Freelance Writer
In Good Spirit, Wine and Beer is All in Fashion
05.31.06 | No Comments

As published in Worcester Publishing’s “Food Book,” 2006

Cars, houses, clothes and music aren’t all that is subject to trends. What we drink has its style phases, too. You see it in the ads; the push for a Narragansett comeback, the vodka drink craze, 1,001 different martini recipes, Fetzer during the holidays. Some of them stick and some don’t. Is anyone else out there ashamed to order a Zima? Did that guy actually just get a Tom Collins?

A good buzz will never go out. Beer and wine certainly always stays in fashion, but you choose for your buzz may change. Here, we talk to two experts in the trade to find out what’s hot in the world of grapes, hops and barley.

Rick Lombardi opened The Vin Bin at 27 South Bolton St. in Marlboro in September of 2004. With more than 800 different wines, they offer selections from every wine producing country. The store also boasts 130 beers and ales, 100 cheeses, specialty food products and fresh baked bread.

Echoed by many experts in the food and wine industry, Lombardi has noticed a strong shift in the consumer’s attitude and knowledge of wine and beer. Thanks to cooking shows and infiltration into the pop culture market, consumers are becoming savvier about the drink. It’s bad news for the Budweisers, Coors and Ruinitis of the world, but great news for the niche market brewers and wineries.

For the first time, studies are confirming that wine is outselling beer in the under-30 segment; the fastest growing consumer of wine is between the age of 24 and 30. “Wine is no longer the drink of older, snobby, middle-aged men and women,” says Lombardi. “It’s the drink of the masses. Thousands of years ago, wine was always part of every meal in every culture. It had taken on a different aspect in this country 100 years ago.””

The beer and winemakers are noticing. More affordable, quality wines are popping up. The Australian line Little Penguin makes a strong showing in many liquor stores these days – “a great wine for the price,” you’ll hear many say. Lombardi maintains that wine is simply made much better than it was 10 years ago, giving more value for the dollar.

In addition to Little Penguin, Lombardi says one of The Vin Bin’s best sellers is Pascual Toso. From Argentina, the company makes a malbec, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc – all under $10, and all delicious. “They represent a much better quality than similar priced wines from other parts of the world,” says Lombardi. “The unofficial motto from South America is ‘twice the wine for half the money.’ There are always good values in South American wine. It’s a fraction of what you’d pay for a wine from California or France.”

Although American wines still sell more than any other at the Vin Bin, Lombardi finds that shoppers are searching for value wines from Spain, New Zealand and South Africa, and are becoming more conscious of old world wines from Italy, Spain and France. Btu again, they’re seeking values. “They are expressing joy over a gem they can have under $10,” says Lombardi. ”That’s part of the beauty of wine is discovering that one that is inexpensive, but delicious.”

Tim Korby, the “wine guy” (buyer/wine manager) at Julio’s Liquors in Westboro, says it isn’t so much that affordable wines are getting “better,” but that there are more available than ever before. They’re “getting to us,” so to speak. Korby has been buying wine for 30 years – 10 years at Julio’s – and has watched a lot of trends. Right now, he gives us a snapshot of the happening wines he sees flying out of the store. In white wines, rieslings from California, Washington and Germany are on the rise. Also, coming up is un-oaked chardonnay from California and Australia. In the red wine category, pinot noir is still hot, but getting even more attention are malbecs from Argentina and shirazes from South Africa.

“People are looking to go a little bit lighter,” says Korby. “They don’t want the overwhelming white wines. The chardonnays are getting too heavy. Sauvignon blanc is getting too pungent. They are looking for lighter and softer. The malbec is popular with people more educated about red wines and they are looking for something more unique and different; the shiraz for the same reason.”

Give it time, Korby says, and we’ll find better things in boxes. Already, there are a few wines that are making an excellent three-liter box. It tastes great for the value, and keeps for four-six weeks. Called “screw caps,” the Stelvin Closure is finally gaining acceptance, too. Slowly, the idea that a good wine has to have a cork is fading (literally, too, since the amount of quality cork is scarcer). “One out of 15 bottles is bad because of bacteria in the cork,” says Korby. “Wineries are trying to find a way to get wine as pure as they can and the screw cap is the best way to do it. That ties in with the box thing, too.”

Korby’s choice for the best value: The Chilean Concha Y Toro makes a product called Casillero Del Diablo, and for $9.99 the cabernet sauvignon is “amazing.” Try that, say, instead of that white zinfandel you’ve got in your hands. That’s never been in style and is considered the Kool-Aid of the wine beverage industry.

Don’t be afraid to belch

And let us not forget the beer. Ryan Maloney, who owns Julio’s, says the heavily hopped beers are flying out of the store right now. Brands such as Dogfish Head are big. And the beer community has always considered Belgian beers as some of the best in the world. Now, with consumers becoming more educated, more people are picking up on this fact. Another trend? Cask-aged beer. “They usually use bourbon barrels to do that,” says Maloney. “You have everything from barley wines to Belgian triples to stouts, all aged in barrels. When these things come out they are high in demand, but low in quantity. It’s a big trend. When people get their hands on them they are all bought up.”

For the more “mainstream buyer,” Maloney says popular brands right now are products such as Heineken Light. “That lit off with fire,” he says, “and we’re not even into the summer season.” Beers such as the Brazilian Brahma, too, are seeing a push. “People are looking for that lighter style in the summer,” says Maloney. “Beers such as Corona, too – I always see huge increases in the summer. It’s always a hot brand.

“People are definitely stepping up and experimenting more and finding out what beer can be,” he adds. “The big thing now is food and beer pairings. We do that here all the time. With things like Belgian beers, you’re talking about rivaling wines in their complexity.”

Lombardi agrees. Since the Vin Bin specializes in microbrews, his clientele isn’t as inclined to pick up a case of Miller Lite. “I call the Buds of the world lawnmower beers,” says Lombardi. “Although I do enjoy a Bud myself, they are for after mowing the lawn.”

Among the Vin Bin’s fastest selling brands are Lagunitas, a heavily hopped vibrant IPA from California. “That’s similar to many of the beers being introduced,” says Lombardi. “It mimics the wine world in many ways. Their flavors are much more complex.”

Two of his personal favorites are Sherwood Forest from Marlboro and Berkshire Brewery from the Berkshires. The Sherwood beer is microbrew ale with deep flavors, similar to a Sam Adams style. The Berkshires beer is also rich, deep colored beer, which is a little on the sweet side; and only sold in 22-ouncers. The wheat, lighter beers such as Bavaria and Hefeweizen pack the shelves as summer comes, too.

“Summer is the time of year that breweries are sending out their lighter beers,” says Lombardi. “All of the microbrews sell. It depends on who comes in, so they rotate in popularity. But the national brands do sell less.”

Adds Maloney: “You’d be surprised what people will buy at a premium beer price. A lot of it is just that people aren’t necessarily drinking more, but drinking better.”