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Wine Spectator’s Vinexpo Panel On “The Role of Imports in the U.S. Wine Market”

March 15, 2019

With imported wines enjoying solid value growth—led by sparkling wines and rosés—Wine Spectator convened an expert panel on “The Role of Imports in the U.S. Wine Market” at the recent Vinexpo New York. The panel featured three importers—Michael Skurnik, CEO of Skurnik Wines; Ian Downey, executive vice president of imports at Winebow; and Patrick Mata, co-founder and CEO of Olé and Obrigado—along with Helen Mackey, the vice president of enterprise beverage strategy and innovation at Darden Restaurants.

Given that imported wine has held steady at roughly 25% of the U.S. wine market since 2005, the predominant focus of the conversation wasn’t on an influx of volume, but rather the ongoing surge in value among imports. Rosé, driven by Provence—whose rosé shipments to the U.S. have grown from 120,000 cases in 2010 to more than 2 million cases last year—has been a big contributor to that progress.

Mackey commented on the growing flexibility of pricing in rosé, as well as the category’s stylistic expansion and its transition into a year-round offering. At Olé and Obrigado, rosé has been a huge growth category for the company, according to Mata, who added that he looked for new rosés to add on a regular basis. “Rosé is not so much a trend as a wholly new category,” he said. “Just like red, white, or sweet wines, rosé is here to stay, and it’s going to keep growing at higher price points.”

Still, Winebow’s Downey noted the need for a decrease in rosé SKUs. “Everyone we import fancies themselves as a potential rosé producer, but the number of different rosés we’re drinking needs to get cut if the category is to continue its upward trend,” he said. Similarly, Skurnik—who proclaimed a “love-hate relationship with rosé”—observed that the category has already become overcrowded, resulting in lack of clarity for consumers and a proliferation of inauthentic wines. “What we need now is a giant pruning process to weed out rosés that aren’t adding to the category,” he said, predicting that in the next five years plenty of rosé offerings will disappear.

Mata, who specializes in Iberian wines, said both Spanish and Portuguese offerings are enjoying strong growth higher up the pricing ladder. “Olé and Obrigado’s growth last year came from Sherry, high-end Rioja, and luxury Ribera del Duero wines,” Mata said. He noted that his company’s Portuguese portfolio was up about 50%, led by upscale wines, with the average price per case for Portugal being higher than that of Spain.

Skurnik, too, said progress at the premium level is accelerating as consumers grow more educated. “One of the most exciting aspects of the market is that consumers are learning more—they’re open to exploration,” he said, adding that the Skurnik portfolio features a wide variety of imports that have authentic, often family-based stories.

Mackey, while agreeing that an overall rise in quality has spread across the wine industry, also spoke on behalf of the “casual diner,” who’s often looking for accessibility as opposed to high-end bottles that tell stories of terroir or production. “Casual diners want simplicity in their wine,” she said. “Does it taste good? Is it the style they’re looking for? That’s where we buy for style, when there isn’t time to tell the story.”

As for the future of imported wines, Downey and Skurnik spoke of Vermentino as a potential leader in alternative white wines, as well as the ongoing surge in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Mata, meanwhile, discussed Albariño at length, noting that the grape communicates place extremely well—a feature that has currency with today’s consumers.—Julia Higgins

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