Fruit infusions, spritzers, and CBD may be trending in retail, but they don’t necessarily pair with restaurants.
The retail wine scene has been shifting toward lighthearted—even slightly zany—offerings with marketers touting varieties flavored with coconut, cherry, strawberry, blackberry, pineapple, and more. According to the Wine Institute, wine shipments within the U.S. grew 1 percent in 2018, with an estimated retail value of $68.1 billion, while direct-to-consumer wine sales increased by 12 percent in 2018, totaling an estimated $3 billion.
At the restaurant level, flavored spritzers and sweet, fruit-infused wines have proven difficult to pair with food. Instead of leaning into avant garde flavors, the goal for restaurants is to offer guests authentic, well-made wines that pair well with the food, says Eric Loring, beverage director of Boston’s Seaport Hotel.
“Flavored wines are popular in retail because they’re convenient—the same as the ready-to-drink category of flavored hard seltzers,” Loring says. “On-premises guests typically want a higher quality, fresher beverage made with real fruit. Wine that’s artificially flavored doesn’t help achieve that goal.”
“I see the appeal of the wines that are exploding in the retail market. They’re something new, fun, and easy to drink, but they’re also situation-specific,” says Natalie Stewart, sommelier at Fin & Fino in Charlotte, North Carolina. “A canned spritzer is perfect for a summer Sunday pool day but not necessarily paired with oysters.”
Stewart says that the more retail-friendly wines could work as an aperitif in a restaurant setting, but she doesn’t think they work with most food pairings. “Depending on the flavor profile, these wines can overpower or clash with food rather than complement it in a thoughtful way,” she says. “You want to stay on trend and give people what they want, but you also have to stick with what goes with your food.”
Stewart admits that she sometimes finds it difficult to match what a guest is looking for when they request something fruity or sweet. “I have to steer them toward something like a Riesling or a sparkling wine,” she says. “We’ve played around with wine in cocktails and added flavors to sparkling cava to give people what they’re looking for.”
In addition to flavored wines, organic varieties are also on the upswing. Drink market analysis firm IWSR forecasts the organic wine subcategory to post more than 9 percent compound annual growth between 2017 and 2022.
Stewart says that “natural” and “organic” seem to be the current buzzwords in wine, but not every consumer fully understands their meaning. “A lot of people think that if a wine is natural or organic, they’ll have less of a hangover or that there are fewer chemicals to put in their body, which is true, but all wine has some level of sulfites,” Stewart says. She adds that sometimes consumers choose organic wines for flavor rather than the way they were made.
Natural and organic wines have proven more popular and easier to identify than vegan wines. By and large consumers are unaware that most alcoholic beverages are clarified using animal-derived fining agents such as gelatin, egg whites, bone marrow, or casein.
“With all the wines on my list, there are only a few that I can confirm are vegan, [and] two are some of our more popular wines,” says Jenn Harvey, bar manager at Temple Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I don’t think wines are better or worse for being vegan or not, and I’m not seeing an uptick in the number of vegan wines being produced.”
Because fining agents are applied at a late stage in the wine-making process, producers aren’t legally obligated to list those additives. Lobbying efforts could someday change that standard, but in the meantime, Harvey has seen more companies move to carbon or clay fining agents in place of animal-derived agents.
Another product with its eye on retail—but no so much restaurants—is CBD. According to data firm Statista, sales of the nonhallucinogenic cannabis compound were at $512 million in 2018, and are projected to surpass $1 billion by 2020.
Although some companies are attempting to manufacture CBD and THC (the psychoactive compound in cannabis) in wine, restaurants have remained wary for legal reasons. Hulled hemp seed, hemp seed protein powder, and hemp seed oil are the only substances that can be legally marketed in human food, according to the FDA.
“I hear people talk about CBD a lot,” Stewart says. “I personally don’t see a lot of reputable winemakers doing it, [but] I think it will be done anyway and will do well in a retail environment. I don’t see that ever being a thing in restaurants.”
Certain wine trends may remain sequestered in the retail side of wine, but that doesn’t mean restaurants are bereft of exciting trends to explore.
Brent Noll, general manager and sommelier of Waterbar in San Diego, has noted more nontraditional wine blends. “We’re seeing blends of varietals not usually paired with each other such as gewurztraminer-riesling and zinfandel blends,” Noll says. “The winemaker’s creativity is shining through with these wines as they offer more complex, bigger, fuller wines with the traditional single varietal notes more toned down.”
Noll says that the demographic responding well to these blended wines is the younger millennial market. “These newer wine drinkers are more open to different expressions as well as not having their palates locked into more traditional tastes and offerings,” Noll says, adding that such varieties are usually more price-friendly.
At Flagstaff House Restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, sommelier and beverage director Elizabeth Sammuri has noticed vermouths and lambruscos growing in popularity. “We find that more and more people are requesting vermouths, either on the rocks or in a simple cocktail,” she says. “We also work with different grape varieties that can lead to the wine having different unique flavors; lambrusco is a perfect example of this. The final wine is sparkling and can be sweet or dry. It has a flavor profile unlike any other wine.”