Great Article on ‘Moscato’ in the Wall Street Journal

Why You’ll Be Drinking Moscato This Year

Anyone who claims to be able to see into the future is often forecasting the past. (Isn’t that how history manages to repeat itself?) Since this holds true as much for wine journalists as anyone else, I’ll make my own backward-facing prediction: The hottest wine of 2012 will be Moscato. Just like it was in 2011. How could it be otherwise? Sales of Moscato grew by a mind-boggling 78% in 2011, according to a recent Nielsen survey, and major producers like Gallo and Trinchero (aka Sutter Home) are still searching the world for yet more Moscato to add to store shelves.
 [Wine]Gerald Weisel, proprietor of Weimax Wines, a shop in Burlingame, Calif., recently told me he had it “on good authority” that Gallo, the wine behemoth, had purchased “all the available bulk Moscato” in Northern Italy. Stephanie Gallo, the company’s vice president of marketing, would neither confirm nor deny the assertion, though she did tell me that her family’s company had been “pretty aggressive” in its efforts to find enough supply to meet the Moscato demand, and that included sourcing fruit from Italy.

While the Moscato grape is grown all over the world (i.e., Chile, Argentina, Australia, California, Spain and Italy) and goes by a variety of names and clones (from the fine Moscato Bianco to the plebeian Muscat of Alexandria) the Piedmontese version, Moscato d’Asti—a sweet, soft, low-alcohol, lightly sparkling (frizzante) wine with delicate notes of peach and apricot—is probably the most famous. And yet, Italian Moscato is just a footnote to the much larger Moscato story that’s unfolding in the U.S.

The story began just a few years ago, when Gallo introduced its first Moscato under the Barefoot Cellars label in 2008. With residual sugar over 6% (dry table wine is well under 1%) and an alcohol level close to 9% (four or five percentage points lower than most wines), it was an instant hit—Barefoot is the largest Moscato brand in the U.S. today. Three other Gallo Moscatos soon followed, all priced between $5 and $9 a bottle. And according to Ms. Gallo, her family’s company would introduce even more Moscato if it could find enough fruit. Some Gallo Moscatos are blended with inexpensive grapes like French Colombard, presumably to keep production up and prices down.

One analyst says he’s never seen anything like the Moscato craze in more than 10 years of analyzing wine trends.

Smaller producers like California-based Cameron Hughes have also had difficulties getting Moscato. When Mr. Hughes received a request for Moscato from a big retailer two years ago, he searched all over the world for suitable fruit. As soon as he found something acceptable, “the price would shoot through the roof,” though the quality was often middling at best. Mr. Hughes finally bought finished wine from a small Moscato producer in Italy and, priced at $13 a bottle, it quickly sold out.

The producer of Yellow Tail, Casella Wines of Australia, waited until last year to introduce its Moscato, in part because it didn’t have enough quality fruit but also because it miscalculated the Moscato appeal, according to Tom Steffanci, president of W.J. Deutsch & Sons, Yellow Tail’s New York-based importer. “The humble answer is that we should have seen it sooner,” Mr. Steffanci said.

How much did he figure the delay had cost? “I’d say if you missed a year, you probably missed selling a million cases of Moscato,” said Mr. Steffanci. The company is clearly making up for lost time: It sold 330,000 cases of Yellow Tail Moscato in just eight months last year and expects to more than double that number in 2012.

Who’s buying all this Moscato? According to producers and retailers, the audience is diverse—from middle-age Midwesterners to rap stars like Drake, who penned a paean to Moscato in his song “Do It Now.”

The biggest audience for Moscato is the “Millennial” generation between 21 and 30 years of age, according to Ms. Gallo. These drinkers “found their own way” to the wine, she added, noting that while Gallo did extensive in-store sampling, there was no formal Moscato ad campaign—”but we have a Facebook page.”

Bob Torkelson, president and chief operating officer of Napa-based Trinchero Estates, where White Zinfandel first appeared under the Sutter Home label, doesn’t see Moscato as White Zin’s successor, though his company produces plenty of both (four million cases of White Zinfandel and about three million cases of Moscato, some sourced from Chile, he says). “The Moscato movement feels more like the wine-cooler movement to me,” said Mr. Torkelson.

That didn’t sound particularly auspicious. The wine-cooler era was short, and I have yet to hear anyone wax nostalgic over Bartles & Jaymes. I asked Danny Brager, a vice president on Nielsen’s alcohol research team, for his view of the phenomenon.

Mr. Brager said he’d never seen anything like the Moscato craze in more than 10 years of analyzing wine trends. Nothing else came close, he said, except perhaps the peak of the post-”Sideways” period (2005), when Pinot Noir grew 66%. But Pinot Noir’s percentage growth quickly fell to the low 20s, Mr. Brager added, and the growth in sales is only 11% now.

I drank plenty of Pinot Noir both pre- and post-”Sideways,” but I can’t say I’ve done much to move the Moscato numbers. I don’t drink much Moscato, save an occasional bottle from small Piedmontese producers like Saracco and La Spinetta, whose low-alcohol, lightly sparkling, peach-inflected wines are among my favorite ways to end a meal.

I decided to broaden my horizons and purchased some 25 Moscatos ranging in price from $5 to $30 a bottle. They included big names like Beringer, Mondavi, Yellow Tail and Gallo, as well as smaller labels like Michele Chiarlo and Elio Perrone. And I invited some friends from different demographics (including middle-age Midwesterners, millennials and one rap fan) to taste along.

We found a lot of unbearably sweet offerings—wines that would put a diabetic into immediate peril—and some wines that tasted like canned pineapple or worse (Teal Lake). But there were also some delightfully sweet and off-dry wines that were lovely dessert wines or aperitifs. They were also incredibly reasonably priced—only one cost more than $14 a bottle and one of our favorites, the lightly sweet 2010 Beringer Moscato, cost a mere $6. Well-chilled, it would be a great aperitif on a summer day, said one friend.

Our favorites, perhaps predictably, came from Italy and included frizzante wines from Perrone, Marcarini, Mosca and Cameron Hughes. They had the bright, lively acidity, creamy texture and aromas of flowers and peaches that make Moscato such a beguiling and seductive drink.

As to the future of Moscato, it seems pretty well assured, at least for the short term. Mr. Torkelson, despite his rather dour wine-cooler analogy, had an optimistic, if rather corporate, view: “Right now there are probably a million people sitting around conference tables trying to figure out how to get a piece of the Moscato market.”

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