Posted on | September 22, 2015
Written by | W. Blake Gray
The tricks & trends never stop.
Because California doesn’t have the centuries of tradition that Europe does, there always seems to be a “next big thing” in California wine. The trouble is, sometimes prognosticators are accurate (high-end Pinot Noir) and sometimes they’re not (Syrah).
We’re not going to make this article look totally foolish by declaring we know what’s going to break out and when from California. But we will tell you about nine trends to keep your eye on; some are types of wine, and some are important trade developments. The “next big thing” might be lurking here, and if so, please remember in 2018 that we told you so.
California’s three largest vintages in history were 2013, 2012 and 2014, in that order. So there’s a huge amount of wine coming into the pipeline. Early reports are that the 2015 harvest might be somewhat smaller, in part because the drought seems to finally be affecting yields.
Of course it’s way too early to know what 2016 will bring, but a very strong El Niño is forecast. The last time that happened was in the winter of 1997-’98, and the following year’s grape harvest was down 20%. The time before that, 1982-’83, the following year’s grape harvest was down 26%.
So California wineries will be asking distributors and retailers to move three big vintages in a row, but in a couple years the situation might be entirely different. If you have favorite brands, keep in touch with the distributors of those labels once the 2014 vintage starts arriving.
Despite the three big vintages, wineries are putting their most desirable single-vineyard and other limited release wines on tighter allocation to retailers than ever. More restaurants in more cities are developing wine programs and looking for something unique and upscale. Also, many wineries are trying to sell more of their most expensive wines direct because they get more margin that way.
Distributors often wield the club of tight allocations on desirable wines to force retailers to take cases of something less exciting. With a lot of wine to move, expect this to increase in the future.
3. White Blends Ahead
Red blends are the hottest category in the country. Last year they passed Pinot Grigio and Merlot to become the third-best-selling type of wine in the food and drug stores measured by Nielsen, accounting for 10% of all wine sales.
White blends are nowhere on that list and sales actually dropped by 0.7% over the last year, according to Nielsen. Can this imbalance continue? The Millennial crowd that’s excited about red blends would seem to be easy to sell on white versions.
Right now, many of the high-profile examples are small-production and pricey—Inglenook’s Blancaneaux, Matthiasson, Tablas Creek’s Patelin. But we should expect the selections to diversify. Quietly, Pine Ridge’s 80/20 Chenin/Viognier blend has become an off-premise staple. Ménage à Trois, HandCraft and Seven Daughters are sticking around as well at the $10-ish SRP point. Two strong examples in the teens are Franciscan Equilibrium and Brassfield Estate’s Serenity, both of which get a boost from Muscat and other aromatic grapes.
This market would seem ripe for creativity and expansion, especially since red blends have also prepped shoppers to expect “splendid blendeds” to materialize practically overnight.
Will Lodi ever have its day? The region just east of Sacramento seems perpetually trapped into making wine too good for the bottom shelf, but not quite exciting enough for the top. Considering the value that Lodi delivers in the $15 to $20 range that is the retail sweet spot right now, you’d think the region would have more buzz. But wine purchases are as much romantic as rational, and there’s just more romance to Napa and Sonoma.
For what it’s worth—and it may not be worth much—the Wine Bloggers’ Conference will be in Lodi next summer, which will lead to a torrent of tweets about Lodi. Few people read the bloggers who attend the conference, but the bloggers themselves buy wine, so if you know you have a blogging community in your area, keep this on your radar.
Lodi is impressive among large California AVAs in its sheer variety of vineyards, many growing unusual grapes, and some ancient. If you want a good wine to hand sell, look for Cinsault from the 130-year-old Bechthold Vineyard; Turley makes a particularly good one. Uvaggio makes a nice Vermentino (SRP $14), and Mettler Family Cabernet Sauvignon at $25 is better than most entry-level Napa Cabs priced twice as much. Klinker Brick Winery made balanced Zinfandels even when that was uncool.
Americans finally have accepted screwcaps. Are they ready for a little more metal in the package? Field Recordings, a winery founded by a 34-year-old in Paso Robles, has introduced Pinot Noir and a Grenache Rosé in a can. They’re not cheap: the 500ml cans retail for $10-$12 each.
This is a different marketing approach from Coppola’s Sofia sparkling wine in a can ($5/187 ml). Field Recordings is going for the novelty drinker. And they are not alone. Underwood in Oregon has Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Rosé in 375ml cans for $6 each. And in Colorado, Infinite Monkey Theorem is rocking six-packs of 250ml cans of Moscato, Rosé, White and Red. OK, so those last two aren’t in California, but if cans really “can do,” it’s California where they’ll ramp up. To wit, E. & J. Gallo is testing 250ml cans of Barefoot Refresh spritzers in Arizona and Minnesota.
Rosé All The Time
How did it happen? After being unable to convince men to drink pink wine for decades, suddenly the wine industry sees guys getting together after playing rugby for “brosé.”
France and particularly Provence has been a big beneficiary of this development. But California wineries are paying attention, and there’s a flood of California pink wine, both still and sparkling, on its way. You already know that traditional rosé marketing rules no longer apply. It’s likely that the traditional summer-only season for rosé is loosening up. Consider stacking some cases of pink wine under a football-oriented display: rosé goes great with sausages and nachos.
It’s worth noting that the growth is fastest in rosés over $15. As male drinkers who generally spend money on reds start to have a rosé now and then, high-end wines like Robert Sinskey’s should benefit.
7. Pop-Up Brands
Suddenly there’s a Napa Cabernet you’ve never heard of for $12 wholesale. Who makes it? Where did it come from? Does it matter?—it’s Napa Cab at $12 wholesale!
Pop-up brands sprout like weeds in years when there are more grapes than established wineries can use. Companies like Castle Rock and Cameron Hughes scarf up many of them, but when the tanks are full, smart industry players will find a way to bottle the excess, stick a label on it, and voilá! A brand is born.
If the brand strikes a chord with consumers, it might last, but most of these brands will disappear with the smaller 2015 vintage. The good thing about pop-up brands is that you might be able to buy up a distributor’s entire stock in your state, and have an exclusive that your competitors can’t touch. Keep an eye out: look especially for Napa Cabs that you’ve never heard of.
8. Non-Traditional Varieties
Among sommeliers, the biggest trend in California wines is non-major varieties. We all know the retail market is different from the high-end restaurant market, but people do come into stores looking for wines they’ve had on premise.
This is a good time to jazz up your non-traditional variety section. It can be as simple as the signage: “Non-traditional” is better than “Other.” You can go further with a sign that says something like “Trending,” or “Sommelier Favorites.”
What grapes are we talking about here? Anything beyond the big six fits, and it doesn’t hurt if they’re from a producer with some name recognition. J. Lohr makes a good Valdiguié. Arnot-Roberts and Wind Gap make Trousseau. Tablas Creek is among many producing wines based on Rhône varieties. A number of established wineries make Chenin Blanc, with Chappellet “Signature” at the high end and Dry Creek Vineyard’s always accessible Dry Chenin Blanc in the budget range.
Millennials will buy wines specifically because they’re different; no grape is too obscure.
9. What Are the Wagners Up To?
The California winemaking community was staggered in June when Constellation Brands paid $315 million to buy Meiomi, a rising star among Pinot Noir labels. Not only was that an enormous amount of money, it was for just the brand—no vineyards, no buildings, no other assets.
Joe Wagner developed the Meiomi brand nine years ago, while working as a winemaker at Caymus, which is part of Wagner Family of Wines. Last year, Wagner formed a separate company, Copper Cane Wines & Provisions, and took Meiomi with him. That is when the brand really took off.
A lot of companies realized Americans were looking for Pinot Noir in the $15 to $20 range, but Joe Wagner was smart enough to make it slightly sweet, give it a distinctive package, and sell it to non-obvious locations like airport lounges. Meomi became a call brand.
Wagner has agreed to stay on as a consulting winemaker for Constellation for the next two vintages. Meanwhile, via his Copper Cane Wines & Provisions, he is making Elouan Pinot Noir from Oregon, Beran Zinfandels of California, and Carne Humana red and white Blends from Napa Valley. Copper Cane is also home to Avrae, a line of premium cigars; and Mia Marcelle, a luxury swimwear collection. An eclectic mix, to be sure, but who’s ready to bet against Joe Wagner?