Are Americans' Tastes Changing?

Big coffee roasters and a small bunch of California winemakers think it is
Feb 21, 2012

Did you happen to notice the announcements a few weeks ago about how Starbucks and Peet's are now offering lighter-roast coffees? This was no small thing, and I confess that it took me by surprise. Now, I do not consider myself any sort of coffee connoisseur. Oh sure, I buy whole beans and grind them before making a double espresso in the morning. But compared with the obsessive coffee geeks out there (and if you think wine geeks are nutty take a look at the blogs of the coffee crowd), I hardly count as anything other than an amateur.

Still, I was struck by the report from Starbucks, a company that hardly makes a move without intensive market research. "It took eight months and more than 80 different recipe and roast iterations before we landed on the exact flavor profile our customers told us they were looking for,” said Brad Anderson, master roaster for Starbucks. “They told us they wanted a flavorful, lighter-bodied coffee that offers a milder taste and a gentle finish."

For its part, Peet's Coffee & Tea, a coffee roaster that started in the Bay Area, introduced lighter-roasted beans in 6,400 grocery stores this past summer and will soon serve a lighter-roast coffee in its 197 stores. That the likes of Peet's, which acquired a near-cult following for its extremely dark–roasted beans, is now embracing a lighter roast is as astounding as hearing that North Korea will hold free elections.

Before you snobbishly say that these coffee marketers are merely pandering to middle-brow coffee tastes, consider that the Wall Street Journal noted in a report on this topic that "A raft of new high-end cafes and coffee roasters, including Intelligentsia Coffee in Chicago and Los Angeles, Blue Bottle Coffee Co. in New York and San Francisco, Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco, and Handsome Coffee Roasters in Los Angeles, take the embrace of light roast even further: They only sell light-roasted coffee and say that dark roasting is tantamount to ruining good coffee."

What has this to do with wine, you ask? A whole helluva lot, is my answer. Once again, Americans' tastes are changing. Not all of us, and hardly all at once. (With a population of 300 million people, that's never going to happen.) But make no mistake: As has happened before, the American palate is evolving. Anyone with some age on his or her bones knows that the past few decades have seen stunning changes in American food choices, the great majority of them for the better and more sophisticated.

The same applies to wine. What the market-savvy likes of Starbucks have discovered presages what is, in fact, slowly occurring in American wine as well. It's not a wholesale change. After all, both Starbucks and Peet's are continuing to offer their trademark dark-roasted coffees alongside the new, lighter roasts. Rather, it's a parallel universe sort of thing.

In California right now you can find—hell, you can easily drown in—a flood of, er, dark-roasted red wines made from overripe grapes that, as finished wines, clock in at 15 percent alcohol or higher.

Actually, these already-heady "15 percent alcohol" wines can be even more alcoholic than the stated figure on the label. Not only does the federal government allow a generous leeway of 1 percent from the precise measurement for wines with 14.1 percent alcohol or higher, but winemakers often "water back" the unfermented juice of their overripe grapes, effectively reducing the alcohol-by-volume measurement. But the label piously declares a lower alcohol level. Two deceits are accomplished in one stroke. One is a misrepresentation of the actual alcohol content. The other is a misleading impression of how ripe—or rather, overripe—the grapes really were at the moment of picking, at least if you're naively assuming that the alcohol content actually reflects the ripeness of the grapes at harvest.

As the marketing mavens of Starbucks have discovered, the American palate is seeking an alternative to heavy flavors. Are we becoming—dare I say it?–more nuanced? By golly, I think we are.

Witness the recalibration among an increasing number of California winemakers as to what constitutes "ripeness" in a grape. In a reaction against the wine version of "dark-roasted grapes,” newer producers such as Rhys, Copain, Arnot-Roberts, Peay, Kutch and Parr, among others, have put their pocketbooks where there palates are by making wines (mostly Pinot Noir, as well as Syrah) with alcohol levels as low as 12 percent. Longtime producers such as Mayacamas, Au Bon Climat and Cathy Corison, among others, have quietly gone their own restrained way for decades.

Are these producers the mainstream? Hardly. But when Starbucks and even Peet's have recognized that a good number of their customers want flavors that are less imposing than what originally made these businesses so successful, can fine wine be far behind?

Sure, there will always be a considerable demand for big wines with obvious, outsize flavors and plenty of oak. But the day of the "lighter roast" wine is arriving. It's already here in small, prophetic quantities. The more wine lovers try such wines—especially, even essentially, paired with food—the more a taste for such wines will increase.

Remember, it's already happening at a coffee shop near you. Can you doubt that fine wine is next?


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