For the first time in history, the U.S. surpassed France as the world’s largest wine-consuming nation, cheers the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. In 2010, shipments from domestic and foreign producers were up 2 percent, to nearly 330 million cases. That’s a record, with an estimated retail value of $30 billion.
The glass-half-empty part is that Americans aren’t really drinking a lot of wine, we just have a bigger population. We down a paltry 8.96 liters per person, according to the U.S. Government’s Trade Data and Analysis in 2009. That’s a drop in the old ice bucket compared to the French, emptying a whopping 45.32 liters per person.
On the glass-full side, they are drinking our wine. U.S. shipments to the European Union were up 11 percent by volume in 2010, according to the Wine Institute, the bulk of that from California.
A recent study by the London-based market researcher Wine Intelligence found that 48 percent of U.S. wine drinkers rate country of origin as very important. The top-of-mind regions are Napa, Sonoma, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Washington state and Rioja. To pique sophisticated palates you might have to go further afield. Wines from Jura and the southwest in France, Sicily and Sardinia in Italy, Navarra and Bierzo in Spain and Argentina and Uruguay are cited by sommeliers as good sources of restaurant wines. And at a first-ever portfolio tasting in New York recently, 30 producers from Croatia poured distinctive and unusual wines made from indigenous grape varieties, such as Grasevina, Malvazija and Plavac Mali.
When sommelier Clint Sloan suggests a wine pairing at Husk Restaurant in Charleston, he’s likely to recommend “slate” or “limestone.” That’s right; Sloan lists the restaurant’s wines according to geology, a.k.a. terroir. Each of the 50 bottles and a score of glasses are scientifically arranged by the soils in which the grapes are grown.
Although the format sounds a bit wine geeky, customers have responded well and there are distinct advantages to the restaurant, says Sloan. “Because the list is not conventional...the set-up almost forces guests to look through the entire list.” And it’s working: customers are buying more wine. “For me, that’s mission accomplished,” says Sloan.
Sections of the list categorized as Clay & Sand, Limestone and Volcanic, for example, are followed by a brief geographic description and the impact that such soil has upon grape-growing, and ultimately, wine. For comfort level, each wine also cites the grape varietal used—although, the average guest might not recognize Trepat and Handorribi Zurri.
Flavor profiles are a bit unconventional here too; not wine-speak but descriptors that connect with people, such as “buttered popcorn” for a California Chardonnay and “apple Jolly Ranchers” for a French Sancerre.
“You have to relate wine to your life experiences,” says the sommelier, who developed some of these flavor references while studying to become an Advanced Sommelier. “I use Sweet Tarts a lot to describe light-bodied whites from Italy; I ate them like crazy as a kid.”
Husk’s terroir-oriented wine list is constantly evolving, adds Sloan. “I’ve got wineries sending me soil samples.”
An excerpt from Husk’s wine list
|Vintage||Region||Wine name||(soil notes) Grape varietals||Bottle price/glass||Description|
|2009||France-Burgundy-Chablis||Brocard||“Kimmeridgien” Chardonnay||$52||Green apple, cocktail lemon, gruyere cheese & hay|
|2009||France-Loire-Sancerre||Paul Thomas||“Chavignol” (terre blanche limestone) Sauvignon Blanc||$60/$15||Candied apricot, apple Jolly Rancher and wild flower honey with a touch of sweetness|
|2008||France-Southwest-Cahors||Clos la Coutale||(clay) Malbec||$36/$9.5||Dark cherry, blackberry, mint and sarsaparilla|
|2008||Australia-Coonawarra||Jim Barry||“Coverdrive” (terra rossa limestone) Cabernet Sauvignon||$46/$12||Blackcurrant, mulberry, raspberry, boysenberry, cedar mint and eucalyptus|