The Moscato craze started with Gallo's Barefoot Cellars, when it released a light, sweet wine in 2008. It's been estimated that Gallo will produce four million cases of Moscato this year.

The Moscato craze started with Gallo’s Barefoot Cellars, when it released a light, sweet wine in 2008. It’s been estimated that Gallo will produce four million cases of Moscato this year.

PHOTO BY MELISSA HANSEN

Muscat wines, many labeled Moscato, are the fastest growing wine category in the United States. According to The Nielsen Company, Muscat wines posted a 78 percent increase in sales from 2010 to 2011 and were still gaining ground this year with a 65 percent increase over last year for the first quarter.

Growers and winemakers in many states have turned their attention to the old but seemingly new Muscat ­varieties, wondering if they should join the frenzy.

The relative overnight success of the sweet, aromatic varietal surprised many in the wine industry. At a time when sales of mainstream varieties like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are only slightly ahead of last year, and varieties like Merlot, Riesling, and Syrah are declining, sales increases above 20 percent are nearly unheard of.

The Moscato-style wines, introduced by E. & J. Gallo under their Barefoot Cellars label in 2008, have struck a rapport with younger wine drinkers, particularly those of the Millennial generation, the age group from 18-29. That these young drinkers prefer lighter, sparkling and semisparkling, sweet wines shouldn’t really be shocking—they grew up drinking carbonated soft drinks, sweetened vitamin water, sports drinks, and flavored coffees. The surprise is that the wines have been woven into their culture and shouted out by urban rappers as lyrics of their ­hip-hop songs and videos.

Before Washington grape growers and vintners buy a ticket to the Moscato concert, they would be well served to consider the economics of the new wines.

Dr. Wade Wolfe, viticultural consultant, winemaker, and co-owner of Thurston Wolfe winery, has for years used Orange Muscat grapes to make Sweet Rebecca, a fortified, white port-styled dessert wine named after his wife. Thurston Wolfe celebrates 25 years of making wine this year and was recently named the 2012 Pacific ­Northwest Winery of the Year by Wine Press Northwest.

Wolfe’s take on the Moscato madness is that certain ethnic and age groups are predisposed to prefer sweet or off-dry wines. “A certain percentage of the Millennial generation exposed to wines for the first time are consuming these sweet wines as well as sweet mixed, alcoholic drinks,” he said, noting that the sweet drinks are similar to the type of beverages they grew up drinking.

And though sweet wines are not typically what most winemakers aspire to create, the wines are an entry point to a new generation of consumers.

Connection

“The sweet-styled wines are a way to make a ­connection with future wine drinkers,” Wolfe said.

For Washington wineries, Wolfe says there is interest in the young, sweet-toothed drinkers because it is hoped that they will eventually graduate to more sophisticated styles of wine. “As a winery, you want to be the one that makes that first connection with them when they are getting introduced to wines. But these Moscato-style wines are a tough price point for us [Washington’s wine industry] to compete against.”

One of the appealing factors of Moscato wines to young drinkers is that they are generally inexpensive, retailing for under $10 per bottle, he said. “From what I’ve heard, most of the new Muscat plantings are located in California’s San Joaquin Valley, a warm region noted for its high yields and economic efficiencies.”

It’s been reported that some 7,000 acres of Muscat grapes are now planted in California—and about a quarter of that was planted in the last couple years. Yields of Muscat grapes in California’s central valley can be as high as 15 tons per acre, a yield that’s needed to be able to profitably sell wine in the $7 to $10 price point.

“I think it would be challenging for us to compete with the Moscato wines made from California grapes,” Wolfe said. However, he does believe it can be economically feasible for wineries to make a specialty sweet wine or sweeter version of their wines to sell direct. “We occasionally make a dry version of Orange Muscat that makes a very pleasant wine,” he said, adding that their 100-case production at $15 a bottle usually sells out quickly. “But it’s a limited bottling, and we sell it ourselves.”

White Zin trend

“The latest Moscato or Muscat rage is just the newest version of the white Zinfandel trend that took place in the 1980s,” Wolfe said. “Moscato is the same style of sweet, fruity, and inexpensive wine that was so very popular back then. Every generation seems to cycle through this type of wine.”

Today, White Zinfandel wine has dramatically declined in volume, and only a few producers still make the pink wine, but it has a following. In terms of sales value, White Zinfandel posted higher dollar sales ($387 million) in the United States than Moscato’s $352 million for the year ending March, 2012. Though White Zin sales are well below Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon ($2 billion and 1.4 billion, respectively), they are still above varietals like Riesling.

Wolfe’s advice to those considering producing Moscato is to let the big wineries fight for retail space. He predicts the industry will continue to see big growth in Muscat wines, but it will peak, and then Moscato wines will only be made by the big three wineries.

“Personally, I think it’s a passing phase,” he said.

Wolfe points out that to hit the price points that appeal to the young wine drinker, it means growers would be selling grapes for around $300 per ton.

“That’s not a market that most in Washington can or want to compete in. Washington’s wine industry would be better served by waiting for the sweet phase to pass,” he said. “Then we can take care of the young drinker when he or she graduates and moves up to appreciate our finer wines.”