|By Mark Fisher
October 2006 issue of Wines & Vines
Parker Carlson, owner and winemaker of Carlson
Vineyards outside Palisade, Colo., just loves to hear customers
in his winery's tasting room walk in and proclaim, "Oh,
I only drink dry."
Carlson tells them, "OK, then just try this as a
favor," and serves them a semi-sweet wine, often a
red—then waits for their reaction.
Almost inevitably, "They'll say, 'Oh, that's really
good,' and then they walk out of here with an armload of
it," Carlson says.
Each month, consumer publications such as Wine Spectator
and Wine Advocate publish pages upon pages of reviews of
Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and other dry wines from
the world's most prestigious growing regions. And every
month, wineries in every other nook and cranny of America
(and some in the "prestige" appellations as well)
tally up their sales sheets and count their profits from
bottles whose contents bear little resemblance to those
most-reviewed wines—and not just because of a difference
It's because they're sweet.
Winery owners and winemakers either know a little secret,
or they are fast discovering it: Americans' love of all
things sweet extends well beyond their sodas and their
breakfast cereal—all the way to their fermented grape
juice. Yes, it's true: Americans talk dry and drink sweet.
At least, a large portion of them does. It's an important
segment for many reasons.
"The industry at large looks down on sweet wines,
but we do so at our peril," says Doniella Winchell,
executive director of the Ohio
Wine Producers Association. "We
just sold $204,000 in bottled wine to go during two eight-hour
shifts at our annual Ohio Wine festival, and between 65
and 70% were wines of 3% residual sugar or more."
That won't stop the wine-producers'
association from promoting those wineries that are focusing—with
increasing success—on dry wines from vinifera grapes
such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Grigio, Winchell
says. But it does mean those marketing pitches won't neglect
the sweet-wine drinkers who form the backbone of many wineries'
Carlson launched his Colorado winery in 1988 with sweet
and semi-sweet wines, then started to experiment with dry
reds. "But they just don't sell as well," he
"I'm actually cutting back on dry reds and moving
to semi-sweet reds," Carlson says. He produces a blend
of Cabernet and Merlot that contains about 6% residual
sugar, along with enough acidity to keep it from being
Several new wineries have opened in recent years in his
stretch of Colorado wine country, and most focus on dry
wines, Carlson says. When tasting room visitors at the
new wineries ask for sweeter wines, they're sent up the
road to Carlson's winery.
"Sometimes I really wonder why it takes them so long
to catch on, but I'm not complaining," Carlson says. "I
suppose it depends on your reasons for getting into the
business. I do it to make a living."
Winchell says that in winery circles, "It's a well-known
saying that a winemaker who makes wine to his personal
palate soon goes broke."
She uses a pyramid analogy to categorize wine consumers,
with sweet-wine drinkers—many of them new to wine
and just discovering its pleasures—forming the base
of the pyramid, and the connoisseurs of the world's finest
and most limited-production dry wines at the pyramid's
"If we're going to grow the business, we've got to
feed the base of the pyramid so we'll have more reach the
apex," Winchell says. "So we must not denigrate
the taste of those sweet-wine drinkers—we should
If a portion of those sweet-wine drinkers doesn't graduate
to appreciating dry wines, so what? Winchell cringes when
she tells a story about the mother of a colleague who,
when she goes to fine-dining restaurants, orders beer instead
of her preferred White Zinfandel because she has grown
weary of enduring the condescension from waitstaff.
Patty Held-Uthlaut, the co-owner and public relations
director of Missouri-based Stone
Hill Winery, encounters
a similar attitude when she tries to place her wines on
the wine lists of restaurants that consider themselves
fine dining destinations.
"It's a huge challenge," Held-Uthlaut says. "Restaurants
are a very hard sell when you're producing nontraditional
varieties and many of them are sweet."
Stone Hill offers 20 wines from native American and French
hybrid grapes that span the full spectrum of sweetness
levels from bone-dry to dessert. "But our top sellers
are our sweet wines, with Concord No. 1 and Pink Catawba
No. 2," Held-Uthlaut says. "That tells us that
here in the Midwest, sweet wines rule."
Restaurant owners are sometimes surprised that Stone Hill
even produces dry wines, the winery spokeswoman says. That's
why she tries to convince the owners to try her wines on
the by-the-glass list, so they and their diners can overcome
any stereotype or stigma they may hold about the winery's
She has some rather persuasive ammunition in that fight:
Stone Hill's 2003 Norton—a dry red made from a Native
American grape that also happens to be the state grape
of Missouri—captured "Best of Class" at
the 2006 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and also
captured gold in the 2006 Tasters Guild International Wine
Some Midwestern wineries that have seen sales of some
of their traditional strong-selling sweet wines fade have
replaced them with other sweet wines, perhaps a bit more
Valley Vineyards in southwestern Ohio watched sales of
some of its wines made from native American grapes decline—then
moved to fill the void.
"Niagara and Concord used to be the mainstay 30 years
ago, but in the last 10 to 15 years, sales have fallen
quite a bit," though Catawba-based wines still sell
well, says Valley Vineyards winemaker Greg Pollman.
The family-owned winery responded by producing other sweet
wines instead. Valley Vineyards began selling ice wine
in 1993. It was the first in Ohio to do so, and several
wineries have followed suit. Its version is made from Vidal
Blanc, and it's a consistent favorite among many tasting-room
visitors who didn't think they liked wine, Pollman says.
And in 2001, the winery started producing a Port-style
wine from French hybrid grapes such as Chancellor, Foch
and DeChaunac. "It's done real well for us," Pollman
says. "Even people who say they don't like Port will
like ours, which is made in a ruby style. Maybe some of
the French hybrids we use to make our Port don't have as
much tannin, so the wine is a little softer."
Pollman and his fellow winemakers and winery owners are
optimistic about the nation's youngest drinkers—marketing
types have dubbed them the Millennials—who don't
seem to have the sweet-wine hangups of their older wine
"The Millennials will drink both sweet and dry wines,
and they have no qualms about it," Held-Uthlaut says.
Ohio's wine producers are targeting Millennials, in part
because, "They have no memory of lousy Ohio wine,
the lousy Pink Catawbas of decades past," Winchell
Daniel Alcorso, winemaker for Crown
Valley Winery in Ste.
Genevieve, Mo., watched two burly Millennial men, "who
looked like they just stepped off the football field" walk
into his tasting room, sit down next to two Millennial-age
women, and without batting an eye, order the winery's sweet
strawberry wine. Their choice didn't seem to deter the
ladies one bit, Alcorso says.
Mark Fisher is the food, dining and wine writer for the
Dayton Daily News in Dayton, Ohio. He is also author of
the wine blog Uncorked at daytondailynews.com/wineblog.
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