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GROCERY: The white stuff

Cabernet, rose, and blush wines may all have a nicer hue, but when it comes to creativity, white is the most colorful. After years of being pushed aside by flashier reds with their health claims, cachet, and pedigree varietals, white wines have recaptured the spotlight. Hot new varietals, like Pinot Gris, are gaining favor; promotions are becoming more creative; and consumption is up. White wines can even help you lose weight, according to one study.

"The total table wine category is up 3 percent, but the total white wine category is up 4 percent," says Gary Glass, v.p., marketing, popular and premium wines at Canandaigua Wine Co. in Concord, Calif. Some of that is attributable just to the fact that Chardonnay is king of the whites, comprising some 20 percent of the total wine category, and Chardonnay volume continues to climb. "At times there was talk in the industry that people were getting tired of Chardonnay, but the numbers don't support that," Glass says. "We continue to see declines in generic types of white wines, and continued growth in varietal wines. Pinot Grigio is also driving a lot of growth. Even though it has only a 3 percent share of the total category, it's up 19 percent," he adds, noting that Canandaigua's Vendange, Talus, and Inglenook brands all have a Pinot Grigio offering.

"One of the most exciting things going on in the white wine category today is that the consumer is searching for white varietal types as alternatives to Chardonnay," says Steve Sprinkle, v.p., global chain accounts at E.&J. Gallo Winery in Hayward, Calif. "If you look at the red wine business over the last 10 years, a lot of excitement has come from other emerging red varietals that the consumer has become interested in, including Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. That added a lot of excitement and energy to the category, but that never really happened on the white side."

Exploding Pinot Grigio

Until now. Italian Pinot Grigio has really taken off, and an even bigger buzz is being generated around Pinot Gris -- its American-grown counterpart. "The biggest trend in white wine today has got to be Pinot Grigio," says Mary Ann Vangrin, director of public relations at Trinchero Family Estates (Sutter Home) in St. Helena, Calif. "It's just a varietal whose popularity is absolutely exploding! We're looking for sources and grafting over some of our Chardonnay vineyards to Pinot Grigio just to meet the demand. They leave the rootstock and graft the Pinot Grigio clone onto the Chardonnay rootstock. That way you can change a Chardonnay vine into a Pinot Grigio vine."

"Pinot Gris seems to have a universal appeal and can match with almost any food," Sprinkle says. "Restaurants are pairing Pinot Gris with a lot of foods because it makes a perfect complement. It's a little more premium-priced, but it's a great alternative for people looking for something other than a Chardonnay."

This summer Canandaigua will be promoting Lexia, a new Australian white wine that it's marketing under its Alice White label. "With Lexia we're focusing on the fact that white wines can be very refreshing," Glass says. "Lexia has some nice citrus flavors and is maybe a little tropical, with apricot and mango, but it also has a really nice mouth feel and a touch of sweetness. It carries enough crispness, though, that it's a really nice, refreshing wine for people to use, particularly over the summer."

Canandaigua is looking to drive trial and distribution of Lexia by offering a 187-milliliter sample bottle as part of an Outback Pak attached kangaroo-style (and upside down) to a 1.5-liter bottle of Alice White Chardonnay. "This is a great way for people to try Lexia," Glass says.

Another wine people will be clamoring to buy is Banrock Station White Shiraz, which is imported from Australia by Pacific Wine Partners in Gonzales, Calif. "This is a very new concept that's along the same lines as a White Zinfandel, except it's made from the Shiraz grape," says Kevin S. Conboy, area manager in Pacific Wine Partners' Hoboken, N.J. office. Retailing for $6 to $7 a bottle, Banrock Station White Shiraz is slightly higher in alcohol content and a little less sweet than White Zinfandel. "[White Shiraz is] made with the same grape as the Shiraz," Conboy explains. "The color of the wine is determined by the amount of time that the skin stays in contact with the juice when it's fermented."

Palandri Wines primarily sells imported Australian red wines in the United States, but next year it will begin importing a Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc that's currently a big hit in Canada. "It's very similar to a New Zealand-style Sauvignon Blanc, and we're retailing it in Canada for $20, so it would be $13 or $14 here," says Peter Burrow, a spokesman with Palandri Wines (Canada) in Vancouver, B.C.

Negociants USA, Inc. of Napa, Calif. is distributing three Viogniers in the United States. "Viognier is the same grape used to make Cointreau in France," says Janet Fennelly, New England region manager in the New York office of Negociants. "It's dry, with a little more weight on the palate, similar to Chardonnay, but with many more floral characteristics."

Hugo Wines has been having success with its unwooded Chardonnay. "It's Chardonnay that doesn't have any oak, so it doesn't have that rich, buttery, oaky style," says John Hugo, winemaker and managing director at Hugo Wines Pty., Ltd. in McLaren Flat, South Australia. "This wine has been extremely popular because there's not the oak treatment, and it's fermented in stainless steel so it retains its fresh-fruit character and maintains a crisp, fresh flavor."

White wine blends are also gaining in popularity. McPherson Wines has put a new twist on the ever-popular Chardonnay by coming out with a Chardonnay blend made from grapes aged in oak, steel, and other barrels. "Some wineries pick from different vineyards and then blend the vineyards," says Sam Holmes, "Aussie sales bloke" at the U.S. office of Artamon, New South Wales-based McPherson Wines in Miramar, Fla. "We pick from the same vineyards, and then divide the wine into five parcels and treat each parcel differently. They're aged in different barrels, including oak and stainless steel. Then we blend those, and that's what gives us quite a complex taste."

Angove's has been successful marketing an Australian Semillon/Chardonnay blend under its Bear Crossing label. "It's a 60/40 blend, with 60 percent being a Semillon," says Marie Klobucar, meetings & promotions manager at Angove's North American office in Raleigh, N.C. "Our Chardonnay is the best wine for under $10 in Australia, so in the states it retails for around $6.99, but the Semillon Chardonnay generates a lot of interest because people don't know the Semillon grape as well. It's a varietal that's light and crisp and easy-drinking, while the Chardonnay has more of a buttery feel and is cooler. When people don't know wine they'll ask for a Chardonnay because it's an easy-drinking wine."

"Chardonnay is every winery's favorite because they can put their stamp on it. You've got to have it," says Maryann Sprow Kozaczek, president and c.e.o. of Legend Brands, LLC, the Ridgewood, N.J.-based firm that's importing the new Koala Valley brand of wines. Marketed as being "approachable, affordable, and attractive," and "created especially for the core wine drinker who enjoys wine every day," Koala Valley includes Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and, of course, Chardonnay.

"People think Foster's is Australian for 'beer,' but the No. 1 beverage in Australia is Chardonnay," Kozaczek says. "They drink more Chardonnay than any other place on earth. It's a white-wine world out there. People imagine big, hairy-chested Australians gulping their Foster's, but a lot more of them are drinking Chardonnay."

The Chardonnay diet

But Chardonnay is especially appealing to women. "Women are drinking a lot of white wine because some articles have been recently published that say you can lose more weight if you drink white wine," Kozaczek says. "In the double-blind clinical study women who drank white wine ate less because it has some type of appetite curb."

Most vintners, however, are wary about playing up health claims. Instead they're looking to boost sales by touting food and wine pairings.

"There's a problem, and I think our industry is partly to blame in making people feel they have to get an exact bottle of wine for a particular dish," says Jeffrey Star, culinary director and executive chef at Sutter Home Family Vineyards. "It's proven that you don't have to do that. You can make adjustments to any dish, and if the dish is prepared properly and there's a good taste balance, you could, if you're a Chardonnay drinker, have Chardonnay with it, or Sauvignon Blanc, if that's what you prefer." He adds that White Zinfandel, which Sutter Home invented, "goes particularly well with foods that have a little bit of spice."

Cross-merchandising can also do wonders for sales. "The deli and prepared meals sections of the stores are definitely a growing area to try to cross-merchandise wine," Canandaigua's Glass says. "There's so much grabbing of prepared meals going to those sections of the stores, and the customers may not even think of dropping into the wine sections unless they're reminded."

This summer Canandaigua's Alice White brand is merchandising an Outback Pak Shrimp on the Barbie Kit, featuring a clear plastic case of three bottles of Alice White, four wood-and-metal skewers, a high-value coupon for Contessa shrimp, and a sample pack of Paul Prudhomme Seafood Magic spices, all at the price of the three bottles of wine. "This is a way for us to get the wines cross-merchandised with seafood, so we're trying to drive displays and get the wine out of the department," Glass says. "And what's really key on these cross-promotions is to make sure you add some value to the section of the store that you're trying to move into. We're driving the sale of shrimp, so the seafood department manager is going to want to have that wine move in."

Look for Sutter Home to be cross-merchandised in the meat department as part of its annual Build a Better Burger contest. This year's grand prize is $50,000.

Shelf descriptor tags can likewise provide a huge sales increase. "Most people can articulate what a Chardonnay tastes like, but they may be more unfamiliar when you get into Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris," Gallo's Sprinkle says. "I think putting case and shelf descriptors describing what they could expect from the taste, along with serving suggestions, is a good place to start."

Sprinkle, too, is a fan of cross-merchandising, suggesting that retailers pair a particular wine with a certain cheese, for example. "It's also important to bring something else of value to the consumer," he says. "We might look for a Brie manufacturer as a partner, and pair our wine and their cheese together, and develop a coupon offer to bring more value to the consumer."

Building a better box

Additionally, different packaging is transforming the aisle. Several wineries now offer screwtops, and Banrock Station has re-energized the wine box with its new three-liter premium wine boxes. "These wines are vintage-dated and aged in oak," Pacific Wine Partners' Conboy says. "It's a vast departure from the image that people have of wine in a box. But this is a lot more user-friendly. You don't need a corkscrew, and it takes up a lot less room than a three-liter bottle. It offers the consumer a very significant value because it's equal to four 750-milliliter bottles of wine."

Local and national trade associations are also doing their bit to boost wine consumption.

Virginia, home to some 85 wineries, has been touting the excellent qualities of its wines. Its Keswick Vineyard's 2002 Estate Reserve Viognier was named the "Best White Wine in America" at last fall's Atlanta International Wine Summit. "Viognier is an up-and-coming white wine, and we think that Virginia does it better than anyone else in the country," says Mary E. Davis-Barton, program manager at the Virginia Winegrowers Advisory Board in Richmond, Va. "Our acreage is increasing and we continue to receive gold medals, double gold, and best in class for that particular grape."

But that's not the only good news. "Wine has no carbohydrates, so it fits right into the low-carbohydrate diet," she adds.

That means that now, more than ever, wine is perfect for today's lifestyles.
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