The American Way of Wine

It's not always a pretty sight, but we do get there
The American Way of Wine
Matt Kramer says the sale of Pinot Noir brand Meiomi can tell us quite a bit about American wine tastes. (Jon Moe)
Jul 7, 2015

I waited until July 4 to write and file this column, as I like to think that I have a sense of the fitness of things. One week ago my colleague James Laube reported that Joe Wagner (the 33-year-old son of Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards fame) sold his Pinot Noir brand called Meiomi to the drinks giant Constellation Brands for $315 million.

Even in Napa Valley, that's real money. And it's the more impressive when you realize that Meiomi didn't exist a decade ago. It went from nothing in 2006 to a highly respectable 90,000 cases by 2010. But since then, sales exploded: Meiomi is expected to sell an astounding 700,000 cases this year.

Now this here, folks, is the American way. Really, there aren't too many countries where you can find the market size, sufficiently deep pockets and sheer marketing muscle to boost a $22 bottle of Pinot Noir into such a stratospheric orbit at such sales velocity in so short a time. Surely China will one day pull it off, but not right now.

And how's the wine, you ask? Sweet, is the answer. Not oppressively so, mind you. But no matter the measurable level of residual sugar, to my palate, it's unmistakable, all the same. What did you expect? There's no way—I mean, no way—that any single wine, from anywhere, could experience this sort of sales success and not be some kind of sweet.

Proof of this is abundant, worldwide and continuous over decades: Blue Nun, Riunite, Asti sparkling wine, a slew of Gallo wines and Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, among many other meteoric sales successes. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken's immortal observation, nobody ever went broke underestimating the American taste for sweet wines.

Moreover, the Meiomi saga is not quite unique. It's part of a larger market trend in American wine consumption, what might be called "radical reds." These are intensely fruity, big-scale reds that amplify their fruitiness by retaining a noticeable (often substantial) amount of residual sugar. Typically, the sole identifier is a brand name, such as Apothic Red, Cupcake Red Velvet or Ménage à Trois California Red, to name but three. They're all hot items flying off the shelves, you may be sure.

So what made Meiomi different? Only one thing: It says "Pinot Noir." In other words, it's got class. A plush, lush, juicy red wine with no tannins worth mentioning, this is Pinot Noir untethered from its Old World moorings. Yet it still retains the cachet, the aura of the "real thing."

In fairness, it is, technically speaking, the real thing. According to Laube's report, "Meiomi is roughly 97 percent Pinot Noir, with small amounts of other grapes, including Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Grenache." Will it stay that way if sales continue to climb? Good question. Federal law requires a minimum of only 75 percent of the stated grape for a wine to be identified by grape variety.

Now, you can look at the likes of Meiomi two ways. It's a crass sell-out of a noble category of wine. Or, you can see it as Pinot Noir on training wheels. Hand-wringers would choose the former, seeing the likes of Meiomi as a debasement and distortion of a shining tradition that deserves defending and preserving.

But history tells us not to worry. The American way of wine is always a jagged trajectory that lurches from a reverence for old European traditions to a more defiant nose-thumbing at those same standards to a more measured admixture of the two creating something wholly new and hardly ever bad. Above all, it's invariably accompanied by an unembarrassed love of marketing and democratization, a we-can-have-it-all inclusionary conviction. Why not Pinot Noir for the masses?

It may not be a pretty sight for traditionalists, European or otherwise, to watch. But history shows that the American way of wine pretty much always comes out on the right side at the end. Witness our newfound devotion to authentic Lambrusco (never mind Riunite) or our adoration of the very best red and white Burgundies (never mind Gallo Hearty Burgundy and Pink Chablis).

The American way of wine somehow succeeds—most of the time, anyway—in both creating and embracing an ever-wider audience and eventually raising the overall standard of the true high end as well. That's a pretty good trick, don't you think?

Winery Purchases and Sales Opinion

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