Hope for the UK’s American wine lovers on restaurant wine lists

From decanter.com: Wine bar and restaurant owner Michael Sager talks to Decanter.com about the difficulties in getting premium American wines into the UK, and his dilemma over sourcing ‘filler wines’ - but he says there is hope for the country’s American wine lovers. Article continues at length.

Broadening the discussion somewhat, do US wines sell in the UK?

In my own personal experience, they do not. (I used to “re-import” California wines back into the US from Britain.) Gone are the days when Paul Masson 1.0L carafes of red, white, and rosé sold a combines 1 million cases a year in the UK. And, besides, I’m referring to “high-end” wines – wines like Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet, Opus One, Chateau Montelena, etc, etc.

Is anyone in the UK actually drinking American wines? Or, as the referenced article suggests, are the prices just too high?

I don’t drink alcohol these days, so may not be the best Briton to answer this. However, I’d tend to suggest that there’s not much American wine drunk. I base that on consultation with my companion in life, who does drink and who tells me that it’s very rare to see American wine on a restaurant list. Now, of course, the article which you link to is very much London focussed - and many Britons will tell you that London’s a different country from where the rest of us live. So, the situation there may be different than the rest of us might see.

I do occasionally buy the household wine in the supermarket. And I’d reckon that the only American wine you’d be likely to find would be Gallo bottles.

By the by, how common would it be to see premium English wnes on sale in America?

John, I agree with you; as a former student at Cambridge (Pembroke), I’m well aware that London is “unto itself” in many ways. In my various visits to the UK, a variety of California wines were always to be found, but by and large they represented the “standard” and “premium” categories of wine, whereas I tend to drink (and work with) wines in the “super-premium” and “ultra-premium” categories.

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NOTE: Originally – for statistical purposes – there were three price categories for domestic (US) wine:

  • Standard = <$3 per 750ml bottle or equivalent
  • Premium = $3-$7 per 750ml bottle or equivalent
  • Super-Premium = >$7 per 750ml bottle or equivalent

Eventually, in the late-1970s, IIRC, a fourth category was added

  • Ultra-Premium: >$14 per 750ml bottle or equivalent

This, of course, has never been adjusted for inflation. There have been moves since 2000 to add additional categories. These are:

  • Luxury = $25-$49.99 per 750ml bottle or equivalent
  • Super Luxury = $50-$99.99 per 750ml bottle or equivalent
  • Icon = >$100 per 750ml bottle or equivalent
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For several years back in the 1970s, Paul Masson Vineyards actually did sell a million cases a year of their 1.0L carafe bottles. Gallo sold some of their inexpensive "jug
wines, albeit in 750ml and 1.5L bottles (versus the 3.0L and 4.0L bottles here in the States), and I remember when it was a “big deal” that Robert Mondavi introduced their White Zinfandel to the UK market.

But starting in the mid-1980s and early-1990s, wines which sold in the States in what would be the “Luxury and up” categories began appearing not only in the UK, but in France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, etc. It became a great “feather-in-their-cap” for a California winery to be able to say their wines were sold in Europe – in terms of their domestic marketing! But the problem was they weren’t sold IN Europe, they were sold TO Europe – to European-based wine importers, who in turn placed them in restaurants and retail shops. The wine-drinking public, however, weren’t buying – not at those high prices! – and as a result, I was able to buy older vintages of some of California’s best wines, return them to California, and supply several restaurants and retailers here with older vintages they could offer to their customers/clients . . .

At the “Luxury+” end of the spectrum, I would think very little American wine is sold. And even on the lower-end of things, I admit to being somewhat shocked by the prices I’ve seen on Gallo, Mondavi, Beringer, etc.

As for how commonplace it is to see “premium English wines” sold here, there aren’t any. Well, I’ve not tasted any premium English still wine, period. But English “fizz” is/can indeed be quite excellent, and while I’d love to see more (or even some) sold here, it is highly unlikely for several reasons: a) the average American wine drinker hasn’t heard of them; b) the average American wine drinker wouldn’t care anyway; c) at that price point, most Americans would reach for [French] Champagne, rather than an English sparkling wine; and d) most producers cannot supply their own domestic (UK) demand, let alone think seriously about building an export market.

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold