Midwest Wines Should Embrace Sweetness
According to Master of Wine, Tim Hanni, the top selling wine in Robert Mondavi’s tasting room is Muscato D’Oro, which has 8.8 grams/litre of residual sugar. “Despite the sweetness, Mondavi does not market Muscato D’Oro as a dessert wine,” he said. Speaking to an audience of over 100 Illinois winemakers at the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association Conference in Springfield, Illinois, Hanni asked, “How many of you sell your sweet wines as dessert wines? Well, stop it!”
Hanni told attendees to the February 3rd IGGVA Conference to pay special attention to sweet wine drinkers and not sell sweet wines as dessert wines. “Sweet wines should be sold as table wines,” he said. “Think about it, how many people have dessert every night?”
“Look at Ontario. Sweet wine is their bread and butter. It’s what they hang their hat on and they don’t use the term ‘dessert wine’,” said Hanni, an internationally known “flavor maven” who has also been called the “swami of umami.” Hanni is also one of the first two resident Americans to earn the title “Master of Wine.”
He maintains that the negative perception of sweet wines is a recent phenomena that needs to be eradicated. “It used to be sweet wines were the most valuable. As recently as 60 years ago, a wine with 6% sugar was considered dry,” he said. He explained that the myth that sweetness is used to mask flaws was instilled by the wine trade and is now ingrained with high end consumers. Despite the stigma, many wine drinkers still prefer sweet wines. For example, Muscato sales increased by over 100% in 2010 according to Neilson.
Hanni points to misguided wine education as the primary source of fear and intimidation that keeps consumers from drinking the wines they like and sometimes from drinking wine at all. “The messages we teach about wine are meaningless and confronting to consumers,” Hanni said. “For example, people are told White Zin is bad wine. But lots of people like blush wine, and they drink lots of it at home.”
“Where wine bias can do real damage is when Midwest wineries try selling to restaurants,” Hanni said. “The restaurant industry is so hard to impact. It’s hard to get them to buy what they don’t construe as good wines. If you take your wines to Chicago restaurants, they will say they promote local foods and drinks, but then the door is closed in your face. It’s going to take a lot for us to change the dynamics of what’s going on.”
Hanni believes that one way to sell sweet wines to restaurants is to appeal to younger consumers. “The vodka industry totally gets this; sweet drinks drive spirits sales with younger consumers,” Hanni said. To establish the correlation between sweet wine drinkers and sweet cocktail drinkers, Hanni suggests telling restaurant owners that young people who like cosmopolitans or appletinis will also like the sweet wines. Hanni also suggested telling restaurants about the winery’s history and what consumers are buying in the tasting room. “Let them know that sweet wines are what your winery customers are asking for the most often,” he said.
Hanni said research shows that women make up 77% of the sweet wine vinotype. However, Hanni cautioned winemakers not to “play the gender game” with sweet wines. “Younger people in general, not only women, are more apt to like sweet wines,” he said, but he cautioned that sweet wine drinkers are a quiet group. “They don’t read wine publications and they don’t fill out wine surveys. To a sweet wine drinker, a ‘little bit of complexity’ may taste like crap. As a result, many sweet wine drinkers think there’s something wrong with them.”
It’s Hanni’s opinion that the last thing to tell a young wine drinker who likes sweet wines is that they will like dry wines when they get older and “more sophisticated.”
Much of Hanni’s presentation explained how science has discovered wide variations in how humans perceive taste. “Some people think artifical sweeteners taste metallic, and that’s just one example of people’s different perceptions of taste. The amino acids and alcohol in wine also taste sweet to people in different ways. Bitterness is especially all over the board in how people perceive it. Eighty percent of consumers in taste tests don’t like red wine and dark chocolate together, but they won’t volunteer their dislike for fear of appearing ‘unsophisticated’,” he said.
In his experience, instead of simply accepting differences in taste perceptions, the wine and restaurnant industries continue to tell people what wines they should like. “The pressure consumers feel to drink wine they don’t enjoy is often the strongest at high end restaurants,” he said. “Restaurant staff has been told to save people from themselves. What were doing with wine and food at restaurants is programming servers not to sell wine with food.”
Hanni does corporate consulting for Darden Group in Orlando. He said that Darden’s 700 Olive Garden restaruants sell more wine than any restaurant group in the country. When Hanni was asked to measure effectiveness of Darden’s comprehensive wine training program, he found that wines sales at Olive Garden decreased in relation to how much wine training the servers had completed. In other words, the more wine education servers received, the less wine and spirits they sold.
Hanni believes that changing how the wine message is delivered makes the most difference with consumers. “Take up the message of ‘drink what you like’ with new fervor. Tell consumers that it’s about what you like, but say it with intensity and whenever possible, personalize it. Consumers want to hear a story about your wine. They don’t want to be lectured and fed technical terms.”
Hanni concluded by saying that Midwest wines not only have the potential to be on wine lists but also are ready to take a place on the international stage. “I’ve tasted your wines and I know your wines rock,” he said. “You are making some very, very cool wines.”
There’s some really great advice here, and not just for winemakers – but also for retailers. As someone who works the retail side I’m constantly battling with consumers who have been fed the “dry wine = sophisticated” line. Is there any wine in the world more complex then Sauternes? People would be blown away if they just took a chance. How about Auslese or BA/TBA German Riesling? I can think of few wines that would go better with spicy Thai or Mexican food, yet people constantly ask me for dry wines to go with those cuisines.