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California White Wines Innovate Both Within And Beyond Chardonnay

June 26, 2018

With expansive growing regions and a world-class reputation, California is a force in the global white wine market.While imported white wines declined slightly to 29 million cases in the U.S. last year, California whites rose by 0.4% to nearly 97 million 9-liter cases, making up about a 73% share of white table wine consumption, according to Impact Databank. California’s white wines outpaced the state’s reds by 17 million cases in 2017.

The segment continues to show strength in retail channels, with Nielsen data for the 52 weeks ending December 30, 2017 showing total domestic white wines growing 1.5% to about 40 million cases. Still, as the market grows more crowded, some see challenges for lower-priced whites.

Chardonnay, accounting for 61% of total California-produced white wine volume in the U.S., remains the dominant player. Sonoma County-based Rodney Strong Wine Estates takes a typically tiered approach to its Chardonnay expressions, with an entry-level Sonoma County Chardonnay ($17 a 750-ml.), Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay ($22), Sonoma Coast Estate Chardonnay ($25), and Reserve Chardonnay ($40). The company also markets the Davis Bynum River West Chardonnay ($35). “We’d like to think the consumer can come into Rodney Strong at a very affordable price point, and as they become more fluent can trade up within the brand,” says Rodney Strong president Carmen Castaldi.

California Sauvignon Blanc, while only a fraction the size of Chardonnay, is also making headway. Overall, California Sauvignon Blanc grew 4% to 8.2 million cases last year, while imported brands rose a collective 8.7% to 5.4 million cases. An abundance of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is leading to price reductions for California brand leaders, but Castaldi notes that growth for both Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc is coming from the above-$15 tier. “Our Charlotte’s Home Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($17) has been holding steady at about 5%-7% annual growth, but it was certainly challenged when New Zealand dropped their average price by $1-$1.50 a bottle,” he explains. Later this year, Rodney Strong plans to introduce a blended white wine—made from Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir Blanc, and Viognier—under its Upshot label, which already includes a red blend. “We see blended white wines as an emerging category,” Castaldi notes.

Riboli Family Wines (RFW), which has estate vineyards in Napa, Monterey, and Paso Robles, says its Chardonnay labels continue to show growth, led by its San Simeon brand from Arroyo Seco and the Santa Lucia Highlands. But Sauvignon Blanc is also making gains. “Sauvignon Blanc is gaining in popularity, whether it’s from New Zealand, California, or Sancerre,” says winemaker Anthony Riboli. “Sauvignon Blanc from Paso Robles is a segment we feel strongly about.”

It’s been a challenge to get consumers interested in less-common grape varieties, Riboli notes. He adds that while Monterey does well with Pinot Grigio and Paso Robles thrives with Viognier, only consumers already interested in wine tend to reach for those options. Still, California Pinot Grigio overall has steadily expanded, rising from 9.3 million cases in 2010 to 16.5 million cases last year. By comparison, imported Pinot Grigio has increased only marginally—from 11.5 million cases to 11.7 million cases—over the same period. Among other California varietals, Moscato was down 4% to 10.5 million cases last year, while Riesling rose 2% to 1.3 million cases.—Carol Ward

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