The Business End

The Business End: Sweet wines and consumers

2010-11-19T00:00:00Z The Business End: Sweet wines and consumersPaul Franson Napa Valley Register
November 19, 2010 12:00 am  • 

For years, we’ve been taught that the ‘best’ wines are bone dry, and in the case of reds, quite tannic. As a wine drinker becomes more sophisticated, he or she is supposed to graduate from sweet wines to drier.

In spite of that, America’s most popular wines by production are sweet — white zinfandel and sweetish chardonnay. Sweet muscat is perhaps the fastest growing wine in America.

Locally, vintners have long sneered at V. Sattui  Winery, which unabashedly offers sweet riesling and muscat as well as a Napa gamay that is also sweet, and those are the most popular wines among it appreciative visitors.

Of course, Bob Trinchero and Dario Sattui laughed all the way to the bank, and it should be noted that both the Trinchero family and Sattui also make first-rate dry wines.

Now comes word from a recent study inspired by local wine expert Tim Hanni that claims that physiology plays a major role in determining your wine preferences. 

It also delivers the surprising news (to wine snobs) that white zinfandel drinkers are often the most sensitive tasters, shattering the myth that sweet wine consumers don’t taste as well as those who love big cabs.

That makes sense if you think about it: Less-sensitive tasters need bigger flavors. My grandson, Lars, is likely a very sensitive taster, not just picky — he doesn’t like the strong flavors of vegetables or fruits, even very sweet desserts.

The study was conducted in conjunction with the Consumer Wine Awards in Lodi this year. “We have uncovered a glaring error and misunderstandings by the wine industry that have lead to the disenfranchisement of millions of consumers and a significant loss of market share to other beverages,” said Master of Wine Tim Hanni, originator of the study.  

Dr. Virginia Utermohlen, associate professor at Cornell University, says that the study demonstrates that physiological differences in human sensory anatomy are the driving force behind our wine choices and that the people with the greatest taste sensitivity may well prefer sweeter wine. And contrary to wide opinion, those who prefer highly rated dry wines may not have very discerning tastes. 

Utermohlen adds, “To date, the industry message to consumers who prefer light, delicate and sweet wines is that they need to become more ‘educated’ and ‘move up’ to ‘higher quality wines’ such as dry wines. 

“The industry is guilty of alienating a large segment of consumers who frequently opt for other sweet beverages or even stop drinking wine altogether.”

Utermohlen teamed up with Hanni and developed a means of segmenting the wine market into four basic phenotypes based on physiological and behavioral criteria. 

They divided wine drinkers into four categories, Sweet, Sensitive, Hyper-Sensitive (prefer dry and slightly off-dry wines) and Tolerant (the stronger the better). 

Sweet Sauternes, trockenbeerenauslese riesling, Tokay, as well as Port, were once the most expensive wines, not dry Bordeaux or Burgundies. And once, the most popular Champagnes were sticky sweet, too.

There’s a clear message to the wine industry in tough economic times, particularly as young people increasingly prefer sweet cocktails: Maybe they should offer more choices.

“It will require some major changes in attitudes, wine education and the correction of worn-out stereotypes and myths, but this finding offers the wine industry a great opportunity to develop an overlooked but large and accessible market segment and to expand wine consumption,” said Dr. Jim Lapsley, a professor of enology at UC Davis and co-editor of the Successful Wine Marketing. 

Get the whole text of the Wine Consumer Preferences Survey Summary at


Cosentino shuttered, Frazier for sale

Last week, Cosentino Winery laid off its staff, locked its doors and stopped operations, ending a protracted attempt to stay in business. The winery with its highly desirable location is for sale.

Long ago, Mitch Cosentino sold controlling share in the winery but had been its winemaker. He’s started a new winery, pureCru and is also involved in a wine company called Couples & Co. with golfer Fred Couples.

Likewise, after declaring bankruptcy, Frazier Winery’s real estate and  production facility are also for sale. The family intends to keep the brand name and continue making wine.

Outside Napa Valley, prominent Kluge Winery, the largest winery in Virginia, also declared bankruptcy, as did Eos Winery, a prominent winery in Paso Robles. Bill Foley has bought the brand and inventory of Eos, and hopes to buy the property, too.


Unified Wine & Grape Symposium

The 17th Unified Wine & Grape Symposium will be held at the Sacramento Convention Center and Hyatt Regency Sacramento, Jan. 25-27. 

Almost 600 exhibitors and speakers and 12,000 attendees are scheduled to attend. 

The committed hotel rooms has already been taken, but there’s plenty more lodging in Sacramento. For details and registration information, visit


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