Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Sideways Hangover

So everybody has already talked about the "Sideways Effect" and the resulting increases in Pinot Noir demand and sales, but have you heard about its repurcussions? Shall I call it the "Sideways Echo"? How about the "Sideways Hangover"?

According to AC Nielsen, Pinot case sales for the year to date are up a whopping 77% over the same time period last year and up 82% in revenues! This moved Pinot past Zinfandel for the #3 red position (long way to go to get #2 Cabernet, which is up just 3% and still 5 times the sales of Pinot). Of the top 100 brands only a handful show 2005 declines over 2004 and some, like K-J, Mondavi Private Selection, La Crema, Mirassou, and Estancia, are up big time, some doubling last years sales.

So what's the problem?

Well, if you know anything about growing Pinot, you know its a particularly ungenerous varietal, with small fruit clusters and yields per acre often half that of Cabernet or Merlot. Couple that with the relatively fickle nature of the varietal (both in the vineyard and in the cellar) and you've got a low-producing wine with much larger quality variations between vintages and growing sites than sturdy Syrah or Cabernet. Add to that the lack of new plantings in California (less than 3% of California Pinot has been planted in the last three years meaning the supply won't grow to meet this new demand) and you have the "perfect storm" for a Pinot Hangover.

But it won't be a supply/demand problem, it will be a quality problem. Right now, domestic Pinot producers are looking abroad for all the excess Pinot they can find as domestic sources have either dried up or have become too pricey. The are looking for Pinot from the Languedoc, Italy, Chile, Australia - all of it excess supply in those countries and most of it of low quality, will soon be in the domestic market as suppliers try to catch the last Pinot wave before the trend blows itself out.

If you've had a <$10 Pinot from California, you probably know what I mean. Inconsistent quality, some true stinkers, are only the rare gem here and there (Pepperwood Grove's 2004). If, however, you stick to known producers and vineyards, you should be able to stay "above the fray" as the masses abandon the flavor of the month and drift back to their "f*cking merlot".


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