What's new in the wine business in Central Arkansas? A lot of things that wine snobs probably don't want anything to do with. Take the emergence of sweet wines.
"It's one of the most amazing things that's happened in the last six to seven years," said Jerry Harrod, vice president of sales for Moon Distributing, one of the larger alcohol distributors in the state. Moscato, a sweet, semi-sparkling wine made from the Muscat variety of grape, has been especially popular.
"I think it's a lot of new wine drinkers who're coming in for the first time and want to experience wine," Harrod said of those driving the Moscato boom. "Those people will eventually gravitate to dryer wines as they continue to consume wines."
James Cripps and partner Bruce Cochran built their six-year-old wine and spirits distribution business, Custom Beverage, around a red sparkling wine similar to a Moscato called Rosa di Rosa.
"Six years ago you couldn't give a sweet wine away, and now it's brought so many people into the wine consumer category," Cripps said. "[The new consumers] never drank wine that they liked before and suddenly they found something that, just because it's sweet, they can drink. I think it's part of Coca-Cola culture."
Another explanation for its popularity? Hip-hop. Rappers have long extolled high-end drinks like Cristal and Courvoisier. For reasons unknown, in recent years they've gravitated to the more affordable Moscato. Drake, Gucci Mane, Kanye West and Soulja Boy have all name-dropped the wine. Nelly's crew, the St. Lunatics, developed its own brand, Freaky Moscato. There's been some backlash. A blogger on Bon Appetit wrote a post last year entitled, "I'm Sick of Rappers Influencing Wine Sales."
Bargain hunters and people looking to take wine on-the-go are pushing another trend — the emergence of higher-end box wine.
"People are always looking for something consistent for a good price," said Shell Cameron, spirits manager for Central Distributors. "Packaging, as far as being able to take wine places, is really important. Arkansas is an outdoor state. We like a good time on lakes and rivers and go camping. I think that's why box wines have found a niche in Arkansas."
That you can find better quality box wine than in the past makes a big difference too, Cameron said.
When box wines first debuted in the '70s, they were generic and inexpensive, according to David Cone, sales director for Glazer's, the state's largest alcohol distributor. That phase ended with the emergence of Constellation Brand's Black Box in the '90s, he said. "It's their line-up of fine wines, sourced from places like Monterey County. It's not inexpensive — in the $25 to $28 range — until you break it down and realize it's equivalent to four bottles of wine. You don't have to worry about resealing it. It collapses, so no oxygen gets in. And it lasts for weeks."
Central Distributors' Cameron and Moon's Harrod said wine served in Tetra Paks — 500 ml cartons (as compared to 750 ml bottles) that claim to be environmentally friendly and are more portable than glass bottles — are gaining hold in the market, too.
As with any product, branding is important. "Traditionally women have not been the buyers of alcohol, but that's changed industry-wide," said Cameron. Which is why you see wines with names like Simply Naked, Go Girl, Skinny Girl and Naked Grape. Cripps said with so many wine drinkers in their 60s now, the market is really focused on targeting the next generation, the 21 to 35 range. "I get telephone calls about every week from someone who has a new label and a new way to reach the younger demographic."
Cripps said he's seeing the hot price point for wine as somewhere in the $9.99 to $25 range. Oddly, he said there's a drop off until $60 and above. "I have wines that are $150, and they do really well. Try to sell a $50 wine — that's the tough one."
Traditionalists don't have to worry about the culture of wine shifting beneath their feet too much. Cripps said he saw numbers for wine-industry-wide recently and chardonnay and cabernet were still the top sellers. But Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir are gaining ground. "They're still not quite on top, but they're certainly getting closer. I think that's typically a younger drinker."