Napa forum MW asks ‘is wine still cool?’

30th June, 2014 by Catherine Seda Bugue

A group of 80 winemakers, winery marketing representatives and media gathered at the Harvest Inn in Napa Valley’s St. Helena this month for the second annual Wine Conversations: A Global Tasting and Marketing Forum.

California harvest

A majority of the winemaker guests were from Napa Valley but they also travelled from other California regions and Oregon state. The pedigree of speakers drew many to attend. Master Sommelier, Evan Goldstein, led the conference as moderator and tasting guide, taking participants through a blind tasting of new and old world wines to wake palates and start discussion. Presenters included Master of Wine, Sandy Block, VP of Beverages at Legal Sea Foods, and Wine Editor Sara Schneider of Sunset Magazine, each speaking on the current state of affairs and projected trends in their market places and areas of expertise.

Joining the presenter list was a panel of winemakers: Greg Brewer of Brewer Clifton; Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards (Oregon); and Arnaud Weyrich of Roederer Estate, who each spoke to their specific regions and wine styles.

The market and trend presentations turned up an interesting number of points, noted below by presenter.

Sandy Block, MW, Legal Sea Foods Beverage Director

Sandy.Block_1219833336694

Sandy Block MW

Sandy Block, MW, Legal Sea Foods Beverage Director (higher end, East Coast restaurant chain) started by apologising for the negative outlook he was about to share. While wine sales look bright, Block says, there is strong competition in the east coast restaurant market from craft beers and spirits. Cocktails are considered ‘cool’ by the front line gatekeepers, restaurants’ servers. Many of them are in their 20s and find cocktails exciting, leading to recommendations in this beverage category. With beer, their seasonal offerings (i.e, summer blondes, spicy and nutty autumn brews) are particularly popular, giving that beverage segment an added boost. Plus, with each of these other categories, there is no need to learn vintages or worry about corked wines.

Is wine still cool?, Block asked employees across numerous Legal Sea Food restaurants. Those on the front line are not so sure. Staff comments from the survey show they believe:

  • you need specialised knowledge to recommend wine
  • wine is difficult to learn; a bother
  • wine is a grown-up drink, not fun
  • it is too expensive to learn about wine

On the other side of the table, surveys of guests by Legal Sea Foods show that diners want an experience they can’t easily duplicate at home. They believe anyone can buy a bottle of wine, but not everyone can make today’s fancy cocktails at home, so they order cocktails when they dine out.

The desire for experiences and entertainment by diners is a culinary trend that followed the market downturn in 2008, says Block. Before the crisis, the restaurant industry worked under the belief that restaurants existed to provide sustenance – great food and wine. Not anymore, he says. Restaurants are in the entertainment business. Key elements now include: socializing, interaction, and entertainment by staff.

Customers want memorable experiences; they want to watch their cocktails being created (all the better with a bit of theatric flair) in what Block calls ‘the new era of cooking table-side.’

In addition to visualising beverage creations, Block said guests are looking for stories, and conversations with the servers and other restaurant staff. They want ‘take-away’ snippets that they can later share with friends. The conversation can be as simple as a beverage recommendation, something to retell friends over the same drink at some future get-together.

Providing a few factual numbers, Block says that Americans currently eat one-half of their meals out of the home. The annual number of restaurant visits is 60.66. Chain restaurants are 73% of the total visits.

As shared by Block, the percentage of wine sold in restaurants as opposed to other beverages:

  • 2007 51% by value, 23% by volume
  • 2013 44% value of U.S. sales, 19% vol total U.S. sales

(Beverage Info Group, 2013)

Finishing with five-year tends garnered through sales at Legal Sea Foods, Block noted:

  • Blandness is out – which means pinot grigio is out. Sales are down -22%
  • Sauvignon Blanc is up 33%, and continuing to rise
  • Chardonnay is down -6% and continuing to decline
  • Merlot is down – 40%
  • Shiraz is down -55%
  • Malbec is up 59% but levelling off and showing some decline
  • Pinot Noir is up 31% (deemed flavorful)
  • Cabernet Sauvignon is up 22%
  • Bubbles are up 42% and rising.
  • Tasting flights are in.
  • Half bottles are hot (note to producers: Legal Sea Foods would sell more if they could get more).
  • When wine is displayed at the bar, wine orders go up; they are a conversation piece. Wines, not just spirits and liquors, sell more when they are visible.
  • No one seems to be excited about wine on tap – there is no conversation about it, good or bad. Consumers are looking for quality and natural products; they don’t care how it comes.
  • Don’t brand push; people hate it. Memorable stories will stick.
  • Winemaker dinners remain popular, despite the negative outlook on wine in general; meeting a winemaker is still a big draw for consumers as it gives them a great story to tell.
  • All about ‘authentic, natural’ – consumers want natural beverages.

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