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Drinking Out Loud

The American Way of Wine

It's not always a pretty sight, but we do get there
Matt Kramer says the sale of Pinot Noir brand Meiomi can tell us quite a bit about American wine tastes.
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer says the sale of Pinot Noir brand Meiomi can tell us quite a bit about American wine tastes.

Matt Kramer
Posted: July 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?

Jonathan Pey
Napa Valley —  July 7, 2015 12:41pm ET
Bravo to the Wagners on this remarkable effort. They nailed the style perfectly for the American market - soft and sweet. My traditional, Euro-centric Pinot Noir training and background shuddered a bit after I sent a bottle of '13 Meiomi to ETS labs in St. Helena and saw it had the following numbers;

pH - 3.81 (nice and soft acids for the masses)
TA - 5.9 g/L (again, not too much acid!)
Glucose - 6.9 g/L (wow - sweet! - no surprise really)
Ethanol - 13.59% (given the above numbers - it was very likely de-alc'd)

Despite these numbers and obvious sweetness, the '13 Meiomi Pinot Noir scored 92 Points. Hmm...

So are we Pinot Noir "traditionalists" making wine for ourselves - to make us feel good about being traditional, "pure" and all that? Are we too caught up with stem inclusion, natural yeasts and the like? Or should we make Pinot Noir that, clearly, consumers want? It's the $315 million dollar question. And one to ponder while sipping our Coca-Cola and sweet tea on these hot summer days...

Andrew Walter
Sacramento —  July 8, 2015 9:30am ET
Holy crap Jonathan! 6.9 g/dl....that almost a port and more than many late harvest wines! For the non winemaker crowd to understand the comparison, a wine is considered "dry" when the residual sugar is < 0.5 to 1 g/liter. Given that they are using central coast vineyards...I bet they are "Riesling" it up by adding Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Grenache as juice not wine. They must have to sterile filter this before bottling like its going out of style. But who am I to argue... they sold 700,000 (!!!!) cases. Not a bottle to me though.
Fred Reed
Lompoc CA —  July 8, 2015 10:59am ET
I've been saying for years, no decades, that someone would make a fortune producing an off-dry or slightly sweet red wine.
Natalia Postrigan
New York —  July 8, 2015 2:09pm ET
Thank you for this article, it gives a lot of food for thought. I've never looked at Meiomi in this light before. That's a truly thought-provoking wine journalism.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  July 8, 2015 6:57pm ET
Let's get some facts straight on sweetness. Most of us can't taste sweetness until it gets to 4 to 6 g/L, so 6.9 g/L is barely discernible, right around threshold for many people. (6.9 g/L is .069 percent residual sugar, about the same as adding 1/3 teaspoon of sugar to your iced tea.)

The German trocken (dry) designation allows up to 4 g/L for low-acid wines (like Meiomi) and up to 12 for halbtrocken (which many taste as dry). Actual sweet wines start at around 45 g/L. Yellow Tail, the big-selling brand from Australia, clocks in at about 11-12 g/L for its red wines and about 6 g/L for its reserve bottlings, which most perceive as dry.

Though noticeably higher than most Pinot Noirs (generally around 1 to 3 g/L), Meiomi would not strike most people as sweet, especially if the wine had enough tannins and intense flavors to cover that sugar.
Portland —  July 9, 2015 10:02am ET
I use the "training wheels wine" analogy all of the time. With the hope being that "X" percent of consumers expand their wine horizons and explore the ever growing world of wine.
Jonathan Pey
Napa Valley —  July 9, 2015 12:54pm ET
My point was more the philosophy of Pinot Noir winemaking, whether to embrace "tradition" and the "craft", even if it lowers mass market appeal, or go after the mass market through manipulation and additions. Take all of the "craft" Pinot Noirs in California and I doubt their production equals the 700,000 cases of Meiomi. Again, kudos to the Wagners for producing what so many American consumers want!

And let's get some facts straight on the science - 6.9 g/L of residual sugar is not 0.069 per cent - it is 0.69 per cent. And with a high pH (low acid level) of 3.81 and 13.6% alcohol the perception of sweetness increases considerably. The aforementioned German wines, which alongside residual sugar, generally have VERY high acidity, and VERY low alcohols, making them appear much more dry.

As the French say; "Chacun a son gout!"
Tim Hanni MW
Napa, CA —  July 10, 2015 2:51pm ET
TIRADE WARNING!  Great article but it also brings to light some other common clichés and misinformation that could use overhauling in the 'wine education' realm. The comments do more to confirm this need. The understanding of true wine traditions, preferences and customs is abysmal with an understanding of consumer preferences the greatest void of all.

Fondness for sweetness in wine is not a limited to American consumers nor is it a function of growing up drinking sodas. Humans all have an attraction to sweet tastes that has to be ‘unlearned’ - it is universal and there is a huge segment of consumers that demand sweetness - French, Italian, American, Chinese; you name it. A preference for sweet wines is actually a clear indicator that a person has the highest degree of perceptive sensitivity – the true “super-tasters” to coin a much misunderstood and misinterpreted term.

If we are to believe that wanting and consumer sweet wines is a sign of immature palates, beginners, uneducated and unsophisticated consumers and (by many in the wine community and trade) that these are not even 'wine' then then logic would follow that France, Italy, Germany and Spain were NOT wine consuming countries, the history of wine does NOT go back thousands of years - people clearly have historically preferred sweet wine. Sangria, Kir, Vermouth, vin mute, wine mixed with a little water and sugar or honey and countless other iterations. Cola and red wine is a Basque phenomenon, not American or Chinese.

And when people speak of 'traditional' red Burgundies are you speaking not so long ago (into the early 1980s) when most people agreed that red Burgundies were so unpredictable and that 70% or more of wines in good vintages were commercially unacceptable in quality? Or before the notorious and ‘untraditional’ practices forwarded by Guy Accad and others were adopted not so long ago and still argued about today? Begs the question - back when there were 3 to 5 'good to excellent' vintages occurred in a decade, and 70% of THOSE wines were considered unacceptable, who the hell drank them and what food were they 'paired' with? Hmmm.

And does anyone remember the practice of adding white grapes/wine to red was traditional, and often even required, in Chianti, the Rhone and that it is still legal and practiced today in Burgundy? Up to 15% additions of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Beurot and Chardonnay are legal in even Grand Cru wines despite the misinformation that red Burgundies MUST be 100% Pinot Noir. Since dark, extracted and concentrated = ‘good’ wine today this practice is seen less and less, but this was the norm, not the exception. That is also why so many 'pure' Burgundies were (are?) fortified discretely with Rhone, North African wines and even cognac or spirits. And many of these wine were (are?) awesome!

Well, the training wheels finally fell off in France and Italy where consumption continues to dramatically, and disastrously decline. Sweet wine drinkers –who needs them? The wine industry does. And the wine community needs to have a much greater degree of rigor about history, personal preferences and traditions. And speaking of sweet, fortified Port wines above – the French drink more of this than any other country and BEFORE, not after, dinner is the tradition. Just like the lost French traditions of serving sweet wines (and I mean VERY sweet wines) with oysters, fish, meat and cheeses. But hey, let’s emulate the traditions today of French wine in France and stop drinking wine!

Do you need to like sweet wines? No. Love what you love. But let’s clean up the crap that is being disseminated. Just sayin’…
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  July 10, 2015 4:14pm ET
Jonathan, your point regarding tradition vs. craft is well taken. And thanks for noting my decimal point error. My comment wasn't directed at you but at the notion that 6.9 g/L is "almost a port." Most vintage Ports are around 100 g/L.
Tim Hanni MW
Napa, CA —  July 10, 2015 5:05pm ET
I think the decimal thing went astray with the "Holy crap Jonathan! 6.9 g/dl....that almost a port " (note it was misconstrued at g/dL, not g/L).
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA, USA —  July 11, 2015 1:54am ET
I'm having the 2011 Meiomi as I write this.

1) Broadening the scope a bit, I feel like the Wagners' have been producing a delicious wine "product" in varying degrees recently.

My first Caymus cab was the 2012 40th anniversary which tasted like it was manipulated. In a good way. Loads of mocha and milk chocolate made me hunt some more down, which after Parker's 96 pts was not trivial. This is clearly a product, but almost everyone I've talked to agrees... it is immensely appealing.

The Belle Glos pinots are far bigger with tons of oak than any other Pinots. How is this done? Why don't others do this? Are these also "sweet" wines? Can Pinot actually get this ripe/big? Is this "natural"? Probably not, but I love it and have several of every bottling since 2010.

I trust James Laube's scores so picked up a case+ of the 2011 Meiomi. They haven't lived up to their 92 pt billing, but they are very good $17 pinots.

2) How does Meiomi and Belle Glos make such a big Pinot? Is it mostly a matter of picking late and exposing it to a lot of oak?

3) Where do are the grapes for the 316K case 2013 Meiomi pinot come from? If Joe hadn't bought these grapes, what sort of Pinot would they have been made into? (Or paraphrasing, what quality are these grapes)?
There are only a handful of 50K+ case California pinot bottlings in the WS database and even if Joe got all of these sources, they do not add up to 220K cases which is the jump from 2011 to 2013 production.

Greg Flanagan
Bethel, CT —  July 11, 2015 8:42am ET
Ok. Great for all involved.....but what's going to happen to the price?

Am I going to be shelling out more cash for a lesser product? (Especially once Wagner leaves as a consult in a couple of years)

Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
owens cross road,al 35763 —  July 11, 2015 2:07pm ET
Well, I just found out that I like a sweet red wine. Meiomi is one of my favorite pinots. Thankfully, my palate cannot tell it is sweet. My beef is that when a corporation buys a winery, usually the wine decreases in enjoyment and increases in price. I expect that in 2-3 years Meiomi will be in the mid 80's and priced in the 40's.
By the way, Meiomi is a great pinot to convince a friend to try pinots.
Sao Anash
santa barbara —  July 13, 2015 10:19am ET
My first job in the wine business was as a tour guide at Beringer. This was way back in the day, and, at the time, Tim Hanni was the wine educator there. He would train the hospitality staff and give sensory evaluation seminars for employees and VIP visitors.

It was Tim who really inspired in me a love of sensory evaluation and wine history.

His post above is so thoughtful and I hope more folks in the wine trade read it. So many folks ITB...from the media, to the wholesalers, to suppliers, to growers...all the way through the supply chain... disseminate information to advance an agenda, line their pockets or inflate their egos.

The consumers are the ones that get left in the dust when we ITB take ourselves and our perceptions too seriously, and do so at the risk of offering good, fun, informative info. to consumers.

Martin Amis said it better than I..."the summit of idleness is to deplore actuality."
David Crowther
Tuscaloosa, AL USA —  July 13, 2015 11:07pm ET
When I saw Meiomi get 92pts for a $20 bottle of wine I was curious.
Much like my reaction to Weimer "dry" Riesling it is pretty awful stuff. Overly ripe flabby sweet and yucky!
92 Pts! And blind!
I just don't see how that is possible. I don't take Spectator's advice on American Pinot anyway. LIOCO's Pinots from Mendocino are classic but they don't get much of a score.
But Meiomi.
Andrew Walter
Sacramento —  July 14, 2015 4:10pm ET
OK, to defend my comment with an example from one of my wines

Here is a lab sample of my 2013 Amador Barbera
Test Result Units Test Methodology
Client Sample ID: 13LVB LWL Sample ID: 1305790
Alcohol 14.71 % vol FTIR
Glucose + Fructose 0.18 g/L (or 1.8 g/dL) Enzymatic

0.18 g/L (1.8 g/dL) is considered dry
6.9 g/L (or 69 g/dL) is very sweet (desert wines are ~ 4 to 12 g/L, ports about 10 g/L, icewine about 40g/L)

I had a zin stick at 1.3 g/L and it was obviously sweet

But again, if you like it then its good and there are potentially 700,000 x 12 people who like it
Andrew Walter
Sacramento —  July 17, 2015 9:41pm ET
OK darn, I was off by a factor of 10! Fortunately, nobody is reading this now so I do not look too stupid. That being said, 6.9 g/L is still sweet...but not port or desert wine sweet
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  July 19, 2015 10:50pm ET
It's my own observation that wine retail spends too much time "educating" and too little time listening to the customer describe what they want. Meiomi has proven to be a fantastic gateway wine that appeals to a broad audience, deftly riding the line between total ripeness and dryness/sweetness. Every day people ask for "sweet" reds; this doesn't necessarily mean sugary, it means "not austere", "not dirty", "not scorchingly dry" or similar... "very ripe". Right? On the other hand, "serious dry table wines" meant to be paired with food DO NEED that food, often... and among "the common folk", who, I ask you, has the time to do THAT right? It's work, and let's face it, many people view that as "optional" and "for bonus points". It's no surprise Meiomi's success happened. And two years from now, it will be no surprise when the wines become stemmy and green, dilute, clumsily sugared, and immediately lose customer base under the new owners' poison umbrella.
Mark Lyon
Sonoma, California —  July 26, 2015 7:36pm ET
Right on! So, Americans have a sweet tooth? I remember liking Reds and Whites initially that were slightly sweet. If we want more Americans (and, we do) drinking wine, then let's revere the sweet successes of Meomi Pinot, Rombauer Chardonnay and Ménage a Trois Red. Let's give people what they want than tell them what's good for them. That is the American Way!
David Mahoney
Minneapolis —  July 10, 2016 12:02am ET
I have been suckered into buying this wine twice by the high scores given to it by Wine Spectator. It tastes completely confected, as if oak chips and sugar were thrown into the fermentation vats.

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