Waiter, I'll Have the Pizza Wine

Forget "critter" labels. A new, lower-priced brand classifies its wines not by how they're made, but by what foods to pair them with

Americans' interest in wine has been on the rise for decades, but it was the phenomenal success of a little-known Australian brand that really shook up the U.S. wine industry. Thanks to a stand-out label with a black-and-yellow wallaby and a solid distribution plan, Yellow Tail became the No. 1 imported wine in the U.S. within a few years of its 2001 debut, transforming its producer, Casella Wines, from a small mom-and-pop winery into one of the largest in Australia (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/10/04, "Grape Expectations: It's a Matter of Taste").

Yellow Tail's wallaby spawned a whole menagerie of copycats—ACNielsen reports that of the 438 table wines introduced between 2003 and 2005, nearly one in five featured an animal on the label. (And they outsold bottles without them by more than two to one.) But the success of so-called "critter wines" also introduced the industry to a new generation of 20-something wine-drinkers that experts say will be driving growth in the U.S. wine trade for years to come.

Now experts say young consumers are beginning to move away from "critter wines" in favor of slightly more sophisticated—and expensive—offerings without the snobbery, and the closely-watched demographic has a bevy of young startups eager to help them on their journey.

A New Category

Among the most ambitious is the San Francisco-based Amazing Food Wine Company. With its new brand, Wine That Loves, co-founder Tracy Gardner says he's aiming to create a new category of wines classified not by what's in them but by what foods they go best with, using names such as "Wine That Loves Pasta with Tomato Sauce," and "Wine That Loves Roast Chicken."

Developed with the expertise of Ralph Hersom, former sommelier at New York's Le Cirque, the wines were designed to be paired with popular American dinnertime fare— including pizza, steak, grilled salmon, roast chicken, and pasta with tomato sauce. (Wines for grilled chicken, Chinese food, and macaroni and cheese are also in the works.)

While the concept of bringing wine pairing to the masses is nothing new—there are plenty of books, Web sites, in-home tastings, and in-store kiosks aiming to do just that—Gardner says his wines do a better job by allowing busy shoppers to simply "reach out and grab the solution" without slowing their pace.

The bottle's label doesn't list the wines' primary grape or vintage—details most buyers are accustomed to looking for, even if it doesn't mean much to them. Instead, the back label is a mini wine-pairing lesson in grid form, with simple descriptions explaining the intensity, acidity, tannin, and flavor of the wine. The aim: to win over foodies without alienating newer drinkers who might be scared off by more esoteric tasting-notes.

"Wine That Loves Pizza," for example, reads, "Pizza crust can create a dry mouth feel, so the right wine needs to be low in tannin," and "Because of the tomato sauce, pizza demands a wine that is red-fruit dominant." Gardner says the descriptions were designed to answer the big question most people have when they're buying a bottle of wine—"What is this going to taste like?" (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/14/04, "Best Cellars: The Taste of a Good Idea").

Wine that Loves isn't available in stores yet—the company is still negotiating with retailers and wholesale distributors—but Gardner says it should be available for purchase at a few stores in California and New York by May, and online directly from WinethatLoves.com by the end of April. It will retail for around $12.

Even without distribution, the Wine that Loves concept is already generating some buzz—not all of it positive. "I must be a total wine geek to actually think those pesky little details such as grape, vintage, and place of birth actually matter," griped one blogger.

Not Dumb, Accessible

Others share those concerns."It's a paint-by-numbers approach that by definition sophisticated wine drinkers will not be drawn to," says industry analyst Vic Motto of wine investment bank Global Wine Partners. For wine newbies, he says, "It might be something to try once. But if you liked it, wouldn't you want to know why?"

Gardner says the critics who grumble about how he's "dumbing down wine" don't bother him. "It's to be expected—this always happens with any kind of exclusivity-breaking innovation," he says, citing the introduction of the Prince oversized tennis racquet in the 1970s as an example. "Clearly, this is an idea that people feel passionate about."

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