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Where Will Sweet-Toothed U.S. Drinkers Head Next?

Global wine broker Greg Livengood of Ciatti, with economist Kym Anderson (R)
© W. Blake Gray | Global wine broker Greg Livengood of Ciatti, with economist Kym Anderson (R)
Trying to anticipate the changing tastes of consumers is a major challenge.

What will be the next big wine on the American market? Could it be sweet wine from the Georgian Republic?

A panel of economists, wine brokers and an agricultural banker kicked off the U.S. wine industry's biggest trade show, the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento, California, on Tuesday. Much of the discussion focused on the globalization of bulk wine grapes – a touchy subject for the many Californian grape growers in the room.

The U.S. wine market has been shaken up by a sudden switch in tastes three times in the past 15 years: to pinot grigio, malbec and now muscat. The changing preferences of American consumers have led to massive vine grafting and replanting, not just in California but in all the countries that export to the world's largest wine market.

So challenge of identifying the next fad in the U.S. is uppermost in the minds of many in the viticultural industry.

Sales of sweet red wines meant for the table, not dessert, jumped 49 percent in the U.S. last year, according to the Nielsen market research company; they now make up 1.1 percent of the domestic wine market.

Kym Anderson, an economist at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, told a symposium session that Americans' collective sweet tooth may be advantageous for Georgia – a country that has sought a new market for its wines since Russia clamped an embargo on imports from its former ally in 2006.

"Americans used to say, 'We talk dry and drink sweet,' but now they've cut the pretense and just openly buy sweet wines," said Anderson, whose PhD is from Stanford University in California.

"Georgia has a long history of making sweet wines for the Russian market. If they were to put the effort into marketing saperavi here, the way New Zealand has sauvignon blanc, that might fill a niche."

Anderson said that even many "dry" wines in the U.S. aren't really dry. "The wine that we make in Australia for the domestic market is much less sweet than what we make for the U.S. market."

Much of the American wine market along both coasts prefers dry wines. But one woman from the audience stood up to say: "I started a wine shop in Missouri 10 years ago to sell the wines we like to drink. We started out that way, but now we mostly sell muscat and sweet red blends and chocolate wine. This is what people want to drink, and we can't sell them wines they don't want."

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