In the Midwest, Sweet Wines are Big Business and Majorly Misunderstood

Pouring blueberry Moscato at Oliver Winery & Vineyards / Photo courtesy of Oliver Winery & Vineyards / Tod Martens

Jeremy Campbell, a wine manager at Binny’s Beverage Depot in Lake Zurich, Illinois, says that customers who take pride in their wine knowledge often treat the purchase of a Moscato with embarrassment.

“They feel obligated to say, ‘I drink dry. This isn’t for me,’ ” says Campbell.

Gracie Peters, a sommelier and general manager for LouVino, a wine-inspired restaurant chain with locations in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, has had similar experiences with people buying Moscato.

“I feel like it’s always been looked down upon as a cheaper wine, or maybe not as good,” says Peters.

Jeremy Campbell sitting at table with glass of wine
Jeremy Campbell, wine manager of Binny’s Beverage Depot in Illinois / Photo courtesy of Jeremy Campbell

Sweet wine’s reputation for being cheap or unsophisticated among U.S. drinkers is one of the industry’s biggest paradoxes. After all, very few people balk at a good Port or Sauternes as an after-dinner drink.

Sweet and flavored wines make up more than 30% of the bottles sold in the U.S., according to NielsenIQ. Overall, sweet wine sales grew 10% over the past year, the market researcher reports, which outpaced the industry’s total growth of 5.1%.

“I believe that any human being, when they are first exposed to wine, no matter what country they are from, starts with sweet wine because it is easier to drink and to understand,” says Roberto Splendore, a sales representative for Vino Indiana, a wine distributor that specializes in bringing European wines to the Midwest.

A recent study by E. & J. Gallo Winery claimed that one in three wine consumers enter the category through a sweet wine.

Splendore grew up in Italy, where his family still grows grapes and makes wine.

Roberto Splendore standing near trees
Roberto Splendore of Vino Indiana / Photographed at Country Heritage Winery and Vineyard / Photo by Steve Vorderman

After he attended culinary school, Splendore worked internationally in the food and beverage industry for nearly 40 years. He says that his experience helped him identify cultural differences in palates.

For instance, he believes that Americans who live in the Midwest tend to be drawn to sweeter wines, perhaps due to predilections for popular local fare like corn and saucy barbecue.

“I notice that they have less of a taste for salty food or for citrus, which pairs well with dry wine,” says Splendore.

Your Definitive Guide to Sweet Wines

Tracie Loy is a wine consultant who hosts tastings for retail stores and private clubs in the Chicagoland area. She believes preferences for sweet wines extend beyond the Midwest.

“The palate in the U.S. has been sugar-oriented,” says Loy. “Sweet wines often go to people who are not frequent wine drinkers and wouldn’t necessarily pair wine with food. They like to have wine on a hot summer day, and it’s usually sweet.”

So, if the average American has a sweet tooth, why is sweet wine stigmatized by some?

One theory is that skeptics are influenced by memories of earlier wines.

“Some of it goes back to the White Zinfandels that were produced in the 1970s and 1980s,” says Dan Bohn, a sales associate at Grapevine Cottage in Zionsville, Indiana. “They were sweeter and typically not as well-made as most of the wines today.

Gracie Peter, sommelier, and general manager of Lou Vino.
Gracie Peter, sommelier and general manager of Lou Vino (L) and a sample wine selection at Lou Vino (R) / Photo by Ayna Lorenzo / Photo courtesy of Lou Vino

“People who came of age in that era either tried and didn’t like them, or they gradually grew into liking drier wines as they experienced those wines over time. So, there is resistance to even trying a well-made sweet wine.”

A phrase first attributed to English author Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400) in the Tale of Melibee might also sum up the situation: Familiarity breeds contempt.

“To me, this unpopularity is from a vast consumption of sweet wine,” says Splendore. “In Europe, we do not have this reaction because sweet wine occupies a place within a large variety of wines that make the wine list complete.”

Campbell says winemakers throughout the world are producing brilliant sweet bottles with more longevity than some dry wines.

“I don’t necessarily want to drink a lot of it, but I appreciate what it takes to make them,” he says. “The producers are doing a bang-up job and putting their hearts into it.”

In Indiana, Oliver Winery & Vineyards, the 29th-largest winemaker in the U.S., gives equal focus to all its wines, whether sweet or dry. Its Oliver Sweet Red, a red blend, has been the best-selling wine in Indiana for nearly 20 years.

Lou Vino, Indiana
Photo courtesy of Lou Vino

Its closest rival isn’t a competitor or a dry wine, either. It’s Oliver Blueberry Moscato. This is a reflection of another national consumer trend. From June 2020 through May 2021, flavored wine sales grew 44%, according to NielsenIQ.

“We truly believe that all styles of wine and all kinds of wine drinkers deserve respect and care, and we welcome everybody to the wine table,” says Sarah Anderson, marketing director for Oliver Winery & Vineyards.

Anderson is often asked to name her favorite wine. Her response is standard.

“It depends on the day, on the weather, on the meal,” she says. “There’s a favorite wine for all those occasions, and there is no single correct answer.”

Published on September 9, 2021
Topics: Sweet Wine