Wine Tipping Point: What We Can Learn from the Fall of an Icon

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You don’t need to look any further than recent news about one of the iconic French red wines to realize that the wine world has entered a new phase in this country.

Once dominant over the holiday season, bringing crowds to wine and spirits shops and celebrations at (mostly) French focus bars and restaurants, the sunshiney days of Beaujolais Nouveau seem to have plummeted beneath the horizon. Just last month, after a three-decade partnership, France’s Les Vins Georges Duboeuf, one of the best known French wine brands in this country, parted ways with its long time importer, making the move after enduring a massive decline in recent years. In 2000, Duboeuf moved nearly 1.2 million cases of all sorts of Beaujolais, but it was the annual November release of Nouveau that stirred the pot each year, and the brand led the French import category. By 2010, its volume had fallen to 415,000 cases, and last year it slipped another 45 percent to only 180,000 cases.

That’s a loss of more than one million cases of wine in 15 years, for those paying attention. That’s a remarkable collapse for an iconic wine and brand, further indicating the continuing disappearance of ordinary Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages and single village Crus-du-Beaujolais from the market and consumer consciousness.

The collapse is as much about the region and the American approach to wine as it is about the brand. American consumers aren’t so much turning away from wines they like, but rather feel more capable of changing styles for occasions, happy to explore and willing to go beyond familiar regions and varietals to experience the various pleasures of wine. That’s why lists filled with 5, 6, or more California Chardonnays and Cabernets (unless it is at an operation with hundreds and hundreds of trophy wines catering to California oenophiles) is coming to be an anomaly, or should be.

Today’s younger [read: with disposable income and a yen for dining and drinking out] wine consumer is also a beer and spirits consumer. They value choice and variety over medals, icons and predictability. If all they see are a handful of predictable selections, a few trending internationals thrown in but nothing new or special or proprietary, then the eyes of these younger consumer are likely to wander. Now for the operator, a craft beer sale might be as good for the bottom line as the wine, but that does nothing for building the long term health of wine on-premise.

Consumers in their twenties today make up almost 30% of the country's population, but last year’s 0.2% wine consumption increase is the smallest annual increase since 1994.

Increasingly, being flexible and innovative may be the only way to prevent a precipitous decline of sales in the US; as the Beaujolais collapse shows, there’s no guarantee of yesterday’s success predicting tomorrow’s. Perhaps drawing a conclusion about Beaujolais compared to the most popular native American produced wine is flawed, but there is plenty of evidence that the tipping point between popular and fading is hard to locate, and whether those powerhouse popular wines maintain their popularity or stall and start to falter, the fact is consumers want more choice, and wine-sellers on-premise need to be aware of how fast things can change.

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