Wines: The Rise of the Reds

As U.S. wine sales grow, reds have overtaken whites.

Bud Gebhardt is seeing red. Wine, that is. The co-owner of Park & Orchard Restaurant in East Rutherford, N.J., has watched sales of red wine surge in the past few years. A dozen years ago, white wines accounted for three out of every five bottles he sold. "Now, we sell 80% red wine," he says. That's especially notable considering that Park & Orchard serves mostly seafood and vegetarian dishes -- food that traditionally has been paired with white wine.

Gebhardt's experience reflects a broader trend: Americans are drinking more wine overall, and increasingly, they are choosing reds. In 2002, Americans consumed 210 million cases of wine, up from 135 million in 1991. During that period, red wine went from 16% of the market to 43%, while white declined from 50% to 39.6% (with blush wine accounting for the balance), according to a soon-to-be-released 2003 study by M. Shanken Communications, publisher of The Wine Spectator. For California wines, which make up two of every three bottles consumed in the U.S., reds edged out whites in 2002 for the first time in the five years that market researcher MKF has been tracking California wine sales.

Experts say the rise of reds may have to do with reports that consuming moderate amounts of red wine can lower the risk of heart disease, as well as the public's growing familiarity with wine. Many drinkers start off with sweet white wines, such as chablis or white zinfandel, move on to semi-dry whites, such as chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, then leap to a light, fruity pinot noir or a smooth, rich merlot.


Red is a natural as people start drinking more wine with meals. Its complexity can enhance flavors -- even of foods not typically associated with red wine. For example, peppercorn-encrusted tuna might be better complemented by a spicy red, such as a syrah, than a buttery chardonnay.

If you are new to red wine or just looking to diversify from your usual merlot, there has never been a better selection of easy-drinking reds. "Wines are definitely softer and more approachable these days," says Paul Birman, buyer for wine retailer PlumpJack in San Francisco. Advances in fermentation technology make it possible to produce wines with more flavor and softer tannins -- the substance that gives red wines their pucker. Such improvements also let you drink the wine when it's at a much younger age. "You can open a 2000 cabernet sauvignon and enjoy it that night," says Birman. "In the 1970s, you would have stored it for 20 years."

As winemakers around the world adopt the new techniques, an international style is emerging modeled on the California style that often blends grapes from different vineyards and regions. That makes it easier to experiment -- and save. California and France still produce tellar wines, but some of the best values come from Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and southern Italy. "Rather than spending on big brand names, such as Mondavi and Beringer, where prices have escalated," advises Steve Gett, wine director at Union Square Wines & Spirits in New York, opt for offerings from lesser-known regions.

A good variety to try is syrah (called shiraz by Australian winemakers). Its rich fruit, spice, and velvety feel make it a great all-purpose wine. U.S. sales of California syrahs last year rose a heady 922%, albeit from a small base, says MKF. Imports from Australia are also flying off store shelves. "It's the new merlot," says Birman.

Pinot noir is another versatile light red. Birman suggests enjoying it slightly chilled on a hot day. Pinots make a nice accompaniment to grilled fish, chicken, and veal. A Côte du Rhône from southern France would do as well.

A newcomer on the scene, at least to American palates, is tempranillo, the hearty Spanish grape that goes into Riojas. Spanish winemakers are turning out tempranillos blended with other varietals and made with hints of oak and vanilla that can stand up to California's finest merlots. From there, you can move up to some of the bigger, more complex reds, such as cabernet or zinfandel. But take your time. The fun is in getting there.

Corrections and Clarifications In "The rise of the reds" (BusinessWeek Investor, July 21), chablis was characterized as a sweet wine -- and much of the chablis marketed in the U.S. is. However, the wine that comes from the Chablis appellation of France is dry. Also, in the accompanying "Tastings" selection of red wines, the syrah depicted was misidentified. It is an Edna Valley syrah.

By Amy Cortese

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