Cashing in on the Sweet Wine Resurrection: Tim Hanni, MW

sweet wine resurrection by tim hanni master of wine

In case you haven’t noticed, the sales of sweet wines are skyrocketing. It amazes me how the misinformation and delusions prevalent in the wine community have many well-intentioned business people forsaking good business practices. They are ready to ignore or abandon potential areas of growth and prosperity for their individual businesses and the wine industry as a whole simply because those “in the know” about wine are adamant that it is in their customers’ best interest to withhold sweet wine from them. After a recent lecture on this topic for my Sonoma State University Wine Business class, one of the students, who owns and runs a high-end winery, reported, “I had the conversation with my winemaker about creating a really great, moderately sweet wine, and he said he would quit before lowering himself to make such a wine.”

I have run into countless wine buyers who have the very same attitude. They would rather quit their job (or at least threaten to quit) rather than provide wines to consumers that have ALWAYS been enjoyed, highly-prized and deemed appropriate for accompanying food, from soup to fish to fowl to beef, for centuries.

Houston, we have a problem.

How long are we going to continue to dismiss, and even openly and ignorantly ridicule, a huge market opportunity that other beverage companies leverage and rely on for their greatest profits? Why are we so resolute that sweet wines, and sweet wine consumers, are somehow bad for business? The preference for sweet wines is a natural phenomenon and the sweet wine consumers have always been with us, in spite of our misguided, ignorant attitudes about who sweet wine consumers are and why they like what they like. Just revisit the centuries of popularity of sweet wines in the culture and at the table in France and Italy, and you’ll be convinced.

What I mean by sweet wines is a category of products that have been with us for a long, long time and typically have 2 to 8 percent residual sugar. Over the decades, wines such as white zinfandel, Liebfraumilch, various forms of popular rosé wines like Lancer’s and Mateus, and even red wines like lambrusco, provided wine lovers with the products they find delicious and satisfying with meals or on their own. We are not talking about wines for beginner, unsophisticated or naïve consumers, but simply for consumers who demand a sweet product. Somehow we have lost sight of the fact that until well after World War II, a Liebfraumilch was typically priced higher than a Cru Classé Bordeaux! Imagine what could happen for the wine industry if we were to restore that kind of value to the continuously under-valued sweet wine segment.

The French historically preferred, and even paid a premium for, sweet wines — not off-dry wines, but really sweet wines. The same is true with the Italians. The preference for sweet is a human phenomenon and more than half the population is genetically predisposed to want more sweetness than others. This is not an “everyone is above average” joke, but a fact of the physiological palate.

Moscato is now the third largest-selling white wine variety by volume, growing at 70 percent compared to 7 percent for fourth-ranked sauvignon blanc in the U.S. Similar opportunities exist for wineries in every wine-producing country, to develop and sell high-quality sweet wines to markets all around the world.

How can you as a restaurant, hotel or bar professional, take advantage of this opportunity?
Here are my recommendations:

  1. Understand we are talking about real people and they represent a huge opportunity. They do not need to be “educated” and are not in need of being “saved” by enlightened wine “experts” who seem intent on saving them from a tragic life of wine and food mismatches. They just prefer sweet wines. Do we want to eliminate the arrogance and intimidation associated with wine? Now is your chance.
  2. Embrace sweet wine consumers. Teach servers in restaurants, sommeliers, wine consultants, and anyone involved in hospitality and wine education that sweet wine drinkers are some of the most sensitive tasters on the planet. Openly engage and respect them. Stop with the arched eyebrows and even open hostility. YOU do not have to like sweet wine, make sweet wine or serve sweet wine, but let’s stop this nonsensical disenfranchisement we have created.
  3. Cultivate sweet wine drinkers on their terms — making sweet, fragrant, and wonderfully pure expressions of wines at increasingly higher price points, while making them feel that it is completely appropriate for them to enjoy the wines they love the most with their meals of steaks, seafood, or pasta, just like it used to be in France or Italy.

You are going to see a continued growth in sweet wine consumption; what we are seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg. It is time to put an end to the tyranny of the “dry wine is good wine” misunderstanding and understand, embrace and cultivate sweet wine lovers.