Friday, May 29, 2009

News from the trenches

After a few weeks of traveling to visit several key account markets (Sonoma County, San Diego, Phoenix), I have compiled some notes regarding what actual servers in restaurants have been experiencing. Note that none of this is scientific data or taken from scanner data reported by retail stores, rather from first-hand reports of day-to-day observations by servers.

Overall, the concerns of the public aren’t the same as those of us in the industry. The topics which seemed most important didn’t cover cult winemakers, hang time, acid and yeast additions, biodynamics or organic wine methods, etc. Because of this I find it refreshing to hear it directly from the people who are serving the public from time to time. Some of this is due to the economy, some is seasonal, and hopefully a bit of it is the wine drinking public becoming more informed about wine.

The restaurants I was talking with are mainly in the middle of the price range spectrum, though maybe 25% were more on the high-end side than true mid range. All were stand-alone restaurants; I wasn’t talking with any chains. Here’s what I heard - please remember that these are generalizations from ~24 establishments:
  • Zinfandel sales seem to be holding where they always have been, but are flat otherwise (this always seems to be the case, but was interesting when you consider that many people are experimenting with reds other than Merlot and Cab Sauv and Pinot…)
  • Sauvignon Blanc sales are gaining on Chardonnay sales (some of this is seasonal), a lot of people reporting the public is tiring of 100% malo-lactic white wines
  • Patrons don’t appear concerned with high reputation wines as much as they want to get some “tasty juice on the table” at a decent price, and to this end “cult winemakers” and “image/ego buys” are not the deciding factors when patrons are ordering , though some “conspicuous consumption” is still taking place (before you flood the comments section with hate-mail, let me say “yes, this is a generalization”, and I imagine the impression would have been different had I talked with more higher-end establishments)
  • The public is starting to catch on that high prices don’t automatically confer a high coefficient of enjoyment, and are increasingly drawn to wines which actually taste good and haven’t been priced out of the stratosphere
  • French wines are down overall right now, while the Italians and Spanish are replacing them (price for quality drinking is in play)
  • French Champagne sales are down while Prosecco is on the rise (sadly, California Sparkling isn’t filling the void instead…not that I find anything “wrong” with Prosecco…)
  • Syrah seems to be the new experiment for patrons who have had enough Cab and Merlot…as one wine buyer said “people are looking for more ‘bang’, but with approachable wines…not over complicated and with tannins which are easier on the palate”…another made it a bit over-simplified and said “people want something purple, that tastes “purple”, without having to think about it to enjoy it”…(we've seen this before; I don't recall how many times I've heard about how Syrah was going to be the next "hot" varietal, only to have it slip back to "ordinary" status...)

The most shocking news that I have to report is that incidences of corked wines seem to be up across the board – regardless of the price range of the bottle or country of origin. In fact, this is the one thing I heard repeatedly while I was out and about. Some reported it’s now double or triple what it was just a few years ago. The majority of the accounts I talked to seemed to think the wineries were switching to lower grades of corks to save money, and this may or may not be true but I imagine the respective wineries would point the finger back at the cork suppliers. That it seems to be across the board leads me to two thoughts: that more people are cognizant of what cork taint is and are willing to send those wines back, and that there might be an actual increase in the number of bottles with defective corks as well.

In the end you and I can talk 'til we run out of breath about vineyard blocks and additions to must or wine, or about how Mark Squires may have traveled to and from various tasting events, but the public seems more concerned with getting the best tasting wine for the buck.

Labels: ,