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Friday Fishwrap
The Serious Side of The Prowein/Low Alcohol Lunacy

By Stephen Eliot

The Prowein report, that seems to call for the world to abandon ripeness as part of wine character, has led to so many silly conclusions in the press that I am forced to chuckle amidst my amazement.

It seems that 1,000 wine drinkers were polled over three continents, and that a vast majority of the several hundred Chinese wine drinkers apparently prefer wines under 12% alcohol, as did upwards of 22% of the respondents in Europe and the US. While said segments were thus cited as a “significant minority”, I am rather more struck by the apparent fact that 78% of Europeans and Americans, which seems to me a significant majority, either want higher alcohol or they find, as we have consistently championed here at CGCW, that alcohol levels are far less relevant than good balance and whether or not as the wine tastes good.

The survey results, however, are already being bandied about as further proof that, as Dan Berger writes in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, “recent research and current trends suggest that the majority of wine drinkers are happiest with wines lower in alcohol.”* Sorry Dan, maybe in China, but 22% of occidental wine consumers does not a “majority” make, no matter what your agenda may be. The “majority” in this case expressed no such preference. Do the math.

I am amused even more by the increasingly popular claim of the low-alcohol crusaders that the stunning rise in the sales of Moscato here in the US must surely mean that consumers are thirsting for less-potent wines. This, I think, might be the silliest claim of them all. I is clearly the sugar, not low alcohol that is behind the popular appeal of said wine. Moscato is the new White Zinfandel, it is Riunite 3.0 . . . . and it appears to be a marketeer’s dream. It is, as Bonny Wolf reporting for NPR charitably says “a gateway beverage for new drinkers”, and I am willing to bet that damn few of them have embraced Moscato because of its temperate alcohol. **

The Prowein report and others like it will be cited by those whose axes need grinding, but, please, folks, take a moment to reflect on their real value, not simply on how they may conveniently fit into one agenda or another. The same “study”, I might add, also found that across the world, grape variety is cited as the most important factor when buying wine. More than 80% of respondents in the UK, China and Germany – and 93% in the US – said grape variety influenced their buying decisions. If the survey is held up as proof that wine drinkers want low alcohol, then I must assume that it also “proves” that wine drinkers care little about terroir, authenticity and place.

Both conclusions, of course, seem invalid to me, yet I admit to some concern. I worry at the specious ways that “data” is used, and at the impact such sweeping conclusions might have on the decision-making processes of wineries looking to make their ways in a difficult market. We have seen the power of big-dollar marketing before, and I worry that low alcohol might become a slick selling point should the less-is-better cadre gain significantly increased traction.

I think it is fair to say that, like us, most serious wine lovers want wines of character, depth and balance, and, with the exception of great Riesling, that is simply not going to happen when alcohol percentage can be measured in single digits. I am sure, however, that there are more than a few winery CEOs that will happily respond to those who whine that they cannot drink as much as they would like without getting inebriated. Let’s see, if we lower the alcohol, these folks will drink and buy more. Seems like a simple calculus to me.

We believe that the consumer, not this or that critic, will ultimately decide what is good and what is not, be it wineries, styles of wine, individual bottlings or the opinions of those who write about it, and that the wild card of fashion always comes into play and can leave an indelible mark. The dialectic pendulum is never static, the abiding need to be “new” and “different” is a constant, and the unfortunate era of acidy, low-character “food wines” back in the 1980s as well as the more recent fascination by some with extreme, over-the-top-ripeness remind us that there are big bumps in the road from time to time when image trumps common sense.

Marketing, the popular press and the studies that drive them do, in fact, pull and push the pendulum of change, and, while evolving styles and the endless continuum of new wines and wineries keeps this business ever new and fascinating, I would simply offer the thought that change is not always change for the best.



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by Jim Coley
Posted on:2/24/2012 1:07:57 PM

Anyone using the Moscato craze as an example of consumers seeking lower alcohol wines is not involved in selling Moscato to the "urban market" driving the craze. If the average Moscato drinker has a complaint, it is that the wines are actually too low in alcohol. Frequently, the same customer is buying Bud Light Platinum because it is higher in alcohol than regular Bud Light.

No Subject
by Marlene Rossman
Posted on:2/24/2012 4:27:42 PM

Charlie, Moscato is the new economy's Cristal. Just repeat after me, "gonna drink my juice, gonna get real loose, da da, da da, da da! Rap away!

by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/24/2012 5:02:56 PM

Hi Marlene--

If cheap Moscato tasted like Cristal or if Cristal sold for the same price as cheap Moscato, my drinking patterns would change substantially.

by Marlene Rossman
Posted on:2/24/2012 7:15:30 PM

Charlie, Moscato has become the rap stars newest beverage.  Now I hear there is PINK's the new White Zin

Oh Come Now..
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:2/26/2012 9:14:06 AM

Stephen, It has been so interesting reading all the chatter among the wine community with regards to Moscato. No one is quite sure what to think or feel about it but as a retailer I can tell you, a couple of your readers here have it right. Moscato is in fact the "New White Zinfandel" a sweet tipple for those that like the idea of drinking wine but find dry wines unpalatable. I think it was Olive Garden that began the surge, quite smartly pouring samples for people that otherwise would not drink wine with their meal...kind of brilliant actually and I can't even begin to imagine how much their sales of wines soared because of it. Those sweeter wines, just like White Zin and KJ Chardonnay, (in its old, sweeter format of the 80s) will in fact bring more people into the world of wine and I can't see that as anything but a very good thing. Will all of those Moscato drinkers become dry wine drinkers? Hell no, just as there are still people that drink White Zin and insipid sweeter Chardonnays, (oh and please tell Sir Charles that I didn't name names and I deserve a kiss for that) but some will and like I said, that's a very good thing.


Now as to anyone trying to cram the increase of sales in Moscato into their agenda of lower alcohol wines, well that is absolute horseshit. And I say that as a person that tenss to prefer wines with lower alcohol. I don't know anyone that would switch from dry wines to Moscato because of the percentage of alcohol and any attempts to try and sell that clinker of a story is as you said, lunacy.

by Donn Rutkoff
Posted on:2/26/2012 8:42:31 PM

I am just a tad disappointed that main stream media or even our own wine media give much play to this so-called study.  It is laughably self-designed and about as valid as kids in a playground deciding which swingset is better.  And your commenters have the Moscato thing right.  It is merely inheriting and expanding the segment called Blue Nun, Mateus, Lancers, etc.  

Moscato and Lancer's
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/26/2012 10:56:41 PM

Sam and Donn, spot on.

But be careful. I was a Lancer's drinker once.We thought we were very cool in those days just out of collelge.

It was just a hop, skip and a jump and couple of years to the discovery of Chardonnay. Now look at me.

Lower alcohol in wine
by Rusty Gaffney MD
Posted on:2/27/2012 12:59:08 PM

It is not that people necessarily prefer lower alcohol, because most people have no clue what the alcohol percentage is in wines they drink (can you read the alcohol percentage on the label if you are over 40 years of age?), it is that we need to embrace lower alcohol to stay within the confines of drinking in moderation.  Wine is healthy but only when it is consumed regularly with meals in moderation. 

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