From the Vineyard: Our true tastes in wine

Each year, Market Watch magazine, the trade-oriented sister publication to the consumer Wine Spectator, summarizes the most successful brands of alcoholic beverages, notably wine. Its lists and charts of “Blue Chip brands” is fascinating and tells us a great deal about American’s tastes in wine. The list of top brands (not specific varieties of wine) hardly mentions the wines wine magazines write about incessantly. Instead, it features the popular ones, most at reasonable prices:

This list includes all brands that sell more than two million equivalent cases (nine liters each). Black Box and Bota are in boxes, the others primarily in bottles, though not all. It isn’t just based on volume sold, but also growth rate and longevity.

I stretched the list to 11 brands partly to show 14 Hands’ impressive record. It’s grown from about 10,000 cases in 2006 to two million last year. With its sister Ste. Michelle (and Columbia Crest), these wines show that Washington State has clearly become a serious player in wine. That may accelerate as climate change warms many California vineyards in the central valley, making them less suitable for quality wine; though some of Washington’s vineyards are in hot desserts, too.

Though Gallo is huge, it doesn’t have many brands in this top 11. But it, as well as Trinchero, Delicato and Bogle are family owned and controlled; Constellation is largely controlled by the Sands family, though it is publicly held—and makes most of its money from beer, though it owns many successful wine brands (more than any other company in this list).

As you continue off this abbreviated chart, other family wineries on it include J. Lohr, Jackson Family, Riboli Family (Stella Rosa) and Francis Ford Coppola.

The big spirits producers that once dominated wine are largely absent, though whiskey maker Brown Forman markets Korbel sparkling wines.

This chart doesn’t address what varieties of grapes or types of wines are growing fastest, but that’s easy: red wine blends, rosés and sparkling wines.

Another article in the same issue discusses domestic sparkling wines, with the sad news that Cook’s with 22 percent and Andre at 21 percent dominate that market. Next is Korbel at 16 percent, with a mix of popular and premium wines made with the traditional process used in Champagne where the fermentation is developed in the bottle you buy. The two others use mass fermentation processes.

Barefoot bubbly is a surprising 13 percent, and the first prestige brand is Domain Chandon owned by Moët with five percent. Mumm Napa, also French owned, is at three percent.

The charts don’t break out packaging, either. Boxes have taken off and you can now find plenty of quite good wine with spigots, a huge convenience.

Screw cap closures are almost universally accepted and have greatly reduced the number of bottles contaminated with nasty-smelling TCA (trichloroanisole), which are often called corked. About three percent of wines closed with natural corks are tainted, however, so it may not be you if the wine you buy doesn’t small right.

Paul Franson lives in Napa Valley, CA.

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