Recently, I joined the panel for the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium's General Session. Five of us spoke on the state of the wine industry, each on a different segment of the market. My presentation was on wine in restaurants. As the US becomes the biggest wine market in the world, a lot of young people have entered the market, both as consumers and as sommeliers. The trends they've driven in America's most popular restaurants may well predict the direction of other sectors of the wine market in the future. Here are my notes for the presentation. - Joshua Greene, Editor
We are right now in the midst of our research for our Annual Restaurant Poll. We've been talking with sommeliers at America's most popular restaurants—as selected by Zagat Survey's thousands of reviewers—analyzing data, and so far, nobody has much of a clue as to what's going on.
Last year, our poll report described a split in the market: There is a contingent of high-end brands that remain popular at ever increasing prices. And there is a diverse range of wines with unknown brand names that account for an increasing percentage of the popular wines in restaurants—their sales are driven by the value they offer, and the willingness of restaurant goers to try something new.
This divide has grown more prominent over the last several years, as if there is one population drinking high-end California cabernet sauvignon, and another drinking something different on every night out.
If you ask anyone in the trade about the biggest trend in restaurant wine over the last five years, most likely they would point to pinot noir. Sommeliers have always pushed pinot noir as the crossover wine, handling a wider variety of foods than many popular, and richer, reds such as cabernet sauvignon.
Many have credited the indie movie, Sideways, for the phenomenal growth in sales of the variety. It was a love song to the California wine industry, and a gift to growers.
Even so, trends don't come about overnight, and a longer view may give a deeper understanding of the current state of the restaurant market.
I went back ten years to our restaurant poll data from the last quarter of 1997 and looked at the popular wine styles back then. The data set is taken from the ten most popular wines for the fourth quarter of the year at respondents' restaurants. Though we don't have data logged by style, we do track it by variety, so I assigned each variety to one of four broad categories.
Rich whites include chardonnay, chenin blanc and Rhône varieties. Light whites include sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, riesling and a host of fresh Mediterranean whites. The rich reds category is predominantly Bordeaux varieties, syrah and thick-skinned grapes such as zinfandel. Light reds include pinot noir, nebbiolo and other thin-skinned varieties.
It would be easy to debate these classifications—and point to unoaked chardonnays made in a crisp, steely style, or powerfully extracted Barolos. The ideal for chardonnay remains Le Montrachet, for Barolo, wines like those of Bruno Giacosa. And no matter how extracted pinot noir may be in certain New World regions, its idealized form is still captured in concentrated flavors and transparent wines like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
I would not argue that this graph demonstrates a shift in stylistic preference of the American consumer. I would, instead, say that it demonstrates a market that is finding equilibrium, a market that serves the diversity of consumer preferences. It shows a market where a range of styles find acceptance.
What is most striking is the white wine shift.
Chardonnay still has a loyal following, and though the category no longer dominates the restaurant market as it did in the early '90s, it is now at a level that strikes a balance with light, crisp white wines. Other categories of rich whites, from chenin blanc to Rhône varieties, are too small to effectively measure in the poll.
There has been no movie about sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio, but both show strength in the restaurant market. Though these wines rarely command high prices, the average price for sauvignon blanc in restaurants continues to strengthen (up $2 to $42.88) while chardonnay held last year at $55. And there is the branded phenomenon of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, consistently the most popular Italian wine in our poll results, with an average price of $46.
Though these categories have grown over the last ten years, they have not exploded like pinot noir. What has taken off are the crisp whites from more esoteric varieties, wines such as vermentino, or arneis, albariño or moschofilero; their popularity, as evidenced on restaurateurs' lists of top-selling wines, is a significant factor driving the growth of light whites. This is an area that California has largely abdicated to the Old World. The US share of the most popular wines, consistently around 66 percent through 2001, dropped to the 56 to 58 percent range in 2002 and has not recovered, even at a time when the dollar is significantly weaker than the euro. These light, fresh whites may be a factor in that realignment of share. They include 27 different varieties, more than any of the other style categories.
Rich reds continue strong, but for merlot, which has reached a more sustainable level of sales after helping to introduce red wine to American consumers in the 1990s.
Pinot noir makes up the most significant portion of light reds. And with the boom in pinot noir, we're seeing a lot more big, chunky wines labelled pinot noir coming through our offices. Even cooler, coastal areas that would have a talent for lighter, elegant wines are being farmed to produce this riper style. There are a number of producers making light, elegant wines from pinot noir, especially on the far coast. In fact, we quote a winemaker in our next issue saying that Russian River Valley is too warm for pinot noir, for the style he wants to make. Yet just last night, I had a great pinot noir from the Russian River Valley, a blend with a small portion of far coast fruit. I think the size of the wines has more to do with winemaking intention than anything else.
As the balance in our poll results has shifted from rich wines to a more equal share of the rich and the light, there are a number of factors driving the trend. One is a move toward authenticity in the taste of food and wine.
Call it the Ego effect, after Anton Ego, the restaurant critic in the Pixar movie, Ratatouille. There's a moment in the movie where the chef has deconstructed the vegetable stew into something fresh, from ingredients carefully selected and prepared. It triggers a transformational taste memory for the critic. The movie was researched in the kitchens of great contemporary chefs like Thomas Keller of the French Laundry; that kind of transformational taste memory is what such chefs hope to provide to their guests—a personal connection that's triggered by the flavor of the ingredients in a dish, flavors that rely on how the food was grown.
More chefs describe the sources and the farming techniques of ingredients in their dishes, promoting farmer's market produce and naturally raised livestock.
This trend comes at a time when there has been a significant development in the confidence and curiosity of wine drinkers.
First and foremost, confident consumers don't need to feel the weight and power of a wine to believe it was a good investment. Some people simply enjoy that style—the short ribs at Daniel are as likely to trigger a taste memory with a rich red wine as ratatouille did for Anton Ego. But a rich red wine would have smothered that ratatouille; richness and amplitude are no longer the simple measures of quality.
Confident, informed consumers tend to have a greater sense of trust—the heart of a great restaurant meal. You walk in, you sit down and you say "Hey Joe, what's good tonight."
On the wine side, when there is little trust between diners and servers, brands have more power. The more trust diners place with their sommeliers, the more power sommeliers have to make decisions about what sells and what sits. As more patrons ask their servers what to order, restaurants can fashion complete meals with the wine in mind. Brand names and grape variety names become less primary, while other factors may become stronger in a buying decision.
Given that people eat both rich foods and light foods, it is not surprising that restaurateurs would want to show both rich wines and light wines with their food. In fact, the range of terroirs in most wine regions would allow a wide range of styles. The consistency of any one style within a region is largely cultural, based on fashion. Consider chardonnay, for instance: At a winery such as Beringer, a perennial on our most popular chardonnay list, Laurie Hook is making a Carneros vineyard designate mostly in stainless steel, while the Private Reserve remains a warmer, barrel-fermented wine. Iron Horse and Marimar Torres, both in the Russian River Valley, are two others that recently have begun to offer both light and rich styles of chardonnay.
Another dynamic in the current market is the young sommelier interacting with her or his peers. That is driving experimentation among young wine consumers.
In a reverse of traditional roles, twentysomething sommeliers are serving aging boomers as well as their own generation. And they are sensitive to the fact that their contemporaries often don't have the money to invest in a $50, $70 or $100 wine. When selling beyond their peer group, they are often fearless about promoting wines that drive their own enthusiasm, even if they are ambitiously priced.
Kelly Coggins is 25 years old. He left retail to become the wine buyer at Rialto in Cambridge, Massachusetts, three months ago. His top selling wines are mainly Italian, headed up by a Vajra Barolo that he considers a great value at $80. But the wine he's most excited about selling is a Palari Faro, a light-bodied Sicilian red made from nerello mascalese. At $140 it isn't cheap. He hand sells the wine as a stand in for an aged Burgundy.
Another relatively new decision-making factor in restaurants is the back story on what we eat. Restaurateurs are increasingly conscious about how food is grown and processed before they buy it. American diners are also increasingly conscious about what we eat (the popularity of organic and locally grown foods) and what we drink.
Though it started as a fringe movement, natural winemaking has gained increased attention over the last few years, with more restaurant lists acknowledging organic or biodynamic wines. If the wine boom of the 90s was driven by wine as part of a heart-healthy diet, today's consciousness of what constitutes healthy food may also be having some effect.
The California industry has taken a leading role in sustainable agriculture and green industry developments like solar power. The natural winemaking movement in the state, however, is still nascent. There is much more talk of manipulation in wine, with journalists quoting percentages of California wine that is dealc'd or micro-oxed. I haven't seen any stats on the percentage of California wine that is naturally fermented or otherwise minimally processed. Such natural fermentations are still an experimental program for many wineries that use them; many New World winemakers consider the risk surrounding natural ferments too great for the reward. Yet many consumer trends point in the direction of the more sophisticated flavors that ensue from natural fermentations. There is a growing audience in the nation's most popular restaurants for farmer's market produce, for the gamier, porkier flavors of organically raised pigs, the deep poultry tones of naturally raised chickens. These foods, rather than the squeaky clean, less flavorful meats and vegetables of the past few decades, are on the minds of chefs. So it is not surprising they would be on the minds of sommeliers.
What is surprising is that California is on the minds of sommeliers for allocations of sleek, rich cabernets, but not for natural wine. It's surprising because of the leadership the state plays in contemporary food culture—with the emblematic Berkeley food ghetto surrounding Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, Michael Pollan at UC Berkeley and Kermit Lynch, who is known for naturally grown and produced French wines.
The Berkeley food ghetto is not news. Kermit Lynch is celebrating his 35th anniversary. But its growing national stature is news. Michael Pollan's latest book, In Defense of Food, is a political manifesto for eaters that's reached number one on the New York Time's best-seller's list.
As the restaurant wine market reaches equilibrium, between the rich and the light, wine growers and producers will be increasingly challenged by sommeliers to offer minimally processed wines in a range of styles. Less processing means higher risk. You can't always make wines commercially with natural fermentations and minimal sulfur levels, but there is a growing market for these wines. The question is how to make a wine that's balanced, with concentrated flavors and a distinct expression of its place... and then figure out how to make money at it.