by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
I’ve always liked Champagne, even if it’s not my favorite wine (not being red).
So I was pretty amazed, even astounded, to read the recent post on Palate Press (http://palatepress.com/2012/09/wine/alternate-bubbles-expected-to-unseat-champagne/) on the sharp decline in Champagne sales: “In 2007, prior to the current global recession, Champagne sales topped $1.5 billion (USD), compared to the just over $1 billion they are projected to hit this year.” That’s an incredible decline.
I don’t think this really reflects a decline in the sparking wine category, as much as a retrenchment to lower priced forms of bubbly. But does this represent a permanent trend, or something that’s merely a reflection of the Great Rescission?
I think it’s a little bit of both.
Part of it is that Champagne isn’t quite the monopoly of quality sparking wine that it once was. There was a time that I really couldn’t find anything from anywhere else that was really comparable. I would say that Champagne is still the gold standard when it comes to sparklers—but it’s not head and shoulders above the rest as it once was.
Even though Champagne isn’t my favorite wine, I’ve tasted quite a bit of it over the years. I think the best I’ve ever had was a Charles Krug. It cost $125 a number of years ago. I have to admit that part of the allure of this wine was that I didn’t pay for it. As a matter of fact, when it comes to premium Champagne, I’ve tasted quite a few, but never had to pay for even one.
And I think that’s a big part of Champagne’s problem. I may love to drink it, but paying for it an altogether different matter. The best of it is damn expensive. A great way to celebrate making a killing in the dot.com frenzy. Not nearly so apt to get through the money-challenged last few years. If you’ve just made a few million, then what’s $125 or even twice or even three times that when it comes of celebrating? If you’re struggling to make your mortgage, Charles Krug is probably not on your shopping list.
The second part of Champagne’s problems is that it’s not quite so preeminent as it once was. Outside of Champagnes, my favorite bubbly is the L’Ermitage produced by Roederer from Anderson Valley in Northern California. How does it compare to the Charles Krug? It’s not as good. But it’s not that far behind either. It’s an excellent sparkler, one that would hold its own against most Champagnes, even if it’s not quite as good as the very best.
L’Ermitage generally can be bought retail for someplace in the mid-$40 range. So it’s less than a third of what the Charles Krug sold for. Am I willing to pay that extra $85 for the relatively slight extra quality that the Krug brings to the table? Absolutely not. And I think, in these times, most people would feel the same way as I do. But I think even when the economy improves, most people will still find substitutes for the higher priced Champagne offerings. Certainly, to the extent they’ve already downgraded, and are okay with what they are drinking, they are probably going to need to feel quite a bit richer before they go back to the top-line Champagnes.
I really wonder the extent to which this phenomenon is going to be reflected in the sales of other premium wine products. If you can substitute L’Ermitage for Charles Krug without undue pain, how much easier is it to substitute a non-Napa Cab for a Napa one, and save boku bucks? And, unlike Champagne, which still is the best sparkler around, I question whether Napa Cab is really superior to many other quality Cabs out there for a fraction of the price.
In the end, Napa Cabs and Champagnes share the achievement that they have established themselves as brands. But I recently read that supermarkets are expanding their private label offerings of canned goods as people are willing to sacrifice the “Heinz” or “Del Monte” label to save themselves a bit at the checkout counter. I think we’re seeing the same thing when it comes to wine—people are finding lower-priced substitutes that work well enough. And I think it’s going to stay that way at least until the economy turns around in a big way.