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Drinking Out Loud

Are Americans' Tastes Changing?

Big coffee roasters and a small bunch of California winemakers think it is

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 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?

Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  February 21, 2012 6:27pm ET
Matt- Thanks for telling me what I should like. Maybe you can provide some advice for how I can train my nose and palate to enjoy the stemmy, green, underripe, and boring aromas I get from your "nuanced" and "restrained" wines, instead of being wowed and finding great pleasure in ripe, complex, layered, and structured New World wines.

A well-made wine is a well-made wine; if it's in balance, alcohol content isn't an issue. Why is it the criticism du jour to lambast New World winemakers for dealing with overripe grapes, but Old World winemakers who resort to chaptalization get a hall pass? To deride one end of the spectrum because it is more en vogue than the other end of the spectrum because it is more traditional is hypocritical. Are you suggesting these New World winemakers, who have to resort to expensive methods like the watering back and spinning cones or whatever other compensations they have to make for overripe grapes, are doing this on purpose? That's absurd.

I bristle when something comes across as one person telling me their preferences are better than mine. You can tell me that there is a vast divide between the technical prowess and tradition behind making a traditional, perfectly-executed souffle, but I'd rather have a Dairy Queen Butterfinger Blizzard. Does that mean the souffle is a better dessert than the Blizzard? I don't think so, and until you can define or quantify what "better" really means, be careful you don't come across elitist, which is the direction your recent blogs have been leaning. I didn't appreciate your last blog that cited "If you like it, it's good" as a myth of modern wine philosophy. The last thing wine needs is more barriers to entry for potential consumers.

As long as someone out there is making something that floats your boat and someone else is making something that floats my boat, we can agree to disagree and still enjoy this unbelievably pleasurable hobby.
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  February 21, 2012 9:27pm ET
Any coincidence that during a recent weekend trip to Prince Edward County, land of lithe pinot and chardonnay, I found out that the local PEC coffee company's light-roast Ethiopian blend was a big hit?

Think coffee is like wine and food: once you get away from strong flavours (or big salt, sugar and fat), your palate gets a chance to sensitize itself to a whole different spectrum of tastes and smells. It's like doing a detox.
Heitor Almeida
NY —  February 21, 2012 10:16pm ET
Hi Matt

I totally agree with you: I love both light-roast coffee and restrained, elegant wines. A light-roast, freshly roasted coffee brings the best from the terroir where the beans come from, in the same whay that non-interventionist winemaking lets the grapes' terroir speak.
I have a suggestion for you. The espresso method is probably not the best way to highlight the complexity and delicacy of light-roasted beans (yes, this is the coffee-geek speaking). In fact, Espresso beans are typically roasted dark and even mixed with inferior Robusta beans to increase "crema". You should definitely try a more "non-interventionist" way of brewing your coffee, such as a top-notch drip machine (such as Technivorm) or a manual drip method. With great light-roasted beans from a place like Terroir Coffee (great name, no?), you may finally see why some people like coffee so much! It is really very close to drinking wine. You will find yourself swirling the coffee cup to draw out the aromas and trying to link the coffee to the place where it came from. Just remember one thing - no sugar, and no milk! Light-roast coffee has a natural balance that is easy to disrupt. You wouldn't want to mix your Volnay with sugar and ice, would you?

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  February 22, 2012 3:10am ET
Bravo, Chris A Elerick, I agree 100%. I bristled at this too.

Mr. Kramer, if you're going to blame the alcohol level for everything you don't like about modern wines, then you have just proven why Wine Spectator SHOULD publish Alcohol percentages with their reviews. Clearly, if it has such a profound effect on the style, then it is of paramount importance to consumers to know it in advance? On a related note, why must you "low alcohol" people be so strident and political (even partisan) about it to the point where you never stop telling people what they should/not drink?

Regarding the coffee, could it be, just possibly, that this is just one new seasonal offering for spring? Did you make the same sort of pronouncement of "trending toward darker roasts" when they announced the Cielo blend? Or, could it be that since Starbucks is known so well for the espresso and french roasts that they realized they have neglected the lighter side of their offerings (and customer base)? It doesn't mean everyone's tastes are changing. It might just simply be an effort to keep everyone happy and going to Starbucks.
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  February 22, 2012 8:58am ET
Wow, Chris needs a nice glass of wine. Not that Matt needs me to stick up for him, but did he, anywhere in the blog, say everyone should only like nuanced wine and not your big robust versions? If so, please point it out as I apparently missed that. I got out of it that it was his opinion (or isn't he allowed to have one of those?) that American tastes are changing (did I miss him saying for the better or worse?) and he sited Starbucks as an EXAMPLE? And when it comes to ones tastes, there is no substitute, I will grant you that, but don't tell me a McDonalds hamburger is better than one from Delmonico's because you say so and your taste is the only one that counts. If that is the case, McDonalds must be the best restaurant on planet earth as clearly more people eat there than any other restaurant. Give me, and Matt, a break.
Peter Vangsness
Springfield, MA —  February 22, 2012 9:30am ET
From the tone of the blog entries I just read, it appears that the coffee and wines discussed are not the only thngs that might benefit from some "lightening up".
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  February 22, 2012 10:23am ET
Ah, fuzzy thinking and confusing questions!

“Do you like vanilla or French vanilla ice cream?”

Some jump in with their value/opinion/choice: “I like ....”

Others will first seek some clarification: “What do you mean by French vanilla?”

Still others want some factual information: “What different ingredients or processes are in French vanilla?”

Factually, there are different “things-done-to-grapes” in the continuum from less to more interventionist wine making; conceptually, these differences translate into slightly different meanings; and both of these influence the preferences/priorities of individual wine drinkers. Nonetheless, “I like” doesn’t erase differences or change facts.
Marc Robillard
Montreal,Canada —  February 22, 2012 10:46am ET
I totally agree with Matt as well and unless I am mistaken he did not say that "restrained"/"Nuance" wines = "stemmy, green, underripe, and boring aromas". To each their own but don't be so defensive about what kind a wines you drink and misinterpret what he is saying.
If you like your "bigass" wines go for it. I feel a littel sorry for you as I think you are missing out on something special in the more elegant style (which can still be very deep, long and complex by the way),but then again, do not go so well on toast!
David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  February 22, 2012 12:20pm ET
To Chris, I might advise you think about one of Winston Churchill's many quotes: "The best case against a Democracy is a 5 minute conversation with the average voter" !!!
Martin Cousineau
Montreal, Qc, Canada —  February 22, 2012 12:39pm ET
I totally agree. I think you put your finger right on it when you say "try such wines—especially (...) paired with food". Wine tasting is fun, but wine drinking is what it's all about! And when I'm having a nice diner, there's no way I want an over-extracted 15% alcohol Aussie.

... not anymore I should say. :)
Merrill Research
SF Bay Area —  February 22, 2012 6:59pm ET
If gentler, softer, lighter wines gain share, look for prices to come down. And personally, I don't see that happening any time soon. Alcohol is only 1 component to a wine's boldness. I've had many bold tasting wines at 12.5% and softer tasting wines at 15%. Surely, we are each unique on how, and why, we judge a wine to be bold or soft. But, my experience is that consumers have grown accustom to paying for "bold" and expect "soft" to come at a lower price. As for "elegance," I believe it can be found in both soft and bold wines. Cheers.
Andrew S Bernardo
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada —  February 22, 2012 7:33pm ET
Tastes have already changed when it comes to what North Americans expect from their wines that come out of Australia (lower alcohols, more refined fruit, more noticeable tannins), I can only assume approaches to California wines are no different.
Mississippi Sales Co
Jackson, MS, USA —  February 23, 2012 12:03pm ET
Wow! Congrats Matt, you certainly elicited some venom, whether intended or not. I always find your pieces well thought out and I didn't find any snobbery apparent in this piece. Further, I believe you're right. There certainly are a lot of changes happening to the American palette, especially for the younger generations. I know that not only have my tastes in wine matured over the years, but also my taste in food and the freshness level I demand in my produce. A lot of this also happens to come from travel outside the US, where the standard of living is lower in some instances, but the quality of food and what one puts in their gullet is definitely higher than the US in most cases.

I must say though, you really should try to branch out in the coffee area of your life. I was a die hard dark roast lover for many years and it is still my favorite roast. However, I am definitely going to try the blonde Starbucks blend. Why not?! Maybe I won't be a huge coffee 'connoisseur' but I will have at least tried to find something out there that I didn't know I liked. If I like it, great! If I don't, well at least I know.

Happy Writing!

Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  February 23, 2012 12:10pm ET
Matt -

Successful column. You created quite a stir and seriously raised some hackles (and apparently some heckles as well)!

I believe that there are well made wines in each of the categories above and none of those styles discussed has the monopoly on good wine. The trick is matching the wine to the occasion.

Keep stirring the pot/lees/whatever and keep drinking out loud!

Gail P Potter
Columbus, Ohio —  February 23, 2012 2:11pm ET
Gee, Chris was so correct and put it in a hellofa better manner than I could...I just say, "right on Chris"!
Tone Kelly
Webster NY —  February 23, 2012 8:39pm ET
Couldn't agree more. Of course I never liked Starbucks coffee. They took my favorite coffee bean (Sumatra) and over roasted it to make it a hearty robust java. I like Sumatra because the Aroma of it is very complex. Over roasting kills it. Like Napa Pinot Noir wines from the 1970's. Too much is not necessarily better.
Hisham Aboulhosn
Beirut, Lebanon —  February 27, 2012 12:03pm ET
A friend who grows coffee in Tanzania and roasts it in the U.S. once referred to Starbucks as "Charrbucks" because of the over-roasted bitterness of its coffee. As the 800 lb. gorilla, Starbucks has had total control of the coffee market and consumer palates across the U.S. Most people didn't know anything about coffee before Starbucks came along (Maxwell House set the bar pretty low). As a result, Starbucks was able to dictate to the U.S. consumer what “good” coffee should taste like. Not anymore.

Thanks to the internet, the game is slowly but surely changing. With roasters like Intelligentsia, Stumptown Coffee, Blue Bottle, etc. offering high quality coffee online and in more stores nationwide, consumers are finally getting a taste of what high quality and carefully crafted coffee really tastes like. This has led to an awakening of palates in my opinion. This movement has picked up a lot of steam over the last few years and can no longer be ignored by Starbucks because it will soon impact its profit margins if it hasn’t already done so. In conclusion, Starbucks is not doing its consumers any favors by offering a lighter roasted coffee. It’s merely trying to adjust to the U.S. consumer who is demanding that his/her palate actually be respected and appreciated.
Axel Schug
Sonoma, CA, USA —  February 28, 2012 2:49pm ET
Matt, as a producer making Pinot in the "new" lighter style for over 30 years, it's certainly good to hear that there is room for two styles in American pinot noir. After all, that's what we're talking about -- styles, not "right or wrong". I've been saying for years that it's only a matter of time for Pinot to go the way of chardonnay, i.e. is this one oaky/buttery, or is it crisp and unoaked.

So, any chance that lighter, more elegant Pinots will be reviewed separately at WS? After all we wouldn't judge a syrah in the same context as a Pinot. And Burgundy doesn't go head-to-head with Sonoma Coast. Even Oregon gets a different taster than California. Any chance this might happen soon for two styles of Pinot, so the "new" (actually older, in my opinion) style can emerge from under the shadow of 95 point monsters?

Thanks again Matt -- our industry needs a champion for diversity in styles, before the most complex and elegant of red wines becomes further homogenized!
Dustin Gillson
Dayton, OH —  March 5, 2012 11:54am ET
To the point that Starbucks still offers all of their dark roast options, I think something that may have been missed here is that the motivation for Starbucks and Peet's to come out with new lighter roasts is likely to gain further market share with folks that would normally describe their coffees as "burnt" or "bitter." In other words, I think they are looking for new customers rather than to keep loyal their current regulars who decided they don't like dark roasts any more. This is an important distinction to make.

Furthermore, I think it would be a fun and informative experiment for a winery to make both styles of Pinot from one vineyard source (one picked earlier and one later). If you really want a lighter wine, try finding a Pinot producer that doesn't cold soak their grapes and/or subject them to extended maceration. What you would get would likely look more like a rose' but would indeed be very delicate (and probably hard to sell).

I too feel that both "big" wines and "light" wines can be complex, layered, and elegant if you start with good grapes. If you have a quality stereo system, it doesn't matter if the volume is at 3 or 11, you can still hear all the intricacies of the instruments; too many winemakers artificially prop up certain aspects of the wine instead of allowing everything to be amplified.
Julius Strid
Winlock, WA USA —  March 8, 2012 5:02am ET
My tastes aren't so much changing, but expanding. The more variety, the better.

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