American consumers may have finally given themselves permission to celebrate the everyday. In the past, they were conditioned to drink sparkling wine only at special moments, but recent years have seen a shift. “There are a lot of occasions around which people feel they have the ‘right’ to drink sparkling wine now,” says Nicole Lockwood, senior brand manager at Mumm Napa. “The California brands and more affordable, accessible sparklers are helping to drive year-round consumption. People are including sparkling wine in a variety of occasions. It’s become their go-to drink.”
Gary Heck, president and owner of Korbel Champagne Cellars—whose Korbel sparkling wine brand is marketed by Brown-Forman Corp.—also notes the transition. “People are reaching for sparkling wines to enjoy as an everyday option, not just for special occasions,” he says. “Not only is the usage occasion expanding, but the consumption method is as well. Consumers are now enjoying sparkling wines mixed in classic and innovative cocktails, while also exploring different varietal offerings. Rosé, for example, is enjoying remarkable success,” he adds, noting that the trend includes Korbel’s Sweet Rosé and Brut Rosé.
At Ever Bar in Los Angeles, lead bartender Dan Rook sees the trend. “It’s very much in style now,” he says, noting the popularity of both California sparklers and Prosecco. “I definitely see it pre-meal a lot, and with food. People just want to drink bubbles.”
That enthusiasm shows in the data. Depletions of domestic sparkling wine advanced by 6.5 percent to 10.6 million cases in 2016, according to Impact Databank. That growth represented an acceleration, building on a 3.1-percent average annual gain from 2010 through 2015. The lion’s share of growth is coming from the lowest price tier, where virtually all brands are produced using the charmat method. Five leading brands retailing at less than $10 a 750-ml. combined for a 7.6-percent rise to 5.81 million cases last year. Cook’s led the field at 2.03 million cases, up 9.8 percent. No.-2 André gained 10.5 percent to 1.9 million cases, followed by Barefoot Bubbly with a 3-percent increase to 1.19 million cases, according to Impact Databank.
Two brands in the mid-tier range of $10 to $15 a 750-ml. combined for a 5.4-percent gain to 1.72 million cases. Korbel is the largest méthode traditionelle domestic sparkling wine, with growth of 5.2 percent to 1.5 million cases in 2016. The other major brand in the price tier, Weibel, is produced using the charmat method and also gained volume last year. Five brands priced above $15 a bottle, all méthode traditionelle brands, combined for a 2.8-percent gain to 1.1 million cases in 2016. Domaine Chandon was the largest brand in that price tier and also the strongest growth brand among the six, with depletions rising 9 percent to 486,000 cases. Mumm Napa and Roederer Estate both declined, but Piper Sonoma and Gloria Ferrer posted growth.
The expansion of domestic sparkling wine has much to do with millennials. In addition to embracing sparkling wine at mealtime, they’re also using sparklers in cocktails. Xavier Barlier, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Maisons Marques & Domaines USA Inc., which markets Roederer Estate wines, says that while sparkling wine consumption in the U.S. still pales in comparison to that of France and other countries, the shift has been extraordinary. “The older millennials—from about age 28 to late 30s—consume sparkling wine in much the same way we do in Europe, and that has had a positive impact on the market,” he says, noting that Prosecco’s growing popularity paved the way for domestic sparklers in the U.S.
“Prosecco has had a five-to-10-year run, which has brought new consumers into the sparkling wine universe,” Barlier says. “It’s provided a bridge between cocktails and sparkling wine. But it’s not as sophisticated as many sparkling wines, and sparkling wines from California in particular. Once consumers get into Prosecco and their palates mature and their education is better, they ‘graduate’ at every segment of the market. Obviously they enter the traditional California sparkling wine segment, which has been very healthy for the past 10 years, if not longer. It’s the sparkling wine journey. Consumers are not stuck in one category.”
Steven McDonald, wine director at Houston-based Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, sees first-hand what Barlier is describing. “Demand for sparkling in general, especially from younger diners, is increasing,” he says. “We’re a destination and celebration restaurant, and people like to celebrate with sparkling. I see it growing and I’m seeing younger people become more excited about it.”
But it’s not all easy gains. McDonald says California sparkling wines aren’t reaping the rewards of the trend as much as Champagne, at the higher end of the pricing spectrum, or Prosecco, which typically lies at a lower price point than premium California brands. But top labels do resonate. “Iron Horse, Roederer Estate, Schramsberg—brands like that all have a presence, and we sell them at a decent clip, mainly because of their price point,” he says, noting that these wines are more affordable than Champagne.
California labels’ price positioning relative to Champagne also resonates at retail. Michael Cimini, owner of the four-location Austin Liquors in Massachusetts, says California sparklers “seem to be attracting consumers who want a premium experience, but not a Champagne price point.” Korbel ($10.99 a 750-ml.) and Mumm Napa ($18.99) lead the way in his stores.
At Gary’s Wine & Marketplace in Wayne, New Jersey, consumers trend toward higher price points, with the 2014 Schramsberg Brut Rosé ($35.99) a leading contender. Wine director Brooke Sabel says Champagne still dominates in the store, but California sparklers “are finding great success on the premium level.”
Hugh Davies, vintner at Schramsberg Vineyards, says three styles under the Schramsberg label—blanc de blancs, blanc de noirs and rosé—are all retail-priced in the $35-to-$45 range. That’s well above the average for California sparkling wines, but price doesn’t seem to be a barrier these days. “In the current economy, it seems like people are really happy with our pricing,” he says, noting that the brand’s pricing has “gradually crept up,” but not to the extent that other premium wines have. “Compared to how expensive Napa Cabernets have gotten, our prices are much more stable, and the customer sees that,” he says.
Mumm Napa’s Lockwood says price resistance is fluid within the category. Citing internal research, Lockwood says the brand’s roughly $20 price-tag “is a price people are willing to spend. They’re putting more disposable income toward the category.” She acknowledges that occasions play a major role in the decision-making process, with larger parties or events perhaps calling for a lower-priced sparkling option. “People are willing to spend at all price points and explore across the entire category,” she says. “If I’m going to have a gift for someone or if it’s a super-special occasion, then I might go all the way up to the Champagne category.”
Tom Burnet, president of Freixenet USA, which markets Gloria Ferrer California sparkling wine as well as Freixenet Cava, says Gloria Ferrer’s price has inched up in recent years to about $18 a 750-ml. for the Sonoma Brut label. The upward shift has had little negative impact. “We’ve taken a couple of price increases over the last five years, deservedly so, and to see the price go up and growth continue has been extremely satisfying,” he says, while acknowledging that the brand’s volume initially took a hit with the price increases.
About $10 above that price, the Gloria Ferrer Brut Rosé is making early headway in what has become a category-wide trend toward rosé bubblies. “Rosé is very hot, so our Brut Rosé is walking into some nice trends,” Burnet says. “We just launched it in 2017, so it’s too early to declare anything at this point but the distributor buy-in has been very healthy.” Other marketers are also seeing the power of pink. Davies, for example, notes the popularity of Schramsberg Brut Rosé as part of an overall market trend. “Pink wines are more popular than they once were, and sparkling wines are more popular as well,” he says.
Rook of Ever Bar says that calls for rosé sparkling wines from California are on the rise. He notes that consumers are driven more by an “allegiance to style” than an “allegiance to country of origin.” But perhaps more compelling, at least for some Ever Bar patrons, is “natural” production sparkling wines. Rook references the 2016 Pét-Nat Chardonnay from Field Recordings Wine, a pétillant-naturel production sparkling wine. “It’s the one that people seem to enjoy the most, and the one we enjoy selling the most,” he says. “It just takes more of a conversation.” The brand is listed at Ever Bar for $12 a glass or $54 a bottle.
The domestic sparkling wine sector has added more than 2 million cases since 2010, according to Impact Databank, and marketers anticipate more growth in the future. “Per capita consumption still has a long way to go to be where many other countries are, so I see a lot of upside for the category,” says Burnet. “Using it in cocktails is a nice idea, as is consuming it in glasses that don’t look like flutes. The more accessible the category becomes, the more consumers will expand to enjoy it on a Tuesday night and not just New Year’s Eve.”
Barlier of Maison Marques & Domaines USA looks forward to a day when Americans mimic the consumption habits of the French—drinking sparkling wine multiple times a week. While the U.S. is far from that point now, he says the trend is moving in the right direction. “For French people like me coming out of Champagne, it’s great to see a new generation getting involved in California sparkling,” he says. “It’s thrilling and makes us enjoy every day because there’s so much energy in the market.”