Posted on | July 22, 2015
Written by | W.R. Tish
Soft, Fruity and Playful, the New Genre of Red Blends is Impacting the Whole Industry
Don’t peer too far into the future for the Next Big Thing in wine. It is already here. Right under our noses. It’s Red Blends. Not grandpa’s Bordeaux, and not even daddy’s Meritage or Rhône Rangers. It’s the kitchen-sink blends that come in all sorts of grape combos but all wind up soft as a baby’s bottom and tasting like liquid jam.
Of course, blended wines are as old as the proverbial vine-covered hills. But precisely because of these wines, using “Red Blends” to represent a category is not so functional anymore.
The wines leading the trend—pricewise, think SRP <$12, discounted <$10; brand-wise, think Apothic, Cupcake Red Velvet, Ménage à Trois, et al.—are blends in a technical sense, but their connection to traditional blended wines is tenuous. Whereas some of the wine world’s most revered wines (Bordeaux, Champagne, Côtes-du-Rhône, Rioja…) are blends based on grapes that grow together, the fruit sourced for today’s Red This/That may not even hail from the same zip code.
The entire concept of blended wine has exploded. What evolved as an exercise in regional definition has morphed suddenly into a flexible and valuable tool. Red blends have become a marketer’s dream. Often grapes are not even on the label—lush/luscious descriptors make clear that the wine’s style matters more than its ingredients or specific origin.
To start, remember that Red Blends were not even measured as a category five years ago. Nielsen first began tracking them in 2011. For the 52 weeks ending 5/23/15, Red Blends, with sales of $1.675 billion nationwide, were up a solid 8.4% over 2014—and a whopping 50% since May of 2011.
As with table wines, domestic labels dominate imports. The breakdown by color is quite telling: Red accounts for nearly 70% of all blends, vs. Pink (15.9%) and White (14.4%). This is truly a Red trend. Perhaps an even bigger eye-opener, however: Red Blends under $12 account for 77% of the category’s overall value. And that share has been consistent since Nielsen began monitoring Blends in 2011.
If it seems like almost every other new wine is a red blend, well, that’s because it’s almost true. Just over 40% of items introduced to the market in the last two years were Red Blends, according to Nielsen. At the same time, Cabernet and Chardonnay, the two top-selling varietals, accounted for 17.7% of new items, combined.
It’s not just the quantity of innovation, it’s the breadth, embraced by both new entrants and established brands, at home and abroad. There are boxes (Big House Red; Vin Vault; Bota Box RedVolution; Maison Cubi) and single-serves (Zipz by Fetzer; Stack “Charisma”). Brand extensions have unfolded at Sutter Home, Beringer, Cavit, Yellow Tail, The Seeker, Smoking Loon, Bandit, Alamos, Concha y Toro and Frontera, to name a few. All the major international corporations are at the Blends table—Diageo (Stark Raving Red; Great American Wine Company Red); Pernod-Ricard (Deadbolt); and especially Constellation (PopCrush; Red Guitar; Thorny Rose; Primal Roots; Robert Mondavi Private Selection; Dreaming Tree). Gallo has been very aggressive, building the Apothic franchise, refreshing Hearty Burgundy and adding the globally-sourced Dark Horse.
Speaking of “dark,” Dark spinoffs have grown legs of their own. Nielsen started measuring Dark Red Blends in 2013. Their $57.5 million in sales in 2014 represented a 400% increase over the previous year.
Human nature has a hand in the popularity of Red Blends. Blended wines, more so than wines identified by a specific region and/or grape, are intuitive. Americans are surrounded with blends in everyday food and drink—from fusion to cocktails, juices to ice cream, candy to granola. People get the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Blends are modern, hip, in sync with how people live.
On the producer’s side, two important factors are at play. If specific grapes don’t matter, and supply is plentiful, creating new wines becomes even easier and more flexible. Second, what better way to make a statement in the wine market than by creating a signature blend?
Blends are having an extended moment, and it’s happening below and above the $12 line.
Is it any surprise that Qupé is calling two new Central Coast releases their “Blends Tier,” featuring A Modern Red and A Modern White? When the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina created a cuvée to celebrate their 30th anniversary, they didn’t make a varietal wine, they made a blend of Petite Sirah, Syrah and Zinfandel. Ste. Michelle’s new line, Motto, made in California, has three SKUs: a Cabernet, a Zinfandel and a Red Blend. William Hill Estate is phasing out Merlot to make way for (take a guess) a Red Blend.
The names being pounded out in the name of Red Blendiness are a story in their own right. They point in many directions, revealing the blends’ secret weapon: personality. Attitude, even. Thanks to Red Blends, people can drink wines of mood (InspiRed, Sultry, Delectable, Diva-licious, Cryptic, Mojo, Temperamental, Tenacious) and action (Troublemaker, The Investor, The Crusher, The Cleaver). Sometimes the wine’s name is self-descriptive (Field Blend) or aspirational (New York Red, Hunt Country Red, Uncensored Red).
This genre is vivacious, friendly and full of pep. Double Decker Red, Uncorked Red, Fancy Pants Red, Handsome Devil Red, Pandemonium, Eruption, Red Splash. Compared to traditional regional and varietal categories, it’s pretty safe to say blends have more fun. And as price goes up, the names can get more serious, characterful. The Prisoner, the upscale granddaddy of California Red Blends, now has plenty of company.
It’s not hard to predict that Red Blends will keep growing. In which ways is the operative question.
Belly up to a wine bar and you likely won’t see any of the overtly playful (and jammy) blends. To say they aren’t somm favorites either is an understatement. The traction is off-premise, says Wendy Nyberg, VP of Marketing at Trinchero Family Estates, comparing it to Moscato in that regard. Trinchero is bullish on the category, seeing great results form Ménage à Trois Midnight, and counting on Millennials to keep the category growing, especially with the new Taken brand, featuring two blends.
“We do see that red blends tend to overindex against Millennials,” agrees Renato Reyes, Chief Marketing Officer at Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits. “In terms of wine style, people want bold wines but don’t want overbearing acid or tannin.”
Jon Moramarco, formerly an executive with both Winebow and Constellation, now has a firm BW 166 that publishes a high–level monthly report of ‘intelligent data’ on the U.S. market for beer, wine and spirits. Moramarco explains that for Millennials, grape and place matter little “as long as it tastes good.”
Increasingly, the issue of good taste is coming down to a very smooth, very ripe style of wine. Fred Franzia, whose Bronco Wine Company owns Red Truck and just released a Top Rail Red as part of the Picket Fence line, says, “Consumers want dry, but drink sweet, under five grams of sugar. Red Blends will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.” Bronco’s stable includes Masked Rider “Gunsmoke Red,” Gravel Bar “Alluvial Red” and Haraszthy Family Cellars “Bearitage,” among others.
Moramarco expects Red Blends to continue growing, and notes that the trend is especially robust at the high end. BW 166 measured 2014 growth in the $10.50-$15.49 range at 16%; meanwhile, Red Blends priced at $15.50-$20 at 18%, >$20 at 13%. On the other hand, according to BW 166, the top 10 brands account for two-thirds of the $7.50-$10.50 Red Blend market; so everyone else is fighting for one-third of the market.
As Red Blends continue to battle for shelf space, we can expect more plush prose and red-blooded names and graphics to appear. The words “smooth” and “juicy” are especially popular, and considered by many in the industry to be code for “sweet.”
We can also expect to see more story-driven labels to appear, such as Santa Rita’s “Secret Reserve” blend and the history-based Santa Rita 120 “Hero’s Salute,” honoring the 120 Chilean patriots who took refuge at the winery proprietor’s manor house in the early 1800s.
Pardon the pun, but it’s easy to let all these Red Blends, um, blend together. As retailers, the vitality of the category—coupled with the lack of firm definition—means these wines demand extra attention. First and foremost, the stealth sweetness of many of these blends is a factor to be reckoned with, for your customers’ sake. It’s critical to know which wines camp on the soft, jammy side of the tannin fence. Consider grouping them, with signage that makes clear they are both fruity and smooth; a “Try it Chilled” call-out won’t hurt either.
Don’t let international blends get lost in the Red sauce. After all, a Grenache-driven Côtes du Rhône or Côtes du Roussillon might be just the ticket for someone who wants a little more guts in a blend. Spain, Portugal, South Africa and Australia also have plenty of wines ready to be part of Red Blend Nation. And think about cross-selling fresh fruity reds like Barbera, Dolcetto and Bardolino from Italy; Zweigelt from Austria; even Refošk from Slovenia.
Segmenting out “serious” blends can also help improve the shopping experience for customers. These wines—usually priced in the teens, and by no means only from California—show intensity, more structure (tannin and acid) and perhaps varietal distinction. They may be upsells, but the upsells are quite natural: better grapes yield better blends.
Some over-$12 blends that have impressed me lately include Charles & Charles Cabernet-Syrah (Washington); Los Vascos Reserve (Chilean Cabernet, Carmenere, Syrah, Malbec); Vistalba “Corte C” (Argentine Malbec, Cabernet, Bonarda); Cavalierino “Donna Enrica” (Tuscan Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot, Shiraz); Hess Select “Treo” (California Syrah, Petite Sirah, Merlot); Hedges Family Estate “CMS” (Washington Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah); and Josh “Legacy” (California Merlot, Zinfandel, Sirah and Petite Sirah).
Of course, under and over $12, given the natural appeal and market momentum, this might be just the time to stock some blends expressly because of their fun labels.
Vin de France. For French growers and negociants who spent decades bound by the straitjacket of AOC rules, this new official designation may be just what the accountants ordered.
Australia. Blending is so 20th century to the Aussies; there is no reason that a new generation of Americans won’t embrace quaffable Cab-Shirazes and even Sem-Chards (Semillon-Chardonnays have a long tradition Down Under).
Label Shoppers. The TTB could probably justify working overtime approving new labels; the graphics and phrasing have never been sharper, and the names are playful and friendly.
Sweet Tooths. We know they are out there; setting aside the fact that wines labeled Sweet Reds are also on the increase, it’s highly likely that open-minded fruit lovers will be happy with some of the soft multi-grape cuvées simply called Red.
Zinfandel. California’s pride in Zin is well-founded, but as many winemakers are discovering, its highest calling may be as the foundation of fruit-forward, blends. The upshot: acreage may hold, but varietal bottlings will shrink.
Meritage. The idea of California at once imitating the French and yet breaking away by creating “Meritage” (named via a contest, no less) seems a bit quaint now. It’s open season on blending today; no grapes are off limits, so why prop up an old category nobody could ever pronounce correctly?
Points/Critics. Not unlike Moscato, red blends under $12 are ringing the cash registers under their own power; when wines go jammy, points seem pointless.
AOCs. You know, I know, we (in the trade) all know that some of Europe’s finest wines are blends; but will AOCs, DOs, etc. fall off people’s radar in the wake of so many fruit-driven blends?