April 2013
Beverage Media
flavors as well. In fact, a variety of well-
regarded winemakers around the world,
including Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm,
long ago gave up on Pinot (at any price)
for just those reasons.
That all may be changing. Consumers
have responded to Pinot Noir that costs
$15 or less by coming back for more, and
the wine business is scurrying to keep up
with them. The reasons for the surge in
consumer interest are hazy, perhaps equal
parts recession, Pinot’s fruity and less tan-
nic taste profile, maybe even the lingering
halo of the movie
. Regardless, the
industry is selling Pinot as never before,
with sales up 8½% for the 52 weeks end-
ing May 19, as measured by the analyst firm
SymphonyIRI. And Pinot costing less than
$15 accounts for almost three-quarters of
the category’s sales as measured by dollar
volume during that period.
“Pinot has not been as well known
as the core varietals,” says Curtis Mann,
the director of wine and spirits insights
for SymphonyIRI. “It was not where
consumers started off, but switched to
Pinot from another varietal. But there’s
been a huge run-up over the past five or
six years, and it looks like it’s going to
continue to grow.”
Decade of Momentum
The Pinot boom began about a decade ago,
and many observers believe the catalyst
was Mark West. That label, introduced by
California’s Purple Wine Co., was the first
inexpensive Pinot to score with consum-
ers, says Dave McIntyre, the wine colum-
nist for the
Washingon Post
: “The success of
Mark West was a combination of sourcing
decent grapes in large amounts, creating a
consistent and recognizable style of wine,
and savvy marketing—including its slo-
gan, ‘Pinot for the people.’”
Cheap Pinot is not new. Roy Cecchet-
ti, the president and owner of California’s
Cecchetti Wine Co., made a lot of it for
Pepperwood Grove, then a Sebastiani fam-
ily brand. But no Pinot at any price had
done what Mark West has done over the
past 10 years: It grew to 600,000 cases in
annual sales and had established itself as
the category leader when Purple sold it to
Constellation Brands for $160 million in
2012. To put that in perspective, Ste. Mi-
chelle Wine Estates and its Italian partner,
Marchesi Antinori, paid $185 million for
“Judgment of Paris” winery Stag’s Leap
Wine Cellars in 2007 at the height of the
fine wine boom. That a grocery store wine
could come anywhere close to that figure
speaks volumes about how the wine mar-
ket has shifted and the role inexpensive
Pinot Noir has played in that shift.
Now Mark West is pacing at 800,000
cases-per-year, says Marketing Director
Juan Fonseca, and Constellation Brands
expects the brand to accelerate even
more, up to a rate of 1 million cases an-
nually within the next 18 to 24 months.
More perspective: 1 million cases is about
40 percent of the total Pinot Noir that
Burgundy exports every year—not just to
the U.S. but to the world.
“There was an obvious need in our port-
folio—we didn’t have a Pinot brand at that
price,” says Fonseca. “And it had a consum-
er following for the price/quality ratio asso-
ciated with the product. The sweet spot for
Pinot is under $15, and $10 is the bullseye.”
Pinot Noir earned the
nickname “the heart-
break grape” because it
was so hard to grow and
make; but new viticultural
techniques have made
it easier to manage.
Scenes here from
California (left) and
Chile’s Cono Sur (right).
Bottom left, grapes
being loaded into a
right, bottles and barrels
at Casillero del Diablo
in Chile.
Top & bottom left / pinot noir grapes (opposite page) photographs courtesy of Wine Institute of California
The advantage of these
Pinots is that they are
easier to drink—softer,
lower in alcohol, less acidic
and less tannic, with a
smoother fruit profile than
Cabernet and Merlot.
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