Is Chardonnay Really the Drink of Self-Hating Riesling Fans?

butterWine makes it to the pages of New York Magazine by posing a question parading as a paradox. “Why Is Chardonnay Still America’s Best-selling Wine?

It’s the Mayonnaise of Wines: The Blockbuster Beverage You Won’t Admit You Love.”

Author Josh Barro goes on to explain:

Fashionable in the 1980s, Chardonnay has been the butt of jokes for two and a half decades. It has developed a reputation for having strong and unsubtle flavors of oak and butter; a reputation for pairing poorly with food; a reputation for being the sort of thing your mom drinks.

As he points out, the “anything but Chardonnay movement” got started in the mid 1990’s and it’s still going strong.

Yet, about 25 years after Chardonnay became “unfashionable,” Americans still drink more of it than any other kind of wine. IRI, the Chicago-based market research firm, says Chardonnay accounted for about one-fifth of table wine sold through retail channels in the U.S. during the 52 weeks that ended October 7, making it twice as popular as the next-biggest white wine grape (Pinot Grigio).

Barro points out, rightfully, that there are many different styles of Chardonnay; they are not all butter bombs. Yet the suggestion of the headline and the article is that Chardonnay is some sort of guilty pleasure that we all crave but won’t fess up to.

But there is no paradox here if you understand the wine industry. There are really two wine industries. Wine industry #1 consists of mammoth, industrial wine producers who sell mostly affordable wines at the supermarket and big box stores such as BevMo. They are still making big, buttery Chardonnays because their customers want them. Their customers, for the most part, have never heard of the  “anything but Chardonnay” movement, don’t read the wine press or take wine education classes, and could care less about what some fancy sommelier wants them to drink.

Then there is wine industry #2, thousands of smaller wineries, too small to get their product on a supermarket shelf, who sell to wine shops, wine bars, restaurants and do a whole lot of direct-to-consumer sales out of their tasting rooms. Their customers are generally more knowledgeable and discriminating about wine, are open to trying a variety of different styles, and have a wide range of preferences. Some of these folks like Chardonnay as well. But you better have at least one less oaky, more restrained style on the menu if you want to avoid too many people turning up their nose.

Chardonnay’s big sales numbers are explained by the fact that about 90% of the domestic wines sold in the United States are made by the top 30 big producers—industry #1. Their customers, who want a familiar, convenient alcohol delivery system, are a massive constituency that makes up the “nothing but Chardonnay” crowd.

I seriously doubt that there is a large group of self-hating Riesling “fans” filling their cellars with cases of Chardonnay when no one is watching.

This is just one more nonsense article on wine appearing in the mainstream press based on half truths.

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