: “Imagine Chablis like a Giacometti sculpture. It’s edgy, a bit austere, and steely like the artist’s stick-like works in metal; this comparison conveys the character of Chablis’s un-oaked, essentially minerally character. Or consider a great Côte de Beaune as if it’s a portrait by Raphael, the famed Renaissance painter. His art is of unimpeachable quality, classic, traditional, and long-lived; and that is exactly like a Premier or Grand Cru white Burgundy. Finally, for the Chardonnay wines of the Mâconnais: Recall a colorful Rubens nude, here’s a style of wine that is just like one of those lovely ladies pictured on a velvet divan: full-bodied, fun and sexy.”
Given this metaphorical framework, perhaps a big, oaky, buttery California Chardonnay would equate to Picasso in a bottle. The real point, of course, is that selling Chardonnay today means embracing its diversity. One wine drinker’s “too big” is another’s “just right.” For some people, the riper the fruit the better, while others are looking for nuances beyond fruit. So the trick, then, for both on- and off-premise merchants is to offer as many styles of Chardonnay as possible.
When it comes to Chardonnay,more is more, so to speak. Feature more Chardonnays in your in-store tastings or wine-by-the-glass promotions.
Showcase various brands in your catalogs, on your menus, in your email promotions and newsletters. And always, always, don’t forget staff tastings and training.
As big as Chardonnay is already, with a bit more attention and focus on all its palatable permutations, this versatile grape is more than capable of delivering barrels full of steady sales and profits. Chardonnay success is all about selection—and it never was much of a secret in the first place.